Back in 2000, at a meeting at netLibrary’s headquarters in Boulder, CO, then-CEO Nancy Talmey told a group of assembled university press publishers that one “medium-sized” university press had recently pocketed two sizable checks for its previous months’ e-book usage with netLibrary. One check exceeded $100,000. Could academic monographs really be so profitable? If it seemed too good to be true, it was. Within a few years, netLibrary was reduced from a campus in Colorado, to a few cubicles at OCLC.
Today, netLibrary has changed again, and now is part of EBSCO, where it is still a respected e-book brand, if not the runaway success its early investors had banked on. Yet netLibrary’s quick rise and fall at the beginning of the decade was not for a lack of vision—it was simply too far in front of the market. Today, with new devices and better browsers, digital monographs are becoming the gold standard for academics. It’s not hard to see why: technology solves a lot of problems for the academic monograph.
For publishers, digital monographs make more sense than printing increasingly small numbers of specialized, expensive hardcover books to sell to libraries with ever-tightening book budgets. For users, the functionality and accessibility of digital monographs is also welcome—and expected. And with the digital transition largely complete in academic publishing, certainly with electronic journals, the academic culture is finally getting over the bias for print books, especially in terms of tenure and prestige, that plagued e-monograph pilot programs like the American Historical Association and Columbia University Press’s Gutenberg-e pilot at the beginning of the decade.
At the turn of the 21st century, the big question facing the academic monograph was, can it survive—a question that extended to the university presses that published them as well. Money was tight. Sales were flagging. What to do?
In a particularly prescient observation in September 2000, Kate Wittenberg, then a senior executive editor at Columbia University Press, questioned whether university presses wouldn’t be better off eschewing the overtures of companies like netLibrary, and going it alone.
“These high-tech, well-capitalized services offer tempting solutions for publishers that may not have the knowledge, funding, staff, or temperament to undertake their own online publishing projects,” she said. “On the other hand, by offering a seemingly simple, low-risk opportunity to enter the digital-publishing arena, these companies are allowing publishers to avoid the process of developing this capacity for themselves.”
University presses, she concluded, were in danger of “licensing away gems of content in this frenzied environment of dot-coms.”
A decade later, Wittenberg must be smiling. After years of planning, a flurry of new digital monograph platforms have now launched—all from university presses or associated nonprofits—and kicking off a heated competition to build a better monograph.
In 2012, four platforms are poised to compete: Oxford University Press’s University Press Scholarship Online (UPSO); Cambridge University Press’s University Publishing Online (UPO); University Press Content Consortium (UPCC) Book Collections on Project MUSE; and Books at JSTOR.
Oxford’s UPSO and Cambridge’s UPO launched in fall 2011, using their existing platforms as the foundation for further digitization efforts. UPSO is a partnership between OUP and several university presses (including Fordham and the University of Florida) to aggregate monograph content into a single, cross-searchable platform featuring XML format, setting it apart from its competing platforms, which still feature PDF. It is also the only platform not to feature journal content.
Cambridge’s UPO is the result of a joint venture between Cambridge and partner publishers, and it integrates scholarly books—including textbooks and professional books—along with journal articles on a single platform.
The Project MUSE and JSTOR models are well-known aggregators in the academic community hoping to emulate the success they’ve had with academic journals. Set to launch in January 2012, the Project MUSE initiative is the result of a merger with the University Press E-book Consortium, which includes Johns Hopkins University Press (the host institution), New York University, and more than 60 others.
The last in line for release (set for June 2012), Books at JSTOR is an initiative by several university presses (including Yale and Princeton) to make their e-books available as part of JSTOR, a widely used digital platform of scholarly content founded in 1995 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Once incorporated, the book content will be cross-searchable with millions of journal articles and primary sources already on JSTOR.
Less than a decade ago, the question was whether the monograph would live to see 2011. Today, presses are being wooed to add their content to these new platforms so that libraries might subscribe to collections of scholarly e-books. Deeper questions and challenges loom, of course, especially for librarians, who must decide how to allocate their limited resources. But for the moment, the future of the monograph looks safe—although it may look nothing like its past.
Mirela Roncevic (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an independent writer and content developer, and former reference editor at Library Journal.