Tuesday, 14 June 2011

How I am contributing to authors' cavities...

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

As I was walking home from work tonight, I thought that I would start listening to my backlog of Guardian Book Podcasts. I am now quite depressed.

I thought that I would start with the oldest on my ipod and work forwards. The oldest podcast happened to focus on the release of Public Lending Rights information, and the statistics relating to the most borrowed library books. In some ways, it was quite a demoralising listen.

According to this podcast, the majority of authors struggle to earn £4000 a year. This makes my fantasy of writing a book and being able to pay off the mortgage seem ever more distant. I currently have better odds on winning the jackpot on the lottery than I do earning a living by publishing a novel. This is, admittedly, partly because I buy a lottery ticket but have not yet finished a novel (or, let's be honest, started one; I am very talented at procrastination and I currently spend rather too much time on Twitter). Also, however, those authors who can make a living solely from writing are the very, very lucky ones.

I have just googled the Public Lending Right, and have found their website. In their media centre you can access lists of the most borrowed authors, and there are also lists broken down by region (I'm pleased to discover that we seem to rate Kate Atkinson quite highly in the South West). In simplified terms, the PLR provides a pot of money from which authors are paid a yearly sum depending on the frequency with which their books are borrowed. According to the amount that I found mentioned in a document published in March 2009, an author gets 5.98p for every book borrowed (although payments of less than a pound are not made, which must be a bit of a bugger if you only had 16 copies of your book borrowed). PLR payments can help to supplement the income of an author who is not managing to garner the big awards, or the patronage of Richard and Judy. These payments aren't automatic - authors have to register - so high earning authors who have less need for this additional income might choose not to dig into this fund.

Previous to listening to this podcast I hadn't paid much thought to PLR, but I like the idea that I am making a small contribution to an author even when I decide to borrow a book rather than purchase it. I would love to have the money and the bookshelf space to support authors and buy every book that interests me, but this just isn't the case. If I did I would need a house to rival the British Library.

So I would just like to say to the authors whose books I currently have on loan from the library - David Hewson, Simon Hall, Chris Ewan, Jane Harris, Gyles Brandreth and Michael Jecks - I hope you enjoy your 5.98 pence from me (if you have registered for PLR). Perhaps you could treat yourself to a penny chew (given inflation, you might just have enough). I recommend Fruit Salads.


  1. Fruit Salads certainly rotted my teeth ... We have officially reached capacity, books-wise and only books for my son are given house room (mainly because I don't believe in denying a child books, and also because we can re-home those that he outgrows, creating space for new ones). So now I only buy books occasionally for myself, and they have to conform to William Morris's condition of being both beautiful and useful (and I add, will be read more than once). Otherwise, to try new books, I download Kindle versions. Sadly, they don't smell of books (as an ex-print buyer, this disappoints me) but they take up no real space, merely virtual. I find that better than holding out for our village library which is tiny and only stocks romance novels, not classics or new books.
    It does seem as if full-time writing is the domain of the independently rich or the happily borderline destitute! Ah well, Amy, perhaps one day we'll both be published and we can bemoan our lack of income together :)

  2. Amy, many thanks for this piece, and you've hit the nail perfectly. The majority of authors earn less than the minimum wage, and we are all struggling as the internet takes away our incomes.

    How? After all, authors are paid a lot, aren't they?

    It used to be that we'd earn 7.5% per paperback sold. That's a cut of the listed price of the book. Not now. Since the advent of supermarket sales and the internet, that percentage has become based on "net receipts". What does that mean? It means when a supermarket demands 70% discount, the author's income falls 70%. If a publisher agrees ludicrous discounts, and they do, the authors soon find their incomes have disappeared.

    It's not only amazon and supermarkets, either. Every time someone downloads (which is basically stealing) a free copy of a book, the author is hurt. Even charity shops are helping stab authors, because the second hand market takes away the author's livelihood.

    Now, alright, perhaps I should get a life and stop worrying about income. Perhaps I should go and get a real job. Well, I'd like to, but there are a few people who enjoy my work, thank God, like you.

    The basic problem is that many people assume all writers earn fortunes. We all get offered massive advances and live the life of Riley. Except we don't. Advances are only interest-free loans that have to be paid back by royalties, and as royalties reduce because of the harsh retail conditions, so the publishers reduce the advances. Most advances are well below 10,000 pounds per book, which ain't much for months and months of effort.

    So, I am grateful for your comments - and I know David H will be too, and your other authors. We need all the help we can get just now!

  3. I'm guessing musicians are in the same boat in lots of ways. The creative industry generally (I know from working in graphic design) is very undermined by the relentless march of technology and most artists are paid less now than they ever have been. This is a disgraceful state of affairs, and I thank you, Michael, for explaining it to us.

  4. HI Amy. PLR is great on many fronts. The system is capped (at £6750 if I recall correctly) so the pot isn't divided solely between bestsellers. More importantly it tells a writer he or she is being read and that's important too.

    The income matters for many in these difficult times. But really.. being read matters more. So thanks for making the first possible through the second.

  5. Thank you, Gill, Michael and David for your comments.

    Thank you also, Michael, for your correction via Twitter that last year it was 6.24p. I have done a further internet search and it seems that the body that administered PLR has been abolished, although the articles that I found say that payments still continue. However, it seems that - even though the payment per loan might have risen - the total fund has been diminished. I think that the cap that David mentions was also referred to in the Guardian Books Podcast that started off this train of thought.

    I have fond memories of working at a music chain which has since gone bust, and I'm sure that the discounts offered by the supermarkets and internet sites played a large part in that. I would be very sad to see a high street devoid of music and book retailers, which seems to be increasingly the way the market is headed.

    I knew that the situation for authors is difficult but, in my naivety, I hadn't realised quite how difficult. Like Gill, I have an e-reader (mine's a Sony). I, too, would far rather have a physical book - and I still have favourite authors that I buy in hardback - but I would rather have an ebook than no book. I have every intention of remaining an avid purchaser and borrower of books.

    I think that I will have to stick to the day job, unless the lottery pays out. Although I have to admit, Michael, that real jobs are over-rated. If I had the talent and inspiration, I would happily join Gill in a life of writing penury.

  6. Hi Amy. Thanks for taking a chance on my book - I really hope you enjoy it, and it's great that you're supporting your local library, especially in these days of tough (and to my mind, at least, unjustifiable) cuts.

    Sad to say, I'm not even able to register for PLR - living on the Isle of Man makes me ineligible. I'm not sure where my 6.24p ends up - probably in a pot for authors currently living in the UK. It'd be nice to think it gets shared around, so that it can help rot a few more teeth. But either way, and to echo David's words, it really is the reading that matters.

    Best of luck to you with your own writing. No reason why you can't be one of those lucky ones...

    All the best