Back in September 2012, when Governor Jerry Brown of California signed legislation that supports the creation of 50 free textbooks for common undergraduate courses, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) critiqued the idea of free textbooks, suggesting California’s proposal would cost “tens of millions of dollars to develop, distribute and maintain.” More recently, Flatworld Knowledge announced it will no longer provide free access to its digital textbooks after January 1, 2013.
But what happens when writers–particularly academics–write textbooks for their students and make them freely available? How expensive is it to produce a book-length OER (Open Education Resource)?
As an example, consider Writing Commons, http://writingcommons.org, an OER project that grew out of an interactive, online textbook I published with Pearson back in 2003, College Writing Online. A comprehensive rhetoric/reader, College Writing Online provided a thorough introduction to writing strategies, academic genres, and information literacy, and academic research methods.
Once Pearson returned copyright in 2008, I decided to publish the book online for free under a Creative Commons Copyright. While I considered a second edition with a traditional college textbook publisher, I chose the self-publishing route because I didn’t want to lose control over the resource. While the resource was parked behind Pearson’s paywall, it received very few adoptions and little notoriety, other than receiving the Distinguished Book Award from Computers and Composition, an International Journal. By controlling the development and marketing of the site, I was sure I could avoid another paywall debacle–and help a good many college-level writers in the process.
Plus, during the process of co-authoring Agency in the Age of Peer Production, I’d grown passionate about the power of peer production. By inviting academics worldwide to co-author webtexts with me, I believed I could extend the scope of the project so that it was a viable alternative to expensive textbooks for all college-level courses that require writing, including, for example, advanced composition, professional and technical writing courses, creative nonfiction, creative writing, and poetry. Hence, during 2010, I invited distinguished faculty and writers–people like Howard Rheingold, James P. Gee, Martin Weller–to serve on an Editorial Board or Review Editor Board. And since then we have published multiple calls for webtexts (see Contribute!)
Now, a good many years later, I’m delighted to report that our efforts to grow Writing Commons like an academic journal have worked out really well. We’ve reviewed over 75 new webtexts, and we are in the process of publishing some excellent free resources for college students. Perhaps the most exciting result is that traffic is really blowing up! Since February of this year, 105,532 unique visitors have accessed Writing Commons. Via Google Analytics, we can watch the active visitors on the site, note the pages they’re using, and even look via Google Maps at where our readers are living.
So what has publishing Writing Commons cost–besides my time or the time of our staff? About $70.00/year.
Clearly, this isn’t good news for AAP or traditional textbook publishers but it’s great news for students who otherwise cannot afford textbooks. And it’s great news for authors–to find they can develop a community around their projects. This is a remarkable time to live as a writer, a time when an idea can easily be published worldwide. Academics need to reconsider traditional publishing practices, particularly the time-honored move of signing away copyright in order to advance publication.