Is anyone borrowing my books?
Public Lending Right is a marvellous institution. It pays money to writers for the loan of their books from public libraries – funded by the government, without charging the borrowers themselves.
It was a struggle to get it. Brigid Brophy and her father John were the leading lights of the campaign, strongly supported by the TLS. Appropriately enough, it was all conducted rather decorously and mostly in print -- though there is supposed to have been one piece of direct action, in the form of a well-behaved demonstration on a traffic island in Belgrave Square. (Swedish writers, in a similar campaign, had a sharper eye for publicity: on one day they turned up at the public libraries in the big cities and simply borrowed all the books.)
Anyway, the first pay-outs here came in 1982. Now it provides cash to over 20,000 authors (who get between £1 and £6,600, at which point payments are capped.) Notice of this year’s amounts have just gone out.
I shall be getting – wait for it -- £18.54.
It’s not quite as bad as it sounds. In order to divide up the money, the PLR administrators take careful samples of the borrowing in selected libraries – and they publish reams of fascinating statistics. From these it’s pretty clear that people like me don’t have a chance of getting into the top category of those 363 authors earning between £5000 and £6600.
The greatest hits of this year have yet to be announced but, if recent years are anything to go by, the most lent author will be Jacqueline Wilson (who wrote The Illustrated Mum and a clutch of other favourite kids’ stories). And almost half the authors in the top 20 will also write for children (Dahl, the Ahlbergs, etc.). The truth is that public libraries have become a service for the very young – the place where you go to inspire the nippers with a love for literature. For better or worse (and I’d say worse), they are no longer where many adults go in search of information (what’s Google for, after all?).
If adults go at all, it seems that it’s hardback fiction that they are mainly after. Josephine Cox and Danielle Steel came in second and third place in PLR’s top twenty last year (with sales in Steel’s case totalling over 500 million, I’m not quite sure this is the kind of struggling writers that the Brophy’s had in mind). And so far as I can see, there were no authors of non-fiction for adults in the top hundred; though Terry Deary, who wrote the Rotten Romans etc for kids, non-fictin of a kind, does get there.
So, I’m not too ashamed that a book I co-authored on classical art managed a grand total of 279 loans country-wide (I assume that means that one person in a sample library borrowed it, and the notional multiplier credits me with 279 loans); or that A Very Short Introduction to Classics made 273. And I suppose I can live with fact that my biography of the colossally important, eccentric female classicist (and sort-of feminist), Jane Harrison scored a complete duck.
But I am a bit sad about what all this seems to say about public libraries.