The Authors Guild Calls for a "Public Lending Right"
The Authors Guild looked at the survey report on author income that they released a couple weeks ago, and they have come up with a solution that won’t actually fix anything.
They want the US gov’t to introduce a "public lending right" and
force public libraries to pay author a fee each time their books are borrowed by patrons.
Edit: James Gleick pointed out in the comments that I was wrong to say that libraries would pay; The Authors Guild is proposing that taxpayers fund the PLR.
The system we envision should be more generous, and of course the U.S. market is much larger. Authors would register—the system might be administered, for example, by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Each year libraries nationwide would report aggregate lending statistics for each book (protecting the privacy of borrowers, of course). The systems for handling the data collection are mostly already in place, so the costs should be negligible, but in any case, they must not be borne by the libraries. The maximum payment to any one author would be capped: the idea is not to reward J. K. Rowling (no offense, Joanne) but to provide some much-needed help for midlist authors.
The idea of creating a new government entitlement program may seem insanely ambitious—and we all see the current dysfunction in Washington. But change has to start somewhere. We’re embarking on what will be a long-term effort, hoping that we may someday have a President and Congress willing to spend money investing in culture and the arts once again.
I believe that the time to restart the discussion is now, in the age of widespread e-lending. Libraries are eager to lend ebooks as widely and freely as possible, and they are resentful when publishers put obstacles in their way, while publishers worry that sales of ebooks in particular are being cannibalized by apps that make it easy to download library copies. We never want to tell a library not to lend our books—love of libraries is at the core of who we are. At the same time, librarians themselves are recognizing that they need the professional author to survive.
When it comes to ideas that aren’t actually going to help those intended, this one is a doozy.
The nice thing about PLR being in use for decades is that we have access to data that shows that, contrary to The Author Guild’s claims, PLR does not help help the bulk mid-list authors.
The Author Guild was somewhat correct when they said 22,000 authors in the UK were paid up to 6,600 pounds, but what they forgot to tell you was that almost as many authors were paid zilch.
According to UK data from 2017 (the most recent I can find), a total of 41,750 authors were listed in the PLR system when the payments went out in February. Of that number, 19,548 received nothing at all because their share was less than one pound. Another 16.654 received under 100 pounds, while 3,232 received under 500 pounds (PDF).
The numbers are almost as bad in Canada, where 59% of all registered authors were paid less than $253.80 CAD in June 2018 (this includes the authors who were paid nothing).
The Authors Guild wants to adopt a system which has been shown to have negligible benefit to 87% of authors involved in the UK, and paid negligible sums to most authors in Canada. The only authors who really benefit are the blockbuster authors who don’t need the money in the first place.
To be fair, part of the reason that authors earn so little from PLR is that the program receives minimal funding. The UK government gave it 6 million pounds in 2017, while the Canadian government paid out just under ten million CAD. (The funding rate in Canada is actually significantly higher on a per capita basis – almost twice as high as the UK’s.)
But while we could fix the funding issue without too much trouble (assuming we could get any federal funding at all), that’s still not going to change the fact that only a minority of authors will benefit.
I think The Authors Guild needs to go back and come up with a better plan.