New publishing: how big ideas, strong leaders, and new tech are changing textbooks

For the last three years I’ve been part of a remarkable project: perhaps the biggest free-to-access university textbook in the world. The Economy is an undergraduate economics textbook that is sweeping through university classes around the world at a rate that brings tears to the eyes of publishers.

In a world of established textbooks that have had decades to build loyal followings, new and unusual textbooks rarely make an impression. But in a few short years this upstart textbook has been adopted at over 300 universities worldwide. It’s already been published in French and Italian, and half a dozen translations are underway. An adaptation for social sciences is taking off, too, even being read aloud, in full, on NPR.

What makes The Economy a different sort of textbook? For a start, it’s simply readable and engaging – from the first page it speaks to real-world issues, something traditional economics textbooks have largely managed to avoid. And importantly, it’s free: you can read it online or download the app. The 1200-page, full-colour printed edition is far cheaper than its competitors. So it’s easy for lecturers to adopt: they know that no student will go without a textbook.

How is this even possible? After all, books are expensive, complex projects. This one comprises half a million words, 1500 images, and two dozen videos. What publisher would give it away for free? A new kind of publisher: one for whom a book’s strategic value outweighs its financial cost. The kind of public-interest publisher that bewilders traditional publishing companies, and should.

The organisation behind The Economy is CORE, a non-profit in the UK founded by Wendy Carlin and Sam Bowles, both world-renowned economists at major institutions. They’re funded by foundations that recognise that CORE’s mission is among the world’s most pressing: to create a generation of economists who can tackle inequality.

As they’ve visited universities – and even central banks – around the world, Carlin and Bowles have asked their audience the same question: what is the most pressing problem for economists to solve today? And the answer is almost always the same: inequality.

The effects of inequality are expressed in every major threat we face today: from climate change, which is driven by rapacious corporations, to the crises of misogyny and xenophobia, which are fueled by cultures of power and exploitation. The work of reinventing economics is no less than helping to save humankind from itself.

Free textbooks have been around for a long time. The open-educational-resources movement is resilient. But precious few open-access textbooks have challenged the dominance of commercial ones. To achieve this, several factors had to come together for The Economy in just the right way.

A strong leader with a smart team

Every great publishing project needs a strong leader to curate its content, rally others to the cause, and build and manage a team. In a publishing company, that’s a publisher’s job. For The Economy, that person is Wendy Carlin, backed by a hand-picked team of co-authors, project managers, editors, designers and software developers. A big book project is dizzyingly complex and constantly shifting, and the only way to manage that is to have one person holding the centre, surrounded by world-class people that get things done.

Up-front funding

Publishing companies spend millions of dollars on the biggest commercial textbooks. The costs of research, writing, promotion, product design, production and logistics add up quickly, and most are incurred long before customers start paying for anything.

Free textbooks are no cheaper to produce than commercial ones. The money just flows through different channels. Instead of having customers buy a textbook at the end, funders buy the impact that that textbook might have.

Technology

Just a few years ago, it was impossible to produce truly high-quality books without expensive, proprietary software, and without recreating each format – print, ebook, web, app – as a separate project.

Today, my team maintains a single database of all of CORE’s textbook content, and we instantly generate the print, web, ebook and app versions as needed. The Android app has 4.7 stars and over ten thousand downloads. And the quality of the print edition is proven by the fact that Oxford University Press and Eyrolles put their brands on it, in print-distribution deals with CORE.

What comes next?

As this new kind of textbook takes market share from commercial incumbents, what questions get asked at universities, funders, and publishing companies? Until the economics of new publishing become clear, the questions themselves are interesting.

When students don’t have to spend a hundred dollars on a textbook, what else becomes possible? When lecturers know for sure that their students can access the textbook they’ve prescribed, how does that change teaching and learning? When their textbooks are driven by important, new ideas, rather than historical market expectations, do graduates think differently?

I’m looking forward to asking more questions, and to finding out the answers.

1 thought on “New publishing: how big ideas, strong leaders, and new tech are changing textbooks

  1. I have been in awe of this project since I became aware of it a few years ago because it challenges the traditional commercial publishing model and encourages students and lecturers to think differently about economics. Furthermore, It helps to reduce inequality by making resources available to those who may not have the means to buy an expensive textbook.

    Congratulations, and best wishes in your endeavours to help reduce inequality.

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