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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bankrolling Free Textbooks Via Donations

Some see a simple path to affordable college textbooks: Have each professor write their own course materials and distribute them gratis to enrollees (maybe charge a tad for hard copies). A tiny, but slowly growing, number of faculty are willing to do that.

The downside for students is that raw manuscripts aren’t necessarily as readable and user-friendly as traditionally published textbooks buffed by a team of peer reviewers, editors, proofers, graphic designers, technology magicians, and the like. The price might be free, but sometimes you get what you pay for. A prof could hire services to polish a book, but would either have to eat the cost or charge students much more for the end product.

A Canadian professor tapped into crowdsourcing as a way to have his free book and edit it, too. In a post about faculty putting their own books online, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog noted how Brendan Myers, a professor of philosophy and humanities at Heritage College in Quebec, solicited pledges through Kickstarter to cover professional editing, publishing, and peer-review fees for the philosophy textbook he’s writing. He plans to make the finished book available free to anyone through a Creative Commons license.

Kickstarter provides an online fundraising platform for creative projects, such as novels and films. Myers aimed to raise $5,000, but when his pledge drive ended July 7, he had $16,872 from 707 supporters. The extra will pay for a French translation, English and French audio versions, study guides, and a professional cast to record a dramatic reading of classic philosophy works.

Who knows why 707 people chose to donate to a philosophy text? Maybe some are professors who hope to use the book for their own classes, or budget-minded students planning to take Myers’ course next year, or current students sucking up for a better grade. Certainly, it seems unlikely there are enough donors out there to support an open-access textbook for every higher-education class, but contributions might float a few titles.

Compare Myers’ success at textbook fundraising with that of marketing/branding guru Seth Godin, who’s published a passel of books the old-fashioned way and is now also using Kickstarter to fund a retail campaign for his upcoming title. As of July 12, Godin had raised $267,675 from 3,925 contributors, with four days to go before the deadline. More than 1,000 of the donors gave $100 or more.