I got to have a phone interview with Eric Frank, co-founder of Flat World Knowledge. His company is hoping to turn the entire textbook industry upside-down by doing something crazy: offering textbooks for free.

HC: What is Flat World Knowledge?

EF: First and foremost, Flat World Knowledge is a publishing operation. We’re publishing great authors under a whole new business model, enabled by great new technology.

HC: How did you start Flat World Knowledge?

EF: My partner and I started planning Flat World Knowledge in January 2007. We had both just come out of working for big publishing companies. In the beginning, we had no business plan. We only knew there was tremendous dissatisfaction among students, growing dissatisfaction among professors and growing frustration among authors. We wanted to make sure we did things right, so we spent the first 3 months traveling around talking to students, professors and administrators, and building a plan from those conversations.

HC: Was it difficult to attract authors?

EF: Overall the answer is no. We found it easier to do with Flat World Knowledge than the big guys. The reason is the authors see us as a good opportunity to jump a sinking ship. There’s not a lot of difference between any of the big publishers any more. And we’ve got 2 trump cards: we’re playing the good guys and we’re going to be first to market with a new model that enables them to build share quickly with a major competitive advantage, and earn more compensation under this model than the traditional one.

HC: What’s your business model?

EF: First of all, all of our books are open. That means it’s free for everyone: professors and students alike. The books are online and no registration is required.

HC: How are you going to make money?

EF: Good question. We will still actually be selling textbooks. If students prefer books, they can buy them from us for $29 in black and white or $59 for a color version. Students also have the option of buying Kindle, audiobook or PDF versions. Each of those go for $1.99 per chapter or $19.95 for the entire book, or an audio book for $2.99 per chapter or $29.95 for the entire book. We’ll also be selling study aides. Each chapter in a book will have at least 3 study aides for purchase: flash cards, executive summaries and online quizes that reflect the test questions.

HC: Is there any cool technology behind Flat World Knowledge?

EF: Of course! First of all, professors are able to completely customize their books. Each professor teaches in a different way, so we want the books to be flexible to their needs. With Flat World Knowledge books, a professor can pick and choose which chapters she wants in her book, add their own materials, and in a later release, actually edit the book for their own class at the sentence level.

Also, there’s technology that the students can take advantage of. There are ways that you can treat content where it’s tagged, structured and stored in a database. Students will have the ability to comment and ask questions about a specific section of a text. Students in Florida will be able to interact with students in California.

HC: What do you think about Textbook Torrents?

EF: As a publisher, I believe in the protection of copyright. Authors that create useful content should be compensated, just like a musician that makes good content. Publishers need to be able to sustain themselves. I’m opposed to pirating content for no reason.

But when you have a situation like this, it is absolutely inevitable that the customers of an industry will find their own solution. With Flat World Knowledge, you don’t have to pirate it because it’s free! With our other options we believe that if we offer reasonable prices, students are reasonable people and will buy stuff.

HC: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

EF: We are asking students to help mobilize and assist the adoption of Flat World Knowledge. We’re putting together FWK street teams and also looking into hiring student sales representatives, where they will actually be able to make commission on sales.

HC: How should students get in touch with you to get involved with Flat World Knowledge?

EF: They can email me at eric@flatworldknowledge.com.