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