Dr. Tony Bates is Distinguished Visiting Professor in the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University

I am delighted to see that Ryerson University is promoting and fostering the adoption of open textbooks for its students. I was asked to write this foreword because last year I published my own open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, aimed not at students but at faculty and instructors. This was my 12th book. All the rest (also aimed at faculty and instructors) had been printed by commercial publishers. The most popular of these books sold 11,000 copies over seven years.

However, Teaching in a Digital Age, published in April 2015, has already been downloaded 40,000 times, and is being translated into seven different languages. It has also been adopted as a set text on over 30 graduate courses in education faculties around the world. I doubt very much if this would have happened if I had gone through a commercial publisher.

Textbooks are an increasing cost to students. Some textbooks cost $200 or more, and in North America a university undergraduate may be required to spend between $800-$1,000 a year on textbooks.

In British Columbia, the provincial government is funding the B.C. Open Textbook Project, in collaboration with the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The B.C. Open Textbook Project focuses on making available openly-licensed textbooks in the highest-enrolled academic subject areas and also in trades and skills training. In the B.C. project, all the books are selected, peer reviewed and in some cases developed by local faculty. Often these textbooks are not ‘original’ work, in the sense of new knowledge, but carefully written and well illustrated summaries of current thinking in the different subject areas.

Advantages of open textbooks

Students and governments, through grants and financial aid, pay billions of dollars each year on textbooks. Open textbooks can make a significant impact on reducing the cost of education.

There are also other considerations. It is a common sight to see lengthy line-ups at college bookstores all through the first week of the first semester (which replaces important study time). Because students may be searching for second-hand versions of the books from other students, it may well be into the second or third week of the semester before students actually get their copy. Cable Green of the Creative Commons has pointed to research that shows that when first year math students have their textbooks from the first day, they do much better than students who often don’t get the key textbook until three weeks into the course. He also pointed to research from Florida Virtual Campus that indicates that many students (over 60 per cent) simply do not buy all the required textbooks, for a variety of reasons, but the main one being cost (Green, 2013). Cable Green’s ‘vision’ for open textbooks is: 100 per cent of students have 100 per cent free, digital access to all materials by day one.

The main challenge

This is to get faculty to write or adopt an open textbook. There is no direct financial reward, and perhaps even more importantly, there is a much higher level of risk than going through commercial publishers. Who will read it? Will it be accepted in the academic community? Will it have as much influence? And a very practical question: how to do this? What do you need to know? Who can help you? How do you preserve the integrity of the book if people can just copy or alter what you’ve written? What will it cost?

My experience is that there is little to fear from any of these questions, especially as Ryerson is providing the necessary technical support for authors and using a Creative Commons license that helps avoid many of these issues. Here is a brief summary of my own experience.

1. The technology works

I used the BCcampus version of Pressbooks, which is an open source, ‘simple book’ production software, built around WordPress. Thus anyone who has experience in blogging, particularly if they have used WordPress before, will find it very easy to use Pressbooks. I was literally writing within 10 minutes of opening the editing page.

I also wanted my book to be multi-media. Importing graphics and podcasts is simple in Pressbooks, through the Add Media function. For video (as with most of the graphics) I use entirely copyright cleared material (i.e. OERs). For video, I just provided a url to the site hosting the videos, with a graphic from the video where appropriate as the hot link. I created my own podcasts, using Apple’s Garage Band, and several graphics myself using Powerpoint. However, next time I would use a graphics designer from the beginning and get original graphics designed properly. I would also use media producers to help with the audio and video, but I didn’t have access to them at the time without having to pay for them.

Second, it is easy to edit and re-structure the book, which I needed to do when I finished the first draft. I had to merge materials from different sections, split lengthy chapters into two or three separate chapters, move some parts earlier or later in the book, and make sure I had a consistent set of references throughout the book. This was all very easy to do, using the ‘Text/organise’ function, which allows you to drag and drop each section of the book.

The most important feature of all though, which I did not get to appreciate until I had finished the book, is that as well as the html version that can be read online, Pressbooks exports the html version into a variety of formats for downloading, including pdf, epub, mobi, xhtml, and wxr, so it can be read on tablets and mobile phones as well as laptops. It can also be printed on demand, although that really ups the cost for students (a minimum of $17 a copy for grey scale and as much as $50 for full colour). Creating these different versions is extremely easy for an author to do, using the ‘export’ function in the text/organize page. And this how how students want access to their studies: online, anytime, anywhere, on any device – or printed.

The technology worked wonderfully well and should not stop any technology neophyte from writing an open textbook, although as always, good technical support is a necessary back-up when problems do occur.

2. Student savings

This is the obvious and most important measure of success: how much does an open textbook save by reducing one of the major costs of education? Here in British Columbia, the average annual cost of textbooks for BC post-secondary institutions is $1,200 per student, if they bought all the required textbooks new (which of course, many don’t).

BCcampus, which has an extensive open textbook project, with over 140 open textbooks currently available, has been tracking their adoption by post-secondary institutions in BC. They have found individual student cost savings ranging from $475 to $700, and to date the project has already saved students over $1.5 million in total, with many more open textbooks still to be adopted. More importantly, other studies have shown that when open textbooks are available, students make greater use of them, and students tend to perform better.

3. Peer review

It is of course important to have any book independently reviewed. I approached three experts in my field, and they all agreed immediately to do an independent review. I was able to include the full reviews as an appendix to the book itself, so potential readers can see the unedited reviews (unlike reviews for commercially published books).

I also shared my drafts and asked for feedback through my blog, and specialist staff in another institution volunteered invaluable chapter-by-chapter feedback before I formally published it.

Was it worth it?

Emphatically, yes, from my perspective:

  • the book has been downloaded over 40,000 times within 18 months of publication, and more importantly, the qualitative responses to the book through e-mails and comments within the online book indicate that I am reaching my main target audience;
  • the technology does work, and even technologically-challenged authors will be able to use the technology easily;
  • I was able to go from initial idea to final publication of the book within 15 months. I have had a publisher take that long from handover of the final draft to publishing. For a book in my field, quick publishing is important otherwise it starts to look out of date, even if the main foundations do not change;
  • open publishing offers many possible routes for getting the book known, and with a little effort by the author, open textbook marketing works far better than the usual pathetic marketing efforts of commercial publishers;
  • the book is dynamic; I can continue to edit, change and update the book on an ongoing basis.

So I feel really good about it. However, this kind of publishing may not work for others. It may be too risky for someone early in their career to go the open publishing route, in terms of credibility or academic acceptance. Those not experienced in writing books probably need the support of a commercial publisher. If you are looking to make money from writing, this is definitely not the way to go, unless you have a very creative business model. Easily accessible technical support is essential.

But if you have something important to write and want to get it used by as many students as possible, then I strongly recommend open publishing. I wish you every success with your endeavours.


Green, C. (2013) Open Education, MOOCs, Student Debt, Textbooks and Other Trends Vancouver BC: COHERE 2013 conference


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Ryerson Open Textbook Authoring Guide Copyright © 2017 by Ryerson University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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