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The educational publishing industry, both at the K-12 and higher education levels, is a beast - a dinosaur, even. A lot of educators and a lot of companies are working towards re-shaping what textbooks will look like. And converting paper-bound books to digital books is only one small part of what can, should, and will happen to textbooks in coming years.

I had a chance to talk with Jeff Shelstad, founder of open textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge today about his thoughts on the future of college textbooks.

Flat World Knowledge currently has 24 titles, mostly geared towards general education courses, that are published with an open license. This gives instructors latitude to customize the books - edit, add to, mix-up - or use as-is. Students can access the books online for free or can pay for print-on-demand and audiobook versions.

Having spent far too long in college -- and far too much money on books -- I like the sound of "free." But I also appreciate giving students the choice in how they'd like their content delivered (HTML, PDF, ePUB, MOBI, print). As Shelstad said today, students haven't really been viewed as the customers in the textbook industry, and Flat World Knowledge aims to "elevate the student in the equation."

The customer is, of course, the professor. And the trick for Flat World Knowledge will be to get professors to move, and the company is up against a well-oiled marketing machine of the traditional textbook publishers. But Shelstad says he stands by the quality of the content he's publishing. Flat World Knowledge plans to roll out more titles and add more features, giving instructors even more granular controls over what they edit and annotate in the books they build.

Shelstad says Flat World Knowledge is taking a gamble that the future of textbooks will be free online, openly-licensed, and print-on-demand.

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Audrey Watters


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