Behold, It Lives! Frankentext! (Or How Textbook Publishing Got So Scary)

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

• The textbook, the revered embodiment of knowledge for more than 150 years, had turned into Frankentext, The Monster: overstuffed, overpriced, and unloved.

• Eric Frank, co-founder of Flat World Knowledge, explains why and what might be done to thwart the monster.

Frankenstein...not Eric Frank

Editorial by Eric Frank, co-founder, Flat World Knowledge (with a little help from Mary Shelley and Mel Brooks)

Behold, Frankentext, the Monster, spreading sticker shock amongst the villagers! Angry students run in fear, hoarding their precious few pieces of gold. Frustrated professors curse the unwieldy beast, vowing revenge. Authors write away madly by moonlight, exhausted by the Monster’s insatiable demand. This, dear readers, is the world of academic publishing, a very scary place in our once-collegial publishing industry.

How is it students are asked to pay hundreds of dollars for a single textbook in a world where college costs continue to soar -– even in the midst of a recession -– and so much information is available free and low-cost through digital distribution?

Having spent decades in academic publishing, I can tell you that the current model is untenable. That is why my business partner Jeff Shelstad and I and left one of the largest publishing houses three years ago to start Flat World Knowledge. With 35 years of academic publishing experience between us, we wanted to create a new publishing model that did everything the current model couldn’t or wouldn’t do: dramatically reduce the cost of textbooks by letting students choose the price and format; allow professors to modify the books to fit their courses; and pay authors a higher royalty rate and a chance for more consistent revenue. (You can read more about this project in an earlier article on Publishing Perspectives).

But how did things get so downright frightening? What were the market forces at work that led to a national textbook affordability crisis? What gave life to the Frankentext, this hulking codex? To find out, we must go back in time to where the trouble began . . .

The 1980s: Academic publishers, who number in the dozens, are competing for market share by fielding bigger and more professional sales organizations. More middlemen, in turn drive up the cost of sales, without adding value to the consumer — college students. By the end of the decade, a wave consolidation reduces the industry to a handful of large companies.

It’s alive, alive I tell you . . .

The 1990s arrive, and pressed to find new ways to differentiate themselves, academic publishers launch an arms race of supplements. It starts out with small things, like providing professors with color transparencies to accompany the textbook. But it quickly explodes into a free buffet of multimedia tricks and treats: CD-ROMS, PowerPoint lecture slides, sophisticated animations and instructional videos.

The explosion in instructor supplements, given free to faculty when they adopt a textbook, spikes production costs and gets factored into the overall price of a textbook. Again, with negligible benefit to the consumer . . .

Meanwhile, another massive wave of consolidation leaves three players dominating the $8 billion higher education publishing market. There isn’t much wiggle room to increase market share — it hasn’t changed significantly in 20 years.

The value gap widens. Prices surpass what the average student is willing or able to pay. Textbooks become a significant financial burden to students, especially to the 80% who attend public institutions, 50% of whom attend community colleges.

Frankentext Meets the Internet

As the 2000s unfold, the traditional publishing model begins to feel the Internet’s disruptive force. The used book market matures into an efficient marketplace, driven by large online retailers, such as and Students also turn to rentals, gray market international editions and peer-to-peer sites, where texts can be legally exchanged. And illegal piracy sites gain popularity. Most distressing, increasingly, more students elect to do without.

Consequently, new unit sales suffer. In order to preserve revenue, publishers respond in three fundamentally defensive ways: 1) increase prices 2) create a unique ISBN for each new adoption through custom books and bundles; and 3) bring out new editions faster, in an attempt to flush used books out of the market. As a result, revenue grows in the face of falling unit sales, but so does anger and frustration among students, faculty and authors.

The textbook, the revered embodiment of knowledge for more than 150 years, had turned into Frankentext, The Monster: overstuffed, overpriced, and unloved.

For students, it’s the sticker shock of spending $1,000 or more each year for textbooks. For instructors and authors, it’s more work: frequent new editions keep professors busy rewriting course plans, and authors stuck on a treadmill of revisions. And less reward: authors don’t get paid on used book sales and rentals.

The villagers gathered in the square and asked, “Is there a way out of this nightmare?”

A Happy Beginning

There’s nothing like a dissatisfied market to create opportunity for new players and new models. Imagine, if you will, a cottage with a sign on the door in big letters that reads, “OPEN.” An Old Man in dark glasses, who looks suspiciously like Gene Hackman, motions Frankentext inside and offers him a bowl of hot soup. The Monster sits down and picks up a book. It seems like any other commercial textbook — professionally developed, peer-reviewed, and written by a renowned scholar. But something is different. Most startling, the book costs 80% less than a traditional textbook.

Frankentext looks inside. Instead of a copyright “All rights reserved” notice, he sees a funny symbol, “This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license.”

The Old Man explains:

“This is an open textbook, published by Flat World Knowledge, my son. It’s a new model that lets professors choose the book, and students choose the format and price. Flat World is not a publisher of online books. They are an open textbook publisher which automatically publishes books in multiple, low-cost formats.

What makes a textbook open is a set of rights that allows an individual professor to improve upon it for his class. With an open license and Flat World’s open publishing platform, instructors can create new editions for their students if they attribute the work to the original author, don’t use the work for commercial purposes, and distribute their remixed version under the original license.

Think of it as the 4 R’s of Openness:

  1. Reuse — the right to reuse the content in its unaltered form (make a copy).
  2. Revise — the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself.
  3. Remix — the right to combine the original or revised content with other content to create something new.
  4. Redistribute — the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others.

Students can read a web-hosted version for free, or buy other formats: paperback books, PDFs, audiobooks, e-books, and interactive study aids. For authors, the open model is a way to get their books to market faster, update their texts easier, and earn a 20% royalty rate versus 12 to 15% on the sale of all formats, anywhere in the world. And they have the potential to earn more over time, since new book sales don’t drop off after the first semester, which also takes the pressures off to crank out new editions.

“Nothing to fear,” the Old Man says, lighting a match. “Fire is good. Open textbook is good. Sustainable new business model is good.”

Frankentext groans and grows frightened. Fire is scary. Feeling unsteady, with panic in his deep-sunken eyes, the Monster lurches out the door. But the angry villagers have gathered, ready to revolt and destroy him. With nowhere to turn, Frankentext weakens. “If only Frau Blücher was here with some Ovaltine,” he murmurs to himself. Horses whinny in the distance. The End.

DISCUSS: What is Your Greatest Fear for the Future of Publishing?

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.