Children's writers have always been great supporters of the wonderful UK library service. Libraries and writers enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Libraries nurture embryonic readers, they buy books, and they provide us with a sliver of our income in the form of PLR (public lending rights - the small payment made to writers when their books are borrowed). In return, we write books and those books are given free of charge to anyone who wants to read them. Many of us have been vociferous in our support of libraries in the face of threatened cuts.
As children's writers, we know our readers rarely have a book-buying budget. They may not be able to persuade a parent to buy a book, but should be able to persuade a parent to allow a library visit. Few parents can afford to buy the huge numbers of picture books a child reader can get through, but a library will provide. The library is a golden gate to a life of reading, a gate we need to keep open.
In the current economic climate, though, some libraries are ducking out of the symbiosis and turning to bite the hand that feeds. An advertisement for a library early last year read 'Buy none, get six free'. It's clever, but its implicit suggestion that people shouldn't buy books is underhand, and damaging to writers and the publishing industry. A meeting at Cambridge Central Library last month invited suggestions from the public on how to make cuts in the library service over the next three years. One measure the library is proposing to adopt is to cut the book-buying budget for the current year from £350,000 to zero. I suggested it would be less damaging for authors and publishers if they cut it by £120,000 a year in each of the three years. No, they said, this was a cut that could be implemented immediately. It was, they agreed, regrettable that it would be damaging to the publishing industry and to writers at a time when they were also struggling.
Regrettable. Some of those writers and publishers will go to the wall if this strategy is widely adopted, but might survive if the saving had been spread out. Of course, 'it's not the libraries' fault, everyone has to make cutbacks'. That's true. But books are the core of a library. Why not cut back on whizzy, hi-tech borrowing systems that scare elderly readers, on new carpets, new furniture, and far too much lighting left on all the time? The symbiot is becoming selfish and ignoring the needs of its partner.
One man suggested that many people have books in their homes that they don't intend to read again, so libraries could just ask people to donate books and then the library wouldn't need to buy any books at all. The library spokespeople seized on this suggestion enthusiastically. There are around 4,500 libraries in the UK. That represents a lot of lost income for writers and publishers if they stop buying new books. The symbiot is turning parasite.
It looks likely that PLR may be axed as part of the government's cut-backs so loans, even of donated books, will generate no income for writers. The current PLR rate is around 6p per loan. If a book sale would bring an author a royalty of 60p (a fairly average figure), it takes ten loans to make up for one sale lost because the reader borrowed rather than bought the book. That's fair - by no means everyone would have bought the book if there were no library.
Compare and contrast:
- A pirate copies my book and posts it for free on the Internet; my publisher is outraged - people are reading the book for free, this is damaging sales, neither of us has an income from it. The publisher says they can't afford to commission more books if this continues.
- A library accepts a donated copy of my book and lends it for free to anyone who walks through the door. People are reading the book for free, this is damaging sales, neither of us has an income from it. Can the publisher afford to commission more books if this continues?
Will someone tell me what the library service is still offering writers, please? Because I would like to continue to support it, but if it doesn't value its principal commodity - books - and the people who provide that commodity, it's going to get very difficult to remain enthusiastic.
As there is no point in complaining without making a suggestion, here's my suggestion:
If PLR is to go could we, perhaps, have a ban on new books appearing in libraries until six months or a year after publication? After all, films don't come out on DVD until they have had a chance to make money at the box office. Then there is a chance for publishers and writers to earn a little more from the book before it becomes freely available. It would be easy enough to do, at least approximately - no book can appear in a library catalogue during the year of publication shown on the imprint page, for instance. If people want to read a book as soon as it comes out, they can pay for it - otherwise they can wait. And it would be really, really helpful if the libraries could have lots of advance publicity for these books so that impatient people will go and buy a copy. Maybe a library could even have an integral bookshop concession stocking the books the library can't lend yet? Come on, libraries, use a bit of imagination and keep us on your side. If writers and publishers go bust, your future book-buying budget won't be much use anyway.
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