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

January 11, 2011

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."