From the Wire

RuPaul Launches an “Online Book Marketplace”

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Here’s what makes RuPaul’s new online bookstore different from others:

“Allstora puts authors first, creating a more equitable pay structure by splitting profits and doubling writer’s incomes with each book sale. Keeping fair compensation in mind, Allstora also makes books more accessible to readers by offering 30-50% off discounts on all titles.”

So it sounds like Allstora is splitting the margin on book sales (if Allstora charges $25, but it only costs them $20 to fulfill, it gets $5 in margin) with authors. This is where the “doubling” writer income is coming from: they now get both their regular royalty and a share of the retail margin (the “and” is confusing. This is the same as the profit splitting, not some additional piece). Readers can get the discount through membership, which is $5/month. I am guessing they are OK giving up the margin on individual sales to get that $5 in guaranteed margin every month (unclear how/if this is being shared with authors).

Their editorial curation also centers books by different “communities”, which include sexual, gender, racial, and other historically underrepresented authors and books.

I have been poking around Allstora for the last few minutes trying to figure out one thing: is it using Ingram for fulfillment? So far I can’t tell, but I am guessing so. There are quite a few companies out there using Ingram’s backend and then trying to figure out a novel use of the profits to differentiate themselves from other stores. Bookshop.org splits with indies. Booksio (RIP) used it for charities. Tertulia kicks it back to readers (who pay a membership fee, sorta like REI) in the form of deeper discounts and “ownership units in the Tertulia Co-op, which entitles [members] to a stake in the company’s success over time.”

I have been following experiments with this business strategy for the last couple of years, even to the point of considering whether there is a place for a Book Riot Bookstore that offers something different. The upshot for me here is that each of them is trying to get you to switch your book buying, and by extension the margin that comes along with your book buying, to their store. To do so, they need to find an angle that is more attractive to book buyers than just getting the books from the cheapest place they can, which is usually Amazon. (Should note that this is a discussion about print books. All of these platforms have audiobook/ebook distribution headaches and opportunity costs).

So far, Bookshop.org seems to me like a going concern, and I think it is because they are tapping into a pre-existing habit/desire for many book buyers: paying more for books with the understanding that it helps indie bookstores. Do readers care enough about helping authors to knowingly redirect their dollars from indies to authors? My own sense is that the average reader has a great deal more affection for their local indie than they do for any particular author. Can Tertulia find enough margin to give back to readers to make it worth switching? Seems doubtful to me. Books cost what they cost: both to get from publishers and to get to from warehouses to readers. Unless you decide to build your own distribution system, which only Amazon has done, you are staring at the same math as everyone else.

The 800-pound gorilla in this particular jungle are the publishing houses. Any one of them could have their own online store and offer the lowest price for their own titles and still turn the same profit they would in other places. They haven’t done this yet for many reasons: optics with indies and other stores, a desire to have the existing major players play nice with them, and good old fashioned “that’s not what we do” talk.

Perhaps the most notable thing, though, is that people aren’t so afraid of Amazon that they won’t take a stab at selling books online. Amazon hasn’t seemed as interested in deep discounts as it once was and has done very little to change the core experience of buying books online. Perhaps there are niches in the ecosystem for other players to live. We shall see.