What's up with this guy's chin? Is that makeup, or did he cut himself shaving?

Although its name is not well known, Cengage is one of the firms that, along with Pearson and McGraw-Hill, form the Triad that dominates college textbook publishing. Recently Cengage announced that they’ve transitioned from being a viable company with a vision for the future, to becoming a massive anti-capitalist prank: Cengage has pulled all their content from e-textbook distributor Kno.

According to Mashable, Cengage terminated their contract because Kno enables students to produce a study sheet excerpting passages from the textbook. Apparently Cengage views study sheets as derivative works and considers this a copyright violation. Never mind that every student who uses the feature has already bought the text, so there is no potential for lost sales. Never mind that it actually makes their textbooks more valuable to students.

While Cengage may be within their legal rights to pull their content, it’s an absolutely crazy thing to do. This is Kno’s reward for trying to pull Cengage into the 21st century.

Instant study sheets are a patently obvious feature for an online textbook reader—it’s one of the killer benefits that a print book just cannot match. And that’s the problem: legacy publishers only pay lip service to digital textbooks. They’re fine with them as long as they’re overpriced, missing compelling features, and don’t threaten the publishers’ print textbook hegemony.

If you’re working with the legacy publishers, you’re just putting a Band-Aid on the problem. At Eleven Learning, we’re not trying to fix the textbook publishing industry. We’re blowing it up and starting over.

Eleven Learning has always been based out of Cambridge, but this has been a unique summer for us. We were invited to come to Palo Alto to take part in Imagine K12, a startup incubator focused on helping companies disrupt the educational system.

In case you weren’t familiar with the term, “disruption” is Silicon-Valley-speak for changing the world, winning hearts and minds, and generally being awesome. (Note that the actual definition of of “disruptive innovation” is a little more nuanced than that. As in, it has nothing to do with it.) If you think the textbook industry is behind the times, then perhaps a little disruption is a good idea.

What we did on our summer vacation

Moving out here wasn’t easy, but after much negotiation with our respective spouses, SOs and families, we flew out here and settle into a house in Sunnyvale, CA. The location has its positives, such as a quality farmers’ market down the street with some amazing produce.

As for our experience with Imagine K12: definitely amazing. Our new mentors constantly challenged us to sharpen our vision of a better way to make textbooks. We also came to meet with a host of ed-tech veterans and educational luminaries. Perhaps most valuable of all is the support we’ve received from the other IK12 startups, all of whom have stellar products that are doing great things in education. The summer culminated with Andrew speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt, the conference with the most exciting startups and technologists in the Valley. Our man presented in front of several hundred people (as well as a decent portion of the internet), and he made us proud.

What this means for you

It’s been a great summer for Eleven Learning, and that means it’ll be an even better fall for our authors, educators, and students. We’ve lined up some fantastic new ‘picobook’ short-form textbooks, we added tons of new features to our online reading application for students, and we totally revamped our peersourcing tools.

Check back in a couple of weeks for more updates on how we’re furiously building the future of textbooks.

We’ve got big news. Today we’re announcing something that you may have assumed was already the the case: Eleven Learning is an open source textbook publisher.

What does that mean?

CC license image From now on, our textbooks will be available freely. We’re recommending that our authors adopt the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Click the link to read the full text of the license deed—in plain English, no less—but the brief version is that you can freely share and distribute our textbooks for noncommercial purposes. You can also modify them and share those derivative works, provided that credit is given to the copyright holder and that this license also applies to the new works.

What if an author wants to use another license, like CC BY-NC-ND?

We can live with that. You’ll find thousands of online debates about which license is most “free”, and the difference between “free as in beer” and “free as in speech”, but you won’t find it here. For us, pragmatism trumps ideology. This is a big tent.

Why do you use the term “Open Source” instead of “Open Educational Resources”?

Because everybody and their grandma knows what “Open Source” means. Unfortunately, only OER people seem to know what “OER” means. When I use “OER” in an email message, I inevitably feel the need to define it. That’s a drag.

If the book content is free, and you’re a for-profit company, how do you make money?

OK, more seriously: by charging for it.

Um, what?

Yes, readers can obtain the content for free. Some of them will do so. They’ll download the source, reformat it, print it, then get it spiral-bound. Good for them.

Many will look at the print and online solutions we offer and think, “It’s easy to buy. It’s a fair price. It makes my life more convenient. They’re paying royalties to the authors. That’s a pretty good deal.”

Call it the freemium approach. Call it similar to Red Hat’s value-added model for Linux. With apologies to Heinlein, we call it appealing to students’ self-interest and their better nature.

So just to be clear, students can just use the books for free.


Why go open source?

Our slogan is “community-powered textbooks”. Through our peersourcing process, we ask our reviewers to help us both edit and spread the word about our books. And when one asks for help, it’s only fair to offer something in return. We can’t pay them back, so we are <gag>paying it forward</gag>.

What took you so long?

For a while now, we’ve danced around this issue and been open source in all but name. Our books were already free. People assumed we were open source. But we hadn’t officially committed to it. We were the common-law marriage of open source publishers.

The rest of our team was in favor of taking the leap. But I was chicken. Why? Perhaps it was the you-can’t-do-that look of horror I received from a few publishing industry sages when I shared our plans with them.

But then I remembered that, contrary to their knee-jerk reactions, we already are doing it. This is the way forward.

One of our neighbors here in Cambridge is HubSpot, and in the book Inbound Marketing they advise their readers to not redesign their websites.

Your visitors […] think your web site looks just fine and are not particularly interested in your site’s colors or the type of menus used. Your visitors are looking for something interesting they can read and learn about […]

Perhaps they’re not as strident as Joel Spolsky was in his seminal work Things You Should Never Do, Part I, but they’re getting there. Redesigning your website is like having a money bonfire.

So Yeah, We Redesigned Our Website

Our business has changed substantially in the year since we launched: we’ve grown from providing a web-based textbook reader to offering a suite of tools for authors and educators. Our old website wasn’t just outdated: it was deceptive. People would introduce themselves to me and say, “I read your homepage. So you do X?” And I would respond, “While I understand why you have that impression, no, that’s not our business.” I felt like I was a marketer on the Douglas Adams account, promoting Mostly Harmless as the “The fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Trilogy.”

What Has Changed

New Homepage

If you haven’t done so, please check it out for yourself. Here’s what you’ll see.

  • Emphasis on peersourcing and community. We’ve given author services equal weight with reader tools.
  • Focus on what’s important. We have twelve months of data on what our users care about. Links to our catalog of available textbooks: interesting. Links to a definition of beta test: not so interesting.
  • A new tagline. Thanks again to all who voted in our poll of a few weeks back. “Community-powered textbooks” does a great job of capturing what we’re about.
  • Simpler registration. It was too complicated before. Now it isn’t.
  • Aesthetics. Guilty as charged: while this wasn’t the reason for the redesign, we did some fiddling while we were in there. So you’ll see bigger, prettier pictures. And we picked a new display typeface, too; it’s the gorgeous slab-serif-with-humanist-influences Chaparral by Carol Twombly.

Comments? Please let us know what you think.

There are lots of reasons for a company to blog. For us, it isn’t to attract new users through SEO. Our audience of textbook authors find us via referrals from peers, not because they’re actively searching for us. While I look forward to a day when this isn’t the case, Google just isn’t the way we attract new authors. (On the subject of referrals: Kind Reader, do you know someone who has written a college textbook, refuses to give up control to the big publishers, but still needs help sharing it with the world? Don’t be shy.)

Instead, we blog to describe ourselves to the authors who are already on our site and want to learn more. By talking about the issues surrounding textbooks, we can show them how we’re different from the competition.

That’s not to say that search engines don’t drive traffic to us; it’s just that they don’t drive terribly valuable traffic, and I don’t look at that data very often. So I was very surprised when I looked at our all-time stats this morning. The number one query that led people to our blog was…

Jail Cell

“stealing textbooks”

I also spot these gems:

“is it ok to steal textbooks”

And this one:

“how to make money stealing textbooks”

Perhaps it was this woman who Googled that.

The entry drawing all this attention to the blog? This one. It’s a post (with an admittedly snarky title) on how the big textbook publishers have lied about their business model for decades, and how that deception is coming back to bite them in the butt. When I wrote it, I honestly had no idea I was putting out the welcome mat for scofflaws.

The full scoop is that while “stealing textbooks” may be our #1 search term, it–and all the related terms–still comprise under 10% of our total blog visitors from searches. That may no longer be the case after I post this, of course. I’ll keep you updated.

Textbooks Are Like Sausages

September 30, 2010


Let’s start with a quote widely attributed to Otto von Bismarck:

The less the people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep in the night.

I like to have coffee with people from the traditional textbook publishing industry; they tell me stories about how screwed up their companies are. Here’s this week’s example:
Read the rest of this entry »

(We’re big fans of what the team at Flat World Knowledge is up to. Every success that a next-generation textbook publisher has—and lately, FWK has had a lot—validates the model for all of us. This is an example of them not doing the bad things the traditional publishers do.)

As we mentioned in our earlier post, Flat World Knowledge has released a new graphic novel textbook, Atlas Black: Managing to Succeed. There are some good (and not so good) points made by the commenters over at Inside Higher Ed.

The criticisms went along these lines:

  1. A comic book textbook is dumbing things down.
  2. Putting a textbook into story format has been done before.
  3. It doesn’t supply the wealth of pedagogical options that a traditional 900 lb. textbook can offer.
  4. The book isn’t modular, and the narrative flow means professors have to structure their courses around the book.

To which we respond…
Read the rest of this entry »


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