I soon discovered that the college textbook market was, for lack of a more delicate word, a scam. Textbook publishers were manipulating oddities in the market. New editions of texbooks came out suspiciously often, and professors and department chairs picked out books for their students without regard for price. By forcing students to buy new editions even though they had only minor cosmetic changes from earlier editions, the publishers were effectively tanking the used book market. The market was clearly distorted, and I wasn't the only one who saw it. Searching the 2003-era internet, I found an excellent free online phsyics book that could easily have substituted if my professor would have chosen to use it. Intrigued, I kept looking and soon found hundreds of free online textbooks in practically every subject.
These weren't pirated copies, mind you. These were legitimate attempts to create textbooks that could be used in a classroom setting by anyone with a laptop. Many of these books were written by college professors who were for some reason unhappy the offerings available from the big publishers, often because of the price-gouging the publishers were engaging in. Not all of the books were good enough for a college class, but many of them were. In fact, a sizable number of these books were actually in use school settings.
So I started cataloging these free books, first in a favorites folder in my browser and later using early blogging software at the website www.textbookrevolution.org. I'd come home from school, google around for free textbooks, add links and brief descriptions to my little website, and try to figure out a way to get the professors in my own school to start using these books. It's safe to say I have a bit of a geek streak.
After doing this for a little while, I started to get some attention. Jason Kottke gave me my first boost. Then I made it to the front page of Digg.com a couple of times. Professors and book authors who wanted to digitize and give away their books started contacting me. I got interviewed, first by small school papers and then by legit news outlets like USA Today and US News and World Reports (click here for a list of press appearances). A reporter from NPR came to my house, and months later a friend in Florida told me he'd heard the story on the radio. I'd occasionally check my traffic to find out that 30,000 people had visited my dorky little free textbook blog while I was asleep.
This also got me into the world of copyright activism and the free speech issues that surround it. I learned who Lawrence Lessig was and saw him speak, read Cory Doctorow's posts religiously, snagged a copy of Kembrew McLeod's Freedom of Expression, and became email acquaintances with the amazing gang at Downhill Battle, the precursor to Fight for the Future. I licensed all of the text on the site under Creative Commons and bought a copyleft t-shirt that I still own. I even talked my way into an upper-level public policy class with former governor Michael Dukakis and wrote a 60-page policy paper on copyright issues, which you can download here. I've placed it in the public domain if you want to use it.
I've always had an entrepreneurial streak, so when I first got going with the website I promised myself that I would run it like a small business and be professional. I never planned on monetizing it, nor did I expect there would ever be any value to my little blog. But my timing was good and a number of companies were trying new things in the textbook market. Freeload Press (now Textbook Media), a company made up of former textbook publishing executives, eventually bought me out in a cash and stock deal about the time I graduated in 2007. I stayed on for a year or so as an advisor and helped them move over to a symantic wiki platform. The website stayed up until mid-2013 when it was hacked. The domain name is still active, so hopefully they will eventually be able to get it back up and running.
I haven't been active in the world of free textbooks or copyright advocacy for years, but I still follow the issue from time to time. We haven't won the battle yet, but the idea of quality open-source textbooks available for free or at very low cost is still out there. In the meantime, Giancolo's Physics, the book that started it all, is on its 7th edition since 1980 and has risen to over $200. And that $150 version that I balked at in 2004? It's now just $3.62, used.