At a PW discussion series event this week, “The Case for Libraries,” moderator David Vinjamuri, a professional marketer and Forbes columnist, began his opening presentation with a simple question: Why do people read for pleasure? A major reason, he suggested, is the work of libraries—public institutions that actively foster “a culture of reading,” from childhood through our adult lives.

Yet, despite the library’s central role in the reading enterprise, tension between publishers and libraries has persisted, he noted, most recently over access restrictions and the pricing of e-books, and, more generally, over whether library book lending competes with or drives consumer sales. But as pleasure reading faces unprecedented competition for consumer attention in a device-driven digital age, a closer alliance between publishers and libraries, Vinjamuri argued, is vital.

“While libraries are not the biggest customer of publishers, they are potentially the most important,” he said, likening libraries to a “keystone species” in the reading ecosystem, because their work “allows the whole ecosystem of reading to flourish…imagine the consequences if that stopped being true.”

But more immediately, from his perspective as a professional consumer marketer, Vinjamuri said he believes publishers are missing a “huge opportunity” in the library market.

“When I looked at this space, I said, wow, here you have publishers, which for various structural reasons are having a harder and harder time establishing new authors, and you have this public system, incredibly well-trusted, and the number one thing people identify it with is books—and the publishers are not clamoring to develop brands in the system? What is wrong here?”

In a post-Borders age of dwindling shelf space, public libraries offer the best opportunity for visual merchandising, Vinjamuri said—that is, a book on a shelf, facing a consumer—an important part of bookselling. In addition, librarians are trusted experts, making them ideal discovery engines. So why aren’t publishers and libraries closer collaborators on marketing books and authors?

Vinjamuri then turned to his panel, for a wide-ranging discussion on how libraries and publishers are working together, how they might work better together, and what obstacles remain.

He began with Vailey Oehlke, director of the Multnomah County Libraries (Oregon), who spoke of librarians helping readers sip from “a fire hose of books” now available. But the number of books now being published has put a strain on library budgets, she told the audience, which has been exacerbated by the high prices of e-books. Oehlke said her library spends $7 million a year on collections, and will purchase almost any title that a patron asks for. But the cost of digital editions has forced the library to make “even more narrow choices” about what to buy, as budgets remain static and buying power shrinks.

Pam Sandlian-Smith, director of the Colorado Anythink Libraries, spoke of how her library has turned to bookstore-like marketing and display. Anythink libraries have actually reduced their offerings, but increased circulation by ramping up their marketing and display efforts, she reported. “We disrupted some of the traditional models,” Sandlian-Smith said about the plan to focus more on marketing. “We’re marketers. Everything we do is about helping people fall in love with books and reading. The minute you walk though the door, we want you to feel a sense of discovery.”

Vinjamuri threw a sensitive question at New York Public Library president and CEO Anthony Marx, who years ago helped break the e-book ice with some of the Big Five publishers. “What do you think publishers still don’t understand about libraries?” Vinjamuri asked.

“Can I get another question?” Marx replied, to laughter. He then echoed his fellow panelists. “We are your largest showroom, and we’re your hugest customer,” he said, citing 40 million physical visits to New York's public libraries annually, and a $25 million annual collection budget for NYPL. He dismissed the idea that library lending competes with book sales. “We’re not your competitor, we’re your best friend," he said, stressing that libraries are invested in preserving a strong publishing business. "And we’re your best friend because we share the same mission, which is to get more people to read.”

On the e-book topic, Marx said he understood publishers’ initial fears, but expressed a desire and a need for more experimentation in the digital space—including a pay-per-use model, which he said he was “intrigued” by. He also rejected the idea that the library's prime mission was to circulate hot bestsellers. “It’s not the library's job to maximize the free lending of big bestsellers,” he said, but rather to maximize the long tail. “You don’t need our help moving [James Patterson], he said, although he added NYPL is happy to do that. “You do need our help moving the rest.”

Chicago Public Library commissioner Brian Bannon also stressed the opportunity for publishers to partner with an institution with “millions of square feet” devoted to books. “I want to underscore the idea of libraries being a trusted institution,” he said, noting how the Chicago libraries are already successfully partnering with schools, universities, and industry. “The same opportunities exist for publishers."

Rounding out the panel, agent Simon Lipskar apologized for knowing little about the library market, or retail merchandising, but said he is in fact an expert on the diminishing of discovery for authors, because many of the writers on his agency’s client list are suffering in the digital age. He criticized the effectiveness of recommendation algorithms, and called the Internet "a staggeringly efficient means of delivering product people already know they want."

Lipskar stressed the need for publishers to refocus on the importance of physical book marketing, noting that years into the digital transition, physical books remain the bulk of publishing’s business. Yet, he said, his client’s marketing budgets now largely go to creating awareness on the Internet, which primarily drives sales of “non-physical” product.

“We’ve put all this money into online discovery and community and we have very little to show for it,” he said. "I think that it is time to have some courage about the reality that we are facing,” adding that publishers should take more chances "in the real world," and "invest more in physical discovery."

Can libraries be a solution to more physical marketing for books? “I am not expert enough to know,” Lipskar said. “But I do know this: based on what I’ve heard today, libraries foster community and they foster discovery in the real world. And anything that fosters community and discovery in the real world, if this was an online start-up, angel investors would be throwing millions at the idea.”

To which CPL's Bannon quickly replied: "Chicago is open for business."