Now, a small Minnesota startup is trying to shake up the status quo in the $6 billion college textbook industry. Freeload Press will offer more than 100 titles this fall – mostly for business courses – completely free. Students, or anyone else who fills out a five-minute survey, can download a PDF file of the book, which they can store on their hard drive and print.
While they believe that there is an uphill battle I think it will be an instant hit, and this includes my experience as a student. The price is a big big factor when you want to spend your money in getting good computers and possibly other gadgets. However, I think there is a hidden problem that might get more serious.
The model of offering free content by using advertising is used by media – like newspapers, television, radio and now Web. Web is being pulled into the media gang as it offers uninterrupted availability and supports most of the rich formats. What we have seen in many instances is that advertising has corrupted the media institution – right from big and popular newspapers to the meek and not-so-meek weblogs. Sometimes advertising gets so dominant that it kills the original purpose and overshadows the main content entirely. Which is what we call intrusive and obstrusive advertising, which every Web user dreads. It has even crept into the offline newspapers where the paper is mostly advertising and you have to search for the seemingly invisible piece of news. Or the main content itself is so advertising driven that it completely leaves out useful and important information. Newspapers have stopped being for readers, today they are for advertisers.
It will be a horror if the ad-supported model gets successful and the history repeats itself. Not only will it drive down the reading productivity but also purge the reading instinct. I hope this becomes a critical point which determines whether this gets successful or not. Mind you, I am not against advertising, I have started putting ads on this blog since last couple of days. I just hope that the textbooks are only supported by ads and not fed by them. Freeload Press should kind of pledge for this, that will help to reduce the skepticism and the benefit availed. Last thing that we want to happen in academics is to start making our textbooks look like Yellow Pages!