The website What’s New in Publishing published their interview of Bookboon’s COO, Thomas Buus Madsen.
Tuesday, 19 June 2012 – 10:01am
WNIP: Tell us a bit about Bookboon.com…
Thomas Buus Madsen: Our main focus is free university textbooks for engineering, IT and business students, written by university professors from all over the world. Our mission is that
students should be able to go through university without having to pay for textbooks. We also publish free business books (personal development, career tips, marketing etc.) written by consultants and experts. All books we publish are freely downloadable in PDF format.
The way we make our books free is that we place a few recruitment and employer branding ads into the books, which are relevant to the readers. An engineering student will not see the same ads as an IT professional for example.
Bookboon.com was actually founded as a traditional publishing house in 1988. My brother and I are second generation book publishers, and when we took over the business in 2001, we quickly found out we wanted to change things inside the company and potentially in the publishing industry. So in 2005 the first free eBooks were made available in Denmark, in 2006 we entered Sweden, in 2007 Holland and Germany, and in 2009 we launched our global website. In 2010 we moved our headquarters from Copenhagen to London, as the business was getting an increasingly global focus.
WNIP: How did the idea of ads in books come to you?
Thomas Buus Madsen: When I was a student, I got inspired by free newspapers, which were launched in Copenhagen around the same time – offering free news to the public thanks to
advertising. At the same time, my fellow students were photocopying entire textbooks from the library to avoid paying full prices for textbooks. Being both students and publishers already at that time, my brother Kristian and I figured out that a different model was necessary, and we created the concept of ads in textbooks.
WNIP: What do you have to say to those who criticise the ad placement?
Thomas Buus Madsen: Firstly, as I’ve often noticed, those who criticise it, are never our users, and mostly they have never downloaded a Bookboon book. Once they do, they notice that they are clearly separate from the editorial content and that they have been carefully selected and are all from serious companies, who want to highlight future career opportunities. We would never place unethical ads for cigarettes, alcohol or gambling. This would be disrespectful to our authors, our other advertisers, as well as our readers.
Secondly, at the end of the day, our readers understand that these few ads are necessary to offer the content for free. Last but not least, many students are curious about who they will work with after they graduate, and often find the quality adverts interesting because they are targeted directly at them. So in a sense we get the future employers to pay for the students’ textbooks.
WNIP: How do you make sure your content stays independent and credible?
Thomas Buus Madsen: Our advertisers are as focused on the quality of the books as students and professors are. They only want to advertise in quality textbooks, and like any newspaper
we have completely separated the book production and the advertising sales. Advertisers do not buy adverts in specific books, they buy access to a target group, and will advertise in the
books that this target group downloads irrespectively. We have, together with academics and student organisations, set a limit of 15% ad content in the books, which is much less than in most newspapers. Furthermore, we have strict selection criteria regarding the content of the ads.
Then there is the fact that the books are written independently and before any adverts are sold. Our authors are well respected professors from leading European universities, and they are
responsible for the quality of the textbooks.
WNIP: What do students think about your concept?
Thomas Buus Madsen: Of course the free aspect is incredibly helpful. We have noticed that our readers share their downloaded book about 4 times, through e-mail and social media. We
experienced over 10 million downloads in 2011 and expect 50 million in 2012.
WNIP: What do professors think?
Thomas Buus Madsen: Our authors often show that they care for their students by choosing to publish with us. Author Michael Templeton from Imperial College London says “it is very
convenient for students to have the opportunity to read books online and use search tools and other functions that come with online work”. As they recognise their students’ financial burden, they are happy to help and be of assistance.
WNIP: What is your opinion of textbook prices?
Thomas Buus Madsen: I am amazed at how much publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson believe students should pay for textbooks – to me it seems like a very rude profit maximisation
exercise where they abuse their position, at the cost of students. Research from Florida College indicates a direct correlation between high costs of textbooks, leading to students not being able to afford the mandatory reading, and ultimately leading to more drop outs. Many professors have also noticed this, and I think that is why we are seeing such a rapid adoption of our books.
WNIP: Publishing, in particular academic publishing is going through a lot of changes. What challenges have you had to face?
Thomas Buus Madsen: One important thing we and our authors have noticed is that textbooks are by far not the only medium students are using. You’ve got educational videos, podcasts, digital note pads, social media… Each medium helps the student to learn in a different way. What does stay essential are the teachers, primary literature, basic knowledge and exams. So there needs to be a way of keeping these elements stable while adding other media. One of our authors recently published an engineering book with YouTube clips, and many of our readers and authors use social media. These are just two ways of keeping the textbook basis, while picking new media to complement the learning process.
WNIP: What are your thoughts on the future of academic publishing?
Thomas Buus Madsen: There will be a price battle as well as a format battle. Prices are, at the moment, too high and the big publishers will have to change this course at some point, but maybe one of them will need to die for the others to wake up. Most future academic publishing will be electronic, and some companies like Amazon and Apple will try and tie everything down to their device, while there will be a movement towards platform independence. This will also be an interesting battle and I think that platform independence will win supported by apps and regular computer software.
We will see that the way we read and use books will also change: the digital format is now a prerequisite, which will enable authors to update books and content much faster and more
WNIP: Do you see an increased interest in open access textbooks?
Thomas Buus Madsen: As I said earlier, we share the conviction that textbooks are putting too much financial pressure on students, which often leads to them not paying for their required
books at all. In the long run, open access textbooks will help students finish their degrees by lowering their education costs. The easy updatability of open access textbooks will also catch
people’s attention – as they have a clear advantage over print – and it will soon become obvious that it is so much more efficient to learn certain things online.
WNIP: Thank you very much and good luck with Bookboon.