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Can textbooks really be free?  It's a great concept and the topic generates plenty of coverage, but what does it really mean?  If you had asked me back in January 2008 what the buzz would be six months later I would have told you “textbook rental”.   I was pretty sure that the concept of rental was going to really take off and catch the media by storm.  I mean, what a great concept, you pay a lower price for your books getting the buyback value upfront and reducing your overall expense.  Don't get me wrong, rental is still a great choice for students but the idea of renting textbooks never got picked up.  The media it seems, doesn't seem to like things that are just cheaper, they want them to be free!

Unfortunately not everything in life can be free.  Professors still have to be paid for the intellectual property (their ideas) that textbooks are based on.  Photographers need to be paid for illustrations and images to make the book more interesting to read.  Editors and printers need to be paid to put the book together and the bookstore (or online marketplace) needs to be paid for distributing the book to you.  So, I guess if everyone wants to work for free then the textbook can be free as well?

As you see, to the dismay of many students, textbooks can't be free.  So what is the real future of textbooks and how can we reduce those costs?  Let's examine a few things that are going on right now.

Advertising Supported Textbooks – love this concept.  The student's accesses an online version of their textbook and gets peppered with ads that help to reduce or eliminate the cost of the books

Torrents – A student buys the book, scans it in and then posts it online in a file share program for others to download.

eBooks – As we have well documented in our blog, this is a new market in which students can access online or download the textbook for use.

Open Source Textbooks – using open source file sharing warehouses, professors can create and share content which can then be used in place of the traditional textbook

All of these have potential to make a dent in the cost of textbooks but none of them will be the “textbook killer” that the media is looking for.

Over the next few weeks we will examine each of these and see what benefits they can bring and what pitfalls to be aware of.

By: Jeff Cohen

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