My guests for this week’s Innovators show are the co-founder (Eric Frank) and CTO (Jon Williams) of Flat World Knowledge, a new textbook publishing company with a refreshingly disruptive business model. Like any other textbook publishing company, Flat World is building up a stable of authors with whom it has exclusive (or, in this case, semi-exclusive) relationships. Authors assign the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike (by-nc-sa) license to their work. Flat World makes the books freely available online, in HTML and PDF formats. It sells print-on-demand copies of the books direct to students, along with a variety of study aids.

Ebooks are another potential source. But so far, Flat World has found that students overwhelmingly prefer to read printed books. Eric Frank has a wonderfully pragmatic view:

Publishers need to be device-agnostic in the broadest sense. The printed book is one of the devices we target.

As and when students indicate a preference for ebook formats, Flat World will provide them. It does seem that ebook readers are on the cusp of mainstream adoption. But it has seemed that way before. “It would be tragic,” Eric says, “to bet your business on that.”

The bet that Flat World is making is on a neutral format, Docbook XML, from which any other format can be automatically derived. I’ve done a lot of my own publishing to multiple formats from a single source. Back in 2003, when XML support was added to Microsoft Word — which was and is the tool of choice for book-length writing — I thought it would end the painful process of converting Word manuscripts into published formats. That mostly hasn’t happened yet. Jon Williams thinks that’s because, until recently, publishers didn’t need to automate the production of various electronic formats. As that need arises, we should finally begin to see end-to-end automation from original manuscript to published formats.

Flat World is a commercial publisher of open textbooks, and Eric is careful to spell out what he means by open. It doesn’t simply mean free, or collaborative, although there are both free and collaborative ways to use Flat World books. It means precisely what the by-nc-sa license says: You are free to use, share, and remix, with attribution, but not for commercial gain. Whenever a work yields commercial value, in any of the ways it might, that money must flow back to Flat World and its stable of authors.

The dominant revenue stream is print-on-demand. If Flat World is able to scale out its catalog — and that’s the biggest if the company faces — its printed textbooks will be an affordable alternative to conventional offerings. Meanwhile, teachers who adopt Flat World books can adapt them to their needs. In theory, a Flat World book can become a nexus of collaboration, grow more valuable as a result, convert some of that value into revenue, and share that revenue with a community of collaborators as well as with the publisher and author. It’s early days, and that hasn’t happened yet. But I like the way that Flat World has opened a door to that possibility, without betting its business on lots of people walking through it anytime soon.