Will Libraries Eventually Pay Authors?

In 33 countries, not including the U.S., there is a program in place called the Public Lending Right (or PLR).  As the PLR website states, “Public Lending Right is the right of authors and other rights holders to receive payment for the free public use of their works in libraries.”

In other words, when someone checks a book out of the library, a certain amount is eventually paid to the author of that book. How much depends on how each country is set up. Some are based on whether the book is in the library’s collection and others are on a per-usage basis. For example, in the UK and Ireland (in 2017), the author received about 10 cents (U.S.) per use, with a max of $8,500 (U.S.) per year.

To further confuse you, in some countries like Canada, Australia, and the UK, the copyright holder must be a citizen of that country to participate because the money is paid by the government out of tax revenue. But for others, the payment is tied to the copyright holder regardless of the country of origin (Germany and the Netherlands operate this way.) We have a number of clients who receive payment from the Netherlands each year for their books that have been translated into Dutch and are in a library system.

I have simplified the above considerably. It is far more complex, but this is the gist of the program. If you want more details, read this article from the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Why Not the United States?

PLR has never been a part of the U.S. From 1979 to 1989 the Authors Guild attempted to get federal legislation passed to establish it in America. Two bills in Congress died in committee.

Recently, the Authors Guild announced they are going to try again. You can read the letter from their President James Gleick here. It will be quite an uphill battle since the money to pay authors has to come from somewhere. I highly recommend that you read the letter.

In 2016 the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) made a statement regarding PLR (article found here) citing the reasonable desire to keep information found in libraries free. If additional costs for lending are imposed, they are afraid that federal, state, and local budgets would not increase accordingly and further squeeze their ability to serve the public.

How Much Money Are We Talking About?

Each country using PLR has set a cap on the amount a particular author can receive. That way the top bestsellers don’t reap a disproportionate amount. In 2017 in the UK, only 205 author maxed out their potential revenue.

If one were to look at the music service Spotify as an example of artists being paid for the use of their music, you can get an idea of what PLR could look like. Of course the difference between PLR and Spotify is one being a government program supported by taxes and the other a business that charges its users a monthly fee for unlimited commercial free access to their library of songs. But Spotify is an example of “pay-for-play” with the money coming from the company who holds the intellectual property in a “library.” While not a perfect example at least we can look at it for a moment.

Spotify pays around $0.005 per song streamed on its service. That is 1/2 of a penny. If a song is listened to 10,000 times, the record label receives $50 and the artist royalty is calculated on that net receipt. An indie artist, cellist Zoë Keating, recently stated that in 2018 she made $12,231 from Spotify, derived from 2,252,293 streamed songs. This is an artist with 52,000 Facebook followers and 989,000 Twitter followers. (Read the report of her income of an independent artist here.)

For authors and PLR, how much are we talking about? Probably not much. But, as authors will state, “every little bit helps!”

Bottom Line

It will be interesting to follow the efforts of the Authors Guild and PLR. It would be nice if authors received something extra for their books being checked out and read by readers. The author and publisher are already paid once when the library buys the book, but PLR would provide further compensation for each time that book is used. However, if the library must come up with the royalty money it must be underwritten by the government via their tax revenue.


23 Responses to Will Libraries Eventually Pay Authors?

  1. Katie Powner January 21, 2019 at 8:14 am #

    This is very interesting! As an avid library user myself, I feel conflicted. I would hesitate to support something that might shrink the services a library could provide. Would they have to keep fewer books in stock? On the other hand, authors put tons of time and dedication into producing books. I’ll be following this story with interest.

  2. Brennan S. McPherson January 28, 2019 at 6:38 am #

    I’m not attracted to this idea. Unlike with your music getting listed on Spotify, authors actually DO get paid when their books are purchased and held by libraries (Spotify does not pay you to list your music, only when your music is streamed). There’s no sense in further burdening the library system with paying for successfully servicing their user base. Honestly, this just seems like authors being greedy over pennies. There are other rights to worry about, here. Like the right of taxpayers to pay less in smaller cities to make certain their community has a library. Also, I think it would impact library purchasing decisions negatively.

  3. Maco Stewart January 28, 2019 at 7:09 am #

    In our country, this might be more successfully addressed by offering a directly applicable yearly tax deduction for the calculated “royalties” due authors from such low per-borrowing associated credits. There would be no need for a funding source, it would create some just recompense for authors and need have no yearly limit, and it would be more along the lines of a tax-deductible donation an author makes. The left may like to show grace to authors, and the right likes tax cuts. Such a proposal might stand a chance.

  4. Jeffrey A Rogers January 28, 2019 at 7:26 am #

    I am assisting an Arizona native who has quite a story of struggle and survival to tell. Penny wants to tell her story. She has asked me to help her. I’m doing the best I can.

    Penny had 7 back surgeries over a 14 year period of time. Penny became addicted to multiple painkillers. Her world, personally and professionally, was more than turned upside down, it was obliterated.

    Penny’s story is one about recovering physically from one botched back surgery after another, and freeing herself from the nightmare of addiction.

  5. Ginny Graham January 28, 2019 at 7:31 am #

    Maco, I like your idea of a tax-deductible donation. But, with either concept, I can’t help but think of the massive accounting system this would entail to track usage, the burden on taxpayers, opportunity for fraud, etc.

    Since I write with hopes of benefiting the reader (most of those using a public library cannot afford to purchase books) I will be thrilled if the libraries will assist me in this endeavor!

    • Maco Stewart January 28, 2019 at 8:58 am #

      Ginny, I suspect that many libraries already check how popular their books are with their readers. If we can leverage existing tracking where it exists, it could provide a low-cost start.

      • Ginny Graham January 28, 2019 at 9:23 am #

        Maco, That’s a thought worth considering.

  6. Linnea January 28, 2019 at 7:38 am #

    I’m from Canada and our system, as you pointed out, pays the author based on whether a title is found in library collections across the country. PLR checks libraries in each province and you are paid based on whether your book is found in the libraries sampled. As I have only a single published novel, it’s a small stipend, but the report from PLR is a useful tool in determining how long your book remains in circulation. It’s always a tremendous boost to learn that my novel has not cycled out of libraries but, being regularly read, remains in most collections.

  7. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 28, 2019 at 7:52 am #

    When budget cuts must come to be,
    in towms both large and small,
    “Hey, let’s chop the library!”
    is the sirens’ call.
    Communities are so often left
    wanting for resources
    and literature is thus bereft,
    a victim of the forces
    that say reading’s obsolete,
    kids need computer skill,
    life’s obligations for to meet,
    and books are just a frill.
    Add a burden, add a cost,
    and our book-havens will be lost.

  8. Seralynn Lewis January 28, 2019 at 8:09 am #

    My hometown library often times receive books donated by the public. I wonder if those would be a part of the compensation the author receives. Many libraries hold “book sales” and sell books to the public. The libraries receive payment for those books. Of course, the library may have paid for the original copy if the book had not donated in the first place. I wonder how it would work in those instances.

  9. Carol Ashby January 28, 2019 at 9:03 am #

    Paying royalties for library use seems like a lovely idea until you think of the fallout. Most libraries have limited budgets, and they play a zero-sum game with the money they have. Money spent on books already purchased means that much less to buy new books. Library versions of the same book already sell for higher prices than the regular retail version, whether print or ebook. I’d much rather see a library use their money to buy more books than divert the money to pay royalties for usage of what they already bought. Plus the administrative cost has to come from somewhere, and that’s most likely from the new-acquisitions funding.

  10. Beth Olsson January 28, 2019 at 9:34 am #

    Thank you for this interesting post as I learn more about the industry. There isn’t always room in my family’s budget for new books and my library card is well used. I’d love to see authors compensated for check outs and would consider it a great use of my tax money.

  11. Ann Clark McFarland January 28, 2019 at 10:18 am #

    What about a federal parks fee approach? I offer this idea out of my sentimental love of knowing fellow citizens of all positions and economies are able to access the public library relatively freely—a place and practice that instilled in me a love of reading as a child and now a love of authorship. In lieu of author receipts, consider having a nominal individual or family “belong to the library fee” based off income level (if children are engaged in free lunch program at schools then fee is waived.) Annual fees paid allows a certain amount of borrowed books a year and additional fee options for when you want to exceed the borrowed amount of books. Then the fee monies are passed on to the library in portion or back to the US Department of Education grant programs specifically earmarked for childhood reading incentives? Maybe authors engage by tagging into an annual library celebration where they can come sign/sell books and a portion is added to the earmarked grant money for childhood reading? I don’t know. It just seems that my love of books came from the “free library” experience I had as a child. I became a huge purchaser of books because of this. Authors and book publishing competes with all forms of entertainment. “Free libraries” might end up giving authors more of an edge in the game of entertainment than anyone can correlate. For this reason—keep it free.

    • Maco Stewart January 28, 2019 at 10:32 am #

      Also an interesting idea, Ann. Done and promoted correctly, any library system that would provide a benefit for authors might drive up library use and borrowing as people tried to indirectly support, however slightly, their favorite authors. If popular books suddenly had very long waiting periods, gee, maybe the libraries would feel encouraged to buy more copies. Can’t hurt the libraries, to have more people using them, right? Rather the opposite.

    • Ginny Graham January 28, 2019 at 12:35 pm #

      Ann McFarland, I agree, I had the same experience as a child.

  12. Janet Ann Collins January 28, 2019 at 10:35 am #

    NO!! Libraries should remain free. As an author, it would be nice to get a little more income, but, as a reader, I’m appalled at this idea.

  13. claire o'sullivan January 28, 2019 at 11:48 am #

    Great post. Currently conflicted on the subject. I think it’s pretty paltry to sell a book for 99 cents, though if it’s a great book with a great platform and brand, well that can result in good returns. As Amazon removes stars left and right, word of mouth from folks at the library would be ‘tops.’

    Authors work hard on the craft, on a novel, sometimes years. Then they hire professional editors (hopefully) and recouping that amount can be daunting.

    In my town, the first to be slashed in the tax arena was the library (still run by volunteers), followed by public health and animal control cut down to 2 days each a week in the same building…

    And, yes. I believe it’s obvious that new authors should be offering 99 cents to build their fan base. But, ouch.

    As a meme goes, ‘Pay the author? That’s rich!’

  14. Jamie Foley January 28, 2019 at 12:13 pm #

    Gosh, I’m so conflicted about this. Of course I want authors to be compensated for their work, but where would the money come from?

    I’m not a fan of raising taxes, and I’m certainly not a fan of any American citizen having to pay for library access. Not that I would mind paying myself, but self-education could be a path out of poverty for some.

    Maybe getting libraries out of the ebook business would help publishers in that area, at least…

    • Carol Ashby January 28, 2019 at 12:29 pm #

      Jamie, libraries pay publishers/authors for the right to lend their ebooks, and that’s a good thing. It makes money for authors, and it lets libraries offer more choices to their patrons since money and space are both seriously limited for many libraries.

  15. Melissa Henderson January 28, 2019 at 3:10 pm #

    I attended an author event recently. Standing in line to purchase books, I overheard an interesting conversation. One lady was telling another lady that she didn’t buy books, she only gets them from the library. I almost spoke up, but paused and waited for the reply from the listener. “Yes, dear, but authors need to get a paycheck for their work.” Enough said. I didn’t speak. I stood in line and grinned. 🙂 As a new author, I definitely like a paycheck.

  16. Carol Ashby January 28, 2019 at 4:51 pm #

    Libraries often have a particular book only because a patron requested it. Then others can read that book and become new fans of the author they just discovered. It’s a great service to authors for library patrons to ask their local library to buy any author’s book. Plus if it is read enough, additional copies will be purchased and worn-out copies will be replaced. I’ll gladly forego a sale to an individual for someone to get their library to buy the book for them instead!

  17. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D January 30, 2019 at 7:51 am #

    Steve, I had absolutely no idea that this was even under consideration. Thanks for always keeping us informed.

  18. Kelly Hubbard August 20, 2021 at 5:34 am #

    Good post. I learn something new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon every day. It will always be interesting to read through articles from other writers and use a little something from other websites.

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