With the spring semester quickly approaching, many students at USM already have their sights set on the next round of textbooks. Textbook season is usually a sad time for students and involves dishing out cash on books when they would much rather be spending it on other things. Times are changing, and there is work being done now to teach the old textbook a new trick.

Roll Over. Speak. Convert into free open source digital! They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but the textbook market as we know it is broken and in need of a new trick. The problem is that professors pick textbooks but the students buy them. This process has allowed the prices of books to become inflated because the decision maker in this process is not the buyer. The resulting lose-lose situation is what we Micro Economic types call, market failure. What we have is an inelastic demand curve; publishers increase their price, and instead of students refusing to pay the higher price, we are forced to buy the book because we have to have it at any price.

So what do we do? We get involved. Right now there is a resolution working its way through the student senate about textbooks highlighting ways that we can work together to achieve lower prices. There are also alternative plans to promote affordable textbooks.

What is an affordable textbook? An affordable textbook is defined as anything other than a brand new textbook. This includes: used books, binder-ready books, book rental programs, library reserves, Campus Book Swap, e-books, and finally the holy grail, open source textbooks.

Open source textbooks ship under a creative commons license, which means that they are free to edit and modify with much less restriction than copyrighted textbooks. The practical application is that you can often view, download, and edit an open source textbook without infringing pesky copyright laws. Students can even print them for a reasonable $25 at a local publisher. That’s music to college students’ ears because they won’t have to choose between spending all their money out of pocket on books or failing their classes.

A new company named Flat World Knowledge is hoping to put a dent in the problem by publishing high quality, open source textbooks. Flat World Knowledge is in beta this fall with 4 books in use at approximately 20 schools. Co-Founder of Flat World Knowledge, Jeff Shelstad, says that the spring 2009 beta campaign is expected to reach almost 1,000 students from 25 schools. During spring 2009, Flat World Knowledge will publish 10 brand new business and economics open source texts.

Many naysayers are reluctant to believe in any false hope of free textbooks, but Flat World Knowledge has confirmed that their model can work. They have just hired three sales and marketing industry veterans. They continue to sign authors at a rate of approximately 1 project every month. Flat World Knowledge, riding a wave of student excitement, is full steam ahead despite the wimpy economy.

Now the question you’ve been waiting for: If Flat World Knowledge is open source, how do they generate revenue? They believe in students as consumers who will purchase valuable content at reasonable prices. They have a very reasonable model for their books and supplements. The cornerstone of their pricing model is the online textbook, which is free. Students then will be able to purchase a printable book for $1.99/chapter or $19.95/complete text. The audio book version will go for $2.99/chapter and $29.99/text. The e-book version(s) will be about the same. From there the next step is a printed textbook that will be shipped to your door for $29.95 (B&W) or $59.95 (Color).

Lastly, the company will also have study supplements like online quizzes, audio study guides, and flash cards for purchase. These are $.99/chapter or $19.95 for an “all you can eat” semester-long subscription. Their pricing model is very attractive to students who are used to paying upwards of $150/text, and given the amount of student resentment towards large publishers, Flat World Knowledge shouldn’t have any trouble staying in business.

With the current state of economic affairs something needs to be done. Research has indicated that textbooks account for up to 20% of the cost of tuition and have become a tipping cost that can be the deciding factor in attending college. In addition, here at USM and at most colleges around the nation, students have been hit with the perfect storm of rising book costs and continued tuition increases over the past six years.

The future does seem promising but all of this talk is, well, just talk. When will we see some results? Sooner than you may think. The University has heard student concerns about rising textbook prices and wants to help ease the burden imposed by increased tuition costs. Though no specifics are being released yet, and no promises can be made, key administration members will be meeting in the near future to discuss role that textbooks play in the University Maine system.

These are exciting times and we stand on the frontier of opportunity. It’s a win-win for students and USM. The University can adopt affordable textbooks for students to ease our financial burden and emerge as a leader in progressive forward thinking. The publishers are counting us out, but we still have a few tricks left up our sleeve. The publishers have taught their over-priced textbook a few tricks of their own. They’ve taught it how to have frequent new editions, they’ve taught it to bundle with CD’s, and they’ve taught it to maximize profits. Let’s see if we can teach the over priced textbook one more trick, how to play dead.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here