Online books let college students earn credit—and cash

Traditional textbooks can cost more than $500 per semester, according to national surveys.
Traditional textbooks can cost more than $900 per year, according to national surveys.

Nineteen business majors are trying to sell the idea of free online textbooks to their professors in an internship program that pushes open-content technology designed to counter escalating book costs.

The internships, introduced this year by open textbook provider Flat World Knowledge, let sophomore and junior business students earn college credit and up to $1,800 if their sales pitch convinces a professor to use web-based texts that can be reorganized and modified by chapter, sentence, or word.

Students from schools that include New York University, the University of Florida, and the College of Charleston are being tutored via webinars by Flat World Knowledge sales pros and authors of textbooks that are sold on the Flat World web site.

The company has grown in the past year as the open-content movement has gained traction in higher education, buttressed by the Creative Commons license—which doesn’t require permission from authors to change parts of a book—and the rising cost of textbooks.

College students pay more than $900 annually for textbooks, according to national surveys released in 2008 and 2009.

More than 40,000 students at 400 colleges used Flat World textbooks in the fall 2009 semester, according to the company. That’s up significantly from about 1,000 students on 30 campuses who used Flat World material last spring. Students can order traditional bound textbooks for a minimal cost, usually around $25, according to the Flat World site.

Company officials said real-world training from seasoned salespeople would benefit the interns academically, and learning about open content and its growing role on university campuses would help spread the word to faculty looking to save their students money every semester. Flat World interns can earn money through sales made to professors.

“Not only are these talented students gaining professional sales and marketing experience, but their work will make a positive difference for future students,” said Jennifer Welchans, director of Flat World’s campus internship program. “Faculty benefit, too, by being exposed to new textbook options that provide them with more control over things like content and when to change textbook editions.”

Every Flat World intern makes $8 an hour for their work, said company co-founder Eric Frank, meaning students will make between $800 and $1,000 for the current spring semester.

“We don’t want a student to walk in and convince a professor they should use an open textbook, but to just raise awareness among faculty that there are alternatives to the traditional industry,” Frank said.

Interns could earn an extra $400 for “qualified leads” – professors who were interested enough to speak with a Flat World salesperson – and another $400 if the faculty member committed to using the company’s online books, he said.

Kristi Dwyer, a management and marketing major at Radford University in Radford, Va., and an intern for Flat World Knowledge, knows the pain of book buying in the first weeks of each semester. Dwyer said she spent about $800 on textbooks using money she made as a camp counselor last summer.