Bookstep: ‘Pay What You Want’ Textbook Model

In Children's by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

If the move from hard copy to digital textbooks seems like a natural 21st-century progression; imagine what the next step might be. Imagine a website that allows students to pay what they want for digital textbooks and social study features, a site that allows students to pay for only the materials that are actually needed to pass their course. That idea became a reality in March of this past year with the official launch of

I recently had the chance to interview Max Basaraba, the site’s founder and CEO, to find out what his inspiration was for the site, how it all works, and what exactly is in it for textbook publishers.

PP: What was the inspiration to create a website that gives students digital textbook rentals on demand?

Basaraba: Our inspiration for digital textbook rentals was high textbook costs and inability of the market players to effectively respond to this problem. Another aspect for such inspiration was our firm belief in empowering students by giving them a choice of how much to pay for textbooks rather than prescribing the high-cost course materials to them.

Bookstep allows for textbook access on-demand, where students only pay for those materials which are actually needed to successfully pass their courses (not the whole book, which is rarely used in its entirety or even the whole chapter).

We believe this approach yields an infinite number of choices to students and faculty; where both get a chance to enjoy real savings and the convenience of an electronic edition. Since our platform is completely agnostic, our pricing model permits mixing of content without running into copyright issues; our approach also benefits publishers and self-publishing authors.

Bookstep’s goal is to support any learning and teaching style and provide traditional textbooks (or textbooks as we know them) alongside Open Educational Resource (OER) and self-published materials at the lowest price possible.

Exactly how does it work for the reader?

Bookstep gives readers 15 minutes of full and free access to preview the title. They then can choose from the following reading options:

  1. Access digital textbooks on-demand and pay as you go.
  2. Prepay for the Term (180 day access)
  3. Prepay for the Annual Subscription (or annual 365 day access).

The Term and Annual Access options have set price points at which students can enable them. There is no set price for our on-demand textbook rentals, only a limit that cannot be over reached. The lowest credit plan can be purchased at $.99 cents. Credits, then, can be applied towards any title; they also have no expiration date.

Accessing on-demand allows the reader to rent only the part of the book they need. The difference is that now they have access to the entire books, which enables them to put parts that they actually need in perspective whenever needed.

By accessing textbook on-demand, students now have a choice to pay less for all textbooks than they would by either buying through an on-campus bookstore, renting through Chegg, or even buying digitally through Amazon. This link explains in great detail:

How does the social media tie-in work?

We enable the social networking and study tools to all of our readers through our Help me Pass section. Here, students can simply “plug-in” their textbooks into our Learning Hub and enjoy study groups, share notes, get homework help, access relevant videos, get live help when provided by their instructors, etc.

Every Bookstep member can contribute to all the sections of the Help me Pass by creating new items or simply joining existing groups, discussions, shared notes, etc. Our social learning tools are free to use by the way.

How does it work for the textbook publishers, and what’s in it for them?

Bookstep provides a great alternative to publishers to distribute their publications. It also gives publishers more visibility for their less-popular titles, course packs, and supplemental materials. In addition, Bookstep provides a very detailed content analytics back to publishers, which helps them create better and more relevant content.

Bookstep’s unique content distribution model embraces the worlds of commercial publishing and Open Educational Resources. We do believe that by allowing both types of college content we will succeed as a platform.

Publishers seem to be very interested in exploring such opportunities as well.

And finally, do you see on-demand digital textbook rentals as the future of publishing?  Where do you see this going in the next five years?

I see DIGITAL, in general, as the future of textbook publishing. I also see an open and content agnostic platform as the ultimate winner. This platform of course would have to prioritize students and how to deliver the best content, regardless its origin (publisher, self-published, OER), to students at the lowest cost possible if not for free. But I think we are at the very beginning of the digital textbook revolution. It’s going to be a vastly different market in 5 years from now with lots of innovation taking place in this process. Companies like BookRenter and Chegg have already proven that the college textbook market is ready to be revolutionized.  They facilitated moving from ownership of textbooks to rentals, which in my opinion was the fundamental shift. Bookstep is trying to take this change one step further.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.