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How This Online Bookshop Took on One of the Biggest Booksellers in the World—and Did $65 Million in Revenue in Its First Year

Bookshop sells books online to help indie bookstores IRL


Andy Hunter, co-founder of Electric Literature and LitHub, had an ambitious goal: he wanted to help independent bookstores succeed—and disrupt a world that’s dominated by Amazon. 

He believed that if he could take even 1% from Amazon's online book sales and redirect the bulk of those profits to indie bookstores, he could not only create an important lifeline for those businesses, but also give them some exposure that they may not have the funds or technical skills to create for themselves.

He envisioned an online retailer that collaborates with independent bookstores to distribute profits directly to them. So, was born.

The challenge had a major challenge: it was going up against a titan in not just the bookselling industry, but all of e-commerce: Amazon.

Andy knew that for to stand a chance, it needed a flawless online experience—and a partner that could provide branding, design, and in particular, engineering expertise, to bring that vision to life. 

Everything hinged on the website, and it was critical that the system could connect with suppliers to get an inventory of books, send the orders generated on to the supplier to fulfill them, and finally ship those titles to customers—just to name a few.

It was a tall order. chose HFC to help them:

  • Create an online destination that lets book lovers browse and find their favorite books
  • Build a tight integration that could ingest millions of products from Ingram, their primary book data and order fulfillment platform, and the largest book distributor in the US
  • Design a referral system that lets local bookstores put up a page on (that they can send customers to and earn commission checks from) and track where customers come from so the team can calculate what they owe their bookstore partners at the end of every month

HFC’s approach

Deploying a highly specialized team, HFC set out to build a digital experience for that could take on one of the biggest online book sellers in the world.

Little did they know that soon, everyone would be buying books online because of the pandemic. In just a few short weeks, customers would no longer be able to step foot into bookstores, which were faced with closure—unless they could come up with a creative solution. 

But because HFC built a flexible and scalable system right from the get-go, that meant was perfectly positioned to take online orders from thousands of local bookstores around the country and pay them a cut of the sales to keep their businesses going. 

The approach HFC took to create a resilient platform that could support’s huge unexpected opportunity:

Website - HFC built the new website on Solidus, a customizable Ruby on Rails platform, because it provided the best balance between out-of-the-box functionality, customizability, and cost.

Due to’s unique demands, HFC significantly customized Solidus (which typically caters to smaller ecommerce websites) to be able to manage high traffic volumes—and over two million unique SKUs—effectively.

Partners - One of the biggest technical challenges in this project was making sure’s website connected with Ingram, a book data and order fulfillment platform and a leading distributor in the industry. 

But Ingram’s infrastructure is more suited to physical bookstore operations, lacking the real-time capabilities that are essential for ecommerce. To bridge this gap, HFC developed a system that made it possible to manage this extensive inventory and order data far more easily.

Ingram also used to send detailed order updates later in the day or days after, which wasn’t ideal in a world where customers expect next-day or even same-day delivery. So, HFC designed an automation so that every order update now triggered a series of preset tasks, which sped up the order and fulfillment process. 

Other than automated handling of fulfillment, HFC also created customizations in the Solidus dashboard to show detailed Ingram-specific order/line item status codes and their meanings. This helped the customer service team quickly understand the status of the order and take necessary actions.

Integrations - Besides Ingram, HFC also built other custom integrations specifically tailored to’s team’s daily workflows and processes, including: 

  • Stripe Connect, a marketplace payout platform
  • Google Analytics to track website performance
  • Mailchimp to capture and segment customers for emails

The result: An online bookshop with infrastructure that could rival Amazon came to HFC as a pitch deck, and in just six months, launched in the market—right as the COVID-19 pandemic was about to hit.

With the world going into lockdown, saw an explosion of traffic and sales that no one could anticipate—and that could’ve been catastrophic for a website that wasn’t designed for scale and resiliency. 

But due to the preparedness and optimizations by HFC, was resilient and performant right from the start, even with the massive spikes in traffic and sales—an impressive feat because most high-traffic applications require months or even years of trial and error to achieve stability. 

Just a few of the outcomes of’s partnership with HFC:

    • $65 million in revenue in the business’ first year
  • Over $30 million contributed to independent booksellers since its inception in 2020
  • Hundreds of millions in gross sales in the last four years
  • A website that could support 2 million visitors monthly
  • Affiliate partnerships with publishers such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Buzzfeed 

But more importantly, was also able to serve as a lifeline for independent bookstores, especially during the unforeseen challenges brought about by COVID-19. With huge revenue figures, substantial contributions to independent booksellers, and a sustainable business model that channels the majority—about 80%!—of profits back to local bookstores, exemplifies how a mission-driven approach to e-commerce can be successful while benefiting the wider community.

“This is the smoothest launch I've ever had.”

– Andy Hunter, CEO

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Bookshop, an ecommerce startup intended to help independent bookstores assert themselves online, has Amazon in its sights.

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