Zola acquires Bookish, consolidating book discovery sites

When people go online to find a book, one site rules them all: Amazon.com.

Amazon's dominance as an e-book seller and its importance selling print books has made the online retailer the go-to source of all things bookish -- something Bookish hoped to change. Now Bookish has been acquired by Zola Books, another website hoping to become a major destination for book lovers -- and buyers.

Bookish was created by three major publishers: Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette Book Group. According to Publishers Lunch, the companies funded the online book recommendation website to the tune of $10 million to $20 million.

It took almost two years after its launch announcement before Bookish got off the ground -- so long that the company went through three CEOs and the merger of one of its founders, Penguin, with the world's largest publisher, Random House, before it finally got underway in February 2013.

Once called "Pandora for books," it's that aspect of Bookish -- its recommendation engine -- that appears to be its most valuable asset. Publishers Weekly called the company a "struggling social network" that has "struggled to gain traction," but its deceptively simple interface apparently conceals a recommendation engine containing more than 600,000 titles and 1 million author profiles.

Zola Books founder and Chief Executive Joe Regal said the recommendation engine is "the most exciting aspect of the Bookish opportunity," according to Publishers Weekly.

Zola is an independent start-up that has raised about $5 million in seed funding. The site provides a variety of ways for readers to learn about books -- including via bookstores and book review outlet channels -- and then purchase e-books at zolabooks.com.

Like many other sites -- including Bookish -- Zola also includes interviews with authors and other book-related goodies. However, with the site officially still in Beta, it's a little hard to figure out how exactly it will work. Margaret Atwood has 100 followers but no content to follow. Author Audrey Niffeneger, an investor, has a channel with blog content -- but its links take readers away from Zola and to her own website.

What is clear about Zola is that it is casting its lot -- at least so far -- with independent booksellers. Its main page features a large illustration declaring "Make E-Books Local: Suport Independent Booksellers with the Indiepledge at Zola Books."

Finding a viable counterpart to Amazon would be good news for publishers. "We are very pleased to have found a new owner for the site whose goals and interests are so closely aligned with the Bookish mission," Hachette Book Group Chief Executive Michael Peitsch said in a news release about the acquisition.

For the next few months, Bookish and Zola will remain separate websites, but there will be changes. Publishers Weekly reported "that [Regal] hopes to 'keep the best parts of Bookish alive in one form or another long after that.'"


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