Posts Tagged ‘PLR’

Those who doubt

December 9, 2010

Rubbish – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behaviour of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much that they establish systems of censorship to repress it, and keep so wary an eye on independent writers.’

This pertinent admonition is from Mario Vargas Llosa’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  (More of it on The Guardian book page.)

Those who doubt that his world view has any great relevance to writers in Britain might consider the strange case of the Public Lending Right, about which I wrote so eulogistically back in February 2010, when my payment was due.  The PLR has escaped relatively lightly, so far, in the cuts; payment per loan drops from 6.29p to 6.25p, which is variously interpreted as a 3% or 1% reduction (as the Society of Authors point out, this is merely a mathematical excercise).  More laborious calculation brings forth the figure of a 6% (or 10%) cut in real terms over the next four years.  All the figures are available on the PLR’s own website, where even a non-mathematician can see that the annual budget available from which to make the payments is considerably less in each successive year.

The ‘Culture Team’, and the various politicians who implement these matters, take the line that everyone else is losing income and funding, so why should authors be any exception?  What they haven’t managed to justify, or even begin to explain, is why the pay-out organisation itself  – PLR – should be abolished and its work transferred to some other body.  The PLR has done its job for over 30 years, in Stockton-on-Tees, with a staff of nine people plus the Registrar.  They spend 10% of the total budget on running costs (maybe less, after recent savings) – and it’s obvious that no other body could do their complicated and specialist task so cheaply and efficiently.  The cost of transferring the job elsewhere would be enormous, and the organisations to which it might be sent – the Arts Council, or the British Library, are among the suggestions – have already suffered cuts of their own, and will be hard put to it to fulfill their previous obligations, without taking on onerous new duties.

Many writers’ organisations have, of course, taken up arms; the PLR is uniquely popular for its ethos of politeness and respect towards authors.  Although PLR is acknowledged as a legal right, it still needs administrating, as well as funding, so to attack the way in which it gets handed out is a fundamental threat to its actual existence.  This is an indirect but very effective way of making it even more difficult to be an author in the future. Writers’ representatives also gave evidence to the select committee of enquiry on the ‘Funding of Arts and Heritage’  on 7th December, where they emphasised, again, the tiny budget allocated to ‘Literature, the work of our writers, acknowledged throughout the world as our greatest art…’ (as Maureen Duffy described it in her speech to the All Party Parliamentary Writers’ Group).

Despite all the action, the petitions and the statements of clear sense, the outcome seems unlikely to be good.  There might be a stay of execution, if it’s publicly acknowledged as blatantly nonsensical to cut such a model organisation – but since there was, evidently, never any reason to consider PLR a quango whose abolition would save money, it must be presumed that there were other motives for deciding that it must go. Which brings even those who doubt, by a circular path, back to the observation that there is an ideological distrust of writers at work here, from a regime not unrelated to those who ‘fear [literature] so much that they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers.’

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.