Public Lending Right: The Movement of (Mostly) Small Amounts of Money

I’ve just been initiated into one of the more obscure financial rituals of the writing business: got my first statement of income under the Public Lending Right scheme. Under PLR, each time a book is borrowed from a UK library, the author (assuming they’ve registered for the scheme), gets a little bit of cash. ‘Little’ is the operative word here: the rate is currently just under 6p per loan. Unless you’re a bit of an exceptional case (of which more later, complete with facts and figures), PLR isn’t going to be paying for many holidays. Still, it’s a welcome token. Another minor way of tracking your book’s journey out into the big wide world.

The income for the author would be much higher, of course, if all those library loans had been book purchases instead. You can hope some of those borrowers might become buyers in the future, or that they’ll tell their buying friends about this great book they’ve just read, but at the end of the day helping writers sell books is not why libraries exist. Shocking, I know, but it’s true apparently. Their purposes are rather nobler, and having a well-used library system is an inherently good thing for a country and a society. So I’ll just take my PLR payment as a sign that I’ve become a tiny little cog in the wheels of A Good Thing and be grateful that people are reading the book anywhere and anyhow.

The PLR people have also put out a booklet in which ‘writers comment on the PLR scheme, its future priorities and the broader context of authors’ rights.’ Sounds dull as ditchwater, right? Well, probably. You can judge for yourself if you like, since this is the pdf of the booklet, but in case you’re not so inspired, here’s a few things that caught my eye:

There are 37,000 authors (I think they might be including some illustrators, translators etc. in that figure too, but I’m not sure) registered for the PLR scheme, with around 1,400 new ones joining each year. Wow. That seems … quite a lot.

The number of visits to libraries each year is increasing, but the number of book loans and the number of books bought by libraries are both decreasing. People are obviously finding things to do in libraries that don’t involve actually borrowing printed books. Does suggest a slight disconnect developing, though, since as far as I’m aware the number of new titles published each year has been going up, so if the libraries are buying less of them, does that mean the proportion of titles that are available through libraries (in printed form, at least) is declining?

No surprise to anyone, I imagine, but writing is a top heavy business. Some recent research says the top 10% of authors now accrue 50% of all income earned by writing. The bottom 50% get just 10% of the riches. That’ll be the ‘death of the midlist’ everyone keeps talking about, I guess, but if anything those figures seem less extreme than I would have expected them to be. Still, in recent years the figures for wealth distribution in the UK as a whole have shown a very similar pattern, to within a couple of percentage points. Maybe under the British version of capitalism, the top 10% of every category just naturally get 50% of everything. Law of Nature or something.

According to the same research, the average income from writing for UK authors is declining and is now down to £4,000 p.a. Treasure that day job. Really. Maybe even get another one, just to be on the safe side.

Also available is the PLR’s annual newsletter, which is even less interesting to a non-writer on the whole (although if you’ve got masochistic tendencies, or just like to know how things work, here’s the pdf of that, too). But it does have some more of those facts and figures I so enjoy:

Approximate total number of book loans from UK libraries per year: 323 million (down from 330 million the previous year).

About 83% of resgistered authors received less than £100 as their PLR payment this year. See what I mean about it not paying for many holidays? This includes 35% who received nothing at all. You don’t get paid anything if your earnings are under £1, I think, plus there’s probably some registered authors with no books in-print.

Just over 4% have a PLR income in excess of £1,000 this year. That includes 242 lucky souls (less than 1%), who qualify for the maximum allowable payment of £6,600. In order to get that, your books have to be borrowed a very impressive 110,000+ times. I did actually go onto the PLR website to see how many sf/f/h authors are on their lists of most borrowed writers, but to be honest there’re hardly any and you could guess who they are with a moment’s thought: JK Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, that kind of thing.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered Winterbirth was borrowed rather a lot less than 110,000 times. Still, it’s always good to have something to aim for.

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