Right or Privilege?

Zoë Sharp

When I was a kid, one of my favourite places was the library. I lived on a boat from an early age, which was not exactly conducive to having a large collection of books. Condensation was a big problem, and the pages tended to mildew badly in the winter.

So, I got my reading kicks amid the old oak shelves and the parquet flooring of the nearest public library in Lancaster.

It was there I worked my way contentedly through the crime section, happy to take a chance on an author I hadn’t previously come across because it wasn’t costing me anything to give them a try. And, if I didn’t like the book I’d chosen, I had plenty more book to go at.

My first event as a published author was held at that same library. While I was writing my first book, the recently republished KILLER INSTINCT, I was part of a small local writing group who met every few weeks in another tiny local library in a nearby village, barely larger than an average living room. It’s gone now, more’s the pity, boarded up and abandoned – a victim of local authority cutbacks. The community is poorer for it.

And now the government is turning its attention to another aspect of the UK library system – PLR.

Public Lending Right came into being in 1979, when the Public Lending Right Act gave British authors a legal right to receive payment for the free lending of their books by public libraries, after a campaign that lasted thirty years and was vigorously opposed by a minority of determined MPs. The scheme itself was established three years later. Payment is just a few pence per lend, taken across a sample of UK libraries over the course of a year. And as it’s capped at £6600 (a little over $10,000) it’s the mid-list authors who tend to benefit most.

For authors whose books are produced in small numbers intended largely for the library market, often only in hardcover, PLR is a lifeline. It doesn’t matter if a book is out of print, so long as it’s still being circulated in the library system, and still being read. For the years when KILLER INSTINCT languished out of print, it was the only way I knew people were still reading and enjoying the book.

I feel very grateful to the libraries in general – and Lancaster Library in particular. In fact, the first ‘real’ character I included in one of my books was the librarian there, Andrew Till, who became an FBI agent in FIRST DROP. I was delighted to be able to include him as a thank you for all the hard work librarians do.

(a recent library event as part of Yorkshire FEVA – Festival of Entertainment and Visual Arts – with the staff of Knaresborough Library [from l to r] Karen Thornton, Wendy Kent, Deborah Thornton, with ZS, and fellow crime authors Richard Jay Parker and Matt Lynn.)

Whenever I’ve toured a new book in the States, I’ve always been more than happy to do library events, but got the impression – rightly or wrongly – that some authors are reluctant to promote the library system. Taken at face value, I can understand this. After all, if a library buys a book and then lends it to a hundred people, that (in theory) is a potential 99 sales lost.

I know whenever I’ve done library events that there’s often a very good take-up of sales alongside them. Many people who use libraries are also voracious book buyers, who borrow books as an extended version of browsing. Many others simply cannot afford to buy new books, particularly hardcovers. I’d rather they used the library, and kept that alive, than scoured second-hand stores and market stalls. Particularly as in the UK struggling authors have PLR as a small safety net.

But now, of course, the cash-strapped government is looking to cut public expenditure dramatically, and PLR is one of the things that’s coming under the microscope by the Department for  Culture Media and Sport. The results of the Spending Review are due to be announced on October 20th.

Meanwhile, there’s a petition you can put your name to, if you feel strongly enough about it. I know, if you’re not a UK author, you may think, why should I? But if you enjoy reading UK authors, please bear in mind that PLR is often the difference between an author being able to continue writing, and having to give it up in favour of more gainful employment.

So, ‘Rati, will you visit and sign the petition, or don’t you feel that authors should receive payment for library lends? What’s your view?

This week’s Word of the Week is quintessential, meaning something it its purest, most concentrated form, the most essential part, form or embodiment of anything. In medieval times, it was thought the world was made up of four corruptible elements: earth, air, fire and water. The heavens came to be regarded as a perfect incorruptible element. In Latin, the quinta essentia, literally, the fifth element.

I’m off on the road from this morning, so I’ll get to comments when I can, but please bear with me.


17 thoughts on “Right or Privilege?

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    I don't think there is a direct correlation between 100 people reading a book freely from a library and 100 people not able to read it for free therefore going out and buying the book. Those aren't lost sales; those are lost readers which is far more valuable. Readers, through word of mouth, create more sales. They are a free-to-authors marketing tool.
    No, a library should not charge — that defeats its fundamental mission statement. I used my local library a lot when I couldn't afford books. I found a lot of good authors there. Now that I can afford to buy more, I'm purchasing books by those authors. It planted a seed for future sales.
    The creator of, say, a car gets paid once no matter how many times it is driven or the number of drivers or if it is resold. (And it's not a matter of cars costing more — the cost reflects the market of the expense plus a margin)

  2. Jake Nantz

    I agree with PK, I think it's foolhardy to imagine that 100 library readers equals 99 lost sales, because it implies that all 100 readers would have bought the book otherwise. Let's face it, the problem facing most authors these days isn't libraries, it's obscurity. People tend to buy books by authors they feel they can trust to tell them a solid story. If they've never heard of you, it's ridiculous to assume that all 100 of them would buy your book just because they might take a shot at one of your works from the library. What's more likely is they'll never borrow OR buy the book, and you've lost as many potential sales as the word-of-mouth from that one reader could have generated for you.

    But I don't think library lending should be charged, either. I like the idea of writers getting a small percentage (especially if it's capped, bigtime bonus idea there), but I am certain it won't last when the federal government looks at their budget and says something pedestrian and idiotic like, "Hell, writers like Dan Brown and such are making millions, why on earth should we keep giving them federal money on top of that?" Because no matter where you are in the world, if you're talking about the government, you're about 96% likely to be talking about a collection of people who would improve the gene pool just by removing themselves from it, and instead they somehow managed to get put in charge.

  3. Grace

    Our libraries in Canada are struggling to stay afloat while offering the valuable services to the public. I would not like to see them charge. And librarians – those god sends – the best researchers on the globe! My opinion! Thanks for the post.

  4. Shizuka

    I don't think that British libraries are charging people who read the books; the library system is paying authors each time someone borrows a book.

  5. Cathy

    My first reaction was, really? They actually give the author a few cents for each 'lend'? What a wonderful idea! It'll never pass over here (see Jake's comment) but I'd love to see it happen.

    Several people mentioned not wanting a library to charge. Of course we all pay taxes to support them. In my area, most of the small towns have banded together into a regional library, which is wonderful for sharing resources and vastly expanding the available collection. My little town won't get its nose out of the air and join, so I quite happily drive to the next town and pay an annual fee to use the larger system. Would others do that? Quite a few do, but it would likely be a hardship for the dozens I see in the nearest branch, using the computers and reading by the fire-pit.

  6. pari noskin taichert

    I know I'm going to be unpopular here, but I like the UK system. I'd like to see a similar one in the U.S. To me it's a societal question of valuing creativity — in this case, the written word — and having local/state/regional governments affirm that it's important. It's a matter of priorities. Libraries take it in the stomach too often because the services they provide, including housing and lending books, are simply not valued. Writers struggle to make even the barest livings for the same reasons.

    This has got to change.

  7. Debbie

    I heard a great expression lately, 'pebble in your shoe'. This is definately my pebble for the day. I'll be thinking about and discussing this one to see what others think.

    Canada also has something called CanCopy whereby books can be reproduced with permission by the copyright holder for use by those who have a visual or perceptual disability.

    I have over one thousand books for young children in my home and although that sounds like a lot, my daughter had read them all many times before junior kindergarten. The library is invaluable.\

    So, back to the question…. Literacy is important and I think that libraries support learning, and promote accessability to books. How author's fare as a result-I imagine it's positive. As for Rowling and Brown…is the funding to help out lesser known authors or authors in general? Please don't penialize them because they are doing well. Instead, add tax incentives for those who donate to the library. Or in true government fashion, create a complicated funding equasion that reflects profits on a particular books sales and pay government officials to implement and moniter the above mentioned so that you create the appearance of ensuring tax dollars aren't wasted, while paying gov. officials and not the author's!

  8. Lorena

    Now THAT is a use of my tax dollars I'd like to see! I frequently use the library as a substitute for purchasing, when the budget won't allow a visit to a bookstore but unless it's a new (to me) author I always feel rather guilty that I'm not contributing my $1.50 or so to the author's royalty checks. (Especially now that I am one, and know how much work goes into getting those books written!). I can't see it happening here, since libraries everywhere I look are fighting for resources, but I think it's a great idea, paying small royalites for the circulating books. Sounds a little like the way radio stations have to pay royalties for the re-use of songs (so the artist isn't getting paid only on the initial sale of the CD).

    And I will restrain myself and stay off my "libraries are good for society" soapbox….

  9. Larry Gasper

    We also have PLR in Canada, though it's not as generous as in Britain and is figured out by the number of libraries a book is in, not the number of times it's lent out. It pays a maximum of $350 a book and has a cap of ten books. Currently I haven't heard of any plans to cut it, though it isn't growing anywhere near as fast as the number of books being registered with it and I know they're putting a new system in place to reduce or eliminate payments on individual books the longer they're in the system.
    PLR is a good program for writers, though if you only have one book out like I do, the payment won't make or break you. A lot of poets and literary writers I know with multiple books out do count on the payments though.
    One other program we have in Canada, which I don't know if they have in Britain, is Access Copyright, where you get paid for possible photocopying of your book. I'm not sure how it works, as I'm not registered, but it's another bit of money that can help a writer out.
    We have a strong library system in my city and the economy is doing well so we don't have to worry about cutbacks and I'm grateful for that. Even though I buy lots of books, the library is still a great place to discover authors and even just to spend a few enjoyable hours.

  10. Robert Gregory Browne

    Signed sealed and delivered. But my question is, what about American authors who have been published in the UK? How do we collect this library royalty?

    I honestly don't care whether I get paid by the library or not. They buy plenty of books and the exposure to new readers alone is more than enough pay. Just the other day I had an email from a librarian who has read all of my books and has been enthusiastically passing them along to co-workers and patrons.

    You can't beat that.

  11. Zoe Sharp

    To start with, I apologise to all those who have got hold of the wrong end of the stick with this post. I'll state it clearly for the record:


    PLR is a centrally funded operation, put in place by government, to recognise the input of the author into the library system. It is only open to UK-resident authors, although some European countries – most recently Ireland – have set up their own PLR schemes, for which ALCAS collects a small amount on behalf of authors.

    Of course I do not believe that library lends take away from sales, that's why I said 'in theory', which perhaps accounts for why I've encountered some resistance from some US authors to taking part in library events. (And note, I said 'some' in both cases.)

    So, I'm sorry for the confusion, and next time I won't attempt to write a last-minute post on a subject I feel strongly about, without making very sure it can't be misunderstood first…

    Sorry folks ;-[

  12. Dudley Forster

    Hi Zoe. I have never heard of PLR, but I think it is a good idea. It just won’t fly in the States. Most libraries are funded by city or county taxes. For PLR to work here would require each each city or county to pass and administrate it. I suppose a state might be able to do it, but there’s the pesky interstate commerce clause in our Constitution. The only way it would work is if Congress passed a law requiring it. Given they would not fund it, it would be another federal mandate. Those have become as popular as a porcupine at an orgy.

    As far as some authors not supporting libraries, that seems very short sighted. Libraries promote reading and given the obscenely low reading rate here in the U.S. anything that encourages reading has to be positive for the industry.

    Jake – At times I think 96% is too low.

  13. Debbie

    @Larry Gasper, Access Copyright is the replacement for CanCopy (my info was outdated(. From what I understand, you must register, be print published and a Canadian citizen regardless of where the book was published. I'd be surprised if there weren't similar programs in the US and UK and around the world. Glad to see so many names on the petition; hope we can help!

  14. Katherine Howell

    Hi all,
    we have PLR here in Australia, and also ELR – educational lending right, which covers copies of one's books held in school and university libraries. There needs to be at least 50 copies of each book in the systems, and once you drop below that 50 mark they cut you from the list of payees. It's paid for by the federal government, even though most public libraries are run by local government councils. Plus there's CAL, the copyright agency limited, which collects money from institutions etc who photocopy work, and distributes that money to the registered copyright holders. They're good systems and so far not under threat 🙂 Hope the UK govt sorts themselves out and leaves yours alone, Zoe!

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi all

    Thank you to everyone who went and put their names to the petition. I know it was mentioned about not wanting to add to the fortunes of Dan Brown (although as an American author, I doubt he's eligible for UK PLR anyway) but he's the exception to the rule. For the vast majority of authors, writing books does not make them enough to live on. PLR is a vital lifeline that often makes the difference between being able to continue writing and having to give it up. This was why I wanted to make a plea for its continued existence.

  16. lil Gluckstern

    As a reader who buys, borrows and-ahem-books, I would gladly pay a small amount of a surcharge to the author (if it were logistically possible). Mr. forster is right. The united States knows only too well how to make a simple thing difficult. The pleasure you guys give is more than worth it, and while I can't afford to buy all the books I read, I wish there were a way to compensate you guys more fairly.
    Good luck with this.

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