Another keystone of Zola’s strategy is to sidestep the proprietary e-reader problem — which forces readers to choose a particular device — by marketing digital books that can be read on all e-readers, not just one.
The Zola reader will work as an HTML5 applet on all Web-enabled devices; the reader uses cloud technology to store the e-books, which can be downloaded onto any device. Apps will be available for the iPad and other tablets and devices, but the reading experience will be essentially the same.
When customers decide to change devices, they won’t have to re-purchase the book, he adds. Customers just log onto Zola and upload the book to the new device, which opens on the last page read on the previous device.
Along the way, Zola — funded by about 20 investors, mostly from the book industry and named for the 19th-century French novelist known for his socially progressive politics — gives its customers an easy way to help keep independent bookstores from following major chains such as Borders into extinction. In return for in-store promotion, Zola provides the bookstores with home pages (“storefronts,” in Zola-speak), then forks over 60 percent of the net profit from every book sold there. Zola users can even “declare allegiance” to their favorite indie stores, funneling most of the profit from their e-book purchases back to their own neighborhoods.
Unlike IndieCommerce, the American Booksellers Association’s non-exclusive e-retailing program originally partnered with Google (and more recently with Kobo), membership in Zola is free to booksellers.
“There’s no downside that I can see so far,” says Katie Fransen, the book buyer at One More Page Books in Arlington. “We’ve been looking to get into the e-book market, but it costs quite a bit of money to use IndieCommerce [$175 per month]. The key thing is that people are going to have to get used to a new platform.”
With that kind of profit-sharing, how can Zola earn revenue? “With scalable technology, social marketing and no physical infrastructure to support — retail space, etc. — we can be profitable on slimmer margins than traditional bricks-and-mortar stores,” Regal says.
Zola has been embraced by many publishers, some of whom — including Macmillan, which has publicly feuded with Amazon over e-book pricing — regard it as a way to preserve traditional book-distribution channels while expanding the market for digital books.
“Joe comes from our community, and he’s trying to create a site that’s a combination of Goodreads and Amazon, a destination site where people can buy books and also hang out and exchange ideas,” says Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic. “I also love the fact that he’s offering independent booksellers a way to get into the e-book business, because whatever we can do to keep independent bookstores around, I’m in favor of.