Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Public Lending Right Makes Authors Smile a Little

I lived in London for a number of years during the nineties and made good use of the Richmond public library (pictured at left) located just across the Thames from my Twickenham flat and, when I needed a quick book fix during the day, I sometimes made a lunch hour run to the Uxbridge library just a few blocks from my office. But despite all my trips, and the several hundred books I checked out and took home, I never realized that the Brits have a system whereby its authors get a small royalty payment each time one of their books leaves the library.

David Barnett, in today's Guardian Books Blog offers a little insight into just how it all works and how gratifying he finds the very idea that people are deciding to carry his books home with them:
Whether you're Stephen King, author of countless doorstep-sized bestsellers, or Steven King, author of PublishAmerica-released volume Why Are We Here?, you'll get the same PLR payment: 5.98p per borrowing.

If you're a famous author you're probably getting the maximum PLR payment possible, currently £6,600 – enough to buy a few ermine-covered yellow legal pads and a couple of gold-nibbed fountain pens for the writing of your next opus. I know a couple of mid-list writers who have occasionally earned the maximum: not a bad little earner that will pay the mortgage for a few months.
My PLR payment this time round? A grand £8.79. Titter ye not – although that wouldn't buy a brand-new copy of either of my novels, it fills me with an almost heady sense of satisfaction.

Being – currently, this is the year it's going to happen, fingers crossed, onward and upward! – not even a mid-list, not even a bottom-feeding author (as the writer of two novels, Hinterland and Angelglass, published by an independent press with no resources for advances, marketing or getting books into the major bookstores, which demand horrendous discounts), the value of the PLR isn't in the money but in the information it provides about book borrowings.

Over the period one of my books was borrowed 69 times, while the other had 78 outings. Not figures to exercise the great men and women of letters, but good enough for me. That's nearly 150 borrowings over a year. That means, on average, three people a week borrowed one of my novels. They might not have enjoyed them; they might not even have read them. But however tiny and unimportant to other people, the fact that someone bothered to pluck my work off a shelf, take it out and lug it home, is good enough for me.
What a great idea! I understand, of course, that someone has to pay for all those royalty checks but I actually would not mind paying a bit more tax to my county of residence in order to support something like this in the U.S. - especially, or maybe exclusively, for those authors who don't have a prayer of ever writing a bestseller. I can easily imagine that an annual check (even if capped at something like $10,000 per author) based on library traffic could make all the difference for some writers, and that would be tax money well spent, in my opinon...something that rarely happens anymore.


  1. I'm not sure...wouldn't the first objection be that it would be the Dan Browns of the world getting the bulk of the payments, whereas the writers for whom $10k would be more than pocket change will be getting actual pocket change. Because the popular bestsellers see pretty heavy circulation as well. I wonder if that's ever been controversial in the UK system.

    Also, I can imagine the additional expense getting mixed up in all the issues related to library funding.

  2. Good points, Mella. I would limit recipients to those authors with two or less NYT bestsellers ever, for instance.

    I'm thinking, too, that this kind of thing is probably doable with all the computer databases being built today. The U.K. seems to make it work, so I have to believe that we could pull it off if we really wanted to...not that I'd like the job. :-)