Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But the Bookstore? Part 1

As back-to-school time gets closer and closer, many students will seek the ISBNs of the books they need for classes. This generation of college students has grown up with Internet shopping and they have been well trained to understand barcodes and SKUs and ISBNs and other retail codes that identify product.

But to the shock of many of these well-informed students, they will not be able to buy certain books anywhere except the school bookstore, no matter how accurately they record or scan an ISBN and how many places they try to shop it. No, they’re not crazy, they’re just in a bind. For many years, publishers and bookstores have been pushing customized editions as such format (even if modified only on a single page) increases sell-through for both parties by creating exclusive product sold through an exclusive channel. Both publishers and bookstore managers will argue that it lowers the cost for students . . . but does it?

The easy answer is to agree and say yes, yes it does. I mean, if a publisher looks at a $175 list-new print textbook, the company (in collaboration with a specific professor and institution) can produce a slightly modified custom edition and sell it for $145. This book will have a unique ISBN and be relevant only to the course and school for which it was specifically produced. So the discount is a nice savings and theoretically the student is paying for what s/he needs and not what s/he does not need. In many cases, this is how the argument is made to the professor and it is how the idea for customized content is sold.

The issue is the bigger picture. Simply put, customized editions don’t have buyback value because they are such limited-edition one-offs particular to one course, professor, institution, etc. In addition to a student being unable to purchase a custom publication anywhere but the official university bookstore, s/he can’t sell it back anywhere, including the bookstore most times! The best the student can hope for is a peer-to-peer transaction if another student on campus is taking the exact same course with the exact same professor and the book hasn’t been modified again. Bottom line: without custom, the student has the competitive world of the Internet to both buy and sell a book with a globally recognized ISBN. In the custom world, the student is forced to buy this book at the bookstore for the full retail price (however discounted based upon customization) and hope that the stars align and the bookstore or another student on campus is using that exact same customized edition next semester. Spoiler alert: not likely given that it all hinges on professors using the exact same material AND submitting adoptions before buyback.

Check back in later this week for part 2 on Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But The Bookstore!

Back to School 2012

All the excitement of back-to-school is building. This is the season, make-or-break time for many in the textbook space. As we all finish up the changes to our sites and we tweak our plans accordingly, many in the industry are thinking “What will the big announcements be?” Hey, they call me the Textbook Guru for a reason, so here is what I foresee:

eBooks: We will see lots of announcements over the next two weeks about updates to digital platforms. Almost every eBook provider I have spoken with is planning new-feature releases prior to back to school. And they are already starting.


Kno Elsevier


Acquisitions: Rumor has it that there will be an acquisition in the textbook space. While I have had this confirmed from a few reliable sources, they have all asked to remain off the record so I can’t say what is being bought and sold.

Rafter Buys Hubedu

Rentals: I expect textbook rentals to continue to be a story in this back-to-school rush. At this point, rental has been around long enough for almost every major player in the space to have a rental program, which makes it a lot different than a few years ago when we only had a handful of players dividing up the rentals pie.

And More . . . The press loves to follow stories. With Chegg making a major push into the college hub and Rafter making waves with their new model, we are sure to see new story lines pop and the press chase as we get into rush.

Is it really news that students spending on textbooks have droped by $12 over 2 years!  Really?

When is rush you ask? Well, if you did already know, here is a chart that I feel represents how the month of August will play out in terms of textbook sales.


Good luck and may your rush business be as hot as the weather this summer!

eBook Review: Flatworld Knowledge

Here we are with another eBook review, this time for a platform with a rather interesting business model. Today we’re taking a look at Flatworld Knowledge, the self proclaimed “world’s largest publisher of free and open college textbooks.”

Flatworld Knowledge describes themselves as a “college textbook publishing company on a mission.” What mission is that? Simple, to lower the cost of textbooks for students and allow faculty to control the material they teach and the materials their students are required to purchase. How do they do this? First and most importantly by ditching the traditional ‘All Rights Reserved’ license that most publishers use for a ‘Creative Commons license’ which is an open-license. For faculty this means “unprecedented control over content” and “permission to create a derivative version of any textbook.”
Essentially, faculty have the ability to modify any textbook offered by Flatworld Kowledge to custom fit their purposes. This can involve removing materials that won’t be covered in the course, adding links, videos or entirely new passages. As you can see from this search for “Introductory Chemistry,” there are several different versions the text specific to different professors at different universities.

Many college students well tell you it’s very frustrating when you’re forced to purchase an expensive textbook and in the end the professor only covers a portion of it. In addition to cutting out unused material, this control allows professors to insert their own which is arguably much more valuable. Rather than filling lecture slides with notes, links to external materials and videos or images, professors can wrap all this material up in their assigned text, saving them and their students a lot of time and hassle.

The customization of texts is extremely valuable, but lets save that discussion for another review (stay tuned…). Right now we are focusing on the student experience with Flatworld Knowledge. For starters, signing up is simple and straight forward, and searching the catalog by your professor’s name, school name or course name makes finding your customized text easy. After you’ve located your text you must select what format you’d like to use.

To the delight of students everywhere, the basic digital “Free Pass” version is completely free to view through your browser. Next up is the “Study Pass” which has added features such as highlighting, note taking, interactive study tools such as flash cards and “Study View” which gives you a condensed version of key points, objectives and definitions. The most robust version is the “All Access Pass” which gives you all the features of the “Study Pass” as well as a downloadable PDF version for printing and the true eTextbook version for viewing on your iPad, Kindle, Nook or other eReader of choice.

Even the “All Access Pass” is still very inexpensive when compared even to other eTextbook retailers, let alone traditional printed textbooks. However if you just can’t study without a hard copy of the text to flip through and mark up, you can order a black and white printed and bound copy for a bit more than the “All Access Pass.” Or you can spring for the full fledged color textbook for what you’d expect to pay for a book at your school bookstore. To me it seems a bit counter intuitive to purchase a traditional textbook from an etextbook company that is offering the same material for free, but hey, some people just really need a paper version.

For me, it makes the most sense to just bookmark the free browser based version of each book assigned to you. With such a plethora of mobile devices with on board web browsers, it isn’t difficult for most students to get access to their books anywhere, anytime. Nook and Kindle users are out of luck it would seem, but if you’re packing an iPad or smart phone, your FREE textbook can be with you anytime.

The browser based reading experience is surprisingly pleasant. A sidebar of chapters and subchapters makes navigation easy, images are vivid and diagrams are easy to read. A wider view option allows near full screen viewing. I only see two major downsides to sticking with the free version. First is the lack of study tools such as highlighting, note taking and study guides. So for this you’ll have to make a personal judgement about how useful these tools are for you. The second downside is eye fatigue from prolonged use. This is a large selling point for Nook and Kindle users, and if you have one and are prone to extended studying sessions, it might be worth the $40 or so to get the digital eTextbook version.

While the Flatworld platform and unique business model are a solid foundation, their catalog is still growing. They have a good foundation of texts in different disciplines, but their biggest hurdle is adoption among professors. Being a publisher and a retailer, Flatworld must first publish high quality textbooks, then get professors to adopt them for a course, then have the infrastructure to also distribute the text to students. Competitors like Kno and Inkling need only worry about providing a platform for distributing publishing company texts that have already been adopted at schools across the country. It seems the road for Flatworld is largely up hill, but with a unique and adaptable platform such as this, a little traction can go a long way. If the circumstances are right, and adoption increases, Flatworld Kowledge has the potential to be a game changer in the textbook publishing and retail world.

eBook Review: Kno – Follow Up

We last checked in on Kno in October and if you haven’t already read the initial review, I recommend a quick return as the first review covers the general process of buying your book and accessing basic features of the Kno platform. But now it’s nine months later and as with anything in the technology world, things don’t wait for a calendar year to change before they do. So I checked back in on Kno I and found some pretty cool new features.

Pen: This new tool allows you to write your notes anywhere within the digital textbook or any PDF you add to your library. You no longer need to open a new note and type in your comments. You can circle, star, or even doodle in your eBook now. This feature is only available for Kno on iPad.


Dropbox: Easily import PDFs or other course materials directly into your course manager in the Kno library. Once imported, any digital document or PDF can take full advantage of the Kno platform. This feature is only available for Kno on iPad.


Android and Web Integration: Kno now allows you to access your course manager on iPad, Android (coming soon), and the Web. While the multiple devices are not in synch with one another, this does expand the learning environment if you head home for a weekend and forget your iPad and it surely bodes for further synching in the future.

As we get closer to back-to-school rush, I expect to see more updates from Kno and other eBook technology providers. You can always read about other eBook review, here. Stay tuned and I will keep you updated. In the meantime, stay cool.

College Tuition Continues to Rise

According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, average tuition and fees for a full-time undergraduate attending a four-year college increased substantially from 2009/10 to 2011/12. The increase for a public institution was 9% in state and 6% out of state. Nonprofit institutions reported a 4% increase. For-profit institutions reported no change.

The cost of a four-year undergraduate program at a public institution will now cost around $7,200 for in-state students, $16,500 for out of state students, and $23,300 for non-profit.

More stats can be found by downloading the report.

Nebraska Book Emerges from Chapter 11

As I reported in March of 2011 , Nebraska Book Company filled for Chapter 11 bankrupcty protection. Earlier this week, the company announced plans to emerge from Chapter 11. The smaller, leaner, less debt-ridden company will now be under new management with Barry Major taking over the CEO role and Master Capital as the new largest stakeholder (along with 15 others).

Based on news articles, it seems that Nebraska will maintain their 250 off-campus bookstores but focus growth efforts on on-campus leasing. In addition, Nebraska will further develop their retail-facing brand Neebo as an online destination for textbook rentals and purchases.

More information can be found here:

Free Textbooks – Crowd funding Your Next Idea

Crowd funding is a term in our new social-media-based society and we should become more comfortable with it and the larger tech-lexicon. Similar to “viral” of a few years back, I am hearing “crowdsourcing” more and more. The concept is basic, but it’s pretty cool and far reaching in its implications. In a nutshell: a person has an idea (such as creating a free textbook), that creator registers and posts the idea on a crowdsourcing funding website such as Kickstarter.com. The post describes the textbook project, why the creator is qualified to proceed, and the vision for the funds and execution. People who believe in the project and contribute money are called “backers” and the project only gets the green light if the target funding is met (or exceeded). The fun part is that the creator can market his or her Kickstarter project and page and even add incentives for various levels of support (think NPR or PBS pledge drive but with stuff cooler than a mug or totebag).

Well, that is just what Brendan Myers, a philosophy professor at Heritage College in Quebec, did. Prof. Myers realized that many of his students would show up to class without the required textbook. After asking them why they didn’t have the book, he was often told that they just couldn’t afford it. To help students in his own classes, Myers decided to write his own textbook (Clear and Present Thinking) and he digitized and emailed PDF copies to his students.

The problem in education — no, one of the problems in education — is that just writing a book isn’t enough to get it widespread use across other campuses. It takes money and time and peer reviews and publisher interest, lots of all. That said, Myers’ text was limited to his classes at his university. At this point he used Kickstarter to develop a campaign to raise the money necessary to create a professional version of his book that could be more widely applicable and distributed.

The original goal of the campaign was to raise $5,000. The campaign recently closed raising $16,872 and funded by 707 backers. Five backers each gave more than $250 while 11 each gave between $100 and $249. Pretty amazing if you ask me and unheard of a couple of semesters ago.

With the extra money, Myers will be creating a French-language edition and audiobook edition of the textbook. With any extra money over $15,000, he will be creating a series of dramatic readings from the works of Plato as the works are core curriculum in philosophy courses across the world. Now that’s a project I can get behind.

Massive Open Online Courses

My search through Open Education Resources is opening my eyes to the quality and quantity of information available. Earlier I discussed the 500 Free Online Course from Top Universities . It’s fair to say that those resources triggered greater curiosity in me and I have started to dig deeper in order to see what other free courses are available and the quality of the listings and content.

In researching, I came across Udacity  and Coursera. These two providers represent what is now being called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). To give you a sense of the scope and impact, last fall Stanford did an experiment and provided an online/on-campus course on Artificial Intelligence. Enrollment for the online class was 160,000 students in 190 countries! As the class went on, many enrolled in-class students (about 200 to start) shrank to about 30 as many of them opted to take the class online.

With lots of money pouring in  and new courses being developed, this brave new world of MOOCs is sure to make an impact on how education is presented and received.

Consider this: if you are a working professional who needs to go back to school, you can use these course as a refresher prior to (or along with) taking the class you need. If you are a student having trouble with a class or professor, you can find alternatives that may help you master the material. If you are a professor, you can incorporate a bevy of new resources. If you are a member of a state government and you want to make your community-college education more affordable, you can now offer courses based upon economical material. If you are a lifelong learner who is simply curious, you can further your knowledge on your time . . . the opportunities are endless!

500 Free Courses, 150 Free Textbooks from Top Universities

The concept of Open Education Resources (OER) is not new by any stretch of the imagination yet most people remain unfamiliar with this free resource, if only because there is no publisher, author, or seller owning and promoting it.

Since OER is mostly produced via grassroots efforts, it is hard to find the best works, review them, and integrate them into the textbook of the future. Making the problem more difficult is the fact that by its nature, OER content is free so not many entrepreneurs are spending time and money to create the tools necessary to make the discovery easier. There’s simply no profit potential (that’s recognized and capitalized upon yet).

So for now, discovery of such resources is done on a small scale, mostly by individuals, small like-minded Web-based communities, and one-off recommendations. To this point, I wanted to share with you the gem that is OpenCulture.com and its 500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities. This collection includes courses in the liberal arts and the sciences. Each courses is an audio and/or video download that you can add straight to your computer or MP3 player.

In addition, OpenCulture has also created a list of 150 Free Textbooks. Similar to the courses, this list goes topic by topic to provide links to free textbooks for many of the basic courses taught at higher-education institutions today. This list isn’t new but it is growing all the time. Keep checking back as they add more content.

So now that you know, why not take some time to learn something new today? It’ll never be cheaper than free.

Stats and Facts on Investing in the Education Technology Sector

Ever wonder who’s investing in education? What trends are taking shape and how things changing in terms of financial backing? Well, the world of ed-tech is not nearly as hot as some other industries when it comes to capital and investments, but that’s not to say that it isn’t growing and full of potential. We’ve all heard the stories of Chegg raising money, and while they are indeed in the pole position, there are plenty of other drivers on the track. Could we really be in a boom-time for education startups and a heated race to reach a lucrative finish?

Here’s some indication that we may be: GSV is a strategic firm that is focused on the education sector and a major player in the ASU Education Summit. Earlier this month, they released the first in a two-part series called “Fall of the Wall – Capital Flows to Education Innovation.” This 110-page document reviews the current state of the education sector and describes trends and facts that are transforming the sector as we speak. This is a must-read for anyone who covers or follows the education space and I didn’t want you to miss it. Give it a read and let me know your thoughts.

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