Can a New Startup Profit From Offering Free Textbooks? Flat World Knowledge Co-founder Eric Frank on his new vision of publishing.
Nyack, N.Y.-based Flat World Knowledge, which launched this month, publishes free and open college textbooks online, with the option to purchase alternate formats of its content, including print and audio, and other study aids. While offering university-level course material gratis on the Web is not a newfangled idea in the higher-education realm, there are big differences from previous efforts—there’s no advertising within the text pages, nor is there a trial period with hidden fees. There isn’t even any registration required for users.
Flat World Knowledge is a publishing company, not an aggregator of other publishers’ titles, says Eric Frank, co-founder and chief marketing officer. “[Students and faculty] have been looking for a solution [to expensive textbooks],” Frank says. “They’re excited to see something viable.”
Frank has 11 years of experience in higher-education publishing, holding positions in sales, editorial and marketing at Thomson (now Cengage Learning) and Prentice Hall. His partner, Co-founder and CEO Jeff Shelstad, has a 20-year career in higher-ed publishing and most recently served as editorial director at Prentice Hall Business Publishing.
Frank recently spoke with Book Business Extra about his and Shelstad’s new venture.
Book Business Extra: What are the problems with traditional forms of textbook publishing?
Eric Frank: … I definitely don’t think there’s greed or malice in this market. I think there’s a business that has had its distribution and model disrupted by a combination of rising prices—beyond what students [are] content to pay—coupled with the distribution of … lower-priced alternatives [via the Internet]. … Their investment is going down. They’re trying to create a high-quality product; they’re trying to preserve revenue. It’s very difficult for them to turn the corner and say, “We have to do something new rather than make short-term fixes,” [such as] raise prices on books … and [publish] new editions. … I understand why you turn to those things. The bigger question is, what models … will publishers turn to to invest and get a fair return?