There are advantages to being a pioneer in any given field, most notably in the form of first mover advantage. But there are a lot of drawbacks too. When you are first in a brand new sector, you have to spend a lot of money trying to build up a market that doesn’t yet exist.
That’s the situation eSentral has been in for the past few years since its founding in 2011. Although Amazon.com had introduced e-books as early as 2007 with the launch of its first Kindle device, those e-books were not (and still are not) available in Malaysia.
Like many Malaysians, Faiz Al-Shahab returned home after working abroad for several years, to be with his family. An engineer by training, he applied for several corporate sector jobs but didn’t get any positive responses. So, he decided to help his author mother promote her romance novels. “That’s how I got to learn about the publishing industry,” he recalls.
While helping his mom promote her book, Faiz noticed the challenges the book publishing industry was facing, not just in Malaysia but around the world. “It was obvious to me that print publishing was a sunset industry whose best days are behind it,” he says. “I became fascinated with the concept of e-books as the solution.”
His research made him conclude that if he were to do an e-book business, it would use the universal ePub format and he didn’t want to encrypt the books with Digital Rights Management (DRM) because it wasn’t favoured by the consumers. He also looked into technology and the cost of starting up an e-book business.
The cost for the software and technology involved shocked him. “It would have cost us an arm and leg,” he said. So, together with his brother, Faiz decided to create his own technology instead of spending millions to licence other companies’ technology.
The result was eSentral, a leading local e-book portal. Faiz is quick to point out that eSentral is not a book publishing company. “We are an ICT company,” he says. “We aggregate rather than create content.”
To do so, it works with various local print publishers to help them convert their print books into e-book format. It also offers a platform for authors to self-publish their work as e-books.
To build up such a tech-intensive business from scratch is not cheap. Although Faiz had invested more than RM100,000 into the business, it was far from enough. Initially, he relied on some grants to help the business get by but money was quickly running out when MAVCAP, the government-owned venture capital company that invests in the ICT sector, expressed interest in investing in eSentral.
MAVCAP’s investment, which was in the millions, helped keep the company afloat while Faiz and his team continued to grow the company organically. Since then, the company has grown from strength to strength and is now doing e-book business not just with consumers (B2C) but on a business-to-business (B2B) basis, most notably with libraries.
Towards the end of 2013, the Sabah state library approached eSentral as it was keen to have Malay language e-books (eSentral was the only local vendor with such content). Faiz spotted an opportunity and instead of just offering to supply them with e-books, he offered to actually build the library system the Sabah state library would need in order to e-books for loan.
The proprietary library system platform developed for the Sabah state library has proven to be a success and eSentral has installed it in seven other libraries, including the National Library in Kuala Lumpur.
The company is also experimenting with interactive, multimedia content for e-books. It has a Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission-funded project to help schools create interactive annual yearbooks. “The pilot project is in Kemaman, Terengganu, where we are implementing this in 70 schools,” he says. “We hope this is the first of many more such projects to come.”
Faiz is always looking for the next new trend in the e-books business and one of the exciting new projects he has for this year is to offer e-book sales through Bluetooth as strategic locations at KLIA. “We don’t know if this will work or not but we have to try,” says Faiz, ever the pioneer. “It will be rolled out sometime this year.”
Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.