My latest Locus column, Libraries and E-books, talks about the raw deal that libraries are currently getting from the big five publishers on ebook pricing (libraries pay up to five times retail for their ebooks, and are additionally burdened with the requirement to use expensive, proprietary collection-management tools). I point out that libraries are effectively the last main-street "retailer" of books, and represent a valuable ally for publishing in the age of ebooks, where all the other major players are not just ebook vendors, but ebook publishers as well, and looking to take market-share from the publishers.
Unlike every other channel for e-books, libraries are not the publishers' competitors. They don't want to sell devices. They don't want to win over customers to a particular cloud. They just want readers to read, writers to write, and publishers to sell. They deserve a better deal than they're getting.
There's a good case to be made for libraries getting discounts on e-books, rather than paying premiums. For one thing, they're excellent customers and they make bulk-buys. For another, the e-books that libraries buy stay in their collection forever, unlike print books. When a library downsizes its stock of last-year's print bestseller, it puts most of its copies in its booksale for a nominal sum, a dollar or two, and often those books end up in the used-book stream, being sold alongside the new books on Amazon at steep discounts, competing for readers' dollars.
But e-books can't be sold in the booksale. They don't ever end up competing with new books – and they never generate revenue for libraries as used books. That is, even when priced at par, e-books make more money for publishers and less money for libraries.
Publishers should be courting libraries as neutral parties and potential allies in the e-book wars. Publishers are in direct competition with e-book companies like Amazon, who publish e-books as well as selling them. But when Amazon sells an e-book, it gets mountains of business intelligence from the transaction: who is buying, where, from which keywords, and with what other books (for starters). What does the publisher get? An aggregate sales figure, 90 days after the fact. Of course Amazon is running circles around the Big Five publishers: the publishers know nothing about their customers, and Amazon knows everything about them.