Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Textbooks for Free?

First we read about Bloomsbury Academic’s announcement that they will begin publishing monographs in the areas of Humanities and Social Sciences. What is different is that they intend to build a lists that will be available on the Web free of charge under Creative Commons (CC) licences. Creative Commons is a non for profit service that provides free tools to let authors, scientists, artists, and educators easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry. Authors can use CC to change your copyright terms from "All Rights Reserved" to "Some Rights Reserved."

Simultaneously Bloomsbury Academic will produce physical books on a print on demand basis for sale around the world. Bloomsbury is the first major publishing company to open up an entirely new imprint to be accessed under CC on the Internet. This interesting development, is risky and works if the demand for print copies can be achieved efficiently within the POD model.

Then we read in the New York Times about the high prices for academic textbooks and the back lash from one Professor R. Preston McAfee, an economics professor at Cal Tech. McAfee in protest of what he believes are high priced textbooks and the dumbing down of their content, has put his introductory economics textbook online free. He claims the book could have earned him a a $100,000 advance. Professor McAfee however allows anyone to download a file of his book, and also has permits print on demand sales via Lulu and Flat World Knowledge. Lulu charges $11 and Flat World between $19.95 and $59.95, significantly lower than the probable list price of around $200 .

In another venture, Richard G. Baraniuk, an engineering professor at Rice University has received $6 million from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to publish free textbooks under a program called Connexions. Connexions uses CC license allowing students and teachers to rewrite and edit material as long as the originator is credited. Connexions is strongest in statistics and electrical engineering attracting around 850,000 unique users a month, with more than 50 % of the traffic originating from outside the United States.

In response the biggest five sector publishers have created a service called CourseSmart. It provides a service where students can subscribe to currently over 4,000 textbooks, read them online and have the option to highlight and print portions of a book at a time. CourseSmart is a publisher solution that some may say makes the big publishers bigger whilst marginalising the smaller ones. What CourseSmart wants to be when it grows up is questionable. Another issues is whether a co-operative of publishers can retain and grow a collaborative business and whether that will remain exclusive or open itself up to include others and if so , on what terms?

What model will prevail is uncertain but what is clear is that the current model and pricing isn’t working and is being attacked from multiple angles. It is not just about pricing but the relationships with the creators and the readers or users of the material. What also comes into play is the buying process which often involves inspection and adoption where between 10 and 20 % of an initial print run could be ‘given away’ in order to get adoptions. Digitisation offers much, but like many publishing processes today, it is less about tweaking at the parts but understanding the total process and maximising the opportunity.

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