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Eric Frank Of Flat World Knowledge Talks About The Future Of Textbooks

Eric Frank headshot resized.jpg

Flat World Knowledge
, a publisher of openly-licensed college textbooks has doubled its business this year. This semester, the company is selling books on more than 800 college campuses, up from 400 last fall. EbookNewser caught up with Eric Frank, founder/CEO of Flat World Knowledge to discuss how the textbook business is evolving.

EBN: What’s going on in the textbook publishing industry?
EF: The industry is in turmoil. We’re in the midst of a national textbook affordability crisis caused by the industry’s inability to adapt to changing industry conditions – primarily driven by the impact of the Internet on the supply chain of publishers. Over the years, publishers have (rightly) competed with each other for market share. That competition drives up the cost of textbooks annually well beyond the rate of inflation. Books got more expensive than the average student could afford so students turned to the Internet to find less expensive alternatives.

Author royalties began dwindling, as they get paid a percentage of new books sold. So, in a rational effort to preserve revenue in the face of falling unit sales, publishers began to raise prices faster -books are over $1,000/yr. for students and many have surpassed $200 each. Publishers also bundled books with things like CDs to try and generate a unique ISBN at the bookstore and confuse the student looking online for an alternative. And publishers started bringing out new editions faster to flush the market of low-cost substitutes for at least one semester.

EBN: How does your business model work?
EF: Our model starts by sticking with what works from the traditional industry – publishing expert-authored, high-quality, peer-reviewed textbooks that faculty want to use in their courses. Then, we flip the old model on its head. We license our books under a Creative Commons open license, in effect transferring control (legally) to adopting faculty to modify the textbook to better suit their own teaching goals.

Then, we treat students like real consumers and give them something they’ve never gotten from a textbook publisher before -the freedom to choose the price and textbook format they want. Students can choose from a range of formats from a free HTML web-hosted version, to softcover print books in black and white or color, e-Reader versions for their handheld readers like the iPad or Kindle, PDF files, audio books, and more.

EBN: What is an open textbook?
EF: As the Internet became an increasingly important tool for the creation, distribution, and consumption of content, legal scholars believed that it was time to reform copyright law and create a middle ground between “all rights reserved” and “no rights reserved.” One can think of this middle ground as “some rights reserved.” The copyright holder publishes the book under a “some rights reserved” license. The family of Creative Commons licenses is the most commonly selected option for this purpose.

Generally, the rights are transferred to the user using the “4 R’s”: the right to reuse; the right to redistribute; the right to revise; and the right to remix.

EBN: Are students adopting eReaders at school?
EF: It’s too early to say how popular eReaders will be with students for reading their textbooks. Our belief is that their popularity will continue to grow over time, though less slowly than some pundits seem to predict. In five years, we still think there will be more sales of print books than any other format, with steady migration to digital formats. We think that a smart publisher today needs to be platform agnostic. The way that consumers read will only get more fragmented, not less.

EBN: How will textbooks grow over the next few years?
EF: We’ll see a broader use of technology innovations like built-in self-assessment tools that provide performance data to help students learn better, help professors become more effective instructors, and help authors develop better texts. One of the more exciting parts of our business is building a social learning platform so that students can collaborate and share information with other students cross-campus and around the world. One of the coolest things about publishing open textbooks that people can modify and improve is that we are unlocking human potential for innovation. We think some of the greatest innovations in textbooks will come from our users (not from publishers) because we’ve given them that opportunity.

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