Flat World Knowledge


Flat World Knowledge
HeadquartersBoston, MA, United States
Area served
Key people
Alastair Adam, Co-CEO; John Eielson, Co-CEO

FlatWorld is a publisher of college-level textbooks and educational supplements[1] founded in 2007 as Flat World Knowledge by Eric Frank and Jeff Shelstad.[2] It was acquired at the end of 2016 by Alastair Adam and John Eielson and its company headquarters was moved from Washington, DC to Boston, MA. The company originally offered every textbook published free using online delivery under the open content paradigm,[3][4] but in November 2012, the company announced that it will no longer offer a free version citing financial concerns as the reason for the change.[5]

Following the 2016 acquisition, the company rebranded as FlatWorld. FlatWorld publishes more than 100 peer-reviewed textbooks.

Company history


Flat World Knowledge was founded in 2007 by Jeff Shelstad and Eric Frank in Nyack, New York.[6]


Flat World Knowledge began alpha testing of their platform and business model spring of 2008.[7] Two alpha phases involved faculty and one alpha phase involved students. The company then moved to small-scale private beta testing in 27 classes.[8] Based on results from these studies, the business model was determined viable and the company moved toward preparing for a public beta launch in January 2009.[9]


During the spring of 2009, 30 colleges adopted FlatWorld open textbooks in public beta bringing the company their first 1,000 users. Eight textbooks were published at the time.[10] By August 2009, Flat World textbooks had been adopted at 400 colleges for use by 40,000 students.[11][12]

Flat World Knowledge and Lyryx Learning Team Up to Offer Free and Open Textbooks With Integrated Assessment.[13]

The company also published a graphic novel, Atlas Black: Managing to Succeed in August.


Flat World Knowledge moved from Nyack, New York to Irvington, New York to accommodate company growth.[14]

Flat World Knowledge entered into a unique licensing agreement with Virginia State University in 2010. For eight core business courses, students gained access to all electronic formats of select textbooks including study aids. Unlike traditional licensing models, students retain access to course materials and study aids indefinitely through their Flat World student account. Audio textbook versions and ePub files similarly do not expire. The price for this universal digital access license is cited as $20 per student by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.[15]

The Virginia State University program is featured in the BizEd article "Digital at the Core." Virginia State University is using the agreement as part of a university effort to "save money, save the environment, improve student retention, and prepare business graduates for the complex working world."[16]

As of August 2010, the number of colleges and universities using FlatWorld open textbooks doubled to 800 higher education institutions. Student users more than tripled with 150,000 students using 24 published titles.

During fall semester 2010, 50 additional titles were announced as in the publication pipeline.[17] 2010 also marked crossing the threshold of having 100 authors signed to write open textbooks for publication by Flat World Knowledge.[18]

Flat World Knowledge claimed that in its second full academic year of operation, they would save[19] 150,000 college students $12 million in textbook costs in the 2010–2011 school year after adoptions by more than 1,300 educators as of August 2010.[20]

In December 2010, Outsell Inc. named Flat World Knowledge as one of "30 to Watch" for 2011 among innovators and disruptors who were selected for "shaking up their respective marketplaces."[21][22]

2012 - 2015

In November 2012, FlatWorld announced that it will no longer provide free access to their textbook content citing financial concerns as the reason for this change.[5] Unable to continue to operate without a way to generate greater revenue, it instituted a paywall and moved away from the open model. Over the next three years, the company pivoted focus, investing in developing a new, competency-based learning platform and line of business.


In late 2016, the core textbook publishing business, Flat World Knowledge, was spun off and acquired by Alastair Adam and John Eielson and rebranded as FlatWorld. The remaining competency-based learning business was rebranded as Sagence Learning. Adam and Eielson saw an opportunity to disrupt the higher-education publishing market, where fewer and fewer students were able to afford a new textbook and were increasingly reliant on used, rented or outdated editions of titles. They wanted to refocus FlatWorld on low-cost, high-quality textbooks, available in whatever format the student preferred. They believed that by offering high-quality textbooks at affordable prices, they could put a new, current edition textbook in every student’s hands on the first day of class.


FlatWorld secured $11.5 million in investments through 2010, including an initial $700k angel investment.[23][24][25][26]

In January 2011, $15 million in Series B funding led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI), a wholly owned subsidiary of Bertelsmann AG, and Bessemer Venture Partners was announced. Returning investors for Series B funding include Valhalla Partners, GSA Venture Partners (formerly Greenhill SAVP),[27] Primary Venture Partners and several angel investors.[28][29][30]

Random House announced an investment in Flat World Knowledge in April, 2011.[31] Random House is the world's largest publisher of commercial trade books. Random House chairman and CEO Markus Dohle states Flat World Knowledge is a “transformative company in higher-education publishing” and said, “We [at Random House] share a strong drive to make high-quality academically-oriented content widely available and affordable for students and educators, and we welcome the opportunity to invest in Flat World's growth."[32]


A Canadian representation agreement was announced in March 2011 with Northrose Associates of Whitby, Ontario, Canada. The Canadian higher education system faces challenges similar to U.S. higher education providers from the ever escalating costs of traditional college textbooks. Open textbooks from Flat World Knowledge will be actively marketed by the firm to educators and higher education administrators across Canada.[33][34]

In addition to use in Canada, worldwide learners are accessing Flat World Knowledge textbooks regularly. Adoptions have been reported in 44 countries. The company actively promotes use of their free and open textbook delivery platform to advance education internationally.[35] The most frequent international access originates in India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Romania, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Germany. International usage is growing rapidly. In March 2011 alone traffic increased enough in four countries to be added to the cited Alexa Internet traffic ranking report.[36] The "Make it Your Own" (MIYO) feature of the company's publishing platform allows for customization and annotation of published titles in English and other languages.[37]


The company was featured in Chris Anderson's Free: The Future of a Radical Price in 2008.[38]

In 2009, BNET recognized Flat World Knowledge as an industry innovator for introducing an abundance-based disruptive business model[39] to the college textbook industry.[40] That same year, Flat World Knowledge and Bookshare were jointly recognized as publishing industry innovators of 2009.[41]

Flat World Knowledge was identified in a 2010 report by Nicole Allen of The Student PIRGs A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks are the Path to Textbook Affordability[42] and the New Media Consortium's 2010 Horizon Report as a contributor to the rapidly progressing adoption of open content in higher education.[43]

In December 2010, the American Library Association's Business Reference Sources Committee of RUSA's Business Reference and Services Section (BRASS) selected Flat World Knowledge's Business and Economics open textbooks for their 2010 list of "outstanding business reference sources."[44] Specific criteria used by the American Library Association BRASS when evaluating texts for selection were:

"A resource compiled specifically to supply information on a certain subject or group of subjects in a form that will facilitate its ease of use. The works are examined for authority and reputation of the publisher, author, or editor; accuracy; appropriate bibliography; organization, comprehensiveness, and value of the content; currency and unique addition to the field; ease of use for intended purpose; quality and accuracy of indexing; and quality and usefulness of graphics and illustrations. Each year more electronic reference titles are published, and additional criteria by which these resources are evaluated include search features, stability of content, graphic design quality, and accuracy of links. Works selected are intended to be suitable for medium to large academic and public libraries."

Refer to caption and adjacent text.
The cover of the 2011 Texty Award-winning book, Organizational Behavior

The Flat World Knowledge open textbook Organizational Behavior[45] by Talya Bauer and Berrin Erdogan was recognized by the Text and Academic Author's Association with a Textbook Excellence Award ("Texty") in March 2011. "This is the first time that an open textbook has won a Texty," notes Richard Hull, TAA’s executive director, "and signals the emergence of a new publishing model."[46] Winners are determined by a panel of veteran academic authors. The award seeks to "recognize works for their excellence in the areas of content, presentation, appeal, and teachability."[47]

In March 2012, Flat World Knowledge titles won two "Texty" awards. "Information Systems: A Manager’s Guide to Harnessing Technology," 2nd ed., by John Gallaugher won best new textbook of the year for the College, Accounting/Business/Economics/Management category. "Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World" by Steve Barkan won best new textbook of the year for the category College, Humanities/Social Sciences.[48]

Accessibility and regulatory issues


Flat World Knowledge textbooks are developed for accessible publishing natively to facilitate compliance with expectations placed on educators for assuring student accessibility to course materials set forth in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). For students with text, vision, vision and hearing, or physical disabilities, Flat World Knowledge has partnered with Bookshare to provide no-charge accessible digital books including an electronic Braille format. Bookshare members with qualifying disabilities have immediate access to course and reference materials online as opposed to having to request materials direct from the publisher by mail or through another intermediary. According to Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, the non-profit organization that operates Bookshare, "Without the cooperation of a publisher such as Flat World, students often wait for weeks to get textbooks in accessible formats and, in some cases, are forced to drop courses[49] due to lack of accessible books. Flat World is the first postsecondary textbook publisher to recognize and alleviate this problem."[50]

Price disclosure and edition availability

Flat World Knowledge claims to make compliance with the recent Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) simple as the basic price for their textbooks is free and once published, any edition number remains available online at no charge or available for order in print by students, educators, and bookstores on-demand; educators change versions only when they wish and book versions are never "out of print."[51][52][53]


Digital textbook and course material formats offer sustainability advantages over traditional paper textbooks.[54][55] According to a publishing industry study, an estimated "net [carbon] emission of 8.85 pounds per book [is created for each paper book] sold to consumers."[56] The net carbon emission for textbooks is much higher as the industry average includes high volume small paperbacks, children's books, and many other small form factors popular with consumers.

In 2010-2011, approximately 57.5% of students using FlatWorld texts opted for entirely digital delivery. As of fall 2011, 70% of students opt for digital formats,[57] significantly reducing the ecologic footprint from textbook use when compared to the historic paper textbook format.[58][59] Demand for free internet, ePub, .MOBI (Kindle), and PDF format books and materials are growing rapidly. Flat World Knowledge is "far ahead of the industry curve" for digital format use.[60]

For the approximately 30% of students who choose a print version over a digital one, Flat World Knowledge uses just-in-time centralized and local print on demand in their business model.[58][61]

Local print on demand of licensed content offers environmental benefits by saving the need to produce, store, and ship books from a central location — saving energy, natural resources, and cost. Eliminating the need for shipping alone eliminates at least 12.7% of the carbon footprint for paper books.[56]

Flat World Knowledge offers local booksellers the opportunity to license open textbook content for on-demand printing by the Espresso Book Machine[62] and similar equipment, removing the need for shipping and warehouse inventory, bulk receiving, and stocking shelves. Local print on demand is an emerging trend that will help reduce environmental and financial costs of textbooks as the technology is adopted to serve educators and learners who desire print format books.[63][64][65][66]

Some students use accessible and audio formats. Though Braille embossers print on paper, it is essential to provide access to educational materials in the format of choice to students regardless of disability. The same electronic file that is provided for a Braille embosser by Bookshare for Flat World Knowledge open textbooks is also compatible with many refreshable Braille displays.

Other accessible and audio mp3 formats are very sustainable as they are electronic.



Until November 2012,[5] Flat World open textbooks were available to read for free through the Flat World Knowledge website in an e-reader like format. Any user with access to the Internet was able to read the entire textbook catalog for free. This option has since been eliminated because too many students were taking advantage of this option and the FWK business model was becoming unsustainable without increased revenue from the other options.

Accessible formats of published works for people with qualifying disabilities are available at no charge through Bookshare.


Textbooks in formats including print, individual PDF chapters, ePub, .MOBI (Kindle), audio mp3, abridged audio study mp3, and optional study tools are available for purchase by students direct, through bookstores,[67] and via select online providers.

For users that desire note taking, highlighting, flash cards, or access to a condensed study view of textbooks through their online account, a paid study pass purchase is required.

Derivative works

Derivative works created through the Flat World publishing engine are available online at no charge in the two formats described earlier or for purchase in print format direct or through bookstores by ISBN. An ISBN is generated for all derivative work publications developed through the Flat World Knowledge publishing engine as is a Creative Commons license compatible with the original work.[68] Accessible derivative work versions of Flat World Knowledge titles are made available for students with disabilities through Bookshare upon request.

Compatible devices

The company produces textbooks in a device-agnostic manner[69] to facilitate use of electronic publication formats on all major platforms including iPad, iPhone, Amazon Kindle, Nook, EnTourage eDGe, Sony Reader, and Android devices.

No Internet browser preference is stated for general access to free online reading over the Internet. Flat World Knowledge textbooks can be viewed on all major browsers and platforms.

Content management systems

Flat World Knowledge textbook content can be integrated directly into a learning management system such as Blackboard Learning System, ANGEL, Moodle, WebCT, or Desire2Learn.[70] Direct linking is available to Flat World textbooks, sections, and individual pages so other means of accumulating content in containers for group access to course learning materials are also supported. This addresses a controversy over time limitations placed on access to course content held by academic period based learning management systems.[71]

Flat World Knowledge provides instructor resources including test banks and lecture slides to registered and verified educators at no charge. Instructor testing and quiz materials are suitable for import into learning management systems. Specifically cited formats include[Blackboard Learning System, ANGEL, Moodle, and WebCT plus a Respondus Neutral Personality file suitable for import to compatible systems.[72] Compatible systems cited by Respondus include those previously listed plus Desire2Learn and eCollege.[73]

Open-licensed textbook permissions

Non-commercial use

Usage permissions granted automatically under the Creative Commons license assigned to Flat World textbooks lets users remix, annotate, and build upon the publication non-commercially[74] as long as users give credit to the original author(s) and license their new creations under identical (share-alike) terms.[75][76] Translations are also automatically permissible under these licenses, either complete or as embedded content within the English or other language text. Educators are allowed to edit, add their own content, or insert annotations in a self-service manner using the Flat World Knowledge publishing engine available over the Internet.[77]

Commercial use

Commercial use of published works requires an arrangement with the company and respective authors. Authors and the company are entitled to royalties from commercial use "in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation" according to license terms.[78][79]

See also


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  2. ^ Lener, Edward and Cy Dillon. "Building a Better Model: Eric Frank on Flat World Knowledge." Virginia Libraries. Jan–Feb–Mar 2010, pp. 5–9.
  3. ^ Flat World Knowledge [1] with company story.
  4. ^ Wong, Chin. "Textbooks for free." Manila Standard Today. September 28, 2010.
  5. ^ a b c Howard, Jennifer. "Flat World Knowledge to Drop Free Access to Textbooks". Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2 September 2013.
  6. ^ Carpenter, Mason A. "Flat World Knowledge: Creating a Global Revolution in College Textbooks!" Social Science Research Network. Case abstract available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1588144.
  7. ^ Haiken, Melanie. "Save Cash – Download Your Textbooks An Online Startup Plans to Disrupt the Staid World of Textbook Publishing." Fortune Small Business. December 4, 2008.
  8. ^ Snyder, Chris. "Open Source Textbooks Challenge a Paradigm." Wired.com. September 1, 2008.
  9. ^ Hilton, John Levi III, and David A. Wiley. "A Sustainable Future for Open Textbooks?" Archived 2011-01-06 at the Wayback Machine The Flat World Knowledge Story. First Monday. Vol 15, No 8. August 2, 2010.
  10. ^ Abell, John C. "Open Source Textbook Company Now BMOC at 400 Colleges." Wired.com. August 20, 2009.
  11. ^ Oshiro, Dana. "Open Textbooks Gaining Ground: Flat World in 400 Colleges." Archived 2010-07-02 at the Wayback Machine Read Write Web. August 20, 2009.
  12. ^ Hoover, Lisa. "Flat World Knowledge Offers Open Source-Style College Textbooks." Gigaom Ostatic. March 25, 2009.
  13. ^ News Room. "Flat World Knowledge and Lyryx Learning Team Up to Offer Free and Open Textbooks With Integrated Assessment." Market Wired, April 30, 2009.
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  16. ^ Martin, Mirta M. "Digital at the Core." Archived 2011-09-28 at the Wayback Machine BizEd 9, no. 6 November 2010 pp. 40–43.
  17. ^ Biba, Paul. "Flatworld Knowledge Textbook Usage Doubles for 2010/11 Academic Year." TeleRead. August 23, 2010.
  18. ^ Butler, Mary. "Open Textbooks Offer Instructors More Control, Customizability." Archived 2010-10-13 at the Wayback Machine ASSETT. September 14, 2010.
  19. ^ Kolowich, Steve. "A Call for Open Textbooks." Inside Higher Ed. October 1, 2010.
  20. ^ Walters, Carole. "150,000 College Students to Save $12 Million Using Flat World Knowledge Open Textbooks for 2010/2011 Academic Year: Transformative New Publishing Model Gaining Traction With Faculty, Students, Authors." Marketwire. August 23, 2010.
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  25. ^ Ricketts, Camille. "Flat World Knowledge Lands $8M for Online College Textbooks." VentureBeat. March 24, 2009.
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  27. ^ GSA Venture Partners. Focus. Archived 2010-11-23 at the Wayback Machine "We serve entrepreneurs who transform industries and build great companies. As active, long-term partners to our entrepreneurs, we contribute capital, strategic advice, and a deep network of relationships to fuel their success." 2011.
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  29. ^ Purkiss, Alan. "Bertelsmann Puts Cash Into College Textbook Publisher, FT Says." Bloomberg. January 20, 2011.
  30. ^ Edgecliffe-Johnson, Andrew. "Bertelsmann Backs Open Textbook Publisher." Financial Times. January 20, 2011.
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  33. ^ CARL ABRC. "Open Textbook Publisher Flat World Knowledge Expands its Presence in Canada." Archived 2011-07-06 at the Wayback Machine The Canadian Association of Research Libraries. March 4, 2011.
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  37. ^ Hampson, Keith. "Interview: Ed Tech Leader, Jon Williams of Flat World Knowledge." Higher Education Management Group via Bloomberg Businessweek Business Exchange. May 2, 2011.
  38. ^ Anderson, Chris. "Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business." Wired.com. February 25, 2008.
  39. ^ Creative Commons. "Creative Commons Case Studies: Flat World Knowledge." Company CEO states in GOOD blog entry, "[D]isruptive business model is based on the idea of abundance, not scarcity." September 2, 2010.
  40. ^ Weir, David. Flat World Knowledge: A Disruptive Business Model. bNet.com. August 20, 2009.
  41. ^ Weir, David. "Publishing Industry Innovators of 2009: Flat World Knowledge and Bookshare." bNet.com. December 30, 2009.
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  50. ^ Bookshare. "Flat World Knowledge Partners with Bookshare: Breakthrough Agreement Reduces Costs for Postsecondary Institutions; Improves Timely Access to Core Textbooks in Accessible Formats." Joint Press Release. December 14, 2009.
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External links

  • "Online Textbooks Deliver Timely, Real-world Content" by Kim Seidel. EDUCAUSE Review. January/February 2009.
  • Digital Textbook Sales in U.S. Higher Education — A Five-Year Projection by Rob Reynolds. ("Factors within the Publishing and Education Markets Affecting the Sales of Digital Textbooks" section and trend charts) Explana. 2010.
  • "A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks are the Path to Textbook Affordability." Original research report by Nicole Allen of The Student PIRGs.
  • Creative Commons Talks With Student PIRGs’ Nicole Allen: "Open Education and Policy." October 14, 2010.
  • "Get Rid of Print and Go Digital" by Anya Kamenetz in the New York Times. August 16, 2010.