Giant publishers step back from Amazon fight as Zola buys Bookish

Publishers poured millions of dollars into Bookish in less than a year but “never saw it as an ongoing business”.

Does this week’s takeover of Bookish by Zola Books mean the big book publishers have conceded defeat in their efforts to take on the online might of Amazon?

Leading publishers Hachette, Penguin and Simon & Schuster set up Bookish in February 2013. It rapidly built up decent traffic of around 300,000-500,000 visitors a month with a slickly designed site (which could do with better navigation) but required significant investment to fund its sophisticated recommendation technology.

Its main aim is book discovery through “If you like…” recommendations based on users’ choices and the site sells ebooks, print books and audiobooks although it also offers buying links to online sellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the iBookstore.

This week, Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch said the publishers had been pleased with Bookish but had never seen it as “an ongoing business”. The trio of publishers are reckoned to have invested a staggering total of between $10 million and $20 million in Bookish.

Zola Books bought Bookish for its sophisticated technology.

Zola was set up in autumn 2012 as a mix of social media and ebook retailer. It’s a slick site which still has a Beta label in its header and has signed ebook distribution deals with over 60 publishers, including small firms and big publishers such as Harper Collins and Simon & Schuster.

The website features a number of notable exclusives, including The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Nieffenegger, who is an investor in Zola. The firm recently got a $5 million funding round.

Zola also has an aim of supporting independent bookstores through the Indiepledge campaign which means if a reader clicks on a store’s Indiepledge button at the Zola site they’ll get a share of the revenue from purchases you make at Zola. The firm has about 60 indie booksellers signed up so far.

At the moment, Zola doesn’t accept self-published authors wanting to sell their books on the site.

Zola says it plans to run Bookish as a standalone site while it considers plans for integration.