Saturday 9 October 2010

Biting the hand that feeds - Anne Rooney

Health warning: this is going to be a controversial post, so please lower your blood pressure before reading.

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 libraries still be nurturing new readers? Less successfully, perhaps, if readers are raised on a diet of scraps: secondhand books that, rather than being carefully chosen by knowledgeable librarians, have been chucked out by people who don't want them. It's not going to be the best books that make it to the shelves - literary pigswill, rather. Perhaps that will mean people who want to read the best, newest books will be more likely to buy them. Perhaps. The rich people, anyway. But I don't want to write only for rich people.

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.

Anne Rooney
website & blog


Gill James said...

Some excellent points Anne. Have you made these comments to Alan Gibbons?

Nicola Morgan said...

Great post, Anne. Excellent. I quiblle with your figure of an author earning 60 from the sale of a book, though - the average is supposed to be much less, and is certainly less for those of us on % of nett receipts. Nearer 20p for books sold at high discount.

The idea of not having books in a library for 6 months is a really interesting one.

I also think we need to educate the public more about the effects of this. I tried to do this with my Fair Reading idea, but I never had time or resources to do much with it.

Good stuff, anyway. And yes, authors are going to the wall. Many of us are being dropped for falling sales. Grim.

Penny Dolan said...

Well done for summing a very, very worrying situation, Anne. PLR saves my life each year - even if most of it goes into paying my half-year tax.

It's so hard explaining the writer's financial situation without sounding precious, grand, or mean-spirited. Thanks!

Katherine Roberts said...

I agree with your comment about the whizzy checkout systems and computers and new carpets etc. taking over. After struggling with a 1960's hut on the edge of the local park for too many years, we have just got a fantastic new library (it cost millions - possibly the last grant ever).
It's a big modern building with loads more space, but the book budget has actually been cut. The result is arrays of computers, desks, comfy sofas, cafe, artwork, reading garden, and self-scan checkouts... but tiny little shelf units and woefully few books. OK they have just moved in, but if there is no book budget where are the books going to come from? And where are they going to put them all?

Financewise, I have NEVER had 60p royalty except from a hardcover sale - paperback varies between 28p (full price) and 2p (book club), and PLR was half my income last year and looks as if it will be the only income this year. I am about to starve...

James Mayhew said...

Really interesting stuff, Anne. And I agree with all you say. With publishers holding their breath to see how digital publishing will affect them, libraries were the last chance for some books/authors. I confess I rarely use our local library anymore. Why? Because I don't need DVDs or CDs or the Internet. Books? oh yes, they have a few tucked discreetly away. Unfortunately, their range is somewhat lacking.

For me, the tragedy of library provision is it's demise in schools. I have visited hundreds of schools that no longer have libraries. That seems to me the most short-sighted cut of all, in terms of the next generation of readers (although it doesn't affect PLR of course).

Looks like I'm going to have to paint more and write less. Just as I thought I might be getter somewhere...

catdownunder said...

We have the same problem here in Australia. The local library is the most used resource in the community - their statistics show this. The Council (LEA - do you still have them?) used the argument that the library was well used so they did not need any more new resources. The library came back with the answer that it was well used because it had new resources.
New publishing tends to be very expensive in Australia and, much as they might want to, some people simply cannot afford to buy large numbers of books. We do have PLR but yes they are considering cutting it. May I suggest all members of ABBA write letters to the media?

adele said...

This is a very sad post, Anne, and the whole situation with the libraries is most dispirting. I do hope someone somewhere in authority is taking notice of what you're highlighting. And yes, the almost disappearance of the Schools Library Service is ghastly. Thanks for writing this!

Helena Pielichaty said...

Sound points well made. Like Penny I rely on PLR at a low time of year - it's often higher than my Royalties. I don't know what the answer is, especially as I'm a bit of a hypocrite in that I don't often visit my local library. I know many people who do, though.

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