It's that time of year when British authors and anyone else who makes a book - authors, illustrators, photographers,
translators, editors of anthologies - receives their Public Lending Right payments for books lent in
the library system. Twenty-eight countries have a form of PLR. In the
UK, the amount earned by each registered title is based on payment of
6.2 pence per loan, and an estimate of the number of borrowings of each
registered title using data from a number of typical libraries.
And very welcome it is too, for most recipients - although not for Horrible Histories author, Terry Deary
. He's the seventh most-borrowed
children's author, and because the maximum PLR payment is capped at £6,600, to ensure that best-selling
authors don't scoop up most of the pot. he reckons he's out of pocket by some £180,000. And that's not all:
'But never mind my selfish author perception – what about the bookshops?
The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing
back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the
publisher get paid, which is as it should be. What other entertainment
do we expect to get for free?'
According to Deary, libraries are Victorian institutions which have outlived their usefulness, giving people the undeserved entitlement that books should be available at the expense of the book trade and the local councils which fund them.
It's pernicious stuff. Most authors, like me, don't earn anything like the amount Deary reckons he's lost thanks to the perfidious PLR scheme. In fact, the average earnings of British authors - and I'm average, in this respect - is somewhat less than the national average wage. So while the PLR payments may be peanuts to someone like Deary, they are an important source of income to many authors. As are sales to libraries of hardback books. Back in the day, my publisher, Gollancz, made a good chunk of its income from selling hardbacks to libraries: the famous yellow jackets ensured that its crime and science fiction titles stood out on library shelves. For many midlist authors, sales to libraries are still important, and cutbacks in library funding are a serious threat to their careers.
Borrowing books and buying books are not mutually exclusive, and every book borrowed is not, as Mr Deary imagines, a lost sale. There's no basis for that kind of like-for-like calculation. As for his assertion that bookshops are closing down because libraries are giving away books for free, libraries and bookshops have managed to coexist for a century and a half. The trade in printed books is currently under threat not because of people borrowing books, but because they are buying more books online, and are increasingly buying more and more ebooks. The decline in the amount of money spent on books is due in no large part to the proliferation of massively discounted ebooks
, with heavily promoted bestselling titles going for as little as 20 pence. It's this, rather than the 'free' books in libraries, which is threatening to devalue books.
Far from doing nothing for the booktrade, libraries buy massive quantities of books and through the PLR scheme pay authors a tithe on book borrowing, and most importantly they encourage reading. Many people who start out borrowing books from
libraries got on to become lifelong readers and book-buyers. I type this in a room lined with about
3000 books, part of my personal library. A good proportion of the older titles are books I once borrowed from libraries, and bought so that I could read them again. Would I have become a writer without access to a library stuffed with books I could freely borrow? Probably. But my local library was vastly enabling, because it fed my growing book-reading habit, and allowed me to graze on a vast selection of titles, and to read authors I might never otherwise have encountered, and generally provided me with a literary education.
In short, libraries are invaluable gateways, much like Mr Deary's rather wonderful Horrible History books. What a pity he doesn't see that.