Curriculum

Textbooks Moving Into Cyberspace

By Scott J. Cech — July 28, 2008 1 min read
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As college-bound members of the high school class of 2008 look ahead to fall, some can also look forward to textbook sticker shock: New required textbooks can cost as much as $125, and some are not resalable.

But, depending on which college they attend, some incoming freshmen might be pleasantly surprised that at least one of their textbooks will cost them exactly nothing, if they’re willing to read it online.

Flat World Knowledge, a Nyack, N.Y.,-based start-up company, this fall plans to sell about 720 copies of its four “open textbooks”—online texts that are viewable for free online, or printed for a fee—at 24 colleges nationwide.

Students will be able to view the texts online, or choose a variety of other reading options, from an audio version at approximately $1.95 per chapter to approximately $50 to $55 for a color-printed, soft-cover copy.

By January, the company plans to offer a total of eight texts, all of which will be in business and economics, said Eric S. Frank, one of the company’s founders, who spent 11 years in the traditional-textbook industry. “Ultimately, I think we will be a full-curriculum publisher,” he added.

The launch will make the company the first known commercial publisher of open college textbooks, but the movement toward free online and flexible-pay printed texts has been under way for awhile.

Robert A. Beezer, a mathematics professor at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Wash., has been offering his text, A First Course in Linear Algebra, to students as a free download since 2004.

In 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the combined price of textbooks and supplies had nearly tripled between 1986 and 2004.

In an e-mail, Mr. Beezer said there is a growing frustration among faculty members about the textbook industry and rising prices. “Hardcover linear-algebra textbooks with about 400 pages sell for about $100 to $125,” he said. “My book, at 800 pages and with a soft cover, sells for $30.”

Bruce Hildebrand, the executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said Coursesmart.com, founded and supported by major higher education textbook publishers, offers more than 5,000 books for at least half off the price of printed equivalents.

A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week

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