Great College Textbooks at Great Prices

The Old Way: Fundamentals of Biology, Photo by Oliver Mayor
The Old Way: Fundamentals of Biology, Photo by Oliver Mayor

What is the best price that you can get? You guessed it – FREE. Now, you can use college textbooks at the best possible price. Yes, once again, that price is free.

When I drive around I'll often see bumper stickers that read, “My daughter and money go to Texas A&M University” or something similar. For some reason, I cannot recall seeing the same bumper sticker for a major elite college like Harvard or Yale. My own son went to Carnegie Mellon, and so did my money. I did not put a bumper sticker on my car. The yearly cost to send him was about $25,000. My out of pocket was about $10,000 at a time when I was earning about $60,000 a year pre-tax. Today Carnegie Mellon has doubled in price to about $50,000 a year.

Now, maybe people who can send their children to Carnegie Mellon or Harvard don't worry about the price of textbooks. I did not but then I was in the textbook business at the time. The children of people who send them to Texas A&M or L.S.U or certainly Mountainview College in Dallas are concerned about the cost of textbooks, and no wonder they are.

When I first started selling textbooks, my best sellers were Samuelson's Economics book and McConnell's Economics book. I can't remember the editions exactly, but I think one had Charles Demuth's painting, The Figure 5 in Gold on the cover for the fifth edition. Those books are now in their 16th and 19th editions.

Those two top texts were priced then at about $10.95 or $12.95. Now you buy them at $145.00 or so new. Based on inflation alone these books should sell for about $60.00 each. A few years before I began selling texts, I had received a good, if perhaps pedestrian, college education for $70.00 a semester in fees. So both the price of textbooks and tuition have skyrocketed since then – far above normal inflation.

I have my opinions why these costs have exploded for both books and colleges but I won't get into that here. What I will do is tell you about a revolutionary solution to the cost of college textbooks.

Technology – ain't it wonderful! Through Facebook I connected with a competitor from my early days in the textbook business. He mentioned that he was now working for a company called Flat World Knowledge. He piqued my curiosity so naturally I went to their website. This company may well turn college textbook publishing on its head. I can't help but think of the tune, The World Turned Upside Down.

Well, maybe I am guilty of a little hyperbole there, but I do think Flat World's innovations rank with the introduction of managed textbooks in the 1970s, the use of major pedagogical devices, four color texts, and the use of the web.

You can read a Flat World Knowledge textbook for free online, and there still is no better price than free. Not only can you read their texts for free, but the texts are deaggregated, meaning they are available in their sundry parts. You can build a book to suit your needs as a teacher, and you have an open license to use the results as you wish.

Of course, Flat World is in the business to make money, so they do sell. You can buy print versions in black and white or in color. You can buy MP3 versions, a pdf version, and various study guides and aids. These versions are available at very reasonable prices.

These texts not only meet the content demand of courses and teachers but deliver that content in the way today's students buy things. People don't buy albums today as much as they download songs.

Students can use social networking built around the texts to improve their understanding of the material. Textbooks have joined the so-called Army of Davids.

The proof will ultimately be in the content. The texts must perform beyond delivery systems. Students and faculty must see the benefit in what is actually written and delivered. The texts must be pedagogically sound.

Assuming that Flat World Knowledge's texts are, these books will be the first chapter in the future of college text publishing.

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