Flat World Knowledge Taking Away Its Free Option Opens Up Opportunities For Competitors

from the howdy-competition dept

We recently wrote about textbook publisher, Flat World Knowledge, changing its business model and getting rid of its free access to textbooks, something it had initially promised it would never do. The final line of our post noted that this hopefully opened up the opportunity for other providers to step in and figure out new ways to be disruptive in the textbook field. We were then contacted by Thomas Madsen, who runs Bookboon, which offers up free ebooks, including textbooks, business books and travel guides -- and then monetizes them with advertising. He notes that, not only is business going well, but they will continue to make sure that the books remain free for students. Obviously, people get a little squeamish about advertising as it relates to education, but Bookboon deals with that by focusing on a specific kind of advertising: job advertising, which students would obviously find quite useful rather than annoying (and they make sure that there isn't too much advertising). And, together, it works as a business model:
That our model is sustainable and that students and professors like our product is best illustrated by the fact that our traffic has grown on average 100% per year since 2009. This year 40,000,000 ebooks will be downloaded from bookboon.com.

This growth we have financed by retained earnings only. We have not taken in outside investments, which otherwise has been the standard when someone wants to offer free education material, and still most of these have had to give up on their original vision to survive. Because we are profitable and independent, we will be able to continue to grow our business in the coming years and provide free textbooks, to the benefit of all students.
Some tried to take the story about Flat World Knowledge and argue that it proved that "free" didn't work. But, as we noted, all it proved was that how Flat World Knowledge implemented it as a part of a business model did not work for them. Others, using "free" in other ways as part of a complete business model, are figuring out how to make it work, and Bookboon appears to be a good example of that in action.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Nov 12th, 2012 @ 9:09pm

    Again, this ain't FREE, Mike.

    You Vill receive our newsletter!

    I know you'll acknowledge that, but you continue to mis-use the word "free" to mean advertising-supported hucksterism -- and now with email bombardment by any number of grifters your addy gets sold to.

    There's no such thing as a free book. BTW, because of the email addy required I didn't get any to see how bad the advertising is in one.

    Also wants to force me to accept a "cookie". That name for a tempting lure that sets a hook into you is quite frankly revealing, but in the current insane culture, the darker significance passes right over the heads of targets.

    And I still say that "teh internets" can't for much longer work on advertising support: people are becoming fed up with incessant hucksterism, and it can be avoided. I expect though that we'll see various means to force it being viewed... As in the movie "Idiocracy" where near half of TV screens are constantly filled with advertising, and product names are on everything. And YOU'RE leading us to that distopia, Mike.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      VMax, Nov 12th, 2012 @ 9:55pm

      Re: Again, this ain't FREE, Mike.

      Wow, still full of crazy today. You've put yourself into a distopia already. Seriously, there are meds that can help. Please just stop typing until you can say " I'm not crazy; my mother had me tested."

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2012 @ 1:31am

      Re: Again, this ain't FREE, Mike.

      100 million dollar movie, blargha blargha flargha...

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2012 @ 7:39am

      Re: Again, this ain't FREE, Mike.

      "And I still say that "teh internets" can't for much longer work on advertising support: people are becoming fed up with incessant hucksterism, and it can be avoided."

      Actually, evidence would suggest to the contrary. As is evident with many people using services and enjoying products paid for with advertising. Proof of this is evident in apps made for the mobile market. While there are paid options which are free of ads, the more downloaded versions are the free ones with ads. Why? Because the trade off is worth the "cost" for people. An application that they want/need, at no cost to them, but paid for by advertising that the majority have no problem with. (Else they'd choose the paid option instead.)

      Also, another example is advertising provided by Google. Namely, the fact that ads are tailored to the individual based on their personal search history/email history/etc. I am a techie. I work in IT. I use all of Google's various services and products (I'm an Android enthusiast). I have never had a problem with any advertising directed at me by Google. Why? Because all of it is relevant to me and related to my particular interests. Namely technology. I see Newegg advertisements (a site which I was aware of and using before I started getting their ads directed at me) and other similar things.

      OotB, like bob, you're an idiot who tries to present their distorted view of reality and opinions of such as fact, despite all facts to the contrary proving you wrong. Just stop and think and read what you write before hitting "Submit", that's all I'm gonna say.

      Also, you may not be aware of it, but there are sites that allow you to create disposable email accounts (literally self-destruct after 10 minutes). So you could have easily seen the site and advertising on it with nary an effort, you chose not to and then have the gall to bitch about it anyway. That's your problem, no one else's. Apparently, the site and it's advertising supported free business model is working and has a customer base. Which by default means people aren't "becoming fed up with incessant hucksterism" and you're, unsurprisingly, wrong, yet again.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Andrew D. Todd, Nov 13th, 2012 @ 9:13am

        There Are Other Ways of Being Free.

        Well, I don't know, Out-of-the-Blue might be right. A textbook isn't worth very much, if teachers won't teach from it. In particular, the price of a standard proprietary textbook results from the fact that purchase is compulsory. The culture of universities really doesn't support start-up businesses. There are some short-term aberrations involving the computer boom, and molecular biology, and stuff like that, but these will not last. The core of the university is Humanities, not Applied Science or Technology.

        Universities are about people achieving freedom through comparative poverty, like monks. Read Hermann Hesse's Magister Ludi on the subject. It's more dignified to give stuff away than to sell it. A lot of teachers got their fingers burnt on Flat-World Knowledge, and next time, they'll be more careful to ask about open-source licenses. In the long run, textbooks will be produced by non-profit organizations attached to universities, under Creative Commons licenses, and their funding will tend to come from government grants, not from any kind of commercial revenue. The mechanical aspects of textbook publication have been simplified to such an extent that the university no longer needs to outsource the job to a publisher.

        Mathematics and mathematics-based science can be taught to children via computers, probably about as well as they can be taught by realistically available human teachers. There will never be enough "great" teachers, and the classes taught by humans will almost always be too big for personal contact. By contrast, the better someone is at one of these kind of subjects, the younger he is likely to have gotten into them. The truly talented person is someone who encounters a computer program at the age of eight, and never looks back. University instruction in these kind of subjects will increasingly be for those who don't get it. Universities will simply get out of the business of teaching the kinds of courses which are now taught in the freshman or sophomore years, and will, in effect, hold departmental entrance or qualification examinations on these subjects. They will become more like German universities, in short.

        I think a system of "parallel enrollment" will develop. Students will go to the university, and live in the dormitory, and take six or nine hours of proper humanities courses, such as English, History, etc. But they will go somewhere else, on the internet, to learn useful subjects, such as math, science, technology, economics, and business administration. They will get certificates from official examining bodies such as the College Boards (AP, CLEP exams), or, perhaps, the military DANTES (Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support) system, which they can trade in for transfer credit without paying tuition. Think of it as college entrance requirements on a staggered system. Graduate students will be more likely to get their stipends by being dormitory house-parents, instead of teaching sections.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2012 @ 4:54am

    Some tried to take the story about Flat World Knowledge and argue that it proved that "free" didn't work. But, as we noted, all it proved was that how Flat World Knowledge implemented it as a part of a business model did not work for them. Others, using "free" in other ways as part of a complete business model, are figuring out how to make it work, and Bookboon appears to be a good example of that in action.

    LOL! Ever the dishonest revisionist. I said: "Another company realizing 'free' doesn't always work."

    Source: http://www.techdirt.com/blog/casestudies/articles/20121105/11182920935/flat-world-knowledge-no-longe r-to-offer-free-texts-claims-its-more-fair.shtml#c55

    I didn't say that "it proved that 'free' didn't work," as you are now falsely claiming. I said that they realized that "'free' doesn't always work," which is true--it wasn't working for them.

    Good for these guys if they can get it to work. Personally, I'd rather just buy a textbook in hardcover, but if people want a digital version with ads supporting it then good for them.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    Dina (profile), Nov 14th, 2012 @ 12:23am

    There are other ways of being clueless - @Andrew Todd

    @ Andrew Todd, who writes: "A lot of teachers got their fingers burnt on Flat-World Knowledge, and next time, they'll be more careful to ask about open-source licenses. In the long run, textbooks will be produced by non-profit organizations attached to universities, under Creative Commons licenses, and their funding will tend to come from government grants, not from any kind of commercial revenue. The mechanical aspects of textbook publication have been simplified to such an extent that the university no longer needs to outsource the job to a publisher."

    Seriously? How about the majority almost 4000 instructors who continue to use FWK textbooks? How about the fact that out of all the "free" textbooks funded by foundations, only a tiny fraction are used, compared to the relatively high use of FWK books. Think it's a snap to create a cogent textbook that condenses to an eBook that operates seamlessly cross-platform, has supplements, tutoring help, etc. etc. Do you REALLY think that the Academy can pull this off? Get a clue!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Andrew D. Todd, Nov 14th, 2012 @ 3:06am

      Re: There are other ways of being clueless - @Andrew Todd

      Well, I have a certain modest experience of college teaching. I do know, for example, that about twenty years ago, the University of Oregon paid me, as an incident of my duties as a GTF, to write some examination questions for the textbook we were using. The professor needed some examination questions, and he did the natural thing, he told the GTF's to write some. These went into a departmental question file. At that date, of course, there was no organization in place to centrally collect examination questions. The material in the freshman course was naturally trivial compared to that which graduate students were supposed to be learning. Now, of course, if the professor had been teaching in a community college, instead of a flagship state university, he wouldn't have had GTF's, and he might have wanted more services from the book publisher. The effect of the internet is, broadly speaking to make people less isolated, and to enable them to do things based on their common interests.

      At that time and place, of course, GTF's were admonished about not using the department's photo-copier without permission. When I wanted to make copies, I went to a commercial photocopy shop, and made copies with my own money, or I simply programmed my computer to print off multiple copies, with a dot-matrix ribbon printer, and "fanfold" paper which came in 2000-sheet boxes. In her contemporary academic satire novel, _Moo_, Jane Smiley picks up on this point about the cost of photo-copying. The character "Chairman X" buys a couple of mimeograph stencils, of a type designed to be used in a dot-matrix computer printer, and he buys a ream of mimeograph paper, and pointedly gets a receipt for both, a sum of a couple of dollars. Having drafted a leaflet on his computer, he prints it off to the stencils, and fits them into an old university-own mimeograph machine which has been lying, forgotten, in his office closet. And then he proceeds to print off an unauthorized leaflet in five hundred copies.

      The essence of Open-Source is not that it is good at the beginning, but that it gets cumulatively better, as people choose to fix the existing product, rather than start from scratch on a competing product. Linux did not start out all that great, back in the beginning, back in1993, but it got cumulatively better. Now, of course, you have to have a license which grants a "public right to create improvements," so that, if the original organizer should prove treacherous, someone else can take over.

      I expect that different universities will specialize in different things. For example, Virginia Tech has developed a computerized math teaching system, geared to ordinary students, which is therefore more broadly useful than MIT's advanced offerings.

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/at-virginia-tech-computers-help-solve-a- math-class-problem/2012/04/22/gIQAmAOmaT_story.html?hpid=z5

      The pure mathematician who sent me this link summed it up: "I think I would hate teaching there." But the students seem to like it.

      Flat World Knowledge does not, so far as I know, have a charter to grant degrees. If it did, it would still be at about the level of the University of Phoenix, far below such state institutions as the University of Arizona and Arizona State University. It would also be far below the regional Catholic universities, such as Xavier University in Cincinnati. That makes Flat World Knowledge fundamentally subordinate.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    Dina (profile), Nov 14th, 2012 @ 5:11pm

    Re: There are other ways of being clueless - @Andrew Todd

    "Flat World Knowledge does not, so far as I know, have a charter to grant degrees. If it did, it would still be at about the level of the University of Phoenix, far below such state institutions as the University of Arizona and Arizona State University. It would also be far below the regional Catholic universities, such as Xavier University in Cincinnati. That makes Flat World Knowledge fundamentally subordinate."

    Fundamentally subordinate? To what? To the open source content that you claim to be so great, that hardly anyone uses?

    Also, there is a big difference between open software, worked on by experienced programmers who understand code - and open textbooks, that is worked on by academics who know about their subject matter, but don't know a darned thing about the ecology of publishing. That's essentially why open textbooks are not used; they're just not very good (with a few glaring exceptions). Your claim that they will get better has not shown to be true. I don't see open textbooks making the publishers poorer, or slowing commercial textbook adoption, or commercial textbook publisher's profits, in general. There hasn't even been a price reduction, as all the new ancillary, integrated learning "solutions" put forth by publishers has more than made up for any small loss they have incurred from the relatively few open textbook adoptions out there.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Andrew D. Todd, Nov 15th, 2012 @ 2:18am

      Re: Re: There are other ways of being clueless - @Andrew Todd

      Subordinate to the teacher, to the school. If a textbook is not required for a course, it is unlikely to be bought at any price. The more advanced the course, the less emphasis there tends to be on textbooks.

      You, my friend, seem to confuse the binding of a book with its contents. I found, quite often, that the most advanced and valuable printed material in a course was in the form of mimeographed or photocopied hand-outs, not in the form of the textbook. Quite often, such materials were bound in plastic ring-binders. Nowadays, it is simpler to stick that kind of thing up on the internet, in the form of HTML or Acrobat files, or else to put it all in a CD/DVD disk, which can be burnt on a desktop computer. Putting something on the internet, on a free-and-anonymous download basis, means that you don't have to worry about supply chains, or copy protection, or billing, etc.

      I _think_ I know what you mean when you use grand, and deliberately vague terms, such as "ecology of publishing." I suspect you mean a certain type of elementary textbook which is heavily weighted with irrelevant graphics. I have some elementary French and Spanish textbooks from major publishers, legacies of abortive efforts to learn additional languages. These books seem to have a picture on every other page, and most of the pictures are essentially non-linguistic. In a way, they are almost a kind of pornography. You're sitting in a windowless cement-block basement classroom somewhere in the Middle West, in the middle of the winter, memorizing declensions, and there is this picture facing you showing a scene in the Cote d'Or, or wherever. These kinds of pictures fall under the heading of "eye candy." They are simply distractions from the business at hand. I can imagine that a French professor might not know how to go about assembling a collection of "cleared" photographs, but these are not necessary or relevant for teaching. The photographs are there because the publisher wanted the book to look more opulent, so that it could justify a higher price. A professor who creates his own book is not going to go in for these kind of distractions. He is going to set down, in an orderly way, the information he expects students to be able to repeat in examinations. Very likely, the result will be a slim little paperback of a hundred pages or so.

      Incidentally, you mentioned the difficulty of producing implementations for different types of hand-held computers. The kind of graphic effects which require a device-specific implementation, rather than a standard document language, such as HTML or Acrobat, usually fall under the heading of "eye candy." As a general rule, the document is not supposed to have its own user interface. Further, as a matter of prudence, it is generally advisable to make sure that one's publishing software does not automatically output the latests and greatest version of the document standard. Reader/browser programs are normally backwards-compatible, so it is better to err on the side of an earlier version.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    Dina (profile), Nov 15th, 2012 @ 12:02pm

    Re: There are other ways of being clueless - @Andrew Todd

    Todd says: "You, my friend, seem to confuse the binding of a book with its contents"

    And you, sir, seem to confuse your opinion with what actually happens on the ground. Millions of textbooks are sold every year - most of them are overpriced, but they get sold, nevertheless. Only a tiny fraction - probably less than 1%- are open textbooks. Why is that?

    Also, why the straw man? I could care less about all the unnecessary garbage that is thrown into textbooks; it makes them cost more than they have to - but what does that have to do with FWK not serving its customers with lower priced texts. It appears that you enjoy showing off your erudite nature, more than sticking to the point and looking for accuracy within analysis.

    As for cross-platform interoperability being a sine-qua-non for current and future educational content adoption, get used to it. It still stands that there is no coordinated open textbook publishing effort that pays attention to this important user detail, although there should be. Textbooks cost too much. Education costs too much. We need to bring those costs down, but current efforts to reduce costs and increase efficiencies - mostly coordinated from inside academia - appear not to be very effective.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Andrew D. Todd, Nov 16th, 2012 @ 6:01am

      Re: Re: There are other ways of being clueless - @Andrew Todd

      Perhaps it would be helpful if you were to define what you mean by "Ecology of Publishing."

      Changes in the education system tend to start from the top, and work their way downwards. This can mean going from graduate school to undergraduate program to high school, but it can also be lateral, from Harvard and MIT to flagship state universities, and then to teachers' colleges, and ultimately, to community colleges. At another level, the flow might be from New England prep schools to ordinary high schools. For example, the Boy Scout movement, and later, the Outward Bound movement grew laterally from elite secondary boarding schools, the so-called English "Public Schools" such as Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and Winchester. Now, I grant you that undergraduate business schools, Flat World Knowledge's constituency, are pretty near the bottom, and they will probably be some of the last places to be changed.

      Here's a dirty little secret of Business schools: the core of Business education is accounting knowledge, and with computers, big companies have their accounting so centralized that the vast majority of people who get business degrees will never be allowed to make business decisions of the kind that business school teaches them to make. The computer knows what is on the shelves in a store; with loyalty cards, the computer knows what is sold to whom, and at what time of the day; the computer sets the re-order point; decides whether or not to offer discounts, etc., etc. Business education is thus just about as impractical for the vast majority of business students as studying medieval poetry. Top management might find, by doing a statistical analysis, that sales-people and first-level supervisors with liberal arts backgrounds tend to sell more than those with business-school background.

      For someone who has real management potential, the applicable credential is the MBA, not the undergraduate business degree, and to get into a good MBA program, you don't need an undergraduate business degree. If anything, they prefer someone who has studied something else, such as Engineering or Liberal Arts. In the case of small business, including franchises, the key entrance requirement is not education per se, but capital. A young person can buy into a franchise system _if_ he has relatives willing to lend him the money on terms more favorable than a bank could manage. Given that practically all the substantive assets in a storefront business are either rented or leased, starting with the premises themselves, the investor has to be kinfolk to have a reasonable assurance of getting his money back. A really picky business school might say that its undergraduate program is only for people who can demonstrate "family capital," liquid assets which relatives could realize without going into debt, ie. no mortgages on houses, or anything like that. You can see that such a realistic approach to business schools would radically weed down the business school textbook market.

      There was an interesting event recently at the University of Michigan. The university set up a special entrance requirement for introductory accounting. They felt that too many students wanted to take accounting for the wrong reasons-- fear of not getting a job-- instead of an actual liking for the subject. So the university set up a requirement in the form of an application essay, similar to those required for MBA programs. They didn't just take the people with highest grades, but rather, those who could articulate what they planned to do in business.

      http://www.businessweek.com/business-schools/when-college-says-yes-but-bschool-says-no- 10052011.html

      Anyone who was not accepted could take the online course (which does not carry admission to the business school), but of course the professors had figured out that solitary online study would "cool out" most of the online students. They also figured out that very few students would choose to transfer to some place less prestigious, like Wayne State in Detroit, in order to study Business Administration. Students, especially those whose parents are not college graduates, need to be pushed outside of their occupational comfort zones. In various other states, university administrators will be saying: "We're just as good as Michigan (really, almost, ha, ha), so why can't we do that?" In a kind of loose concert, based on the academic form of "Keeping up with the Jones," they are all going to push back, bit by bit, until Business Administration is no longer the default major for marginally qualified students. Businesses are not going to push back very hard, because they really don't need many accountants. In a computerized regime, a little accountant goes a long way.

      Something similar has been happening with the Elementary Education major, incidentally. The better Education schools have been revamping their curricula so that the students spend really a lot of time with children in the university's demonstration school, starting in the sophomore year, and totaling at least a year of practice-teaching. The students don't take a lot of "mumbo-jumbo" education courses in lecture halls, using textbooks, because they are doing so much practice-teaching. when not engaged in Practice Teaching, the Elementary Education students are given a good sound Liberal Arts education, approximating the B.A. The system selects for people who are positively good with children, not for ordinary students with weak academic backgrounds. Secondary Education students have, first, to complete an academic Bachelor's degree, and then they take the Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T), again with a lot of credit for practice-teaching. Of course, as an incident of this kind of program, the demonstration school has a very favorable effective student-teacher ratio. The university professors send their kids there by right, and everyone else competes to get their kid in.

      If an undergraduate professional school cannot mount an effective "push-back," its students tend to be absorbed into the Liberal-Arts college. Liberal Arts is not very textbook-friendly. The understood object is to get students to "read the literature," and to get in the habit of doing library research. At the earliest feasible class-level, the faculty will start assigning stacks of Great Books, or at least, Important Books, books which have been published some years ago, and have stood the test of time. If such books are not actually in the public domain, they will at least be readily available in used bookstores, and, now, via Amazon. The most basic student exercise, writing a book review, involves summing up the whole of book, so it is not very sensitive to differences in pagination, so it is not very critical to have a particular edition. The very nature of a Great Book discourages re-arranging it in substance. You simply cannot insert a passage in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, claiming this, that, and the other thing, to make it incompatible with previous editions. People would make rude noises at you.

      I should like to make an additional argument. The core of undergraduate education, and especially, lower-division undergraduate education is the dormitory. A dormitory is, of course, a device to enable teenagers to get away from home, and start living on their own. They spend their year in the dormitory, make some friends, and club together to rent an apartment in the vicinity for their sophomore year, and, by degrees, transition to living with a potential spouse. The acid test of things like textbooks and tele-courses is ultimately whether the dormitory will countenance them or not, to the point of being willing to rent the student a room. Commuter colleges are less prestigious, but still, if a student lives at home, and spends six hours a day on campus, for a total of thirty hours a week, while taking fifteen hours of courses, that is still fifteen hours per week which he does not have to account to anyone for. Even a commuter campus at mid-day can be the next best thing to a three-ring circus, what with the food trucks, and the buskers, and so on and so forth.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This