Founded in 2007 by Eric Frank and Jeff Shelstad, FlatWorld Knowledge was intended to combat the high cost of college textbooks by publishing low-cost, quality educational materials, often in digital formats. Over the years, however, the company shifted from its original plans in the textbook market to focus on other educational materials offering higher margins.
In 2016, the company was acquired by Alastair Adam and John Eielson, two information publishing entrepreneurs who returned FlatWorld to its original concept of providing students access to high-quality textbooks at low prices. “We saw that FlatWorld had a lot of goodwill in the marketplace and that there was a lot of recognition of the brand,” Adam said. They dropped the word knowledge from the name and rebranded the company FlatWorld, and moved it from the Washington D.C. area to the Boston area, where their previous ventures had been located.
Since the acquisition and move, Adam said, the company has rebounded. The staff has grown to about 50, including about 20 field sales reps. “We’re looking to double the number of field reps,” Adam noted. FlatWorld Knowledge’s original business plan was based on a “freemium” model that provided basic online textbooks for free and sold supplementary materials. The freemium model was dropped by FlatWorld’s original owners, and Adam said that “freemium is not the way to go.”
Adam described a textbook marketplace that is currently divided between traditional publishers charging high prices for their titles and open source vendors offering free digital content. Adam said there’s a third way: a sustainable business model based on fair pricing. In an online article addressing the issue, Adam wrote that publishers “can set prices that are fair to all involved parties—students, authors, and publishers.”
Under FlatWorld’s new business model, a student can get access to an online textbook for a subscription fee of $30. The student can also get access to the same textbook in other formats at an additional cost—such as a color print edition for $25. But, Adam emphasized, students are not required to buy any additional formats.
In addition to print and online textbooks, FlatWorld offers e-book versions, Kindle e-book editions, and PDFs. The company is working on supporting audiobook texts. The publisher also offers FlatWorld Unlimited, an “all you can eat” subscription option offered to universities. The unlimited subscription gives the university's student body access to all the content areas offered by FlatWorld.
FlatWorld currently offers 125 textbooks on core subject matters. “They’re all high-quality, peer reviewed textbooks,” Adam said, further noting that FlatWorld’s textbooks are customizable; teachers can add material to each book they use. According to him, “more than 4,000 professors at hundreds of colleges in the U.S. and Canada have adopted FlatWorld textbooks.”
Adam attributed FlatWorld’s growth to the exorbitant prices others charge for traditional textbooks. “We acquired FlatWorld in 2016; we turned it around and returned to growth in 2017, and now we’re looking at 50% to 100% growth,” he said. “We’re a solid multimillion dollar company.”
Correction: students pay Flatworld a $30 subscription fee for access to a basic text not a flat fee as stated in an earlier version of this story. In addition the Flatworld Unlimited plan is a university-wide subscription plan that is not offered to individuals and the size of the Flatworld staff was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.