Spilt Ink

February 4, 2010

At about this time of year, in early February, authors in Britain receive their Public Lending Right payments. Any actual money paid to a writer, for their books, must be a cause for celebration (if not amazement); an annual salute is due to this peculiar institution. For, extraordinarily enough, writers are still paid a miniscule fee from government funds every time one of their books is borrowed from a public library.

This remarkable Right was gained after a long struggle, notably in the 1970’s by Maureen Duffy and her fellow campaigners. An Act of Parliament established PLR in 1979; rather discouragingly, some of its main opponents were librarians who thought it might increase their workloads. Readers were also concerned that they might be made to pay the fee directly – of course, they already paid for library services indirectly via rates and taxes. University or specialist libraries, and private institutions, were not included in the scheme, or might presumably have objected too.

The new PLR was widely seen as a triumph for the socialist principle of the writer as worker-hero, rewarded by the state in proportion to their service to the masses – although it could also be represented as a legal concept relating to the free use of a copyrighted product. But, whatever the socio-political implications, the outcome for the writer was good. The PLR payment, whether it’s just enough for a bottle of wine or makes a noticeable contribution to the writer’s finances, is some recognition that a writer’s work is worth something to our not very literary society. Despite its drawbacks – the sample system’s hiccups, the lack of many ‘alternative’ books, the rewarding of the authors who need it least – it is a rare example of idealism in action.

Apocryphal stories soon circulated of penurious writers repeatedly taking out their own books in order to increase their pay-out; and perhaps then there might have been enough libraries and books for even such a daft tactic to have some minimal impact. Nowadays, it would be difficult to find enough libraries open, with the books in them. The closure of libraries, reduction of their opening hours, and lack of funds to replace books (or buy all but the most obvious new ones), inevitably cuts down borrowing.

Not that the PLR itself is in decline. According to the organisation’s own statistics, funding for the current year has been fixed at around seven and a half million pounds; the fee per loan increased to 6.29p (from 5.98p). This tiny amount of funding means that a writer whose books were borrowed 50,000 times might make over £3,000. Very few do. There is a maximum payment of £6,600, which just over two hundred authors reach – otherwise another million pounds would be divided between them. Of the 35,000 registered authors, almost a third get nothing, either because their pay-out would be less than one pound, or because their books have not been borrowed (most likely because the libraries no longer hold them).

This decline of libraries is painfully illustrated by the statements which show the number of times each title has been borrowed during the year. (The system uses sample libraries for this calculation, so there are sometimes demographic variations, especially if books are of local interest.) There’s a pang to see that a once-popular book has received zero borrowings; this means that the copies have been read until they literally fell apart, and not been replaced. Otherwise, the libraries have been closed or amalgamated, and sold off books – thus the number of ex-library copies available from second hand booksellers.

From the remaining libraries also come statistics which can encourage the writer. I receive the PLR statement for the works of my mother, the Scots historian and biographer Caroline Bingham, and it’s inspiring to realise just how many people – despite the obstacles put in their way – have had the pleasure of reading her books on Robert the Bruce or Darnley, or Royal Holloway College. The history of the Highlands is slightly more dependent on the sample location; the anthology of Scots historical verse has vanished. The two volumes of James the Sixth and First are perennially much-borrowed, and were obviously well-made books.

This statement conjures up, to me, an image of readers in a whole range of libraries; the mobile van crammed with bookshelves whose arrival in a village is a cause of excitement and running out of houses as delightful as the ice-cream or chip van’s; the small local whose rare opening is attended with the punctuality of a church service by an army of regulars; the great civic building endowed by Victorian educational philanthropists to house a vast collection. But this may be whistling in the dark. If public libraries fade away, become overheated day-centres with a few detective stories or outdated reference books for decoration, with one out-of-order computer stuck in the corner, the great idea of PLR will become irrelevant too. So much spilt ink.

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