In the fall of 2011, New York literary agent Joe Regal founded Zola Books, an ambitious publishing, retail, and social-recommendation website he hoped would spark changes within a book business increasingly dominated by Amazon. “We did not succeed,” Regal said, candidly. About a year ago, the Zola Books website quietly came down. As early skeptics had predicted, the company had bitten off more than it could chew.
But this fall, with the help of a bestselling author and a few lines of powerful code, Zola Books is back. And though its approach may be dramatically simplified this time around, its mission remains the same: to diversify the retail market for books.
“Zola Books did not succeed, essentially because we were more of a book company than a tech company,” Regal said. “We were coming more from a publishing perspective than a technology perspective. But as we were thinking about what to do next, we recognized that we have all this great technology, and that there might be a better way to make it work.”
That tech focus provided the seed for Zola’s newest iteration: an API named the Everywhere Store. Initially born as a consumer-focused website that sought to draw in readers, Zola Books will now work mostly behind the scenes, powering book sales for others.
“After recognizing that we couldn’t do everything, we decided to deprioritize zolabooks.com as a destination, take all of the technology that is truly essential, make it as good as we can, compress it into this widget, and then give the widget to anyone that already has traffic on their website, so they can sell books powered by us,” Regal explained. Unlike its early days as a would-be retailer, Zola Books is now a facilitator, he said. “We realized that the Zola we’d first envisioned was too ambitious, but that we could still diversify retail by making it possible for anyone to sell books.”
With the Everywhere Store, anyone can begin selling books simply by dropping a few lines of Zola’s code on to their website. This includes indie bookstores looking to sell books on their home-pages; small publishers and authors looking for an easy way to sell directly to consumers; libraries; bloggers; and other media sites. The widget draws from an extensive catalogue of titles, including books from the Big Five publishers, in both digital and print formats. The widget works with all e-book formats (often including the Kindle, depending on a book’s DRM), with print fulfillment handled by Ingram. And the widget is free; Zola makes its money through a revenue share. In addition, the seller fully owns the customer relationship—not Zola Books. Book buyers using the Everything Store are not sent to third-party websites, so sellers capture the email addresses, customer data, and analytics.
Zola Books isn’t the first company seeking to expand online bookselling, of course. But its deep catalogue of print and digital books from all the major publishers and the simple way it works with existing websites may well set it apart. “The whole concept of the Everywhere Store widget is that it is a mobile storefront that can be dropped anywhere,” Regal explained. “If you have a URL, and traffic to that URL, you can just drop the widget where people are already coming, and those people can buy books within the frame of that experience. To me, that’s the crucial component.”
Can it work? Can Zola Books power an emerging micro-retail channel for books? In mid-October, Regal launched his first test case, offering an exclusive e-book edition of The Mountain Shadow, author Gregory David Roberts’s sequel to his megabestselling 2003 novel Shantaram, directly from the author’s website.
At Roberts’s insistence, Regal (who is Roberts’s agent) struck an innovative deal for The Mountain Shadow. Roberts retained the e-book rights, choosing to publish the digital edition through Zola Books and, for no advance, partnered with Grove Atlantic for the print edition. The Zola-published e-book edition is available through all the major retailers and platforms, including Amazon, for $13.99. But Roberts also set up a website to offer an exclusive author’s-edition e-book, with direct sales powered by Zola Books. For $14.99, Roberts’s special edition features about 24,000 words of deleted scenes, poems, and an 180-question q&a, which, Roberts said, will be his “last interview for some time.”
In a post on The Mountain Shadow website, Roberts called the arrangement evolutionary and said it freed him to create the kind of e-book he’d like to buy from any of his own favorite writers. Referencing the low e-book royalties and inflexible life-of-copyright contracts standard among most publishers, Roberts said his deal established “a 50/50 partnership in benefit sharing,” a move he hopes will challenge the “barriers of unfairness and indignity for other writers.”
Regal said the author’s edition has accounted for 12% of all sales of The Mountain Shadow to date. “That 12% kind of blows my mind,” Regal said, noting that he intitially expected the author’s edition, which is available only through Roberts’s website, to account for maybe 1% of sales. “There’s a long way to go,” he adds, “but it makes me wonder what could happen if the widget were to go on a site that already had a strong relationship with its users.”
Without question, it’s been an eventful four years for Zola Books, and the company is hardly the only start-up that has had to start over. Indeed, last year Zola acquired Bookish, a recommendation site that was chartered in 2011 with backing from Hachette, Penguin, and S&S. Regal said Bookish has been a valuable asset. And the experience of Zola’s failure, and its rebirth, has given Regal confidence.
“Four years ago I was a literary agent,” Regal said. “I was not a technology CEO. My skill set was very, very different from the skill set that I honestly feel that I’ve developed. Now I’m in a very privileged position, I think, with a much deeper understanding of the issues.”