September 20, 2012

Zola Books is ambitious, maybe to a fault


New book retail startup Zola Books is scheduled to go live with the social networking aspects of their site today.

Zola Books is a new amalgam of social network, book retailer and curation engine, differentiated from competitors thus far by its ambition and its allegiance to independent booksellers.
“We don’t just go for that one slice,” Zola CEO Joe Regal said yesterday in an online Q&A hosted by the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference. “We try to do everything.” And while the promise of the site is evident, that same ambition might be where their particular pitfalls lie.

Regal spent an hour selling the site and fielding questions, and the parts of the site on display did seem enticing, both in their breadth and in their early graphic elements. Zola has taken a smart tack from the start, allying itself more fully with booksellers and publishers, in direct contrast to Amazon.

Publishers, booksellers, high profile authors, blogs and magazines have all been sought out as initial members of Zola, and Regal looked to highlight benefits to each, including direct marketing opportunities to “followers”, a bevy of metrics, and, at the basic financial level, an affiliate program by which referring “curators” are tracked and compensated, much like current affiliate programs for Powell’s or Indiebound. In addition, pages of curators will have a “pledge” button, so that users can have a percentage of all of their purchases given to the curator of their choosing.

Regal took pains to mention that he would like the site to have a “clean” curation engine, meaning that they will not be selling publishers advantageous placement for their books in search results. He contrasted that with placement in bookstores, particularly large chains, where book display is often incentivized by publishers.

Regal was upfront about his need for bookstores on Zola at launch, saying “Tattered Cover has actual customers, and we do not yet.” Where his plans for indie involvement stand now that Kobo has signed on to provide e-book sales for ABA partner stores remains to be seen. It seems that Zola, in its social aspects and with the professional book reviews it will be sourcing from newspapers and blogs, is striving to build a walled garden on the internet, much like Facebook or, to a lesser extent, Tumblr: an internet ecosystem fully parallel to store and publishers’ existing sites, and, if Regal is successful, a platform they won’t be able to afford to ignore.

Unlike Amazon, whose most vocal champions have long been self-published authors eager for a market in which to sell their inspiration and labor for insulting prices, Zola has no initial plans to allow self-published authors to become curators. In part this is due to time constraints—Zola has only thirty-five employees now, up from two a year ago—and in part it comes down to the company’s insistence on value in curation, as well as an apparent culture of allegiance with publishers.

Indeed, Regal wrote a letter to the justice department earlier this year protesting the government suit, saying “The DOJ suit is already sidelining retailer diversity” and “the settlement punishes the wrong parties.” Asked about the agency model yesterday, Regal spoke about his frustration with the suit, adding “If there’s a little bit of a difference [in price], say 10%, most readers won’t care about that. But if James Patterson … is $6 on Amazon, we can’t compete.” Regal also noted the two year length of the recent injunction on defendants in the suit, but added “We’re willing to not make much money at all for a period of time.”

While the everything-for-everyone ambition of the site gives me pause—received wisdom has it that lasting name-brand startups are those that do one thing very well—Zola seems placed to gain some presence in the minds of book buyers. But the effort to rally enough voices to help it become a destination of choice would mean working at cross-purposes with publishers, periodicals and booksellers, who, presumably, would rather book buyers simply head to their own current sites. Whatever the outcome, any source of diversity in the market, particularly one as vocal as Regal is proving to be, is surely welcome.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.