Why aren't there more e-books on your library's virtual shelves? Libraries say it's because publishers are sometimes charging them more than $100 per copy — and they can't afford it.

The Kindle edition of Lena Dunham's bestselling memoir Not that Kind of Girl retails for $14.99 at Amazon.ca. But the book's publisher, Random House, charges Canadian libraries $85 per copy of the e-book — five times more, according to the Canadian Library Association. You can buy the Kindle version of Donna Tartt's Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Goldfinch for $12.99, but publisher Little, Brown and Company charges libraries $114 per copy or nearly nine times more.

'Libraries are basically at the publishers' mercy.' - Michael Kozlowski, e-book website owner

Despite the premium, only one borrower can access each copy of the book at a time.

The Canadian Library Association launched a public campaign at fairpricingforlibrarires.org earlier this month trying to draw attention to the huge markup and what it means for the public.

"We want the public to understand why they don't see all the e-books maybe they would like to see when they go to the public library website," said Vickery Bowles, city librarian for the Toronto Public Library, which is leading the campaign.

"We're very concerned about what this means for mandate of the public library in providing universal access to a diverse collection in a range of formats … we need to be able to provide customers with access to e-content in the same way that we've always provided access to other forms of content in books and DVDS and CDs et cetera."

That's a big concern because demand for e-books among library users is soaring.

With print books, libraries have traditionally paid less than retail price for copies. With e-books, it's the opposite.

Some publishers charge libraries up to eight times retail price for "perpetual access," where the book remains in their collection forever. Others charge a more "reasonable" price, such as $30 per copy, but allow access for a limited period of time, such as a year, or a limited number of borrowers. Once the limit is reached, the book disappears and the library has to repurchase it.

"Those are not sustainable models," Bowles said.

Soaring demand

The end result is libraries can buy much less digital content than traditional content for the same price.

Meanwhile, Bowles said demand at the Toronto Public Library for digital content has increased 4,200 per cent since 2008. In 2014, he said Toronto residents borrowed 3.5 million e-books, e-audio books and e-videos – "mainly e-books."

Vickery Bowles

'We want the public to understand why they don't see all the e-books maybe they would like to see when they go to the public library website,' says Vickery Bowles, city librarian for the Toronto Public Library. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

That still only represents 11 per cent of overall library use, she added, but demand continues to grow as more digital content becomes available and more people have devices like e-readers and tablets to read it on.

The Canadian Publishers' Council, which represents the Canadian branches of the large international publishers, including HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, Hachette and Simon & Schuster, chose not to comment for this story despite being given ample time to respond to CBC's queries.

So why are the e-book prices charged to libraries so high? It's not because e-books cost more to publish than print books, said Michael Kozlowski, editor in chief of GoodeReader.com, a website devoted to e-book and e-reader news. With print books, publishers need to pay for paper, printing, warehousing and shipping — costs that don't exist with e-books, he added.

He said what's happening is that there's no clear "ownership" of a digital file like an e-book the way there is with print books.

"So publishers can do what they want to libraries and libraries are basically at the publishers' mercy."

Ebooks don't wear out

Krystyna Ross is chief executive officer of ebound Canada, a group that helps smaller, independent Canadian publishers with the transition to digital publishing. Most of the publishers she represents sell their books to libraries through a wholesaler called Overdrive. It only allows publishers to sell permanent or perpetual access to an e-book, but lets them set the price.

hi-ebooks

The Kindle edition of a recent bestseller would cost $14.99 at Amazon.ca. But publishers like Random House charge Canadian libraries $85 per copy.

Some publishers mark the price up for libraries, and some don't, Ross added.

Those that do may be concerned that making books available through the library will reduce the number of copies they sell, she said.

Bowles acknowledged this is a bigger concern with e-books because people don't have to physically go to the library to borrow and return them.

Ross said publishers also mark up copies because e-books don't wear out like print books do. When a print book wears out, a library may have to buy another copy, so having more e-books could lower sales.

"Honestly," she added, "many of my publishers are just looking at what else is happening in the market and emulating what the multi-national publishers do."

But she said like libraries, many smaller publishers would like to have access to more e-book pricing options.

Bowles said she understands that publishers are facing a "challenging business environment." Libraries are fine with paying a higher price for e-books than consumers, she added. They're just looking for a pricing model that's more reasonable and flexible. For example, she suggests libraries could buy 10 copies of a new release for $85 and have permanent access to those, then buy another 90 copies for a lower price that only last the first year — the year when demand is highest.

"What they [publishers] need to hear is that the pricing models they're using right now don't work for public libraries at all."

With files from Shawn Benjamin and Aaron Saltzman