Flat World Texts: Sort of Free, Sort of Good, Sort of in Your Future

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman declared in his book that “The World is Flat,” by which he meant that globalization had levelled the playing field so that all countries might now compete on more or less the same terms. Since its first publication four years ago, technological changes have only made the world flatter yet, as anyone who has taken a look at legal outsourcing to offshore jurisdictions must realize.

Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of texts, wants us to see how technology can make books more readily and cheaply available to college and university students because of technology and, I suppose, because of the ease with which manuscripts can be obtained from anywhere and distributed to anywhere. The deal is this: a course instructor selects online the text that he or she wishes to use for a course; because it’s in digital form, the instructor can, and is free to because of a Creative Commons license, modify the text in any way desirable; once firmed up, the text is made available online to students, who may use it online for free but who will pay in order to be able to download the book for printing or for use offline; the cost to the student is perhaps 20% of what a traditionally published text would sell for; authors obtain royalties.

A press release [PDF] this month says that 38,000 college students at 350 institutions are making use of the service for this fall’s courses, a huge increase from six months ago.

Of course, a text is only as good as the author. Flat World’s authors are all people with respectable c.v.s, generally from the smaller, local universities that proliferate in the United States. I suspect that no top rank academic would put a book in their hands knowing it could be altered by an adopter.

But the current set-up and roster of offerings aren’t really my point. I’m more interested in what use we in law might make of this model. For instance, I suspect that there are a great many things that would be useful for students, new lawyers and others to know that don’t require a highly sophisticated explanation. Various manuals, for example, might be useful in many firms, if each firm had the ability to adjust the text somewhat to fit their quirks and quiddities. If the creation of the base text were a group effort, cost of creation and maintaining it would be further reduced. In certain practices, client “hand holders” could be very helpful in explaining what the client should expect; and most of the material would not be lawyer specific.

The idea was mooted by at least one publisher, I know, for law school casebooks, where, it seems to me, it can make a great deal of sense.

At any rate, let us start realizing, if we haven’t already, that the legal universe is flatter than we might suppose, and that the world of legal publishing is about to conform to the shape of a pancake. Be good to be ready with the syrup, no?


  1. Thanks for the post. I am one of the co-founders of Flat World. I do want to clear up one issue. Our authors come from Cal Tech, NYU, University of Southern California, University of Wisconsin, and many other top institutions. Many of them rank amongst the top scholars in their field. More than half of them have successful textbooks with the major publishers, and have decided that the future of publishing is elsewhere. We are highly selective about our projects, turning away over 90% of proposals. All books are peer-reviewed and fully developed, illustrated, edited, etc. Finally, there are many reasons an author would want someone to be able to modify the book for his/her own course. First, it leads to getting more users, and higher impact (and royalties) because people value the ability to customize. Second, you keep users longer because the book becomes better for people as they invest their time in it. Third, you learn from each change people make, so that over time you can hone and sharpen the cannonical version, making it better and better from behavioral data. Finally, customization cuts down on second-hand markets, increasing sales and royalties. Happy to talk more about the model if you are interested – you’ve got my email. Thanks again for the post, and sorry for the long response.