Freeloaders unite! YAFTOS is here(Yet another free textbook online site)

Readers of this blog have seen references in earlier posts to a couple of start-ups in the free e-book space, notably Flatworld Knowledge, (www.flatworldknowledge.com ) and Wowio (www.wowio.com) Well it turns out another company has been doing it for several years. Actually, it could be argued that this company originated the concept of free college textbooks. I’m referring to Freeload Press, which dates back to 2005, arguably the Middle Ages in terms of e-book evolution. The banners on their site read:

  • Students spend an average of $900 a year on textbooks, We propose they spend $0
  • Books + Download + Free = Freeload Press
  • Liberating textbooks and study aids for students from all financial backgrounds

http://freeloadpress.com/booklist.aspx

The CEO of Freeload, Tom Doran, informed me today that beginning this August, all of Freeload’s Textbook Media e-books will be browser-based, which permits use of rich media for academic content and advertising. While Freeeload Press will continue to offer ad-supported e-books for free, other publishers using Textbook Media can set end-user prices for the ad-supported e-book version. In either case, students can choose to pay for an ad-free e-book version, or an ad-free paperback version. The texts are in use at over 250 colleges and universities.

But one needs to look at the bigger picture of free vs paid content. All sorts of approaches are being experimented with, including 1)”Freemium” (a small percentage of users choose to pay for a premium level of service; 2) Cross-subsidies: also known as “loss leaders”, in which something free or cheap leads the buyer to purchase another, more expensive item, 3) Data Aggregation: Collect enough data from a large enough community of users, and sell that to sponsors who desire that demographic; 4) Altruism and the gift economy: aka open source movement and user generated content [for more on this, see Chris Anderson’s insightful piece in the MArch issue of Wired: “Free, why $0.00 is the future of business”, from which the above paragraph borrows generously]

All of which points to more reason to short Pearson and Prentice Hall, et al.

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Steal This Book! – An E-Book Experiment in Building Buzz

Chris Anderson’s Blog http://www.longtail.com/, which discusses aspects of his bestselling 2006 book of the same name, recently wrote about an experiment that Random House’s Crown Books imprint tried with a new release. It offered a free download of Infected, by Scott Sigler for a four day period before the actual book went on sale at bookstores. The experiment was generally regarded as a success: the book was downloaded 45000 times during that four day freebie period, propelling it to a rank of 150 in overall book sales on Amazon, from a rank in the 2000s (and #1 on their Horror list).

But the limited download window was the subject of some harsh criticism by author and well known blogger Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing), who ranted:

Crown is only making the download available before the book goes on sale! This is an act of massive goofiness. Here’s what this means: the book’s promotional download period ends before you can buy the book. If you download this book and love it, you can’t walk down to the bookstore and pick up a copy. Sure, you can pre-order it on Amazon, but I know from watching my affiliate link payments here on Boing Boing that ten times as many of you buy books that are on sale when I blog them than buy books that have to be pre-ordered. The Internet exists in an eternal NOW, and expecting someone who downloads a book to hold onto the impulse to buy it for four days is so unrealistic, it makes me suspect that this strategy was conceived of by someone who doesn’t actually use the Internet. Either Crown believes that free downloads sell books or they don’t.

To find out the answer to this question, Anderson talked to Crown’s online marketing manager, Shawn Nicholls:

The short answer is that Crown does indeed believe that free pdfs will sell more physical books. “We definitely subscribe to the believe that offering something online isn’t going to take away from sales,” says Nicholls. “The one thing I tried to do when we started this was to make a distinction between free music and free books. A MP3 can be a substitute for a CD, but we’re not at the place where a pdf is a substitute for a hard book.” But Crown also believes in the concept of artificial scarcity: “Our goal was to create some buzz. Four days of availability gives a sense of urgency and makes it more of an event” .

Note an important omission in the above quote. Nicholls notes that a PDF is not a substitute for a hard book. That is probably true, but he neglects to even acknowledge the true e-book version, formatted for a device like the Kindle. Reading a PDF on a laptop, or printing out several hundred pages to carry it around will only appeal to a small number of readers, who would still prefer to carry around a physical book. But the hardcover edition of Infected goes for $16.47 on Amazon, and the Kindle edition of it is available for (surprise) $9.99. I downloaded the PDF version during the free offer period and sent it to my Kindle (so it cost me a dime). It’s hard to know which version is selling better, the hardcover or the Kindle one; currently the hardcover is #1202 in sales, while the Kindle version is ranked #302 in the Kindle store. By either measure, it’s safe to say that the free offer didn’t cut into total sales; if anything, it increased them.

Anderson concludes:

My take: the important thing is that Crown believes that free digital books can sell more hard copies. Exactly how to do it is a work in progress, but the philosophical hurdle has now been crossed. Now we can expect more and better experiments and less hand-wringing about FREE. Which is quite an advance, any way you look at it.

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Happy Earth Day. Save a tree – read an e-book

In keeping with the theme of Earth Day, it seems appropriate to examine the carbon footprint of the book publishing industry. Every year about 20-million trees are cut down to produce the virgin paper for books sold in the United States alone. Here’s an interesting commentary on this topic:

College students purchase about a tree per year in textbooks

Purchasing your textbooks will not only burn a hole in your pocket, but it will also destroy the environment. According to the Green Press Initiative, over the past three years the U.S. book publishing industry has consumed an average of 20 million trees per year to print books sold in just the U.S alone. Publishing companies have become a top contributor to the destruction of forests world wide.
“The global impact of this is rather mind-boggling,” says treehugger.com. For instance, if a publisher sells a million copies of a 250-page book it will take 12,000 trees just to produce the necessary amount of books for this one title. By producing new editions of Textbooks every year publishers are destroying the environment to fatten their pockets. Just think about the amount of trees killed to produce enough textbooks for every student at every college & University. It gets worse…
The Green Press Initiative estimates that nearly 40% of the materials found in landfills are paper products. As this paper degrades, it produces methane—a greenhouse gas with 21 times the heat trapping power of carbon dioxide that eats away at our atmosphere. Each time a student buys a new book they are contributing to these numbers. It’s time to make a difference.
Chegg commits to planting a Tree for every textbook rented from us. http://www.chegg.com/EcoFriendly

A company called ecolibris (http://www.ecolibris.net/) aims do something similar to offset book purchases. Their tagline reads: “Every book you read was once a tree. Now you can plant a tree for every book you read.” Basically, the concept appears to be that you send them money, and they arrange for some trees to be planted in several developing nations (10 trees for $10 U.S.) They then send you some Eco-Libris stickers to put in the books you own (presumably one for each book read and tree planted). Other than that, there doesn’t appear to be any particular connection to books; it could easily be, “plant one tree for each gallon of gas you buy”, “each KWh of electricity you consume,” etc. But the thought process at least gets people thinking about the environmental impact of paper consumption.

If one really wanted to have an immediate an measurable impact on the carbon footprint of the publishing industry, one could simply migrate all book purchases to e-books. Just like that, we could save 20 million trees a year. Not to mention the cost of fuel to ship thousands of tons of paper across the globe. Think of the effect on the Amazon rain forest (not to mention on the other one, founded by Jeff Bezos).

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Tarzan Economics: It’s a jungle out there…

There have been an increasing number of posts recently about the availability (or lack of) textbooks in Kindle or similar e-book format. Here’s a post that appeared this week on the Amazon customer forum:

I emailed Pearson, one of the largest publisher of textbooks in the world, asking why most of their books were not yet available for the kindle; this was their response:

David, thanks for your inquiry about whether we offer eBooks. As a matter of fact, Pearson was one of the early leaders among publishers to offer our textbooks in digital format, beginning in 2004. Today we have more than 1,000 titles available through Course Smart (www.coursesmart.com), which is online site where all of the leading publishers are offering their digital textbooks for sale. Students can save up to 50 percent off the price of the hardback edition of the textbook, and, as you note, there’s no heavy book to haul around, nor do you need to worry about selling it back at the end of the term. The ebooks have all of the content of the hardcover edition, with the same pagination, but allow you the ability to search the text using key words, highlight passages and make notes electronically. All you need is web access. Be sure to check out the site and see how it works.

Regarding the Kindle, some of our professional and technology books are available this way, but most textbooks are not, as the Kindle does not support text that is heavy with illustrations, which many textbooks are. But we’re monitoring developments closely.

David Hakensen
Pearson Education
Corporate Communications

A visit to the Coursesmart site confirms that indeed there is a wide selection of titles available for download to a PC. What the corporate spinmeister omitted from his response to the inquiry is that in spite of coughing up roughly half the cost of a new hardcover edition, you don’t actually own the book. It operates more like a subscription, and your right to use it expires in six months. That’s right, it evaporates, kind of like the morning dew under a warm sun. And if you hoped to stretch your textbook budget a little further by sharing your e-book with a classmate, forget it. That’s a violation of the Terms of Use. Also, better make sure it’s the right book for you, because you can’t get a refund of your subscription fee after two weeks, or if you’ve viewed more than 20% of the pages (See Terms of Service).

But if you’re a textbook publisher, you probably think you’ve found the Holy Grail. No printing, warehousing or shipping costs, no worries about second-hand texts putting downward pressure on your monopolistic prices, and you still get half of the MSRP! It’s “innovative” thinking like this that makes me think that it was the publishing industry that originally coined the term “DRM”, but that it’s really code for “Dated, Regressive Manipulation”. Their collective response to the challenge posed by the digital age has been to use the technology to protect their margins at all costs.

Don Tapscott puts it well in his book “Wikinomics”:
Publishers can’t reasonably adopt open approaches that would cannibalize existing revenues without a viable means to shore up their ailing income streams. Jim Griffin, the managing director of One House LLC calls it “Tarzan economics”. “We cling to the vine that holds us off the jungle floor, and we can’t let go of the one until we’ve got the next vine firmly in our hand”. The problem is that media incumbents are moving too slowly. They’re getting mired in the thick underbrush of thorny contractual agreements and outdated and costly infrastructures. The economic model is based on a business model suited for the era of analog publishing, not for a world of user-driven creation and distribution.
For an example of thinking outside the digital fortress built by the textbook publishers, have a look at the following post:
  • FlatWorld Knowledge – the publisher I’ve been waiting for?

  • David Wiley is part of a startup called FlatWorld Knowledge. Their aim is to release digital textbooks free of charge, with students paying for the print copy if they want. What is more interesting though is the way they take the notion of the text book and make it more of a social object. So the educator can edit the book for their class, the student can interact with other students around it, and people can sell related services and content. In fact, when you view their little cartoons it makes you realise just how limited the traditional text book model is in education. Why didn’t we do this years ago?
    http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2008/04/flatworld-knowl.html
  • The Tarzans of the publishing industry may cling to any vine that keeps them aloft, but in their quest for the next branch to grab onto, they are ignoring the three forces that are completely altering the landscape they’ve existed in for centuries: Open-Source, Creative Commons Licensing, and, most importantly, Free. (Chris Anderson: Free: Why $0.00 is the Future Of Business, Wired, March 2008) (http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/16-03/ff_free)
  • Simply compare the state of a couple of other industries in the pre- and post-digital world: Kodak is a shell of the company it once was when film was the dominant photographic medium. And look at what happened to the telephone companies when long distance rates declined from a dollar a minute to zero. There will be the inevitable protectionist efforts, through vigorous enforcement of copyright law, and vain attempts to protect their content, but the outcome will be the same: new entrants, (like Flatworld Knowledge) unburdened by legacy cost structures, generating sustainable revenue from content that is free or close to it.

    Reading the fine print: “Amsterdam” on a Blackberry?

    An interesting commentary on how e-books are infiltrating all sorts of gadgets appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal Portals column. Lee Gomes, in remarking that he was actually reading Ian McEwan’s novel “Amsterdam” on his Blackberry, observed: Contrary to all of my previous expectations, not only was I reading the novel on my cellphone, I was enjoying it, too.I had heard reports that Japanese commuters were using cellphones to read books. But I figured that was sort of the thing only Japanese commuters would ever see fit to do.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120830725738118045.html?mod=hps_us_at_glance_columnists

    As a matter of fact, they’re not only reading them on cellphones, they’re writing them on cellphones as well. Of last year’s 10 best-selling novels in Japan, five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging by subway commuters tapping away on their phones. Some critics dismiss these works as nothing more than electronic drivel, that will only hasten the decline of literary standards (although it could be regarded as a step up from that other infamous  Japanese genre – manga).

    The point is that as technology evolves, so will the ways that  content is generated and consumed.  More  technology  invariably results in more content – or at least more efficient distribution of it. Witness the effect of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, and its effect on the distribution of information compared to the ancient tradition of handwritten manuscripts. Few would question the printing press’s influence on the spread of knowledge and scholarship.

    So, if novels are written and read on screens the size of credit cards what’s the problem if it leads to a rise in the number of consumers of the content? I’d be willing to bet that this format is not siphoning off a huge number of readers of Alan Greenspan’s The Age of Uncertainty.

    As a certain social commentator once observed: a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. (Marshall Mcluhan, The Medium is the Messge, 1964)

    You Tube: A Vision of K-12 Students Today

    Notice how much time they spend reading a book…


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_A-ZVCjfWf8&feature=related

    More helpful Kindle links, and Welcome to the “Free” World…

    The world of Kindle resources continues to expand. Here are two worth bookmarking, especially for aspiring authors and self-publishers:

    http://kindlehomepage.blogspot.com/

    http://indiekindle.blogspot.com/, which describes itself as “a resource for readers, authors, and indie publishers oriented generally but not exclusively around the amazing Amazon Kindle”. The blog is maintained by Stephen Windwalker, author of several books and articles about the Kindle. On it you’ll find links to an array of Kindle related communities and forums, including nearly two dozen sources of free content.

    In a related story, Joe Wikert’s Kindleville blog (http://kindleville.blogspot.com/) brings up an interesting possibility in an item posted on April 3, “Will Amazon Ever Track This Sort of Data?”:

    My sense is that most consumers feel their book-reading habits should be considered private. Of course, if you’re buying your books through an online vendor or using a member discount card at a brick-and-mortar, well, your habits are already being tracked. I’m talking about something much more granular than this though. For example, would publishers like to know what percentage of customers typically only get about 20 pages into an e-book before giving up and never reading the rest? Would reference book publishers like to know what topics tend to be the most viewed or what terms are most frequently searched for? Could these patterns have value? Absolutely. Perhaps that’s another pricing model that will find its way into the e-book world: You could pay one price for privacy where your activity isn’t being tracked or a lower price if you’re willing to let the vendor capture your habits and potentially sell the resulting data.

    This is just the sort of approach that I’ve been noodling over to support the Kindles for Kids program. It would work like this: Deserving , low-income student gets a free Kindle, along with access to a site with free e-books to download. To entice publishers to make their content available for free, the recipient first agrees to download an app on the Kindle that logs data related to the amount of content read, (i.e. completed) along with a variety of other metrics of interest to both publishers and academics who collect data on adolescent literacy. After stripping out personal information, the data is uploaded and then aggregated and analyzed with a degree of granularity never before available. Sponsoring publishers use the results to tweak their marketing plans, and scholars use it to track student’s improvements in literacy tests.

    This concept is alluded to in Chris Anderson’s seminal piece in the March 2008 issue of Wired, called:

    “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business”

    (http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/16-03/ff_free/)

    In it, he provides a couple of examples of offering free hardware and/or content in return for access to data or upsell opportunities. This model could be the key to a sustainable non-profit business. Stay tuned for more details.