An Open Source Of Profit

An Irvington Internet startup is a “textbook case” in doing well by doing good.

Basir Khan is transferring to Baruch College for the fall semester, and the prospect of free textbooks sounds pretty good to him. “If I added up all the money I spent on a semester of books, I could buy an expensive suit to wear to work,” Khan says.

    That suit may soon be well within his reach, thanks to Flat World Knowledge, Inc. (, an Internet start-up located on the waterfront in Irvington. The goal of Flat World, founded in 2007, is to upend the traditional college textbook industry. For decades, publishers have sold book titles directly to educators, and students are required to purchase the books chosen by their professor regardless of price. A semester’s worth of books can easily top $600. That is a hefty bill for a cash-strapped student. Flat World is offering quality textbooks online—for free.

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    If you’re ready for the this new way of buying textbooks, then you’ll need to adopt the “open source” philosophy, a concept that first surfaced as a way to share intellectual property with limited copyright restrictions. An open source adherent believes free content shared widely will improve the end result—which, in this case, is an educated populace at a low cost.

    As appealing as this seems, the numbers at Flat World—as with any for-profit enterprise—need to add up to more than zero. Its business formula hinges on the upsell. For example, let’s assume a price-conscious accounting professor assigns the Flat World title, Financial Accounting. The textbook is accessible to the professor’s students online for free, which does nothing for Flat World’s bottom line. However, a particular chapter of accounting may be so scintillating that an eager student may want a hard copy. No problem. Flat World charges $2.49 per chapter printed. At an average of 24 chapters per book, assuming a student prints half the chapters and reads the remaining online only, the total cost to the student would be about $30—or less than a third of a typical book. Flat World also offers related products, like flash cards and study guides, as add-ons to the books—and its bottom line, which seems to be growing: for the 2011-2012 school year, the company projects more than 350,000 students will use its books—a 125-percent increase over 2010-2011.

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