Explaining that its freemium business model has become unfair to its licensing and retail partners and “a barrier to our long-term growth,” open source textbook publisher Flatworld Knowledge is eliminating free access to its online textbook content. While the company will end free access in January 2013, Flatworld Knowledge emphasized that it is still committed to providing students with “affordable” access to quality, peer reviewed textbooks via a $19.99 “study pass,” a $34.95 “all access pass” and other price points.

Flatworld Knowledge originally launched offering students free access to the full-text of its textbooks and made money by selling a variety of digital “study aids,” interactive tools, quizzes and guides as well as PDF versions of the book and audiobooks. FK also offers its textbooks in every digital platform as well as low-cost print versions. But as the company has expanded its business model to include offering its digital textbooks through college bookstores and through site licenses with universities that allow students to get access to all their textbooks via a flat student free, the sustainability of its core free-access model has come into question

Flatworld Knowledge is based in Irvington, NY, near the Hudson River and PW contacted Flatworld Knowledge CEO Jeff Shelstad while he was in the process of moving the company’s offices, which were flooded during Hurricane Sandy, to temporary offices nearby. Shelstad pointed to site licensing deals at schools like Virginia State University and deals with Barnes & Noble College Bookstores, Follet and the National Association of College Stores that make FK texts available via thousands of college bookstores. FK offers about 115 textbooks that are being used by more than 2,000 schools around the world.

Shelstad said, “We have an issue of fairness with our retail partners and institutional partners who are all charging an access fee,” and acknowledged that the free-access model also threatened, “our overall sustainability.”

However, Shelstad was quick to emphasize that Flatword Knowledge remains committed to “access and affordability,” noting that while the free access web format was being eliminated, the company offers a variety of for-pay access levels “significantly lower than the $100 that students are used to paying for other textbooks.”

FK offers a $19.99 basic "study pass" that provides access to an online textbook with note-taking and highlighting functionality and interactive study aids; there's a $34.95 “all access pass” that offers the online textbook, study aids, a PDF version and downloads to all devices; and a $49.95 “VIP pass” offering all the aforementioned content and a print edition. Students can also purchase a print volume of FK digital textbooks for $34.95.