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Make Pt0979
Nice article @ Wired about an upcoming open source textbook company… I’m looking forward to the first open source text book on open source hardware :)

A small, digital book startup thinks it has a solution to the age-old student lament: overpriced textbooks that have little value when the course is over. The answer? Make them open source — and give them away.

Flat World Knowledge is the brainchild of two former textbook industry executives who learned from the inside about the wacky economy of textbooks.

In a nutshell, there is a huge, inelastic demand for college texts, even though textbook prices are high. Because of this there is a lot of piracy and a robust secondary market for textbooks — but not for long, because they are updated every couple of years, rendering old editions virtually worthless.

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.



  1. Marrz says:

    lol, wow it’s about time really, I’m a college student, sitting currently in my student center in carbondale writing in a $40 lab manual that I will not be able to return or reuse, and yes… it was mandatory, 3 or 4 of my books this semester cost me over $150

    it’s a wonderful idea and I look forward to using it

  2. Dale says:

    I tried to buy engineering books second/third had, as the information never really changes (unless it was industry specific), only the order in which the practice questions were presented changed from version to version.

  3. Jason says:

    Hopefully, they’ll be able to get some good material to distribute. I had to buy my books used from Amazon this year since the cost of my text books for 2 classes was over $400. The whole textbook industry is a total scam (IMO).

  4. Robert says:

    I really like this idea. I too had a number of expensive textbooks to purchase in my time at college. The big challenge with this will be getting the profs on side. I think the publishers are generous with materials to get the profs to choose their books.

  5. hojo says:

    Yeah, I tend to put most of the blame with professors, who get their book free. They can’t even be bothered to review the changes and see if you really need the new 110 dollar calculus book, or if last years which is now worth squat would be sufficient.

  6. Math Prof says:

    I’m one of those calculus professors (at my fourth university now, all relatively big names). Yes, the publishers push books on us constantly, but to us they are essentially worthless. What good is a fourth calculus book that presents the same material in essentially the same way as the first three? (Yes, we can sell them if we want. Who does?)

    An education at even the cheapest school I’ve been at is tens of thousands of dollars. Typically a $110 calc book will last you a full year. While it’s probably overpriced, it’s not really much at all compared with the cost of the course itself. You’re probably better off pushing for good teachers than good textbooks, but that would be a lot more expensive for the schools…

    To hojo, who complains that the profs could just review the changes to see if the new version is worth moving to, I say this: what? You want me to go through a lengthy book to see if the changes are worthwhile, all so we can use a book that’s now out of print and hard to find? That seems like a lot of work for a result of questionable value…

    Finally, I want to say that I (and probably most profs) are not opposed to using inexpensive books. One of my previous schools used a custom spiral-bound book, written in-house. It was about $10 per term and the students hated it. What are you gonna do?

  7. Anonymous says:

    hojo, I wish we were free to be as callous as you seem to think we are. The sad truth is that most profs have little choice; some committee chooses the textbook, and then we have to go with the latest edition because that’s what the university bookstore is selling.

    I’ve long felt that the American textbook industry is a racket, and I usually try to support previous editions of textbooks (although keeping track of random permutations of exercises and other dirty little publishing tricks becomes infeasible after a while).

    When I prepare course materials of my own (mostly education software and supporting documents so far), I make a point of publishing them under a permissive license; I’ve had protracted arguments with university officials who tried to push me towards a more restrictive licensing scheme. I have colleagues who turned down lucrative offers to convert their online notes into closed textbooks.

    A lot of profs have been doing the open textbook think for a while now, in a disconnected, ad-hoc sort of way. Maybe Flat World Knowledge will organize these efforts into a viable alternative to the traditional textbook market. It’s certainly an idea whose time has come.

  8. hojo says:

    Math Prof:

    Previous editions are NOT hard to find. They are in the hands of the previous semester/quarters students who are pissed off because they couldn’t sell them back because the edition changed. They are also all over ebay and in book stores, particularly if the edition is being reused.

    Also, 100 bucks for a textbook may not seem like a lot of money compared to tuition, but when you are scraping to be able to go to school, I assure you it is.


    I appreciate professors who think and act like you do, but there are others who go the opposite direction. As an example, I refer to my circuits teacher who assigned an 80 doller book (actually it’s a very good book) and then ignored it and taught strictly from his bound notes, which were barely legible and riddled with mistakes.

    Some of the gravest transgressions are from literature teachers who assign a small pile of paperbacks and then do nothing with one or more of them, so you end up with overpriced books you don’t want, that weren’t even of use to you.

    All I ask is that teachers consider the time and money of the student as well as their own. I am afraid there are many who don’t. For those who do, thank you.

  9. buzZubie says:

    From wikipedia’s open-source entry:

    “The open source model of operation and decision making allows concurrent input of different agendas, approaches and priorities, and differs from the more closed, centralized models of development.[2] The principles and practices are commonly applied to the development of source code for software that is made available for public collaboration, and it is usually released as open-source software.”

    The open-source model is about making a good product, not about reducing the cost of making a product. Textbooks are already a collaborative project–many professors contribute to the final product. There would have to be a large buy-in from universities, which is unlikely to happen.


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