Zola Books Acquires Bookish.com

After a number of months of quiet shopping, Bookish.com has been acquired by Zola Books, in a cash deal for a sum that is not being disclosed. Zola founder Joe Regal says, "we still had to pay what for us is an awful lot of cash, bearing in mind we are still a startup" (which has itself raised $5.1 million so far). Approximately half of the Bookish staff (9 to 12 people) will be retained by Zola, though that integration has not been finalized, and Bookish ceo Ardy Khazaei "will not be joining the integrated team" though Zola "hopes he'll consult."

Backed by at least $10 million to $20 million in funding from its three partners -- Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette Book Group -- Bookish took years, and went through three ceos, before launching in February 2013, along the way figuring in the ebook pricing investigations as "Project Muse." While unremarkable to most outside observers, Bookish is attracting 300,000 to 400,000 unique visitors a month according to Zola -- exponentially more than Zola's own site, which is currently "focused more on reading apps and building app engagement." Regal notes that Bookish has "invested a lot of money" in their recommendation technology, and "it is very expensive to build that tech, no matter what."

Zola spokesperson Lynda Radosevich says that "Bookish has great editorial and recommendation technology" and Zola intends to expand the API that provides other sites and services access to their database of book data. In the announcement, Regal says "Zola and Bookish share a vision of a richer reader experience, connecting readers to their favorite books, authors, tastemakers they trust, and of course to other readers." He indicates one reason Zola prevailed as the acquirer is their commitment to continue Bookish as a consumer-facing site. HBG ceo Michael Pietsch amplifies that in the release, "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. With Zola's support and direction, the site we created, and which Bookish CEO Ardy Khazaei successfully brought to market, will continue to provide superb book recommendations and editorial content for the devoted and casual reader alike."

Zola takes over Bookish's existing content contracts with the founding publisher partners, and will continue Bookish's relationships with Baker & Taylor and USA Today for now. Regal says "we do think there will be some integration" between Bookish and Zola eventually but they "definitely will keep it as is for a period of months." Zola itself is still in beta, and their immediate focus is the refinement of their iOS reader app. "Our reader is going to evolve significantly in the next month," Regal said, after which they will "make it an option, or the option," for Bookish visitors. He notes that over the longer term they will "have to figure out what were going to do with print [book sales] and Baker & Taylor in the long run," pointing to the significant metadata issues posed by trying to sell both print and digital catalogs.

Ironically, though Penguin was one of the founders of Bookish, Penguin Random House is the only one of the largest publishers that does not have a business relationship with Zola so far. So Zola will sell their ebooks via Bookish, but still does not do so yet via their own site and reader. "We know that we're on their roadmap," Regal said, and "I would be pushing harder if we were closer to coming out of beta," which will happen before the end of 2014.

More broadly, "the vision is unchanged" for Zola's large and ambitious goals, even though the start-up has taken longer to get there than Regal once hoped. "The early Zola tried to do literally ten products at once," he reflects, "and maybe that wasn't the best approach." But Regal says that their experiments so far have ratified "that there are certain things in place that will drive our numbers."