v25 #6 University Press eBook Platforms: A Brief Overview

by | Feb 17, 2014 | 1 comment

by Mark Johnson  (Director, Publisher Relations, HighWire Press, Stanford University)


As consumer demand for eBooks has grown, so too has the demand for scholarly books (monographs) in electronic format.  Libraries are looking to purchase eBooks to save shelf space and to better serve patrons who prefer to read books on their computers or eBook readers.  While most university press book revenue still comes from print books, publishers at major university presses are planning for the future by actively moving into the eBook space.  This is a brave new world of scholarly books online, and current eBooks platforms vary significantly.  In this article, I will be examining several of the leading university press eBook platforms, including “the big three” — Johns Hopkins’ Project MUSE, Oxford’s University Press Scholarship Online (UPSO), and JSTOR — as well as BiblioVault, Cambridge Books Online, ebrary, and the eDuke Books Scholarly Collection.

Online eBook platforms are facing challenges very similar to those faced by their journal colleagues five to ten years ago.  Most of the journal publishers with whom I work at Stanford University’s HighWire Press have successfully transitioned their business from a 1990s print model to a predominantly electronic model.  Think of the modern journal Website as something akin to the modern car: because all automobile manufactures now use wind-tunnel testing, most cars on the road today have the same aerodynamic profile.  Online journal users know what they want (for example, PDFs of  articles, hyperlinked references, and article-level usage statistics), and thus journal sites are looking very similar these days.  Books, on the other hand, have just begun their online evolution, and their features and functionality have not yet been standardized to allow for a consistent user experience from book to book, site to site, and platform to platform.  It will be exciting to watch how these eBook platforms evolve over the next several years.

Project MUSEhttp://muse.jhu.edu

Johns Hopkins University Press founded Project MUSE in 1995 as a sales and hosting consortium for university press journals, particularly focusing on the social sciences and humanities.  MUSE launched books from the University Press Content Consortia (UPCC) in 2012.  Project MUSE now hosts over 20,000 books on behalf of over 90 publishers participating in the UPCC.

Books first entered the picture when MUSE partnered with the University Press eBook Consortium (UPeC) in 2009 to explore the feasibility of a university press-based eBook initiative.  UPeC received funding from the Andrew W.  Mellon Foundation to survey the needs of the library community and, based on the results of that survey, to develop and test a business model.  Project MUSE was selected in 2011 to implement UPeC’s plan for a transformative and sustainable product offering digital versions of book-length works from many distinguished scholarly presses.  As a result, UPCC Book Collections on Project MUSE launched in January 2012.1

Project MUSE as an aggregator is particularly attractive to university presses publishing books in the humanities and social sciences because of the already-established critical mass in those disciplines, and as a result it has a very compelling collection package for selling to libraries.  A benefit of the MUSE platform to both university press publisher partners and library buyers (and their end users) is a fully integrated search across both books and journals.  The established and easily discoverable journal content helps drive usage of the book content, and vice versa.

Project MUSE is currently hosted in-house by Johns Hopkins University Press.  The platform has a clean design that is appealing to end users.  Book content is available as full-text PDF downloads without digital rights management  and is available to subscribing institutions via Shibboleth and IP recognition.  In April 2013, Johns Hopkins University Press announced plans to move the hosting of Project MUSE to HighWire Press in late 2014.2

University Press Scholarship Online

Oxford University Press (OUP) is the owner and primary sales driver behind UPSO, Oxford’s academic monograph platform.  UPSO hosts nearly 14,000 eBooks within 28 different subject areas on behalf of OUP and 13 other major university presses.  While Project MUSE is the largest aggregator of university press eBook content, Oxford was the first to put academic books online, via Oxford Scholarship Online, in 2003.3  OUP looked closely at its successful journals program and determined that an XML workflow would be used.  While other book programs focus on PDFs, UPSO has concentrated on a full-text XML workflow, which allows richer linking via references (from in-line references as well as end notes) and full-text search.

UPSO is powered by PubFactory.  Search is across UPSO or specific to a publisher, but is limited to eBook content at the book and chapter level, without integrated journal content.  Many familiar journal features, such as download to citation management tools, are available.  The design is clean and looks attractive on large monitors, laptops, and tablets alike.

UPSO’s key value proposition for university press publishers is the ability to tap into OUP’s massive global sales network.  This partnership gives OUP more content to sell and offers partner university presses the ability to extend the reach of their content via OUP’s well-developed international channels.  The appeal for libraries is the high quality of the content and the delivery of content with robust features that are appealing to patrons with experience navigating online literature.

JSTOR — http://books.jstor.org/

JSTOR is a digital library consisting of over 1500 journals that was originally founded in 1995 with a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.  JSTOR merged with ITHAKA in 2009, creating a larger not-for-profit organization for journal hosting (JSTOR), journal archiving (Portico), and research and consulting (ITHAKA S+R).  JSTOR Books was announced in 2011 and now includes more than 15,000 eBooks on behalf of 30 university presses.4

JSTOR Books is built on Atypon technology and features integrated searching between book and journal content.  The search results default to content the reader is authorized to access, but search can be modified to include all content hosted by JSTORJSTOR Books is a natural option for university press publishers using JSTOR for journal hosting and sales.  The JSTOR sales network is well established.  Pricing is set by the publishers and tiered according to JSTOR’s classifications.

JSTOR Books offer librarians flexibility in the manner in which content is purchased.  Institutions can purchase by collection or by individual title, and volume discounts are available.  Books may be purchased under either a single-user or multi-user model.  The single-user model does not allow concurrent use and limits download quantities, while the multi-user model allows concurrent use and unlimited downloads.  JSTOR indicates that a demand-driven acquisition model is also available.5

University Publishing Online

Now that I’ve covered “the big three” platforms, let’s take a look at what some other major university presses are doing about eBooks.  Cambridge University Press, like OUP, is one of the oldest and most prestigious university press publishers.  Also like OUP, Cambridge University Press has joined forces with other university presses (nine, including the University of Edinburgh Press and Liverpool University Press) to launch a consortium called University Publishing Online.

Of course, the lynchpin of the University Publishing Online portfolio is Cambridge University PressCambridge Books Online (http://ebooks.cambridge.org/) alone hosts 20,000 eBooks.  Both Cambridge Books Online and Cambridge Journals Online are hosted by Cambridge University Press in-house.  Search is integrated, in that a search can return both book and journal results, at the chapter and article levels, respectively.  However, if the user chooses to follow a journals result, he or she is asked to navigate through to Cambridge Journals Online.


The largest university press in the United States is the University of Chicago Press.6  In 2001, the University of Chicago Press launched BiblioVault as a repository for book files and metadata for scholarly publishers.  The service has since grown to support more than 90 university presses and not-for-profit publishers by storing files and metadata on over 30,000 books.  Unlike the other platforms discussed above, BiblioVault is not intended to be an eBook platform for end-readers.  It is intended to provide a number of services to the publishers of eBooks, including the fulfillment of digital files from purchases made from a publisher’s Website shopping cart.7

Searching on BiblioVault returns information about the book and conveniently provides links to sites where a user may access or purchase the book.  As an example, a listing might return a link to purchase the book from the publisher’s Website as well as links to purchase eBook versions for Amazon Kindle, Apple iBook, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo.  There are no links for licensing institutional access.

eDuke Books Scholarly Collection

Duke University Press has a backlist of over 1,500 books and publishes 100 new books per year, all of which are included in the eDuke Books Scholarly CollectionDuke is currently in the process of moving its eBooks from the ebrary platform to HighWire.  One goal of the transition is to provide Duke’s institutional customers and end-users with seamless integration between books and journals (Duke journals are already hosted by HighWire at http://dukejournals.org/).  A video preview of the new site can be found on YouTube.

Exclusivity, or Lack Thereof

University presses are notorious for having divisions for books and journals that are challenged to work together effectively.  This political office environment is reflected in the digital realm, often with books and journals on different platforms and sold under very different business models.  Usually, journals will have one “official” site hosting the version of record.  This is not at all the case for books.

For university presses (and all book publishers), the eBook hosting platform is often viewed as a sales channel.  As a result, a book—unlike a journal — can be hosted on a number of different platforms.  A good example is a book called Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction, by Arved Ashby (University of California Press, 2012).  An eBook version can be purchased directly from the University of California Press Website, and it can also be found at California Scholarship Online, part of the UPSO offering; it is also available via JSTOR Books.

While it is understandable that university press publishers would try to extend their market reach by putting books on a number of different platforms, this practice does make library purchasing decisions more complicated.  Librarians have to work harder to make sure they are not ‘doubling up’ on the purchase of a title by licensing it from two or more different sources.


While eBook sales are growing, the institutional library licensing income for most university press publishers remains far less than their print book sales.  The university press publishers I spoke with told me that Amazon is by far their largest customer, for better or worse.  While the technology behind an eBook hosting platform is important for delivering a good end-user experience, at this point the single most important factor is revenue.  Where can a university press put their books to maximize revenue while minimizing risk of diminishing print sales? The Big Three university press eBook platforms, from Oxford (UPSO), Johns Hopkins (Project MUSE), and Ithaka (JSTOR Books), all have an appealing value proposition for university press content partners and strong sales channels and “bang for the buck” offerings that appeal to library buyers.

As more attention is placed on technology, an important trend will be the ability to effectively integrate book and journal content.  Platforms that do this well now, like Project MUSE, are well positioned for the future.


1.  MUSE Recent Announcements, http://tools.muse.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/announcements.cgi#20130618151156 accessed on September 29, 2013.

2.  HighWire Press Releases, http://highwire.stanford.edu/news/pr.dtl last accessed on September 29, 2013.  The Stanford–Johns Hopkins University press release about Project MUSE can be found at http://highwire.stanford.edu/PR/ProjectMUSE_HighWire.pdf.

3.  Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) Oxford Scholarship Online, http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/FAQs_oso/frequently-asked-questions-faqs last accessed September 29, 2013.

4.  Frequently Asked Questions | About JSTOR, http://about.jstor.org/librarians-faq#Which_publishers_are_participating_And_what_titles_are_available last accessed September 29, 2013.

5.  Frequently Asked Questions | About JSTOR, http://about.jstor.org/librarians-faq#What_is_the_functionality_of_books_prior_to_being_triggered_for_purchase_Are_there_concurrency_limits last accessed September 29, 2013.

6.  Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Chicago_Press, last accessed September 29, 2013.

7.  BiblioVault – About BiblioVault, http://www.bibliovault.org/BV.about.epl, last accessed September 29, 2013.

1 Comment

  1. Kathleen Deboer

    Depending on one’s classification of “academic”, OUP may not have been the first to launch an e-book platform. National Academies Press famously offered e-books from 1998 and OECD launched SourceOECD (now superceded by OECD iLibrary) at the very end of 2000.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


A New Beta From JSTOR Labs – Plus More ATG News & Announcements

New Beta From JSTOR Labs: “Juncture, a Free-To-Use, Open Source Framework For Creating Engaging Visual Essays” According to infoDOCKET "JSTOR Labs’ latest is "Juncture, a free-to-use, open source framework for creating engaging visual essays.  Juncture allows you to...


Share This