Guest Column: What You Can Learn From Open Access
Like trade book publishing and other content industries, the $8-billion college textbook market is struggling to adapt to a new media universe. Old business models weren't designed for today's customers who want more access and control over content at lower costs.
Students routinely search the Internet for used books, textbook rentals, piracy sites and a thriving gray market of low-cost international editions, being unable or unwilling to pay $200 for a new textbook. (The College Board reports that students are spending an average of $1,137 for textbooks and supplies this academic year. For students at community colleges, the cost of textbooks and supplies as a percentage of tuition and fees is 72 percent; 26 percent for students attending a four-year public college, according to estimates by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.)
And more students elect to do without. While these alternatives have a short-term effect of driving down costs for students, textbook publishers are responding to the loss of new unit sales by increasing prices each year; creating a unique ISBN for new faculty adoptions through custom books and bundles; and revising editions faster to flush used books out of the market.
Educators are rightfully concerned that learning suffers when students can't afford textbooks. They also want more content control to modify the textbook to fit their specific course requirements.
Academic authors, too, have been hurt by the industry's broken model. Royalties are shrinking from fewer new book sales. Authors face internal competition from multiple titles in their courses. Many authors are kept on a treadmill of revisions to justify new editions.
Standing in the way of solving these problems are traditional copyright restrictions that no longer work in a technology-driven world. Copyright laws are complex, as Google's Book Search project to create a universal library proves, but people find ways to work around them. As content companies know, digital rights management (DRM) doesn't prevent piracy.
For Flat World Knowledge, the challenge was to create a 21st-century textbook publishing model that would eliminate cost and access barriers, and legally make high-quality content available to whoever wanted it—including for free on the Web—and to do it in a way that generates revenue for the publisher and a higher royalty rate for authors, as well as provides a positive experience for customers (professors) and end users (students).
The 4 Rs of Open
We began by keeping what works in the traditional model: signing top authors and using an industry-tested product-development process and rigorous peer review. Then we went off-road by publishing the original works under the family of Creative Commons open licenses. Based on the idea of sharing information, not restricting it, these open licenses allow authors to change the copyright restrictions of their work from "all rights reserved" to "some rights reserved."
Open textbooks, then, are those licensed to provide users with legal rights to use the content in ways not normally permitted under the law. Importantly, these rights are provided for free.
The primary permissions open textbooks are concerned with are expressed in the 4Rs:
1. Reuse: the right to use and reuse content in its unaltered form (e.g., make a backup copy of the content or give a public reading).
2. Revise: the right to adapt, modify or alter the content (e.g., translate it into another language or adjust the reading level).
3. Remix: the right to combine the original or revised content with other content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup).
4. Redistribute: the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend or publish the content on a P2P network).
The version Flat World uses is called an "Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike" license. Users are free to share and remix our textbooks, if they attribute the work to the author, don't use the work for commercial purposes, and distribute their remixed version under the original license. Students can access free Web-hosted books, or buy print and DRM-free digital versions that never expire and can be transferred from device to device. We generate revenue through the sale of physical books, e-books for the iPad or Kindle, audio books, print-it-yourself PDF downloads and interactive study aids for $40 or less.
Professors who adopt our books can move or delete chapters and sections; upload Word or PDF files; add notes and exercises; insert video and hyperlinks; edit sentences; and incorporate other content that is free to reuse under a Creative Commons license. Their changes are automatically reformatted and published in multiple print and digital formats without human intervention.
The open model offers authors a more consistent revenue stream over time, since sales don't drop dramatically after the first year due to all the available substitutes.
An Enterprise of Sharing
At its core, education is an enterprise of sharing. Successful teachers are successful sharers. When teachers withhold knowledge from students or restrict access to information or feedback, they fail as educators.
Therefore, the restrictive philosophy of "all rights reserved" and DRM is contrary to education and sharing. Open textbooks are a better fit for education and the new media universe, where consumers demand access to information anytime, anywhere, on any device.
The free and open approach is good for business. Since publishing our first books in March 2009, more than 1,600 educators at 900 institutions in 44 countries have used Flat World open textbooks.
Businesses in other industries are embracing the notion of sharing and giving things away. Their success stories can be found in "Free, The Future of A Radical Price," by Wired magazine Editor Chris Anderson, and "The Mesh," by Lisa Gansky, founder and CEO of multiple Internet companies, including Ofoto. BB
Jeff Shelstad is co-founder and chief executive officer of Irvington, NY-based Flat World Knowledge. Dr. David Wiley is associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University and chief openness officer for Flat World.