The pandemic has accelerated digitization in publishing to warp speed, and every book-maker in the world is wondering what that means for their business.
Some innovative publishers were going digital long ago, of course. Even three-generation family businesses like EBC (formerly the Eastern Book Company). As we hear in this episode with its director Raghunandan Malik, they’ve stayed ahead of the curve because they prioritise constant learning and an entrepreneurial mindset, and also because they’ve long known that ‘books’ are not the reason they exist. Rather, they provide information, and books are one smart way to do that.
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Arthur Attwell 0:03
Hello, and welcome to How Books Are Made, a podcast about the art and science of making books. I’m Arthur Attwell.
Arthur Attwell 0:21
There have been many times in my publishing career, when I’ve realised with some shock, that the thing I’m publishing needn’t be book-shaped at all. I once published a children’s book that would have sold better as a calendar. I once published a dictionary that really should have been a database. I published textbooks that really should also have been online courses. When you’re a book-maker, everything can look book-shaped, because the shape of books is so darn beautiful. It takes guts and luck to publish book-like content in other ways. That’s not to say books, per se, are downright wonderful. What I mean is that sometimes, the book is only one of the ways we might package and sell complex ideas.
Arthur Attwell 1:11
Many publishers have put their book-making skills to work on websites, apps, and online courses for years. This isn’t new, but it isn’t widespread either. Till now, that is, over the last year, the pandemic has accelerated digitisation to warp speed. Pretty much every book-maker in the world is wondering what this means for their business. I wanted to speak to someone who was ahead of the wave, someone leading a stable publishing business with a long track record of publishing in ways that aren’t book-shaped. Raghunandan Malik is the director of the Eastern Book Company, a three-generation family business and India’s leading provider of legal information. He’s a positive, thoughtful leader, and an old friend I haven’t spoken to in far too long. Raghunandan, it is such a pleasure to chat to you on the podcast. Thanks so much for taking some time to speak with me today.
Raghunandan Malik 2:12
It’s great to be here, and I think it’s exceptional that after a very, very long time, we’ve kind of caught up again.
Arthur Attwell 2:18
Yeah, it has been many years since we first met in Ahmedabad, I think, and then Cape Town, but we haven’t actually caught up for a long time. That’s great. I think we’re both a bit older.
Raghunandan Malik 2:30
Oh, yeah. A lot older, with children.
Arthur Attwell 2:32
Raghunandan Malik 2:33
I, yeah, and families, and yeah, and it’s been a very, very big change since we last caught up.
Arthur Attwell 2:40
I am excited to talk about your work, your background, Eastern Book Company, of course, and the last year, which has been especially interesting. One of the things that you’ve been deeply involved in over several years now is overseeing quite a major transformation for the Eastern Book Company. So much so that you’ve told me that much of your business isn’t really in books anymore as such.
Raghunandan Malik 3:06
Arthur Attwell 3:06
Although that’s still doubtless an important part. Because EBC’s history goes back to the 1940s, am I right? I’m guessing here from a magazine article that I found that it started with your grandfather and his brothers selling law books in Lucknow, have I got that right?
Raghunandan Malik 3:22
Yes. Yes. Yes, that is a very, very long time, indeed, ago that the company was started. It was started actually in 1942. Actually, my grandfather moved from Chiang in Punjab, which is now part of Pakistan, and he came without a penny in his pocket to India. Today, Eastern Book Company has become the largest legal publisher and information provider in South Asia. It’s been a major, major change. I guess he came at a time when India had just become or was about to become a republic. We just got independence in 1947, and we kind of wanted to contribute to the building up of the country. He thought that one of the best ways of doing that was to contribute to the Indian legal system with quality legal information.
Arthur Attwell 4:18
Right. Yeah. Because I suppose India was booming, and, of course, a long legal tradition, but was probably at a moment where it was also reinventing a lot about itself. I suppose legal publishing was, was a critical part of that.
Raghunandan Malik 4:31
Yeah, yeah. You kind of hit the nail right on the head on that. It was, I mean, there were books on law, but none of them were by Indian authors. We were one of the … We were the first to publish a book by an Indian author in 1950, the date that the constitution was actually ratified by Parliament. We kind of got going from there on. We were the first to do Digest on Indian law. And then … So far onwards and then in digital in a big way, when we launched the first CD ROM-based legal database, online in 1997.
Arthur Attwell 5:09
Raghunandan Malik 5:10
Yeah, and the first online legal eCommerce store in India. We’re not the first in eCommerce itself, but we were the first in legal eCommerce, I mean, law, legal products, first to offer that in India. And then the first ebook reader in law, right. Now recently, we’ve done an eLearning, so we’re the first in eLearning. Many firsts to the company’s name, not all of them are done by me, but many firsts to the company’s name, and we’ve kind of always had a very … fond this thing for entrepreneurship in the company. I think that’s where we are at this point.
Arthur Attwell 5:10
Yeah, it can be tough being, being the pioneer and being the first because that’s the riskiest role to play often.
Raghunandan Malik 5:49
Yeah, I think that is by far the riskiest that you can … But yeah, I guess in a certain sense, we were the first and we also then got the rewards of being the first in the industry as a result.
Arthur Attwell 6:04
Today, you help run a company with about 500 staff?
Raghunandan Malik 6:09
Arthur Attwell 6:09
I guess it’s quite a story behind that, that goes back decades. I wanted to zoom in on one particular detail that I find fascinating personally, which is that several years ago, you decided to learn to code as in code computer programming. What’s the story behind that?
Raghunandan Malik 6:27
Yeah … So this was, I think this was a very long time ago, a very long time ago. Yeah, this is, I’m thinking back. Yes. Coding. It was a very happy time to do that. In 2005, and six, I think that’s when I was in Singapore, I completed my graduation and joined a consultancy called Red Pill Solutions, a technology consultancy, which is now part of IBM. I know I wanted to keep working there. But at the same time, I saw that India … In India, there was a eCommerce and an internet revolution that was kind of happening. You could see that it was just about taking off. I was just I couldn’t see anybody doing much about it. In the legal field, it was particularly … I realised that there was an opportunity there, when I saw what kind of experience that legal bookstores were offering in India wasn’t that great.
Raghunandan Malik 7:28
I was like, fascinated by that opportunity. I took a little bit of, I did a little bit of part time work on the side, and I learned Perl, and then subsequently PHP, okay, and coded myself a little bit of a website for selling books online.
Arthur Attwell 7:47
Raghunandan Malik 7:49
Amazon was all the rage at that point in time and I could see that this, there was nothing like that happening in India and we could offer a technological solution where people could just come online and buy a law book online.
Arthur Attwell 8:02
Raghunandan Malik 8:03
It was, it was, it was an exceptional experience. I think that was the first time round. Subsequently, of course, I’ve also had the opportunity to learn Objective-C, where I’ve coded the first version of our app for ereading called EBC Reader, which I launched in 2014 after that, so it was it, it’s been a, it’s been a great ride, doing that activity. Yeah, it was it was fascinating. Absolutely.
Arthur Attwell 8:32
I just love that insight, because, you know, you look at a big company, and you’re pretty much running the show, and, and yet, you’re still actually coding the products. Is that what you still work on today? Or when did you have to leave that behind? Because, you know, running a company is a busy job, and coding is a whole other world.
Raghunandan Malik 8:52
I agree. I agree. That yes, it is a whole other world, and … I think a part of the reason why I coded in 2014 was because EBC is not, it was never based out of one of the metros, it was based out of a very small town called Lucknow in northern India. We didn’t have any programmers in Objective-C that are available on the market. I had to take on that, that kind of that challenge to do that. Having said that, I think the underlying technology, if you understand that, there’s, there’s a lot that you can subsequently do with that. Like I tell myself that almost anything is possible in code. That makes it possible for me to challenge my team, to kind of do the impossible with code.
Arthur Attwell 9:41
Raghunandan Malik 9:41
Plus, I think that also gives … I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this, that among coders, there’s this strong sense of a meritocratic community. They strongly believe, or they will only go to people who at least understand. Who they look to as one of their own. As somebody who they can look up to. So if you are to actually lead a technology company, or at least an information technology in our case, then you will need to understand the technological problem that they may potentially face, and it’s great for them to have somebody who they can look up to.
Arthur Attwell 10:16
Sure. It makes an immense difference.
Raghunandan Malik 10:18
Yeah, it does. It does. I and I think the only thing is, I feel that maybe I’m too involved with the technology itself. You tend to go in that direction. Which you have to restrict yourself, I guess after a bit. Once you have a team in place, yeah.
Arthur Attwell 10:40
Yeah. Absolutely. And then pay good people that are, I suppose, better at it than you and trust that you’re hiring people who are better at it than you?
Raghunandan Malik 10:48
Absolutely, absolutely. That is the only way to grow. That is the only way to grow. But you do get a feel for the right person also, when you code yourself, you understand, which are concepts and what are you looking for in those people? When you do the recruitment. If you understand coding yourself, and you really know how to do that work. I think that allows an organisation to grow.
Arthur Attwell 11:11
Yeah. During all that growth, particularly as you take, have over the years taken a bigger and bigger role in a long standing-family business, how do you balance the weights of all that tradition, and legacy, and history, and expectation, I suppose, with the need to modernise and innovate in the company? Is that a difficult thing to balance?
Raghunandan Malik 11:34
[LAUGHS] I think you’ve kind of identified an area that is another area that I’m passionate about. I think the family has always been very, very focused on education. I tell my family that the biggest mistake that they made, was actually educating the next generation. Because when you educate the next generation, then they’re gonna come up with the ideas, and you’d better be prepared for those. Right? It’s not going to be … It’s not going to be something that you can put down because ideas tend to lead them and all than the other way around, I think.
Arthur Attwell 12:18
In our family, we say that if all is going well then every generation is an upgrade. So as a parent, you need to be ready for that. Sorry, you were saying?
Raghunandan Malik 12:26
Yeah, no, I was saying that having said that, the other thing that comes is, is communication, communication, communication. We may be a family of entrepreneurs. But if you don’t communicate, we don’t give the reasons as to why the next step has to be taken. I think then everybody may not be necessarily on board. I think this tradition, we’ve kind of continued. So we’re not just, it wasn’t just a stopgap arrangement, where we kind of did our postgraduate education, and then we kind of finished off. We’ve been continuing to invest in education for everyone in who’s part of the family, who’s part of the board. So I have been to Stanford Business School, I did my executive education there. That, that shows you, and I’ve been there a couple of times now. But it’s been … That kind of gives you the power of ideas and the motivation to keep on innovating and kind of pursuing those dreams.
Arthur Attwell 13:19
I know that Eastern Book Company describes itself as a legal information provider. Increasingly, you don’t focus that innovation side of the business on on book-making as such. My sense is that right back to the 1960s, when it began publishing Supreme Court cases, EBC had a deep sense that it’s in the business of providing legal information, broadly speaking, and that “the book”, in quotes, was, for the time being, a useful way to provide legal information. Now, how do you think about that relationship between the book, of the form of the book, and … As just one vehicle for information, and the book as a, as an end in itself? You know, we’re making books, versus we’re providing legal information. Because there must be a whole host of philosophical and strategic decisions to make around your engagement with books as a product and legal information as a service.
Raghunandan Malik 14:19
Yeah, and I think you’ve kind of hit the nail right on the head. This is a topic that I’m supremely passionate about. I think that publishers need to recognise that we are in the business of information technology in the truest sense of the word. We are actually the people who need to own the IT world. We are as much a part of the information production as the technology part of it. I think book publishing, from the very beginning, has always been a, you know, has been an information technology business except that you know, it somewhere along the way got muddled a little bit, or understanding that we were just publishers of books, and rather than providing an information or a service that customers need. I think what also goes without saying is, is that book continues to innovate as a method of technology and look at how far it has come. I think that there are many, many new things happening. Look at print-on-demand technology, look at smart pens.
Arthur Attwell 15:26
Raghunandan Malik 15:27
Smart books with IoT embedded within them. Augmented reality and smart speakers within books, et cetera, that I think children’s books are the way that you can look at how it’s completely changing and how fast they adopt new technologies. Yes, I’m very fascinated with what what’s kind of happening there.
Arthur Attwell 15:48
Yeah, one of the exciting things about having a young child is that it’s such a great reason to keep up with what’s happening in children’s books. You get to buy them guilt free, and still enjoy them. You’re right, there’s so much innovation there. That’s really interesting. Now, I love talking about the real nitty gritty, the hard concrete details of what goes on in a company that makes or sells books or makes books possible. What right now, what kinds of work are going on in your company? What are the people doing? What what sort of things are happening?
Raghunandan Malik 16:20
Yeah, so the biggest thing that’s we all of us are kind of coping with at this point in time is basically the pandemic is completely changed our physical books business.
Arthur Attwell 16:32
Raghunandan Malik 16:32
Particularly, because of the fact that bookstores are closed, customers cannot access those, our, our books can’t be printed and shipped in the same quantities that they could earlier. Access to authors or meeting people is difficult. So to that extent, the books business has changed considerably. However, what that has kind of done also is that has given a fillip to our eCommerce-driven business. So where there is can be significant separation, physical separation, of course, ebooks and ecourses. I think what we’re kind of really focusing on at this point is on rapidly scaling technological solutions to the books business and building up that and, and for customers, also, the adoption of technology is something that they are very, very keen on doing at this point in time. We’ve been just simply trying to meet market demand for our digital products. I think that’s what we’re kind of like fully focused on 100%.
Arthur Attwell 17:30
Have you had to change people’s skills through training and just immersing them in technology, or have you had to bring in different technology people, and either let go of or slowly rescale people who, in the business, who weren’t involved with the technology side of it?
Raghunandan Malik 17:50
Well, the good bit is, is that for us, our customer base remains the same, and the product remains the same. Given that, I think what we are focusing on with the team as a whole is training and retraining. For them, whether it is our sales staff or our editorial staff, for them, they have some of the relationships, they understand the people who are behind who produce the information, or the customers who buy the information. It’s just a question of, of learning new skills. I mean, we’ve been training our sales staff, for example, on technology tools for presentations and meetings with zoom, on doing digital payments with customers, and familiarising them with our digital products, they already have the connect with the end customers and that’s what terrific about about that. But at the same time, our our editorial teams also need to adopt a technology in big ways. For example, our ecourses, or eLearning, EBC Learning as we’re calling it, here is another big step in terms of recording video for the first time. That’s been a major change for, for our video editors to kind of take up.
Raghunandan Malik 19:01
Having said all of that, but it’s also a psychological transition, not just a skill-based transition, where people need to understand that this is a business which which moves faster, and the changes immediately reflect an impact on the world. The tools for marketing are so much faster and more powerful. So it’s been a lot of training and retaining and they’ve been delighted to just do this.
Arthur Attwell 19:27
That’s really fantastic. I … Also have a sense from companies I’ve either consulted in or leaders I’ve spoken to over the years, that often in a publishing company in a transition between print and digital you end up with two parts of the company. One half of the company doing book editing and layout or in the old, traditional way and another part of the company, sometimes physically separated, you’ve got this tech team doing databases and running web servers and that sometimes that ends up being a tension between those sides of the business and a split in the minds of leaders between dealing with these two sides of the business. And yet the most successful companies have found ways to, to get those sides integrated. How have you found that process at EBC?
Raghunandan Malik 20:17
I think, since people are willing to learn, and there is a great deal, there’s a great sense in this entire country as a whole of familiarising oneself with computers and adopting computers as the way forward. I mean, look at how well the Indian IT majors have done. And part of it is because every farmer in the country wants his child or her child to become a computer professional, and they see the success there. And so you see, the aspirations of the country and the people as a whole to kind of adopt technology and to adopt computerisation is a big deal. I think that kind of gets reflected in our workforce also. As long as we are willing to provide them with tools, I don’t see that there is a division or tension between these two sides of the business. They all want to learn, they all want to read, you just provide them with tools. I mean, there are many, many online learning tools that we’ve been we’ve been providing our, our, our complete workforce with, and they have been using those on their own. On their own time, learning from those, coming back with ideas and helping adopt it because they do recognise that is the future, why should they be left out of that? And they see people around them doing it, they they see their own children adopting it. So they’re, they’re as fascinated to get on with, you know, with these tools, as we are. It’s one seamless transition to us to that extent, for these people to come on board.
Arthur Attwell 21:55
That’s just wonderful. I think there are a lot of leaders of companies in the world who would love to have that perspective so embedded in a broader kind of culture and outlook. And just shows just why we’ve seen such extraordinary innovation and productivity from Indian publishing services companies and publishing companies over the last 10, 15 years. It’s kind of been a little dizzying actually, to see it happen. It’s exciting.
Raghunandan Malik 22:23
Yeah, yeah, and if you look at it, I mean, TCS became the third largest technology company in the world very, very recently. That tells you, which is an Indian company, so we can, I mean, of course, IBM and Alban, all these are much ahead of it. But as a as a service providers as an IT service provider, they became one of the third largest and that shows you where the ambition of the Indian population has in general is going.
Arthur Attwell 22:53
So, the pandemic over the last year, we’ve been talking about how that’s changed a lot about how we work. Certainly has had a huge effect on publishing. Oddly, in much of the world, book selling has actually done pretty well over the last year, I think it’s a lot of people at home with extra time on their hands, buying books online and reading them. So that’s good for a lot of traditional publishers. But also, I think it’s exposed a lot of weaknesses or inevitable changes that needed to happen in publishing. Certainly been an accelerant of digitisation, as you’ve mentioned. If you look back over the last 12 months, I think it’s almost … Almost exactly a year since most of our countries started seeing our first cases, what, at EBC in particular, got accelerated for you 12 months ago, and over the over the last year?
Raghunandan Malik 23:45
Well, I, Arthur, if you look at it, when the pandemic happened, a lot of people were very keen to get hold of fiction, and think that they could just simply read in their spare time in terms of physical books. However, since it affected at least in our business, it affected the courts in a big way and the lawyers in a very, very big way.
Arthur Attwell 24:07
Raghunandan Malik 24:07
It kind of affected our physical business very, very hard. And in fact, we were not able to get products to end customers, other than our eCommerce stores. That did make a huge difference. However, that did supercharge all of our electronic businesses, and we saw the result of that. Schools and colleges were closed and there needed to be a method to educate students in law, which could use technology. So we saw our ebooks, business, EBC Reader, reach out to all the schools and colleges one after one where they got after us, that you know, give us a solution. We kind of grew at over 500% in this time period, because of because the market needed it and and there had to be a solution to of overcoming the challenge that faced them. The students and teachers needed to keep learning, needed to keep communicating, there had to be access to legal information, which we … Which they did not have access to otherwise. So a lot of schools and and lawyers adopted our eCommerce, our ebooks solutions.
Raghunandan Malik 25:20
What also happened is that we were earlier not able to make an inroad on our eLearning business, EBC Learning, which also got zoomed out, zoomed through this pandemic, and and we saw rapid adoption at the customer end, as a result of the pandemic, where people saw that as a great alternative to in fact, reading books. They had time on their hands, and they, and they still continue to use those tools to keep learning. What better time to invest than during the pandemic, when you can invest in yourself in a big way to grow your, your skillset? So we saw a big change in the electronic part of the business but a very hard hit on the physical part of our business where physical offtake was severely challenged. I think it kind of like got supercharged, we all zoomed into the future by 10 to 15 years. Because of the pandemic.
Arthur Attwell 26:15
Cause it also means doing about 10 to 15 years of work in about six months, and that’s kind of terrifying, right? Shipping technology product faster than you would like because the demand is there. That’s, that’s nerve-racking.
Raghunandan Malik 26:26
That is. However, for us, it was very, very fortunate that our ebooks products was almost all ready. Okay, we didn’t have the IP based version, but we had the ebooks product almost already. Our eLearning product has just kind of finished development and was, like, almost live. So we just had to do a few things. But it you know, it was hectic, we worked even during the lockdown periods in India. We kind of made sure that the products were made available, because that was the only way that customers could actually consume and we could keep on running the business and keep our people employed and continue to pay them as well as keep our suppliers happy with payments there. I mean, all of this caused a major cash flow problem within the company, and it happened across the world. I think this kind of gave us the fuel to keep going, otherwise, that may not have happened.
Arthur Attwell 27:20
Sure. You know, now we’re a year later, we’ve all learned a lot about our ourselves and our businesses. It’s been a ride, and we may be far from the end. If you were to look back at yourself learning at Stanford, about how businesses run, what do you think would change? What would you add to what was taught there, given what you’ve learned over the last few years, and particularly over the last year about priorities in a publishing business and how you should think about what you need to get done?
Raghunandan Malik 27:56
Arthur Attwell 27:56
Putting you on the spot here.
Raghunandan Malik 27:58
That’s fine. Well, I think Stanford gave me more than the education. It gave me an enthusiasm for innovation and entrepreneurship, and I think that kind of carried through the pandemic. But coming back to your question with respect to priorities, I think we learned to put our people first. We learned to prioritize on making payments to them first. We realise that those are our most valuable resources. They talk about product market fit, they talk about getting your business to scale, they talk about all of that at Stanford, but they don’t tell you that if you don’t have the people to do that, it’s not going to work. You just have to keep them employed. I mean, they’re the most severely affected in all of this. You have to keep helping them with their projects and what they are doing. I think that’s what I learned during this pandemic. I think that’s been a remarkable learning for me. And it’s been a quite a challenge to in fact, keep doing that.
Arthur Attwell 29:08
Raghunandan Malik 29:08
To keep providing for those, given the restraint, cash flows, given the issues with respect to the market, all of that, and they have also come forward equally to kind of help at each step of the way with the company to kind of make that possible. And they went out of their way. They took, certain cases, they took the first step. They took the initiative. They took … I mean, they gave their all to the company and I was very, very proud of that. I think I didn’t even anticipate that. It was quite revealing.
Arthur Attwell 29:45
Raghunandan Malik 29:45
To me as an entrepreneur and as a person.
Arthur Attwell 29:50
The relationship between an employee and the business is such a precious and fragile thing and you only really know whether it’s a healthy good relationship, I suppose, when it’s tested in a moment like this, and the employee understands that they’re part of an organism and a community. And that’s just wonderful to hear. That, I think it speaks volumes about the quality of a company and the quality of it’s people and it’s leaders. So yeah, well done on that.
Raghunandan Malik 30:24
Thank you. Thank you so much, yes. Thanks to the Lord for making all of that possible for us to survive this. It’s been a challenge. Yeah. Yeah.
Arthur Attwell 30:35
I think those challenges will continue for a while, at least. What do you think, looking forward over the next 3, 6, 12 months, are the things you’re looking forward to? And the things that you think are a little scary for all of us that we need to be ready for as particularly as business leaders?
Raghunandan Malik 30:55
Well I’d answer that question with two points. The first, of course, I think we’re expecting that the habits that customers are adopting, especially with the respect to the transition into technology, are going to be permanent changes that we will see going forward. I expect that there will be even faster work that may be required on that front by us as a company, and maybe by the entire publishing industry as a whole, where the transition to digital may be a lot, lot faster than we anticipated earlier. That is one part of it.
Raghunandan Malik 31:39
Secondly, I do want to travel as soon as I can, which is on a very, very personal level. So I’m hoping that somewhere along the way that the vaccine will kind of kick in for all of us and we’ll kind of see that the world is free and rid of this pandemic once and for all. Let’s hope that happens soon. Like you very rightly said that, it is still a very long way off. I pray that it will happen as soon as possible and we all get to meet each other and to be with our families and people who we know as soon as possible, but also to maybe travel as far as we can and as wide as we can.
Arthur Attwell 32:21
Yeah, see this amazing world. We’ve felt very separate, and yet all facing the same challenge. It’s a strange, double life that we lead. Yeah. Raghunandan, it’s been such a wondrous pleasure chatting to you and catching up. I’ve learned a lot as well. So thanks again, so much, for taking the time and joining me.
Raghunandan Malik 32:40
Thank you, Arthur. It’s been exceptional and and I really look forward to meeting up with you in person soon. Thank you so much for having me on your podcast.
Arthur Attwell 32:51
And thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this, it would be such a help if you’d take a moment to share that with a friend or on social media. You’d be amazed at the effect that every share has on our downloads. So, thanks for that too. You can point people to howbooksaremade.com where I’ll also post links to things we talked about today. We’ll also add a transcript of this conversation there.
Arthur Attwell 33:14
How Books Are Made is supported by Electric Book Works, where my team and I make books all day, every day, in sunny Cape Town, South Africa.