Independent Bookstores and Patronage Possibilities

I came across a Twitter thread recently about the brutal economics of independent bookstores, and it prompted me to consider some possibilities for making the bookstore business more sustainable.

I ended up with some thoughts about how bookstores might experiment with memberships, subscriptions, and patronage; I’ve edited and expanded those thoughts here.

A huge issue that all bookstores have to contend with is that a book’s cover price actually has to account for much more than just the cost of the book itself. And this disproportionately affects smaller, independent stores. Amazon, for example, can mostly ignore these extra costs; books are basically loss leaders plus they have obscene efficiency from scale, strong-arm negotiation, and treating workers like trash. But for indie bookstores, various forms of overhead like rent, salaries, hosting events — these have substantial costs!

On the flip side, when you buy a book on Amazon, all you get is a book. When you spend money with your local bookstore, a large part of each sale goes back to benefit the community. This additional value comes directly and indirectly in many ways. But it can be hard for the consumer to tease apart these benefits from the book they could have easily gotten, a bit cheaper, elsewhere.

One idea for booksellers: identify these specific para-book benefits, and sell them separately.

There are likely many ways this could work, but the main one I have in mind is to offer monthly / annual membership for patrons in the local community.

Booksellers already often employ a number of additional ways to generate revenue, e.g. frequent buyers clubs, events, cafes and bars. I love all those things, but the thing I’d also like to see is for bookstores to go a step further and — a la indie podcasts or arts nonprofits — solicit direct patronage.

I can think of a half dozen local bookstores where I’d gladly pay something like $100 / year to support their existence and ongoing contributions to the community. Maybe more, if my membership included other benefits like events and discounts.

Not all a given store’s regular customers would take this next step to become financial patrons. But would enough do so to make a meaningful difference in revenue? I like to think so!

Right now we’re experiencing kind of a moment for memberships / subscriptions, from entertainment unbundling, to niche membership sites (e.g. with Memberful), to paid newsletters (e.g. with Substack). While I’ve seen some talk of “subscription fatigue”, to be honest I think we’re nowhere near peak subscription.

This sort of model — subscription-based memberships — can often be an ideal model for both creators and consumers. It gives businesses / creators sustainable, predictable revenue. And consumers get to more directly support the things they care about. Stability, and stronger ongoing relationships, are of course a plus for both sides of the equation.

I like how Buster Benson put it: “unbundling a bookstore’s community presence” and related services from the actual book sales. This doesn’t mean a bookstores would opt out of the business of selling books entirely — though the question of whether this might be feasible is an interesting thought experiment — but it does mean making more clear what the separate activities of a bookstore are and how we as consumers or patrons might value them.

Some specific membership possibilities include:

  • Monthly / annual subscription options
  • Various pricing tiers; possibly using a “pay what you want” model
  • Combining the above with an annual membership drive (see: indie podcast fundraisers e.g. Maximum Fun, along the public radio model)

And some possibilities for various rewards / member benefits:

  • Regular discounts on books, events, cafe items, etc.
  • Special exclusive events or book clubs
  • Exclusive swag (prints, books, apparel, mugs, bookmarks)

For bookstores that do a lot of events, Withfriends is an awesome platform that combines event ticketing with membership support. Many arts and music spaces are adopting this; it seems to offer a great hybrid of one-off ticket sales with patronage-based recurring revenue.

For powering a subscription-driven membership model, there are numerous options, ranging in complexity from Patreon (popular all-in-one platform) to ways of integrating on your own site via tools like Memberful, WooCommerce, and many others.

Thanks to Joe Ahern for pointing me to one great example of an Oakland bookstore, E. M. Wolfman, already adopting a membership model:

If Wolfman is important to your life and you believe in what we are doing and you want to host or attend more free events and more pop-ups and see more publications and weird music shows once in a while and film screenings and classes and literally a zillion other things, we now have an easy way for you to help make all that happen!

Wolfman Books was funded in the beginning through bookstore sales. Yet, as we have grown from a one-person DIY space, selling mostly used books, into a non-profit publisher and community arts hub, we need our funding to grow, too, and could use as much dependable, community support as we can get—even if it’s just a small monthly amount.

For $3, $5, $10, or $15 a month, you can help us host all of our free events, publish and pay our contributors, and sustain vital community art space for all of us to continue gathering and creating! It’s really simple to sign up and works as an automatic monthly charge you can cancel at any time.

I just signed up; I hope you consider supporting as well.

I would love to see more bookstores — and other community / learning / creativity oriented businesses and orgs — experimenting with this kind of thing. I’m sure there are others using this model I’m not yet aware of; if you know of any please let me know!

Personally, one thing I’d love to try is a sort of pop-up book showroom for Antilibraries, where I’d curate an extremely good selection of books, and visitors would pay (perhaps by donation) for the experience of browsing and discovery.

I imagine this as a kind of biblio-speakeasy, niche gallery space — or a bookstore where every single book in the store is a “staff pick” with description card. Actual purchases would be optional, or maybe not even possible from me directly.

This would definitely be a small scale experiment, and not necessarily a viable business, but still something I’d like to try. I think there are many other possible bookstore experiments it would be cool to see, for example an online/offline hybrid model combining local book space with niche online book club community.

Bookstore folks: if this sounds interesting but you’re unsure about some of the specifics, I am happy to chat about how this kind of thing might work. Or, if you’ve tried this or considered but seems like not a good model for you, I’d love to hear more about that, too. Let’s talk!

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