Last e-textbook startup: Why Flat World is not afraid of government efforts to make textbooks free for all

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on May 14, 2014

From The News Desk

The federal government has arisen like a phoenix from the fire to battle the ridiculous cost of college textbooks, one tiny act at a time.

In April, Illinois congressman Bill Foster introduced a bill to reduce the price of college textbooks called the Low Cost Act. If passed, it would task the National Science Foundation with creating open source materials for students studying physics, chemistry, and calculus. This comes a few months on the heels of the Affordable College Textbook Act, an effort by Senators Dick Durbin and Al Franken to start a grant program for colleges to create open source textbooks for their students. That act has stalled for the moment, although it's still on the table.

Although government works in mysterious ways and it has yet to be seen whether either of these acts will pass, e-textbook companies are keeping an eye on the proceedings. After all, if the government starts implementing reform to make open source textbooks free for all, what happens to the for-profit companies who have staked their innovative lives on making money through such an endeavor?

“I totally support more affordable choices,” says Chris Etesse, CEO of e-textbook company Flat World. “But trying to force the issue on an institution will be a difficult task to accomplish.”

Universities aren’t exactly free from endless red tape. And it’s a long way to go from giving colleges a grant for open source textbook creation to making all course textbooks free for all students. In the meantime between point A and point B, startups like Flat World or Inkling — and their more bloated competitors like Intel-owned Kno, Elsevier, and OpenStax — can continue carving away parts of the market with cheaper offerings.

A Flat World textbook goes for an average of $25, while a typicaly print textbook from a publishing behemoth averages $100 according to a study done on the University of Michigan’s textbook vendors. The College Board published a report showing that a college student’s average textbook spend in the 2013 academic year was $1,200. That adds up, amounting to roughly $5,000 after four years of college, a sum that's often financed by this over-indebted generation.

The textbooks industry is one that startups could realistically disrupt, and as such many have tried. But from the less-than-stellar exit of Kno to the pivot of Inkling, it hasn’t proved easy to make money off digital textbooks.

“In the textbook space, the author who wrote it is still pretty important,” Etesse says. "So other startups try to go with a bunch of authors or a bunch of grad students and change the model. Whereas we’ve tried to make the model cheaper in a form that professors understand in that its recognizable authors, peer reviewed, but more affordable.”

Flat World is one of the last startups focusing purely on e-textbooks, with its remaining competitor Inkling now moving more towards a platform play connecting content creators.

Still, the entire world has shifted towards digital and hopefully academia will inevitably move in that direction. We’re certainly seeing bigger education publishers attempt such steps, from partnering to license Knewton technology (different from the aforementioned Kno) to creating digital versions of their own textbooks. And with the federal government starting to take action on the rising costs of textbooks, perhaps it will only be a matter of time before there’s more affordable options out there.