When Kristian Buus Madsen and his brother Thomas took over Denmark-based Ventus Publishing from their parents in 2005, they decided to do something completely new and different with the family business. While Ventus had always been focused on publishing education-related content, the brothers, then majoring in International Business and International Marketing, made a strategic decision to move the company in an entirely innovative direction to become publishers of 100% free electronic texts for education and business. The rest, as they say, is history. Bookboon is now the fastest growing publisher of free e-texts for education in the world, with more than 1,000 free texts in seven different languages, and 42 million annual downloads around the world. How do they support this effort? How much more can they grow? Are free e-texts the future of higher education? And how can you, as a student or educator use their books to further your own educational undertakings?
These questions and more were answered in a recent Education Unbound chat with Bookboon co-founder and current COO Thomas Buus Madsen.
How Can Bookboon's Texts be Free?
In a nutshell, someone has to pay for the staffing of Bookboon's offices, the labor necessary to publish the texts, the infrastructure necessary to make them globally accessible, and for faculty members to write the books. In order to support the company, Bookboon's texts contain a small amount of advertising materials targeted specifically at students based on a short questionnaire (four questions) and their career interests. Ads are, according to Madsen, all paid for by reputable companies, and are focused on career advancement (new employee recruitment) more than product sales.
To test this, I downloaded a book on Manging for Quality in Higher Education: A Systems Perspective, by Ben A. Magaud, Ph.D. & Robert M. Krone, Ph.D. The process was very easy, as the screen capture below demonstrates.
After answering these four simple questions, my textbook downloaded with adds specifically chosen to match this limited profile. The first in my book was from the London School of Business for a Masters in Management. Not a great match for me, but not offensive in any way either. The second was from Agilent, a company offering eLearning solutions. This was a much better match, and it presented me with information about a company I had not heard of, but that could be useful in my professional life. The third ad was from IKEA student, which seemed to be a student intern program. Unfortunately the website was in Swedish, so I can't be 100% sure. Overall, however, given the global focus of the company, and the limited profile available, one out of three was a pretty good ratio for ad success.
The Future of Textbooks?
Madsen was noncommittal on the impact of the free eTextbook model on the larger publishing industry and higher education in general. In Madsen's opinion, the advertisement supported free model is probably not an attractive solution to larger, more established publishers. Without stating it directly, the implied reason and something that rings true with the entire Bookboon mission, is that such a model does not provide the kinds of profits desired by larger corporate publishers. Bookboon has, however been so successful that their model is likely to make a serious impact in the larger textbook publishing landscape before too long.
With 42 million downloads annually already, even if many of those are as supplemental texts, Bookboon is changing student and faculty expectations around the world. If the company follows through with their plans to expand into other academic fields, continues recruiting top flight academics to write for them, and holds the line on the quality of the ads they accept for their books, this could easily become the dominant model for the future of textbooks. In particular, developing countries (more than half of their downloads) and the U.S. with its current student debt crisis, should drive the concept forward.
Using Bookboon in Your Higher Education
In my post "5 Ways that Technology Can Undermine Your Higher Education" I proposed that students should consider replacing distracting content and apps on their smart devices with academically focused electronic publications and educationally-focused apps. Bookboon presents the perfect option for students looking to supplement their university learning with rich academic content. Students can also recommend Bookboon to their professors should they find a particular text useful.
For faculty members concerned with the student debt crisis Bookboon offers an easy to use, universally accessible, free alternative to mainstream texts. There is no cost or elaborate process for either the students or faculty members to endure, so all a professor needs to is instruct their students to go to the site and download the appropriate texts.
On the faculty side, Bookboon also allows educators to create, publish and share their own eTexts should they feel inclined to do so. While Bookboon offers some compensation for the writing of texts, the model is such that faculty can circumvent the more cumbersome mainstream model of publishing texts and cater their books to their individual courses and teaching or research strengths.
A Better Business Model: Profit Humanity vs Pure Profit
Madsen was quite modest in the interview when pressed on the ways in which Bookboon undermines much of the traditional capitalist focus on profit over societal benefit. While Bookboon certainly is turning some profit for their work, Madsen seemed far more concerned with the fact that people in developing countries are using their eTexts and the good that the company is doing by making high quality educational content available to people who can really benefit from it. At one point during the interview I asked Madsen what his parents, who had originally started Ventus Publishing, thought of the work that he and his brother have done to grow the business in socially positive way. In keeping with his modest demeanor, Madsen smiled and stated that they were quite pleased with the work that was being done.
What I find so refreshing about Bookboon is their emphasis on creating a business model that is focused on doing good things rather than maximizing profit. Perhaps this stems from their European roots and a culture where pure capitalism and profit are less important to business than doing what you love and what has the greatest positive impact on the widest possible audience. I think American academic publishers could learn a lot from Bookboon, both in terms of their business model and their reason for doing what they do. Check them out at Bookboon.com for some great free texts.