The Marketplace Reader

Open-source textbooks

Dalasie Michaelis Aug 18, 2008

In response to rising textbook prices, some academics are writing their own textbooks — for free. From an article in the Los Angeles Times:

Caltech economics professor R. Preston McAfee finds it annoying that students and faculty haven’t looked harder for alternatives to the exorbitant prices. McAfee wrote a well-regarded open-source economics textbook and gave it away — online. But although the text, released in 2007, has been adopted at several prestigious colleges, including Harvard and Claremont-McKenna, it has yet to make a dent in the wider textbook market.

“I was disappointed in the uptake,” McAfee said recently at an outdoor campus cafe. “But I couldn’t continue assigning idiotic books that are starting to break $200.”

McAfee is one of a band of would-be reformers who are trying to beat the high cost — and, they say, the dumbing down — of college textbooks by writing or promoting open-source, no-cost digital texts.

What are some of the responses from textbook publishers?

Representatives of the textbook industry say they have invested in new products because instructors have demanded it.

“Do you think all these PhDs are so lazy, so stupid they buy junk?” asked Bruce Hildebrand, the Assn. of American Publishers’ executive director for higher education. “God bless anybody who has got the energy and commitment to put three, four, five years of labor in on a book and then give it away.”

Well, the blessed are relatively few so far. But at least one business based on free textbooks is on the horizon. From

[Eric] Frank and his business partner, Jeff Shelstad, in January plan to launch Flat World Knowledge, the first commercial open textbook publisher. It will offer free online textbooks that can be printed and bound, for about $25 for black and white and $35-$39 for full-color copies. The average price of a traditional textbook varies by subject; many new textbooks cost about $150, Allen says.

I can imagine one of the benefits of open-source textbooks is just how easily and quickly they can be updated or corrected, especially if you’re the author and publisher.

Rob Beezer, a professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., says he wrote ”A First Course in Linear Algebra” mainly because he was frustrated with the frequent new editions publishers release every few years. He decided to write his own textbook in 2004, basing it on his lecture notes. Students can download it, print it or buy a soft-cover copy for $24.50.

Beezer earns $5 for every professionally bound copy sold and uses the money to update the content. He pays students who find mistakes in the book.

Saving money on textbooks — actually, making money from professors’ mistakes — how could this not go over well with college students?

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