Online Retailer Zola Books Buys Bookish

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By Leslie Kaufman, nytimes.com
January 6, 2017

Bookish, a struggling website started by three large book publishers less than a year ago, has been sold to Zola Books, a start-up e-book retailer, the parties announced Monday. The purchase price was undisclosed.

The deal highlights the challenges that publishing houses are having in competing against Amazon.com.

Three of the five top publishers — the Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster and Penguin USA — conceived of Bookish in 2011 as a book recommendation site to compete with Amazon. But it had unsure footing from the start, churning through a handful of chief executives before a belated debut in early 2013. Over the last year, the site has grown to a respectable but unremarkable 300,000 unique visitors a month.

Book industry insiders had speculated on how much longer the site would survive in its current form. Of Bookish’s 22 employees, about half will lose their jobs, a company spokeswoman said.

“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,” said Michael Pietsch, chief executive of Hachette.

As for Zola, which was founded by literary agents, the acquisition of Bookish underscores the founders’ considerable ambitions.

Zola promotes itself as a bookseller, recommendation engine and social networking site in one. It recently received a $5.1 million round of funding from private investors, and has offered its customers noteworthy exclusives, including the e-book version of Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

Joe Regal, Zola’s chief executive, said he would operate Bookish in its current form until he developed a plan for how to integrate it into Zola’s own site. He said the site’s chief attraction was the sophisticated “algorithmic software” that offers readers suggestions.

Such technology, he said, had cost Bookish millions to develop and was worth the price even if the site was not yet making money.