Textbook prices are soaring, but in some courses in the U.S. this fall, students won’t pay a dime. The catch: Their textbooks will have ads for companies like FedEx and Kinko’s.
A Minnesota startup, Freeload Press will offer more than 100 titles this fall free. Students, or anyone else who fills out a survey, can download a PDF file of the book.
However, the model faces big obstacles. Freeload doesn’t yet have a stable of well-known textbook authors across a range of subjects and it lacks the marketing muscle of the “Big 3” U.S. textbook publishers (Thomson, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill).
Freeload’s numbers are modest so far: 25,000 users have registered and 50,000 books have been downloaded.
But the company says it is rapidly adding titles and will have 250,000 textbooks in circulation by next year.
What Freeload has going for it is its arrival on the scene when textbook publishers are under pressure to moderate prices. A recent U.S. government study found prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation since 1986.
Publishers answer criticism by saying textbooks are expensive to produce, and note they are clobbered by the secondary market for re-sales in bookstores and online.
The industry is exploring ways to use technology to cut prices. Thomson is making “Ichapters” of textbooks, similar to the iTunes model for music. But so far, publishers have resisted selling ads.
A Canadian subsidiary of McGraw-Hill briefly rolled out an ad-based model, but dropped the plan last year. Susan Badger, CEO of Thomson Higher Education, said her company tested the idea with focus groups but the professors were opposed.
Tom Doran, Freeload’s CEO, says McGraw-Hill’s experiment failed because it didn’t use the ad revenue to reduce prices enough to get students’ attention.