Publishing Industry Innovators of 2009: Flat World Knowledge and Bookshare

Last Updated Dec 30, 2009 3:04 PM EST

Earlier this month, when Flat World Knowledge, the largest commercial publisher of open-source college textbooks, announced that it will supply its books to Bookshare, the largest online accessible library for people with print disabilities, the emerging universe of digital books just became a much better place.

That's only partly because of the obvious -- that Bookshare, which is operated by Benetech, converts books via Braille and Daisy to make them accessible to anyone who is "print disabled."

Even though the estimated proportion of the U.S. population that technically qualifies as print disabled is small, about one to two percent currently, any step toward making books accessible to them will also benefit millions of other people in the process.

That's because those learning English as a second language, have various reading or learning disabilities, or whose sight is slowly failing will also be helped by this move. Plus more and more of us will be falling into one or more of these categories as time goes on.

Flat World said it is supplying its books to Bookshare in XML, which makes the conversion process to accessible versions quicker and cheaper, by sidestepping the expensive scanning and proofreading stages.

The lesson here for media industry execs is that the technologies your company employs ought to always, as a best practice, be made accessible to the most vulnerable among us. For startup companies, this concept also needs to be baked into your product from day one, because it is much more expensive to retrofit it later on.

In my earlier coverage of Flat World Knowledge, I've taken note of its disruptive business model, which is challenging the three big textbook companies by widening access to affordable digital textbooks in ways that benefit students, professors, and universities -- in other words a win, win win.

Add to this the Bookshare deal, IMHO, and you have a big winner for society at large. Expect the rest of the textbook industry to follow this lead next year.

Related Link:
Flat World Knowledge: A Disruptive Business Model
  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.

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