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Next Up: The Textbook Revolution

Posted by Erin Brown in textbook publishing on August 13, 2009


As the digital revolution sweeps through trade publishing, many students and teachers are clamoring for an end to the current textbook publishing paradigm.

Textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation since the mid-1980s, according to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Today’s college student can expect to pay well over $100 for a chemistry, calculus, or economics textbook. As such, course materials account for about 40 percent of the total cost of attending community college. Exorbitant prices have led to rampant textbook piracy, which publishers attempt to combat by releasing a new edition of any given title every three years. New editions render the old ones useless and severely limit the option to buy cheaper, used textbooks.

In response to what many believe is an antiquated, inefficient, and unfair publishing model, the call for “open source” or “open content” digital textbooks is growing louder. (See Make Textbooks Affordable, a student-led coalition whose petition for open textbooks has gathered more than 2,000 signatures from college faculty nationwide.)

David Wiley, former Director of the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning, is widely credited with coining the phrase “open content” in the late 1990s. In essence, “open content” is free and open to modification (Wikipedia as case in point).

Wiley is now “Chief Openness Officer” at Flat World Knowledge, a start-up company that is pioneering the world’s first commercial model for open source textbooks. Founded by two veterans of traditional textbook publishing, Flat World is offering its expert-written, peer-reviewed textbooks online for free. Teachers can mix and match chapters, substitute their own examples, and customize the content in other ways. Flat World also provides social learning opportunities by enabling students to chat live with each other, form study groups, and take and share digital notes.

So where does the revenue come from? (Hint: it’s not from advertising.) Flat World anticipates that some students will simply use the free textbooks and pay nothing, but it’s also betting that many will pay for affordable convenience options, such as black-and-white softcover copies of the text for $29 (color for $59), audio books and book chapters, self-print pdf chapters ($1.99 each), study guides, and digital flash cards.

The Flat World vision is radical, but it also appears to make sense, if the company’s ability to raise $8 million in venture capital (as of March) is any indicator. In the current economic climate, I’m guessing that a lot of students, their families, and teachers are rooting for Flat World’s wild success.


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