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University Presses Lead the Way for Publisher-Based Ebook Systems
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Posted On October 10, 2011


In 2010, Michael Jon Jensen, director of strategic web communications at the National Academies and National Academies Press, wrote that “today, university presses are a key part of a scholarly communications enterprise that performs a key social service, to help civilization gain access to the work of true specialists, the people who have spent more than Gladwell’s ten thousand hours developing true expertise in a field. Not pundits, not famous talking heads, but scholars and experts. I expect the same to be true tomorrow.”

However, he cautioned that “if university presses are to continue to fulfill that fundamental mission, we will need to rethink our roles and partnerships—in preparation for not only a radically universal digital environment of knowledge ubiquity, but (even if I’m only half right) a radically disrupted economy and ecosystem.” In the past year, university presses have made major, aggressive strides into ebook adoption that might not only answer this challenge but provide a useful model for the commercial sector. 

The Unique Role of the University Press

In the 1920s, there were an estimated 12 university presses operating in America; today that number is about 130. Over the years, university presses have forged ahead with some of the more thoughtful and “daring” coverage and analysis of such complex issues as globalization, immigration, civil rights, constitutional law, and so on.

Many of these presses have also developed their own areas of specialization and acclaim: MIT and Yale’s coverage of architecture; Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard’s emphasis on literacy criticism; Minnesota’s coverage of cultural critique, ethnic studies, and theory; and some of the excellent regional coverage from Arizona, Kansas, and Nebraska. “As commercial publishers increasingly turn away from books that are deemed unlikely to make a lot of money,” notes the American Association of University Presses, “university presses have found new fields to publish in and new audiences for their books.”

“Despite their relatively small size and being chronically undercapitalized, university presses are energetically—and cooperatively—trying to pursue their mission of disseminating the results of scholarly research in whatever forms our audiences demand, all the while maintaining high standards of editorial integrity,” explains University of Pennsylvania Press director Eric Halpern. “A tall order, admittedly.” 

University Presses Work to Create Sustainable Ebook Distribution System

University presses seem to share natural affinities for innovative ways to reach their audiences. In 2010, five major presses became involved in University Press e-book Consortium, or UPeC, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded effort. These institutions—Nebraska, NYU (New York University), University of Pennsylvania Press, Rutgers, and Temple—were later joined by others in the design of a new collaborative model for ebook distribution. UPeC co-PI, NYU press director Steve Maikowski, notes that the group did “extensive and intensive research with the academic library community” in their design. UpeC then issued a RFP for potential partners “to collect, host, and market scholarly ebook collections to the library marketplace.”

The original intent was that participating presses would be required to sell collections exclusively through their proposed University Press Content Consortium (UPCC), although they could still sell their ebooks to libraries and readers through their existing sales channels. They also promised that this new UPCC would contain “minimal DRM” (digital rights management) to aid acceptance by libraries.

Speaking for the consortium, Maikowski noted in a 2010 presentation to the Association of Research Libraries that university presses faced a “fundamental need to improve our business relationship” to their “critical markets of research libraries and the academy. With ebooks hitting “a tipping point,” the presses needed to “show that university presses are innovators, not dinosaurs. We need to innovate in order to survive!”

The proposal accepted to create this new ebook sales model was written by Project MUSE. The final model, for the UPCC is, in reality, a merger of Project MUSE Editions and university press content. Although hoping for a spring 2011 launch, Project Muse released a beta version in August 2011 for public comment and is working to incorporate changes/tweaks before the official launch in January 2012.

In an interview with NewsBreaks, Maikowski notes that “the UPCC represents, to my mind, one of the most innovative new business models in scholarly communications in the last decade.” Marlie Wasserman, director of Rutgers University Press and co-PI on the UPCC effort, agrees: “University presses have made amazing strides in the world of ebook publishing, especially considering the limited resources they have for innovation. UPCC represents a very newsworthy effort for us to come together to sell collections of scholarly books. I can't think of any other instance where we have pooled our assets in this major a way.” 

Project Muse Works to Include Books

MUSE officials feel a great deal of pride in this consolidated effort, part of MUSE's “multimillion-dollar commitment to the ongoing growth and expansion” of the organization. According to director Dean Smith, “by leveraging the MUSE brand and investing in technology that ensures the program's future performance, we can grow at a rapid pace while continuing our 15-year tradition of providing quality scholarly content at a fair price.”

Wendy Queen, MUSE’s associate director, notes that “we already have signed agreements with 66 book publishers,” who join the more than 100 journal publishers in their stable of providers. “The whole mission behind UPCC is format-neutral, treating books and journals equally throughout the browse, classification and search process—a full integration.”

All of these scholarly ebook projects are nonexclusive. “MUSE doesn't have an exclusivity clause, so cross-platforms aren’t a concern for us. In a perfect world it might be nice for library purchasing decisions to not to have to deal with the duplication issue, but we are focused on creating the best collections and search environment—non-competitive, publisher-neutral and format-neutral position. With the beta, launched in August, we have 300 books from 13 publishers. The beta is a proof-of-concept effort of the integration of the books and journals and allows us to get important feedback from our users, which is the most important issue for us at this point. By asking for feedback before the launch,” Queen continues, “we can make the changes before it reaches market. The comments so far have been overwhelmingly positive. The only major issue has been that we are initially launching content in a PDF-only format, but we already have plans move forward with an EPUB format, and we will continue to work on this.”

On Monday, Oct. 3, pricing and collection information was formally released, and Queen reveals that “our customer service people been flooded with requests for quotes, so the response has been very positive.”

University presses have a unique perspective and position in book publishing in terms of how they work with their audiences and see their mission and goals. “MUSE was already going to move forward on our own to expand our platform to include books into the platform. When we went forward with the UPeC partnership, this allowed us to work with the 60 publishers who already had a lot of enthusiasm and commitment to move forward,” Queen explains. “So, in combining these two programs, it’s been an easy sell, an extension of the services we are already offering publishers. We already have good established relationships with many of the publishers and this was a factor in making this happen, as well as the timing of this project.” 

Oxford’s University Press Scholarship Online

Oxford University Press (OUP) is not only the largest university press, it is also (by far) the oldest at 425. Founded in 1586, the press’ goal is to further “the university’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.”

On Oct. 3, 2011, OUP announced its new “groundbreaking online platform,” University Press Scholarship Online (UPSO), that offers “a vast and rapidly-expanding online research library,” which will provide “full-text access to the best scholarly publishing from around the world, making disparately published scholarship easily accessible, highly discoverable ... via a single online platform.” A mobile version will be available later this year.

Designed for easy integration into library systems, UPSO “provides the highest quality scholarly content across 22 subject areas. 7,000 + titles will be available at launch, 652 of which are new titles, with abstracts and keywords at both the book and chapter level for each title,” OUP notes. “All UPSO content is available in XML, which provides deep tagging and better search results. Content can also be downloaded and saved to PDF [and] is fully cross-referenced and cross-searchable, with clickable citations from bibliographies and footnotes, including OpenURL and DOI-linking support.”

UPSO currently offers ebooks from six university press partners: American University in Cairo Press, University Press of Florida, Fordham University Press, Hong Kong University Press, University of Kentucky Press and, of course, Oxford. Although Oxford claims this initial partnership agreement brings together “the best scholarly publishing from around the world,” it is more likely a coalition of the willing, with plenty of room for growth in quantity and depth.

Books at JSTOR

In January 2011, JSTOR announced its scholarly ebook program, Books at JSTOR, a collaboration of five key university presses—Chicago, Minnesota, North Carolina, Princeton, and Yale—to integrate their books into the JSTOR platform. In April, the list expanded to include Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and California. Expected for launch in early 2012, the system will feature a “deeply integrated” platform that integrates book content “with the 1,600 current and archival journals on JSTOR, as well as the diverse primary sources available today. All the content will be cross searchable, and the books will be linked with the more than 2 million book reviews and hundreds of thousands of books references in the journal literature. Works written by the same authors or focused on the same topics, regardless of format, will be connected, and alerting services for users will cross publishers, other content providers, and content formats.”

Ready for Rapid Growth

NYU Press’ strategy has been to “publish ebooks simultaneously with print for all markets and channels,” notes Maikowski. “We also saw our ebooks sales grow almost 240% this year, so we see where the market is going.”

The multiplicity of developing systems and platforms is a positive sign of both the commitment and commercial viability of ebooks from university presses. “Most university presses continue to see solid book sales,” notes University of Minnesota Press director Doug Armato. “Minnesota has had two record sales years in a row for our book program. But as books are networked through such projects as MUSE/UPCC, Books at JSTOR, and Oxford Scholarship Online, I think the ease of access and broadened discovery will drive a lot of usage online.”

“I think there are going to be enormous, tectonic shifts with the launch of all these programs in the next twelve months—I'd be surprised and disappointed if the scholarly publishing earth doesn’t shake as publishers, libraries, scholars, and students assess all these options,” believes Armato. These projects “will help to demonstrate university press’ collective value and expertise and, even more importantly, demonstrate the vitality of humanities and social science scholarship itself...at the end of the day, as long as there are scholars who think of themselves as authors, university presses have a future.”


Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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