In September 2011, Flat World Knowledge was a featured company in an Inc. story titled “Hot New Market: Electronic Textbooks: “College tuition continues to rise, but textbooks may be getting cheaper — and a lot more portable. Instead of lugging a backpack filled with heavy volumes, some students have begun using electronic textbooks, which typically cost less and can be read on a laptop or tablet. Although the market for these E-books is still small compared with that of traditional textbooks, it’s growing quickly. Instead of digitizing textbooks from other publishers, Flat World Knowledge produces its own content. The company, based in Irvington, New York, recruits authors from traditional publishers, and Flat World allows professors to modify books to fit their courses. So far, professors at some 1,200 colleges have added Flat World’s titles to their syllabuses, says Jeff Shelstad, the company’s founder. Students may read any of the textbooks for free on the company’s Web site, but it costs $25 to $35 to download or print the material.” Number of users in 2011: 175,000.”

In 2013, the situation is different. A new story on Flat World by Inc. states that:

“Flat World was well placed to address an emerging movement in higher education: open educational resources, or OER. Institutions had begun publishing instructional content that was free to use, adapt, and distribute. But the quality of many OER materials was untested. Flat World’s textbooks, on the other hand, were peer reviewed, lending added credibility. Flat World made basic editions of its textbooks available for free on its website and offered hard copies starting at $30, a fraction of the price of most college textbooks. It also sold downloadable mobile versions.”

“Flat World began efforts to convert more students into paying customers. In July 2012, the company launched the online $20 Study Pass, which included highlighting and note taking, as well as a supplementary study guide. But by September, only 5 percent of students had purchased it. Ultimately, it was decided that Flat World’s business would never be sound unless all students paid. In November 2012, the company announced that it would end free access to online textbooks in January — a move it billed as ‘free to fair.’ Some instructors were supportive. Even at $20 to $50, they reasoned, Flat World’s textbooks remained much more affordable than those from other publishers. Others felt blindsided by Flat World’s announcement. Instructors who had used Flat World’s textbooks specifically for open education initiatives worried about restricted collaboration.”

Here are some questions to consider in assessing the future of E-textbooks:

  1. Do students want online-only textbooks?
  2. If they do, would they be willing to pay to access them? How much?
  3. If they do, would they be willing to accept advertising in them to be able to access the books for free?
  4. If students want a print version of an E-textbook. how much would they be willing to pay?
  5. Where do professors stand with regard to E-textbooks? What criteria must publishers meet for professors to consider requiring an E-textbook?

Click the image to read the full 2013 Inc. article on Flat World Knowledge.

Photo by iStock


8 Replies to “Is There a Market for Online Textbooks?”

  1. As a student and a technologically involved person I dont like the idea of solely online textbooks. This is because theres no better feeling than physically flipping through the textbook and learning. When my work is on a screen I tend to lose focus much easier than if there is a book in front of me.

  2. I believe online textbooks will be the future of our education. More students and parents are investing in this technology because it is cheaper and more eco-friendly. However, as a student, I feel that I can learn more from textbooks. There aren’t distractions in a textbook making it easier to focus. As of now, us students still have the choice of online books or traditional books and I hope that choice remains.

  3. I see pros and cons on both sides of the matter. Hard copy books today are definitely convenient, but at the same time a huge burden and a rip-off that bookstores abuse. I see online textbooks to be a fair alternative, but will everyone be able to access the material, download it, and print it all out? Reading an online textbook straight from the screen gives way to too many distractions so a portable E-book is suggested, but can everyone adapt to it all?

  4. Depending on the nature of a course I am taking, I feel that using an online textbook may have its pros and cons. Certain classes I need to take consist of material that I must be thoroughly involved in, in order to learn the subject. For this type of class I feel that using an actual textbook and being interactive with it and hands on will definitely help my stance in the course. If it is a certain class that is fairly simple to focus, I would not mind to use an online textbook. Using an online textbook in this type of course would prove to be effective for I can always access it as there is always access to computers every step of the way.

  5. I like the idea of online textbooks. One of my teachers last semester used Flat World and it was a great feeling knowing I could read the book for free online. I am not sure how they go about letting the textbooks be read for free online though. The online textbook enables you to read the book wherever you are without having to actually carry the book around which I like a lot. I think online textbooks will start grow more and more especially if the prices remain low.

  6. I do think that printable E-textbooks are the next step forward for college students. The only downside is that not everyone has access to computer technology or is willing to download and print out their own copies of textbooks from the internet. Students are tired of going to book stores knowing the upcoming demise of their wallets. A purchasable, printable textbook can optimize the process significantly and save students money in the long run.

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