A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What Are Public Lending Rights and Why Should You Care?

Sometimes it’s downright amazing to find out how things are done in other countries. Take public lending rights (PLR) for example. In the United States the concept is virtually unknown, yet this system of reimbursing authors for use of their work exists in 28 countries, including Canada, Australia, Israel, New Zealand and most of Europe.

Writers in the U.S. or other non-PLR countries, just imagine this: Once or twice a year you receive a check in the mail for the use of your books in libraries.

It should take about three seconds to grasp the significance to you as a writer. With 16,671 public libraries, 99,180 school libraries and 3,827 academic libraries in the United States, even a very small amount per book (or per check-out, depending on the system used) could add up. With your royalty checks, your school visits, and your personal book sales, what kind of difference might that make?

As writers know all too well, most of them, even the well-published, do not make a living (or much of one) from their writing. Finding ways to afford to keep writing, or to carve out time and energy to write between family and jobs, is often as challenging as the actual work of writing.

As a writer, I love the idea that the creator of a book is compensated for its repeated use in public institutions, not just its one-time purchase. In a country like the U.S., where the self-employed pay dearly for such basics as healthcare, a system of PLR might make the difference between doing without medical care, going broke as a writer, taking a job at the expense of writing, or being able to keep up the good work.

But wait! When I put on my cardigan (libraries are so often drafty, it seems, and we must keep the heating bill down) and consider PLR as a librarian, my feelings are more muddled. My first thought is panic: Oh my gosh, now you want libraries to do what? Keep track of all that data AND pay people? With budget cuts already threatening and even closing libraries across the country? ARE YOU NUTS?

Sorry, I shouldn’t be shouting in the library.

Once I calm down and begin to think about it, I can see some reasons why libraries might support the idea. One is that libraries are all about facilitating the flow of information and ideas to their citizenry. If writers can’t afford to write, or if only the well-positioned can afford to write, we lose important perspectives as a society -- possibly even the very concepts, visions, and stories we need to solve our numerous problems.

Now throw digital books into the mix. We are in the midst of an on-going effort between publishers, libraries, writers, content developers, and consumers to figure out a working financial model for e-books in the marketplace, including libraries. Does the PLR concept have a role to play in that debate?

I’ll be looking at public lending rights over the next few posts and posting comments from several writers who receive them.

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