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Free Electronic Textbooks for College Students: New Online Trend, or Bad Business?

The New York Times just posted a story about a small textbook publisher, Freeload Press of St. Paul, who will be offering some of the first free, ad-supported electronic textbooks to college students. Is this the sign of an Internet revolution in higher education? I don’t think so… at least not yet.

A Student’s State of Mind

There’s no doubt that the idea of free e-textbooks would be appealing to the student masses who feel the burden of spending several hundred dollars on textbooks each semester. Free electronic textbooks, with ads or not, would offer them some relief, and most wouldn’t think there could be enough of a difference between textbooks from different publishers to warrant such a price difference. Most aren’t yet even thinking about the value of hard copy textbooks in the sense of building their professional libraries, because they’re so hard up for cash that they sell them back after the classes anyway for a fraction of their value.

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Appealing to the Academics

But are free e-textbooks really a good business move for Freeload Press? Again, I don’t necessarily think so. While the idea might be appealing to students, the students aren’t the ones evaluating and choosing textbooks for classroom use. Freeload Press has to find a way to appeal to university faculty members first. Some professors would no doubt love to offer their students a break. But I’d wager to guess that the vast majority of professors have no interest in seeing advertisers infiltrate their classrooms. That’s no small hurdle to overcome. As a matter of fact, while I was in college I worked for one of the department heads. I remember salespeople from publishers trying to convince professors to use their textbooks, and I certainly never saw price be the complete determining factor in their choices. It comes down to quality, and what works best with the professor’s teaching methods and goals. It can be hard enough keeping a student’s attention. Will professors really want the text materials having to compete with advertising that might serve as nothing more than a distraction?

“…knowlege without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.” – Samuel Johnson

What happens with editorial integrity when advertisers weasel their way into the learning tools of our higher education system anyway? While the e-books currently being offered seem to focus on financial mangement, accounting, and math, what happens when more business-oriented textbooks become released by Freeload or other publishers, with advertisements littering the pages? I remember reading case studies while studying PR… some of the more famous dealing with Pepsi and Tylenol, and how each handled the media and the public during crises. They’re admirable stories. But will they have the same effect on future generations of learners, if it looks like positive case studies and references are the result of Pepsi or Tylenol ads that could hypothetically be appearing in the text? I’d rather not wonder. I’d like to be able to take what’s learned in the college classroom as fact, rather than think “I wonder if this could have been approached better if a different advertiser might have forked over the dough.” I’m not accusing Freeload Press of letting the advertising influence the texts themselves. I’m only saying it’s something that would be bound to be on students’ and educators’ minds at some point.

Critical Mass

From a business perspective, I have to wonder… with only 38 schools currently requiring textbooks from Freeload Press, will advertising revenues be enough to allow for more salespeople to travel around promoting the texts to colleges, or will it just further limit the publisher’s options in getting their textbooks in front of the right people making the call in the first place? Will they ever reach a critical mass of users to make an advertising strategy work? Obviously, the more schools using your textbooks, the more you can charge. So how viable is this really, and with the current numbers, will it even warrant high enough ad rates to make it worthwhile to this publisher?

Could a Different Trend be Emerging?

While I don’t see a small publisher suddenly making waves in the textbook market with ad-supported free e-textbooks, I do see a potential marketing angle that could be huge. Freeload Press saw the same thing, as they’re offering several free e-textbooks to “lifelong learners.” I’ve always been an education junkie. I have to constantly learn new things and be intellectually stimulated just to function in the world. I’d love to be able to spend a small fortune buying textbooks in any subject that might interest me just for the sake of learning. But cost is certainly an issue in that sense. Free e-textbooks might be the solution for the independent learner, or better yet, the new wave of online business owners and webmasters who have never studied mangement, marketing, accounting, or any business subject. Resources in these areas from a strict educationsl approach are truly lacking. Free ad-supported e-textbooks might be the answer to helping form a new breed of business owner; one where we can become more self-reliant and more efficient in the day to day running of our businesses. For that, much kudos to Freeload Press for kicking things off. Here’s hoping other textbook publishers pick up on the market they so often ignore, and give ad-supported e-texts a shot by marketing to the masses.

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