Flat World Knowledge gives its textbooks away for free -- sort of. They're one of the first companies overturning the overpriced-textbook apple cart through a "freemium" strategy. Is it feasible?
Wired talked a bit about the company. The pricing scheme is the most striking part:
Flat World has a pricing scheme that starts at zero for online access via a browser and $20 for a PDF, which they believe will be the most popular format. Printed versions of their textbooks cost up to $60. Perhaps best of all: textbooks are available a la carte, per chapter.
A price of $0 for something you read in a browser (and who doesn't have a browser?) is a great way to kick-start things. But for long-term survival, the company needs people to buy their texts in some other form as well.
That's problem #1: longevity. How sustainable is Flat World's model? They may well be the first people of any scale to try something like this in the textbook market, so their success (or failure) will set the tone for what follows.
There's also problem #2: Quality. One of the few reasons a conventional textbook publisher can justify the costs they charge is because they use at least some of that money to pay people who are a) knowledgeable and b) good writers. Flat World makes a point on their site of signing top-of-the-line writers whenever possible, but the results will have to speak for themselves. Bad textbooks are not just excruciating to read, but can be downright harmful to learning.
I am not just thinking of textbooks for college-level subjects, either. The K-12 market also comes to mind, which is even more strapped for cash and no less immune to the kind of "vendor lock-in" that has plagued colleges. They deserve good material that doesn't require a bake sale. The key word, of course, being "good". I'm curious to see if teachers considering one of these texts can weigh in on it vs. a more conventionally (over)-priced book.
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