Flat World Knowledge, an unusual “open source” textbook publisher that offers its textbooks online for free, has teamed with three professors to produce, Atlas Black: Managing To Succeed, the first book in a comics format textbook series that teaches principles of business management at the college level. Organized and written by Jeremy Short, professor of management at Texas Tech University, and management professors Talya Bauer from Portland State University and Dave Ketchen from Auburn University, Atlas Black: Managing To Succeed, is illustrated Len Simon and available through the Flat World Knowledge website, online retailers and college bookstores.

Starring an amusing business school slacker by the name of Atlas Black, the graphic textbook was originally published as a series of short comics chapters focused on different areas of management and incorporated Black’s bumbling efforts to master basic business management principles, get through school and launch his own business. The book features vivid illustrations by Simon and funny dialog in a light hearted narrative focused on how the characters put management principles to use in their lives. In 2010 the chapters were collected and released as a complete textbook. Flat World will publish at least three more volumes starting with Atlas Black: Management Guru, the next book in the series; a complete 5 chapter comics-format textbook scheduled to be published this month.

The concept of a comics or “graphic novel” format textbook to teach business management was originally conceived by Short, who published a graphic novel version of a business case study for the Harvard Business School Press in the summer of 2009. Short said that after he saw books like Hill & Wang’s bestselling 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s comics recreation of the 9/11 Commission Report, he wanted something similar for his classes.

“Students enjoyed my classes but the textbooks were boring,” said Short, who teaches strategic management, entrepreneurship and organizational behavior at Texas Tech University. “I wasn’t really a huge comics fan but I saw the 9/11 book. I wanted something that offered that kind of storytelling using key business concepts throughout to show that business can be really interesting.” Short said the book was making money and getting media attention. “We want to make it a book that anyone would want to read,” said Short, who has also posted videos and book trailers about Atlas Black on YouTube. There is also a podcast about the book on the Flat World Knowledge website.

While the use of comics in classrooms from grade school to college is growing, a college text book aimed at teaching business management is a bit unusual. But Flat World Knowledge is an unusual textbook publisher. Launched in 2009, Flat World Knowledge is an effort to transform how college textbooks are published, priced and utilized by students. Indeed the company was founded to address the biggest problem in textbook publishing—the wildly escalating costs of producing textbooks, the complex process of state and university adoptions and the equally high prices students are forced to pay for print textbooks. Flat World Knowledge also attracts adoption of its textbooks by allowing college professors “customize” its textbooks to their individual curriculum.

Flat World Knowledge uses veteran and new textbook authors to create textbooks that are published online and offered for free. The firm generates revenue by providing low cost supplemental material tied to the online texts including downloadable PDFs, digital study aids, audiobook downloads and more. While students can purchase print versions of the book—generally $29.95 for a black and white printed version or $59.95 for a color version—most students use a combination of the free online version and inexpensive digital downloads. The result is an average student purchase of about $30 at time when textbook prices can be well over $100 for single text.

While Atlas Black does not follow the Flatworld Knowledge business model completely—only the first chapter is offered for free—it is priced at $14.95 for a black and white print version and it is available as digital download. However, unlike the prose textbooks, Atlas Black cannot be customized by individual professors.

Flat World CEO and co-founder Jeff Shelstad said that Atlas Black was available on 25 campuses and he expected that number to rise to 75-100 colleges by next year. He views the book as an “ancillary text that can be used with more conventional textbooks.” Shelstad said the book has “great content and students are using it,” but he also noted that a comics format textbook is “pretty different” even for an unconventional publisher like Flat World. “This kind of book is even more of a change for the average faculty member and it will be slower to be picked up than our other texts. There’s not a lot of college faculty will build a course around a graphic novel,” Shelstad said.

“But we’re committed to the book,” Shelstad said, pointing to the publication of Management Guru this month and to new installments of Atlas Black on franchising next year and a book on finding the right college coming after that. And Shelstand said that in June, Short will attend the Organizational Behavior Teaching Conference in Albuquerque, NM, a conference that draws more than 300 business management faculty members, to promote the graphic textbook for adoption.

Atlas Black is pretty unique,” Shelstad said. “I think we’re the only publisher offering a graphic novel textbook for a business school curriculum. We like the concept and we’re working hard to get the book into more schools,” said Shelstad.