Over the past few years, a publishing company called Flat World Knowledge has been publishing a number of textbooks in several subject areas, from history to psychology to math. One of the features they have advertised is their “open” books, meaning in part that their books are available for free online to everyone. Until recently, this was nearly unheard of: students can now legally get their textbooks for free (while paying for extra features if they want them). While I had not heard about their books until recently (likely because they have few math books), this is definitely something I like, at least in the abstract.
Unfortunately, Flat World Knowledge has recently decided that the “open” model will not work for their publishing, because not enough people were buying their books. As much as I would like to argue that such a model should work, I’m sure they have more data than I do, and have undoubtedly done their analysis and decided that such a business model is unsustainable for them at this time. While I hope that they are able to offer their books in an open manner again in the future, they have at this point decided to restrict the way in which their books are available on their website, starting on January 1, 2013. (They have already started implementing this change, as well.)
The good news is that they previously published their books online under a Creative Commons license, a common license which allows redistribution (in particular, the attribution, share-alike, non-commercial license, version 3.0). This means that people have the right to continue to redistribute copies of the books, if they happen to have them.
I am still a bit disappointed: I would have liked Flat World Knowledge to succeed in their open publishing experiment. I would have liked more books to be available, and I would have liked even more companies to follow in their footsteps. Unfortunately, it appears as though that area may remain the realm of private or government financing for the moment.
I would like to remark for the inevitable debates to ensue in unseen boardrooms in the future that the Creative Commons license likely allowed Flat World Knowledge to have so many books. In nearly every foreword I had read, the authors extolled the open license of the book as a primary reason for publishing with FWK. Were it not for this license, it is entirely probable that FWK would not be in such a favorable position. The ability of others to share your books should be regarded as the feature so many authors see it as, rather than a liability.