GLOBAL: University presses join to face e-book future

It was once said that the purpose of the university press was to publish as many worthy scholarly books as possible without going broke. But university presses, many of them non-profit and kept afloat by their universities, are becoming concerned about e-books - if they cannot keep up with the changing digital landscape, many could well go broke.

Unlike electronic journals, university libraries are still holding back on e-book purchases. But university presses are under pressure to begin offering electronic editions even before the market for them is fully developed. Even in the most developed market, the US, e-books are still only 2% of scholarly book sales.

But many in the sector warn that university presses cannot wait for the much debated 'tipping point' when academic e-books overtake printed book sales. They need to prepare and invest now.

"What is clear is that more people are reading digital copies," said Paul Kratoska, managing director of the National University of Singapore Press. "University presses need to find ways to adapt to this. If they don't they are going to be dinosaurs dying by the roadside. Some have already collapsed."

Digitising whole collections, often in multiple e-book formats, entails considerable investment at a time when the cost is hard to recoup, as cash-strapped libraries are reducing acquisition budgets. At the same time electronic journals, whose price has rocketed in recent years and which began to digitalise a decade ago, are taking up a greater proportion of library budgets than in the past.

Unlike profitable British giants Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, most university presses are small and rarely break even. They say the savings on e-books compared to paper books are minuscule with their small print runs, sometimes just 100 copies. There is little incentive to digitise whole back catalogues and prepare them in a way that is attractive for libraries.

"The small and medium-sized university presses - which are the majority in the US - do not have the resources to undertake this kind of initiative on their own," said Alex Holzman of Temple University Press in the US.

There is already a move in the US to come together as consortia to sell collections of e-books to academic libraries. Some 60 of America's 110 university presses are interested in joining the new University Press eBook Consortium Project, announced this year and led by New York University (NYU) Press and Temple University Press.

"Managers at many of these presses understand that their separate efforts are an inefficient solution to the challenge of disseminating university press e-books to academic libraries," said NYU Press. "By working together to achieve efficiencies of scale, presses that join the consortium will put the needs of the scholarly community as a whole at the top of the agenda."

The consortium expects to launch in the second half of 2011 with over 2,000 new e-book titles and 23,000 older digitised titles in subject collections as well as a complete collection offer.

In October MUSE, the non-profit electronic journal collaboration between libraries and publishers in the US, announced that nine more university presses had signed up to its new initiative to offer e-book collections alongside its electronic journal collections, joining nine university presses that were already part of it.

Their initial offering in the second half of 2011will comprise more than 350 e-books to be sold on a subject basis or as whole collections to libraries in the US and elsewhere in the world.

"We are already moving towards selling e-books. That train has already begun to roll," said Holzman of Temple University Press.

Meanwhile, in another new initiative the Association of European University Presses launched formally at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. It includes university presses in France, Britain, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

The idea of coming together was to "share ideas on how to reinvent ourselves", said Marike Schipper of Leuven University Press in Belgium, referring to the evolving e-book landscape.

In Asia, university presses are also realising they need to begin to band together to digitise and sell e-books.

The two main university presses in Asia are Hong Kong University Press and National University of Singapore Press. Hong Kong has three other smaller university presses publishing in English and Chinese.

"Most of them have not yet entered the e-book arena," said Joseph Siu, sales manager for international and digital publishing at Hong Kong University Press. "One hundred per cent of their revenue is from the printed book business."

Because of a lack of capital to invest they are still in an early stage of development in digital publishing, he added. But Hong Kong's university presses, which publish around 80% of their books in Chinese, are looking at the huge China market which has a large and vibrant academic e-book sector.

"For China a consortium is the only way," said Siu. The volume of material available as part of a consortium means that they can negotiate better prices on a 'collection' or bulk basis, usually by subject.

"In China the e-book price is very low - less than US$2 a book. It is very difficult for a foreign university press to match this price for e-books for the Chinese market. That is why we have to work together as university publishers to negotiate a deal," Siu said.

University presses in the US talk a lot about expanding into emerging English-speaking markets in Asia and elsewhere in the world. But according to Siu: "In Asia it is very difficult for university presses to form consortia because of the language barrier. Most university presses in Asia publish only for their local market."

In addition it is difficult to compete on price with cheap, locally produced textbooks, particularly in the big English-speaking markets of India or the Philippines.

A myriad of different digital formats also poses a problem. Libraries have been resisting buying academic e-books in part because they fear the expense of having to convert their holdings into a different format in future.

"In the last 12 months our press has spent of lot of time investigating making e-books available in multiple formats," said Siu, who pointed out that university presses in Japan and Korea already publish e-books in multiple formats.

Many India-based companies convert PDF files into multiple digital formats for low fees. This expense is even more viable when presses come together as a consortium.

University presses still have a trump card, albeit an expensive one.

"University presses rely on an extensive network of editorial board and-or external reviewers who advise the publisher on what to publish and what not. This peer review process is at the heart of university press publishing," said Schipper of Leuven University Press.

They are in the business of publishing books commercial presses do not publish. If university presses can adapt they can survive.

But, said Siu, a shake-up may not be a bad thing. "University presses have been so protected by their universities in the last 20 to 30 years, they need to start to make their product more accessible to their audiences. They need to think about their own content strategy and be a content provider not just a book publisher."

And for most of them it is easier and cheaper to do this in a consortium, sharing costs with other university presses.