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The threat to authors

25 July 2012

Nicola Solomon speaks out on libraries and PLR (The Spectator, 24 July):

Authors are getting cross. Generally a polite bunch, authors are alarmed at the ongoing, serious threats to libraries (which they continue to campaign against) and also the knock-on effect for the lowest-earning authors.  

The Government is encouraging libraries to replace paid staff with volunteers. Such “community libraries” currently account for less than 1 per cent of British libraries but their numbers are increasing. The concept chimes with the Big Society philosophy and the need to make the most of shrinking budgets. However, there has been little advice or oversight from DCMS as councils rush to increase the use of volunteers. Authors; heavy users of libraries as well as 'suppliers', are concerned that these changes will lead to a worse and piecemeal library service rather than the 'comprehensive and efficient' service that councils are legally obliged to provide. Libraries need a broad, appropriate and balanced range of books, newspapers, magazines and reference works, sufficient funding to update, maintain and augment the stock and adequate staffing by suitably trained staff. As Patrick Ness has said:

    'That's what librarians do. They open up the world. Because knowledge is useless if you don't know how to find it, if you don't even know where to begin to look.'

And a new problem has emerged even closer to home. Last week DCMS confirmed that most community libraries will not be included in the Public Lending Right scheme (PLR) which provides authors with a modest payment (currently 6.05p) each time one of their books is borrowed from a public library. PLR is designed to balance the social need for free public access to books against an author’s right to be remunerated for the use of their work. PLR provides a significant and much-valued part of authors’ incomes and is particularly important to authors whose books are sold mainly to libraries and those whose books are no longer in print but are still being read. Press coverage tends to focus on a few successful authors, yet most struggle to make ends meet. Roger Silverwood says:

    'I am an author. Writing is my full time occupation. I am not a big name like J K Rowling or Agatha Christie. I don’t earn 1% of what they earn, but I write novels full time, and my publisher is always waiting for another typescript from me. If you are interested, I write crime novels, so if you see books or audios around featuring Inspector Angel, then they’ve been originated and written by me. … if you reduce the fund it could possibly push me out of work. Every little bit of income helps keep me employed writing the books that stock those very libraries. It is as critical as that!'

Taking community libraries out of the statutory scheme will not have an immediate effect on authors’ incomes as the Government allocates a fixed amount to PLR (£6.3 million for 2012/13). Although PLR is a legal right its funding has already been subject to significant cuts and, despite its legal obligation, the Government has failed to extend PLR to eBooks and audiobooks. Taking volunteer libraries out of the scheme will lead to a drop in book loans which may encourage Government to propose cutting the already meagre fund still further. The DCMS simply ignores this point.

The Government is in breach of its obligations under European law if community libraries are not covered by PLR, as authors are entitled to equitable compensation for any such loans. Again the Government ignores this point.

The danger is that, as Sarah Waters has said, Britain might become a nation in which 'fewer and fewer good books are published, because authors can't afford to take the time to write them' and a ‘place in which fewer and fewer books are read, because whole communities don't have access to them.'

From The Spectator online, 24 July.

Sarah Waters' quote in full:

    'Library loan figures testify to the enormous popularity of reading in the UK. Thanks to the PLR scheme, they also allow authors to receive a modest remuneration when their books are borrowed. No, the sums involved aren't huge, but PLR payments do boost a writer's (often very uncertain) income. Crucially, too, they represent a recognition of authors' creative rights - rights that are at risk of becoming forgotten in our increasingly free-content internet culture.
'The government has a responsibility to protect authors' rights, just as it has a responsibility to provide a decent national library service. Instead, scandalously, it is walking away from both obligations. It has already cut PLR payments. It is in the process of running down library provision and offering us volunteer libraries instead. With the removal of those volunteer libraries from the PLR scheme, loans will appear to fall, PLR itself will begin to look more shaky, and authors' and readers' rights will inevitably suffer. Does Ed Vaizey want the UK to be a nation in which fewer and fewer good books are published, because authors can't afford to take the time to write them? A place in which fewer and fewer books are read, because whole communities don't have access to them? If so - well done, Ed, you're doing a brilliant job.'


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