Sunday, November 28, 2010

Open Source Teaching Materials

I recently ran across this article "Online Startups Target College Book Costs" in Bloomberg Businessweek. It discusses online textbooks and materials available for free download and for purchase at prices quite a bit lower than typical publishing. I wonder if anyone out there is familiar with this method of publishing and how well it might, or could, work for authors.
I presume this could work very well for students. For better or worse, at least many of my students access PDFs of readings on their phones and other devices. So this would just be more of that: although I do not like it, perhaps this is a trend that is irreversible and/or not worth fighting about.

My main concern is how well this would work for authors. A company Flat World Knowledge is mentioned in the article above; I could only find one philosophy or ethics book in their catalogue.

Some of my concerns (and some replies to my concerns) are these:

1. What kind of advertising / marketing would one get going this sort of route?

In reply, obviously there are tons of books put out by traditional publishers that get the "advertising" of being in a catalogue, sitting on display tables here and there, etc. but those books do not sell very much and fall stillborn from the press, so to speak. Maybe some higher-selling texts are often as a result of the authors' own marketing?

2. What sort of "prestige" or image is there with this route? How might publishing course materials in this way figure into tenure and promotion at various schools?

In reply, I do not know how the second question should be answered: perhaps it depends on the school, and I would hope that, at schools that are interested in teaching, they'd be impressed by materials that are designed to improve the learning process for students, by reducing costs and increasing accessibility in various ways. About the first question, I suppose it depends on what one cares about: if there's a way that e-publishing gets one's materials into the hands (and I-phones) of more students than many traditional alternatives, then, if that's what one cares, about, it likely won't matter if it's not with Oxford or whatever. Of course, if a major publisher can get the desired results, then one would want to go the traditional route: the problem there, of course, is that the costs seem to be higher than many students would like to have to burden.

3. What's the possibility for making some $ off a text?

In reply, I suppose many books don't make the authors any money, so the point is probably moot. But perhaps sales of printed versions would result in some money for the author, perhaps more than traditional routes due to the lesser overhead for e-publishing. And perhaps, following the contemporary music industry, perhaps there are alternative "business models" on which the main product is often acquired for free and money is made in other ways.

Here are a few of my questions. I wonder what other questions there are and what the answers should be. If anyone knows much about this method of textbook and teaching-material publishing, I'd appreciate hearing more about it. Thanks!


  1. Hi Nathan, this is Eric Frank, one of the founders of Flat World Knowledge. Your questions are good ones. The short answer is that there is an opportunity to publish an open textbooks and (a) get sales/marketing (b) generate royalties (c) be part of something prestigious. This is largely what our model set out to do. If you go to our website an check out the "In the News" link at the bottom and scroll down to about May 3, 2010, you'll find a link to a PDF for the Virginia Quaterlies Library Journal. There is a reasonable description there regarding the commercial opportunities around open textbook publishing.

    Hope you had a good Thanksgiving holiday.



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