Zola Acquires Bookish for Technology Staff and Recommendation Engine

zola-books-logoStart-up ebook retailer Zola has acquired start-up book retailer Bookish in a cash deal that closed today and will see roughly half of Bookish staffers absorbed into Zola, along with the site’s touted recommendation engine. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“We’re two companies in the same space building toward a similar goal, and that’s to create a really great ecosystem for readers,” Zola founder and CEO Joe Regal told Digital Book World.

Zola’s plan for Bookish is to continue running it as a standalone website for now while it figures out a long-term strategy. In the short term, Zola will be integrating the Bookish recommendation engine into its own technology. Zola’s recommendation engine is based on collaborative filtering, like Netflix, while Bookish works through connecting books through their attributes, more like Pandora, according to Regal.

About half of Bookish employees — mostly technologists — are being offered jobs at Zola and those who accept will report to work at the Zola offices tomorrow. Bookish CEO Ardy Khazaei will not be staying on.

In addition to the recommendation engine, which was rated by this website as best in class, Zola acquired Bookish for its monthly Web traffic (“in the hundreds of thousands,” according to a Zola spokesperson) and the Bookish editorial content.

The deal was funded by some of Zola’s long-standing seed investors, like Cablevision and HBO founder Charles Dolan and Audrey Niffenegger, author of best-selling book The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is available for sale as an ebook exclusively at Zola.

Regal would not comment on the profitability of Zola or Bookish but said that the company is currently focusing on building a great product and will worry about revenues and profits at the appropriate time.

“Bookish was going well but the destination was some time off and I think the publishers thought this was a good time to look for a happy exit,” said Regal. “I know that there were several other bidders but they liked us in part because we’re customer facing and that’s something we’re excited about.”

Bookish was founded by a consortium of publishers — Hachette, Simon & Schuster and Penguin — with the intention of building a book discovery and retail destination to challenge Amazon and other large retailers.

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The Exit

Bookish went through a series of CEOs before it was launched in February of 2013, years later than anticipated.

“Bookish didn’t come to market on the timetable that was envisioned but all three companies felt that it was important to persist to create a great recommendation engine and we’re proud of the one we built,” Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch told Digital Book World, adding that the publishers had never intended to run Bookish themselves but wanted to “get it up on its own two legs.”

The consortium chose Zola as a buyer because it has a similar mission and made a “compelling” offer, Pietsch said.


Future Plans

For now, the Bookish site will continue to run just as it has, only out of the Zola offices. Unlike Zola, Bookish sells print books, ebooks and audio books. It hasn’t yet been determined if Zola will continue to sell print books with Bookish.

“In the next few weeks, I don’t know that we’re going to change very much,” said Regal. “We have to get insight into what they’re doing before we come in with our own bright ideas.”

With selling print books alongside ebooks, Regal cited complicated metadata issues that were problematic for Bookish, giving these as a reason that Bookish may discontinue its selling of print books.

Another part of the Zola-Bookish future will be Zola’s use of the Bookish API (application programming interface), which Zola can use to extend the Bookish recommendation technology to other websites.

Bookish will also add to Zola’s revenue and its reach among readers.

“They are generating revenue,” said Regal. “I don’t believe they are cash positive but that is also immaterial to us. We are a technology company that just acquired extremely valuable technology to us and now we have a site that has serious traffic. They have, through their partnership with USA Today, been pretty effective at bringing lots of readers to the site.”