As the price of textbooks climbs, more students are purchasing used copies to help defray the cost. Textbooks are effectively disposable, so there will always be a strong supply of used textbooks. Until now, the textbook publishers have tried to preserve their profits by issue new editions (rendering the used copies obselete) and raising the price of new books to recoup costs, and we're left with a self-reinforced cycle ensuring continued price increases.
The answer, Freeloader Press thinks, is in free, ad-supported textbooks.
I've long complained at the inability to get digital copies of most of my 1,000 page legal textbooks. Given the option, I would even pay an additional $10-15 just to get a second copy in electonic form.
Electronic distribution is inevitable, especially when dealing with expensive, disposable items like textbooks. It is better for the publisher, nearly eliminating printing and distribution costs. It is better for the student, who doesn't need to carry 5-pound books and can easily search the text. And it is certainly better for the environment.
It seems the combination of lower printing and distribution costs and advertising can make free textbooks viable and profitable. By making them free, it also mitigates the effect of piracy, another major barrier to electronic texts today.