• September 2, 2015

University Presses Face Watershed Moment in Explosion of E-Book Options

University presses want to get e-books into libraries and make those books readily discoverable by scholars, but many presses lack the technical resources to pull it off easily. As recently as last fall, they didn't have many noncommercial options if they wanted outside help.

But soon they'll have at least four collective nonprofit or academically affiliated options to pick from. Large-scale e-book platforms organized by JSTOR, Project MUSE, Oxford University Press, and a consortium led by several midsize presses are all on the verge of going live.

"Everyone is rushing now to announce," Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, said via e-mail. He has been involved in the planning conversations behind some of the new ventures. "The good news, I think, is that the e-transition for the institutional market is clearly—and finally—at escape velocity," he added.

These undertakings have been in the exploratory stages for a while, but the last few days have seen a rush of announcements. JSTOR, the subscription-driven service that provides access to scholarly-journal content, unveiled its plans for "Books at JSTOR" at the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association, held in San Diego this week. Then Oxford University Press made public its plans for a new e-book platform called University Press Scholarship Online, or UPSO. It's modeled on its Oxford Scholarship Online program, which provides subscription access to Oxford monographs.

Meanwhile, Project MUSE, which like JSTOR sells subscriptions to content from publishers of scholarly journals, is pushing ahead with an e-book platform called Project MUSE Editions, scheduled to get going this spring. And a group of publishers, including New York University Press, Rutgers University Press, Temple University Press, and the University of Pennsylvania Press, has moved a step closer to bringing off its own collaborative e-book undertaking, called the University Press E-Book Consortium, or UPEC.

Life in a 'Post-PDF Environment'

Books at JSTOR will include front- and backlist titles from five major university presses: Chicago, Minnesota, North Carolina, Princeton, and Yale. After a yearlong round of talks with librarians, publishers, and others, JSTOR said in a statement, it hoped to provide a solution that includes "overcoming limitations on use and offering flexible purchase models for libraries, while developing a sustainable model for publishers, for whom online book publishing must migrate quickly from being ancillary to a fundamental part of their business."

Michael Spinella is managing director of JSTOR. "Clearly, interest in finding a better solution for bringing books online is burgeoning, and it does seem that the community is more ready to experiment and assess books online today than it might have been a few years ago," he said via e-mail. JSTOR recently upgraded its system to host the Current Scholarship Program for journals; the upgrade involved adding multimedia and other features "that we know will be important to book content as well," he added. "So the timing is auspicious for us to move forward." Look for Books at JSTOR titles to be available in 2012.

Oxford's University Press Scholarship Online will begin as a pilot program in March, making e-books from Fordham University available. (The two publishers recently signed a distribution deal.) That doesn't add up to a lot of content to start with. But Oxford said in a statement that it was in talks with a number of other publishers. It expects to have the program fully up and running by the fall of 2011.

Niko Pfund is vice president and publisher of Oxford's academic division. "A lot of university presses have been worrying that their paths to market are becoming more and more constricted," he said. "The motive behind this project all along has been to make it a little easier" for them. In this "post-PDF environment," he said, the idea is to make large numbers of books by different presses "easily accessible, highly discoverable, and fully cross-searchable via one online platform," as Oxford Scholarship Online does for many of the publisher's own monographs.

Mr. Pfund seemed unfazed by the number of projects that will soon be angling for presses' e-book business. "Clearly there's going to be competition in the ways in which people take their content online," he said. "Whether it's JSTOR, whether it's UPSO [Oxford's platform], whether it's UPEC, there are now a number of options, and that's a really good thing for the university-press world."

Project MUSE Editions has 27 publishers signed up to participate, according to Dean J. Smith, director of Project MUSE. He expects the beta version to debut in March. Mr. Smith said he was optimistic that research libraries would find MUSE Editions to be an appealing option. More than 60 librarians attended a MUSE Editions meeting at the American Library Association's gathering.

"They were very enthusiastic about our upcoming e-book collections and had lots of good questions," Mr. Smith said by e-mail. "They are looking to us as a trusted partner and hoping we can build on the accomplishments we have achieved with the MUSE e-journal collections."

Proliferation of Platforms

Last but not least is the multipress collective platform called the University Press E-Book Consortium. Steve Maikowski is director of New York University Press, one of the presses involved in the endeavor. The organizers have a short list of potential business partners and expect to make a final decision by the end of this month.

Like Mr. Pfund at Oxford, Mr. Maikowski put a positive spin on the proliferation of e-book platforms. "Everybody clearly sees the opportunity here, which we saw a long time ago," he said. "I think it's just a confirmation of the opportunity and the wonderful challenge we face in getting all this content in e-format to our core audiences in the academy."

According to Mr. Maikowski, 60 presses have signed nonbinding letters of intent to participate in the consortium. "There's been a huge amount of interest and enthusiasm," he said. Depending on how many of those presses actually go with the consortium, that adds up to a fair amount of content—as many as 3,000 frontlist titles and more than 25,000 backlist titles, the director said.

The consortium's organizers hope to have it up and running in the fall of 2011. The intervening months will be critical, as scholarly publishers consider which option best suits them. There's no guarantee that all of those 60 presses will go with UPEC, for instance. In any case, it looks like a watershed moment.

"Presses are going to have to make some decisions about what is best for them and which model is going to be best for libraries, and also which platform will be best," Mr. Maikowski said. "That's why the presses are going to have to pick and choose."


1. meckemam - January 12, 2011 at 08:27 am

The next logical step is for University Presses to add classic backlist to the digital lists. Furthermore, individual or public library subscription options should be included, since academic books have a broad audience among professionals and journalists.

We need a NETFLIX option for scholarly books. If you can subscribe to all of JSTOR why not be able to read 3 books and 10 journal articles a month? Why not be able to build a coursepack from JSTOR and then go directly to CCC in order to receive your permission fess?

Breaking out of post-war 20th Century distribution models can produce more income to support scholarship than retail sales did in the heyday of the independent bookseller.


2. 12058808 - January 12, 2011 at 09:12 am

meckemam--If your institution's library subscribes to JSTOR, forget the coursepack. Simply post stable links to books and articles on your course web page or CMS page. That will also work with a number of e-book collections. The library has already paid for the material, after all.

Cy Dillon

3. catfiche - January 12, 2011 at 09:30 am

Now that E-Books are beginning to become a viable option for scholars, it's time to allow scholars to excerpt highlighted passages for their notes. Whether PDF's or other document types, the technology has been available for years as workarounds. Publishers just need to activate it and make it part of their document readers. That would really help.

4. mbelvadi - January 12, 2011 at 09:38 am

From a librarian's perspective, it is extremely inconvenient when all these individual publishers (or in the small groups of 3 or 4 as described here) decide they can get into the business of managing their own online platforms for their content. We've been dealing with this in the journals world for many years, and it's nothing but trouble. Just because you can edit great content doesn't mean you have a clue how to design a user interface for undergraduates and provide reliable backend services (e.g. IP authentication, high quality MARC record sets) that institutions require. And that doesn't even touch the kinds of features that patrons demand and the big players in the academic-market ebook world (NetLibrary, ebrary, MyiLibrary, etc.) already know how to do - like managing individual user accounts within an institutional subscription, allow patrons to add their own notes and bookmarks on a per page level, present the user with the ability to generate a citation for a work in one of several different style rule formats (MLA, APA, etc.). Not to mention there's the issue of user training - yet another platform, even a well-designed one, that looks different from the others the library already has means yet another learning curve for their patrons. The best advice I can give all these startup endeavors is to put your egos aside and copy what the market leaders do as closely as you can legally and don't get all creative with your own "ideas" as to what you think would make for a nice interface layout. And finally, make sure you've figured out how acquisitions departments are going to know how to easily purchase your individual books. And price them reasonably. I'm a big fan of ebooks, but some publishers want to charge us up to 300% of the print cost for the ebook, and that just isn't happening. A 10% premium is reasonable; don't expect more than that.

5. tulaikov - January 12, 2011 at 11:45 am

This article and this discussion does not mention QUESTIA, which is an online library of tens of thousands of books and a vast range of articles from scholarly journals, magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. You pay one annual fee and get access to everthing. I used it for part of my research because it allowed me to get access faster than interlibrary loan, and I could see it being used for teaching. It has systems to highlight and copy passages, make notes and bookmarks, and for writing. I would hope that these future JSTOR, MUSE, and other databases take a clue from Questia, or that Questia can expand, because it is more versatile and user-friendly than JSTOR in my experience.

6. sand6432 - January 12, 2011 at 01:00 pm

QUESTIA operates by a different model from other e-book suppliers in that you don't gain access to entire books as books but merely content for research purposes. It also has a payment system that is less than ideal for publishers, in that publishers get micro-payments for micro-uses of their content, which leads to accounting nightmares. We joined early at Penn State Press, but quickly became disillusioned with its model, compared with netLibrary's and others.

The librarian's perspective is important as a caveat to these publishers, but some of them at least, surely MUSE and JSTOR, have long experience in the marketplace with their platforms already, so adding books should not be a huge challenge for them and for users in this respect.

My worry about proliferating platforms is that they presumably will NOT be cross-searchable. So users will have to switch from one platform to another to gain access to different content. This is less than ideal from a researcher's perspective or a student's. Also, since there will undoubtedly be some redundancy between platform content because these new services are not setting themselves up as exclusive suppliers, libraries will be forced to make decisions about which ones to subscribe to.

Presses have no option but to move in this direction if they are to survive, given the market model that they are still obliged to operate under. One may hope that they experience as rapid a transition in revenue streams from print to electronic as happened in the journals world. There is this difference, however: there is hardly any market outside academe for scholarly journals, whereas e-books can be sold to individuals and not just subscriptions to libraries. These new platforms are aimed at the library market. Presses will still need to figure out how to service the general consumer market, which they have mainly been doing by licensing e-book content to vendors like Amazon for its Kindle.

Ultimately, the ideal from the user's perspective would be to have all this content, book and journal alike, available open access and searchable through the main Google, Yahoo, etc. portals, and linked up to major authoritative reference works, such as the open-access Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for that field. Then anyone studying philosophy could start with the Encyclopedia and go from there via links to original sources and other secondary content. University administrators need to wake up to the fact that their insistence that presses operate by the market model is hampering this path to the ideal for scholarly communication. --- Sandy Thatcher

7. rmelton5 - January 12, 2011 at 02:02 pm

Ms. Howard - Re para 4, do you mean UPSO rather than USPO?

8. jenhoward - January 12, 2011 at 02:21 pm

melton5: Yes, I did. I'll fix that. Thanks for pointing it out.

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