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Magazines > ONLINE > January/February 2012
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Online Magazine

Vol. 36 No. 1 — Jan./Feb. 2012

EBook Buzz
University Presses and Ebooks: A New Horizon
by Sue Polanka, Wright State University

[As online increasingly transitions to e-everything, I’m particularly pleased to welcome a new columnist to ONLINE who will cover the broad topic of ebooks. Sue Polanka is exceedingly well-qualified to write this column. She is head of reference and instruction at Wright State University Libraries and blogs at No Shelf Required. I asked her to begin her first column with a brief mission statement. —Ed.]

What’s the buzz about? EBook Buzz, ONLINE’s newest column, will discuss and debate the advances of ebooks in libraries and scholarly publishing. EBook Buzz will explore varied topics from a practical perspective, whether celebrating successes, exploring opportunities, or sorting through the challenges of ebook adoption. This inaugural column will explore the transformation to ebooks by university presses.

Academic library monograph budgets tell a bleak story. Discretionary funds and approval plans have slowly decreased, favoring instead subscription products and big deal journal collections. It’s both alarming for librarians to watch and impossible for publishers to ignore. University presses, owners of the academic monograph, are feeling increasingly unsettled in this changing budget landscape. They want to transition to a mixed-model—digital and print—system of content delivery, but they must first overcome a number of challenges.

Oxford University Press (OUP) was the first university press to launch an online monograph platform in the fall of 2003. Concurrently, it attempted to aggregate university press content online via a service called Project TORCH (The Online Resource Center in the Humanities). Niko Pfund, president of OUP, told me that “TORCH envisioned a collaborative digital platform for smaller presses with the same academic mission as OUP.” However, TORCH ultimately succumbed to the challenges of having publishers commit to an as-yet-nonexistent service. The launch of Google Scholar further undermined the project, and smaller presses feared losing their identity in a consortial environment.

Fast-forward to 2011. How things have changed. No fewer than four different nonprofit entities—Project MUSE, JSTOR, Cambridge University Press, and the Oxford-sponsored University Press Scholarship Online—now offer online distribution options to university presses. Pfund said in response to this explosion of interest, “University presses realized they needed to get digital, and get digital fast.” Pfund continued, “The current environment suggests that university presses may be stronger and healthier working together” when it comes to online dissemination.

Why ebook Consortia?

Several factors led to the establishment of consortia for digital content distribution. First, ebooks are now widely accepted in the academic marketplace. Academic libraries want ebooks and accept the new and varied business models for acquiring them. The university press monograph is a natural fit. But with the exception of a few large presses, many don’t have digital content available, although they may sell a few individual ebooks via e-readers, such as the Kindle and NOOK. Additionally, the rise of Google’s many books initiatives and the proliferation of reading devices helped presses recognize that online content delivery is a necessary and worthwhile investment. University presses are realizing that the entire publishing environment is heading down this digital path, and those who remain focused on print will be left behind in eroding revenue streams.

Second, presses are increasingly—and uncomfortably—reliant on large commercial companies to get their ebooks to market. These aggregators—Google, Amazon, and Apple—threaten to extract an ever-larger chunk of the revenue stream in exchange for distributing content. Moreover, small presses aren’t well-positioned to negotiate with these large third-party vendors. They want some control over their dissemination destiny. Thus, they view nonprofit allies, especially ones with similar business models, as more palatable partners. You might call it a “strength in nonprofit numbers” approach.

Third, licensing software, the creation of digital files (especially retroconversion for backlist titles), and the development and implementation of new workflows take time and resources. Presses have limited staff, budgets, and technical expertise to take on this venture alone. Aggregators offer software and services, but the costs are still prohibitive to many presses.

Judy Luther, president of Informed Strategies (, heard many of these concerns from university presses as early as 2009. In a discussion with me, she said she thought that “the writing was on the wall that presses needed to innovate to remain viable in the market.” They realized “we can do something together that isn’t possible individually.”

With more than 120 university presses in the U.S. producing approximately 11,000 titles per year, there is plenty of opportunity for collaboration. Presses, such as Oxford and Cambridge, are major content producers, which leaves a host of very small university presses that want a big voice in ebook partnerships to sustain growth. Those presses now have choices and can act strategically in tandem with the larger presses, possibly eliminating the inherent risks that smaller presses might face if going solo.

Finding Your Own Way

With these new choices comes the challenge of selecting the right path. Alison Mudditt, director of the University of California (UC) Press, said, “The answer won’t be the same at each press; we each need to find our own way.” The UC Press launched its ebook program 8 years ago. It distributes content through its website, a host of third party-vendors, and the California Digital Library (some open access).

Mudditt continued, “In the past, UC Press had taken an opportunistic view of ebooks and had signed up with almost everyone who has asked. … but now we need to be thinking more carefully and strategically about who we partner with and how we do that. We are trying to review all of our distribution channels (consumer, library, textbook adoption) and determine how to best meet the needs of the readers in those markets.”

UC Press and multitudes of other presses consider the business models, platforms, disciplines, and publication types (trade, monograph, and textbook) as variables in an equation that ultimately points a university press to the best ebook partnerships. UC Press will start with OUP’s University Press Scholarship Online. According to Mudditt, “There were a number of complex factors influencing our choice of ebook partners at this stage and, from my perspective, OUP is able to offer three key benefits to UC Press and its customers: depth of experience, breadth of content, and features and functionality.”

University Press ebook Consortia Options

Luther, Pfund, and many others have been involved in the research and development for the university press ebook distribution consortia. The four major players, JSTOR, University Publishing Online, University Press Content Consortium, and University Press Scholarship Online, change features frequently, so after altering numbers in this column to keep up with the changes, I finally decided that my cutoff date would be mid-November 2011.

The similarity in names can be confusing, so I will discuss these four in detail, as they differ in the number of partners, titles, and format. Librarians will need to evaluate each program closely, since they will find overlap in press partners and content among the consortia and will want to avoid duplicate purchases.

Books at JSTOR

Books at JSTOR (, announced in January 2011, is an offshoot of JSTOR, which worked closely with eight university press partners to develop the initial plans for the online scholarly book program. The eight have now expanded to 30 partners. More than 15,000 monographs from the press partners (front and backlist titles) will be fully cross-searchable with JSTOR journal content. JSTOR is planning to launch the program in mid-2012.

University Publishing Online (UPO)

Cambridge University Press ( launched UPO in late 2011. It offers more than 13,000 titles from six university presses. Based on the established Cambridge Books Online, the platform will offer cross-searching of all member content. Two purchasing plans for UPO will be available, each involving multi-user concurrent access and minimal digital rights management (DRM). Libraries can choose to purchase content once with continuing access or subscribe annually. Titles are offered in PDF.

University Press Content Consortium (UPCC)

The UPCC Book Collections of Project MUSE ( is the result of a merger between two university press groups, Project MUSE Editions (hosted at The Johns Hopkins University Press) and the University Press e-book Consortium (UPeC). This consortium is the largest of those offered, representing an anticipated 60–70 university presses and nonprofit scholarly presses. Research for the project was commissioned by the UPeC directors (Rutgers University Press, New York University Press, University of Pennsylvania Press, Temple University Press, and the University of Nebraska Press) in 2009, with grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. UPeC worked with Informed Strategies and the Chain Bridge Group ( to survey the market needs and test the business model.

As many as 15,000 titles (front and backlist) can be searched alongside the 500 journals currently available on Project MUSE. The collection offers an array of features, including the simultaneous release of print titles and ebooks and unlimited simultaneous use of content with no restrictions on printing or downloading (i.e., no DRM). Content will be available in web-ready PDF, searchable and retrievable at the chapter level. A mobile interface is in development—devices with browsers or the ability to load PDFs will have access to the content. The beta search site has been available for several months, offering free access to 300 titles in the collection. A final launch of the new Project MUSE platform was scheduled for Jan. 1, 2012.

University Press Scholarship Online (UPSO)

The OUP-sponsored University Press Scholarship Online program ( merges scholarly monograph content from worldwide presses, including, of course, Oxford Scholarship Online. UPSO launched a pilot in March 2011 with scholarly content from Fordham University Press followed by the official launch in fall 2011. To date, UPSO offers libraries unlimited access to more than 7,000 books in 22 subject areas from six university press partners. Additional presses and content will be added on a continuing basis.

Drawing on its experience with Project TORCH, UPSO is designed to create an individually branded home for monographs from each participating university press, in effect their own platform, while at the same time providing a unified search across all press content in a single portal. All content is available in a fully enabled XML environment with the option to download chapters in PDF. A mobile-optimized site is due to be released in the coming months. Further, bibliographies and footnotes are hyperlinked and include OpenURL and DOI-linking support for greater content discoverability.  

Forecasting the future

Last year was a record-setting year for the establishment of university press ebook consortia. These groups will provide enormous benefits for university presses, libraries, and the future of the academic monograph. End users will benefit from greater discoverability of content and a varied selection of formats. If the adoption rate of ebook readers and tablets continues at current levels, then the scholarly monograph will be a welcome addition to the title lists of libraries’ preferred ebook distributor.

What about the future? Informed Strategies’ Luther commented that born-digital content, the next opportunity in scholarly publishing, is a very exciting component of this process. Once workflows are in place and new revenue streams established, university presses can focus on a future of enhanced ebooks, those with multimedia, embedded links, and an array of nontext features. Luther described a future where authors can create the enhanced content during the manuscript writing process. For instance, an author could conduct audio interviews and take photographs of people, places, and events during the writing process and then embed these objects into the text.


The North Carolina University Press ( recently experimented with an online publishing project for the Long Civil Rights Movement. The project, which lasted 14 months, had the ambitious goal to create enhanced ebooks from the authors of 87 different titles. While the outcomes weren’t as successful as anticipated, the project director, Sylvia Miller, plans to continue investigating the creation of enhanced ebooks. Miller’s follow-up blog post described a new partnership for university presses and libraries, stating the following:

A new kind of publisher-library partnership might take place at the level of the individual book. I would like to see archiving, digitizing, and publishing happen in tandem. For example, when an author has conducted oral-history interviews and consulted archival documents during research for a book, the interviews might be ingested into an archive and made available digitally, and the archival collections that were consulted might be digitized, at a library. Simultaneously, the book would be edited and produced at the publishing house. This parallel process would make it possible to publish the book as an enhanced e-book with archival material imbedded in it and outbound links to primary-source collections included as well (


This enhanced future is probably several years away. For now, we are finally moving beyond the either-or, print-versus-electronic rhetoric that has governed much of the debate in recent years. Viable business models are starting to emerge alongside new revenue streams, and libraries will have an assortment of purchasing options for university press ebooks.

Can university press ebook consortia change the dreary landscape for the scholarly monograph? According to Pfund, “The integration of ebooks into the online scholarly research environment may result in a usage spike that makes librarians reconsider the value of the scholarly monograph.” Thus, the dissemination of scholarly research through book form will be back where it once reigned.

Product Name Host Partners Titles Format URL
Books at JSTOR JSTOR 30 15,000 PDF
University Publishing Online Cambridge University Press 6 13,000 PDF
UPCC Book Collections of Project MUSE Project MUSE 60–70 15,000 PDF
University Press Scholarship Online Oxford University Press 6 7,000 XML, PDF

Sue Polanka is head of reference and instruction, Wright State University Libraries, and blogs at No Shelf Required.

Comments? Contact the editor (

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