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Monday, 11 January 2016

How much do you earn from PLR?

I’m not sure how many authors have noticed that the PLR rate is increasing from 6.66 pence to 7.67 pence per library loan from February 2016. Any increase, even one so minimal, is welcome. However there have been few changes in the PLR scheme since its inception, and the Society of Authors is currently lobbying for improvements in the scheme. You can see the SOA response plus a link to the letter here which addresses some concerns and offers suggestions.

Some of the issues being addressed by the Society of Authors include concerns about the exclusion of volunteer-run libraries, library cuts, audiobooks, and ebooks. However, I have had a long standing concern about the sampling method used to assess PLR payments.

To start with, perhaps I should clarify what PLR is. PLR is short for Public Lending Right. Until fairly recently PLR funding was managed by the Registrar of Public Lending Right, but from 1 October 2013 the UK PLR office became part of the British Library.

On the British Library website, it says, “Public Lending Right (PLR) is the right for authors to receive payment for the loans of their books by public libraries.”

This is governed by legislation, and payment is made from government funds. In order to be eligible for inclusion in the PLR scheme, authors are required to register, but that is easily done either by post or online at the British Library website. You will find the conditions for registration on this link as well as a downloadable application form

However, it is not enough to have your books available for loan in a library, because the PLR system works on the basis of statistics taken from a sample number of libraries. So, if your books are not available in any of the sample libraries, then your income will be nothing, irrespective of how popular your books are in other libraries. Now, I’m afraid this is where I have to admit that my understanding of statistics is abysmal. I have a creative brain rather than a logical mathematical one, so you can understand why statistics remain a mystery. So I will quote what the web site says “Payments are made annually on the basis of loans data collected from a sample of public libraries in the UK.” This sounds simple enough but when they mention how they gross-up the loans, I am lost. The best I can do is quote again, “Because PLR loans are derived from a representative sample of library authorities, a grossing up calculation is applied to the actual loans at the end of each PLR reporting year, in order to provide a national estimate of loans for the whole of the UK and Ireland.” There must also be a calculation taken from previous data as well because when I checked whether my own books were in the sample set of libraries for Scotland, I was not surprised to find that none of them were stocked. However I did get a small payment for Dead Wood, despite the fact it was not in the Scottish set of sample libraries. This must have been calculated from a previous sample set of libraries. The payment, however, was only half the amount of previous years.

My PLR earnings for 2012 to 2013
To look further at book loans data. This is collected over a twelve month period, from 1 July to 30 June. For the purposes of this article I am looking at payments based on the year July 2012 to June 2013, which was when I did the research for this article. The payment for each loan at that time was the massive sum of 6.2 pence per loan, and a librarian friend told me that on average a reader will keep a book for a month so that would work out at twelve loans per year. During that year I had 79 loans in Angus libraries for my two non-earning books (Angus loan figures do not include Dead Wood), and as previously mentioned I got the grand sum of £8.18 for Dead Wood which originated from a library in Wales, otherwise this book would also have earned no PLR. I’m still pondering what to spend my Dead Wood PLR earnings on. I wonder if it would buy me a ream of paper?

I did wonder why, in this technological age, the PLR system was based on statistical sampling, rather than collecting information from all libraries, but according to them it would be impracticable and expensive to do this, although I don’t quite see the rationale for this given the vast improvements in technology. However, the size of the sample has improved over the years, apparently starting off with 16 individual library branches in 1982, to 30 library authorities, with approximately 1,000 individual branches.

For the purposes of PLR the country is divided up into regions into which library authorities are grouped. Each grouping may include between two to four different library authorities. The libraries included for sampling have to be public libraries operating as part of the statutory library service, provided by local authorities. Community libraries and those set up by independent groups are not included.

There are nine PLR sample regions in England, one in Scotland, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland. The current English PLR regions are East, London, North East, North West & Merseyside, South East, South West, West Midlands, Yorkshire & The Humber. The majority of these regions cover several library authorities with London having the majority listed under London Libraries Consortium. Scotland is a single PLR region, and because I live in Scotland I was interested in which library authorities were included. The grouping is, Edinburgh, Highland, Midlothian, and North Lanarkshire. Wales, also a single PLR region has three local authorities included. But the one I found most interesting was Northern Ireland, because the whole of Northern Ireland is included in the sample. If you want to check the authorities included for 2015-2016 you can do so here

I checked back on previous years, and discovered the last time Angus (my library authority) was included was the PLR sample year 1996-97. Gulp, that was 19 years ago, and now that the libraries have become a trust in Angus it is unlikely it will ever be included again. Edinburgh and Glasgow are featured fairly regularly, although unlike London, they are not included every year. Here is the archive of sample authorities from 1982 to 2013

That begs the question – how often do they change the sample authorities? Well, according to the web site, at least seven of the library authorities are replaced each year, and no authority can stay in the sample longer than four years.

So there you have it. If you are lucky enough to live in one of the sampling authorities and the libraries in that authority stock your books, then you will get PLR payments. However, if like me, the reverse is the case, then I reckon you should not count on PLR as part of your writing income.

But in conclusion, if you were to ask me whether it is beneficial to register for PLR in the knowledge you may get nothing, then my answer would be yes. You see, if an author does not register then this reduces the amount of authors on the PLR database, and who knows whether a future decision might be that these payments are no longer necessary, and as a result, the scheme will be scrapped. So, I would encourage you to register.

Before I go, can I just say that if you like a specific writer’s books and want to support them, then please put a request into your local library for their books, irrespective of whether you have the paperback or kindle version already. It will get the books onto the library shelves, and hopefully they will be included in a sample, sooner or later. After all, every little £8.18 helps! I’m off to check the price of computer paper now, I might just have enough to pay for a couple of reams if I’m lucky, but certainly not for a full box!

NB. At the time of doing the research I had three books in print. I now have six books in print, and the situation is still the same, only one book, Dead Wood, ever makes any PLR. Oh, and before I forget, the amount I earn decreases every year despite the rise in borrowing rates. My payment for 2015 was £6.19.

Chris Longmuir


Rosemary Gemmell said...

You address a really big concern, Chris, for authors like you who are popular in your own libraries which are not included - Gwen is the same. I registered as The Highland Lass is in some libraries but I don't suppose I'll ever see any PLR! The payments from ALCS are much more reliable.

Chris Longmuir said...

This has concerned me for some time now, but the problem is that not all authors realise this.

Chris Longmuir said...

Well, my year's PLR statement for 2014 has just arrived, and it's the same old, same old. £8.90 for 116 loans of Dead Wood, and nothing for the other 5 books. Considering that Dead Wood was only in one library in the PLR sample, I think 116 loans is a very good number of readers taking it out. Just think, if my other 5 books were in one of the sample libraries, what a difference it would make.

Ronald Turnbull said...

Mathematical brains are creative too! Honest!

As a SOAIS member who's also got a maths degree, let me try and make it all a bit clearer if I can.

Firstly, the rise in loan rate isn't necessarily good news, as it's caused by a drop in the number of library loans. The total pot distributed to authors has increased by only a tiny amount. If your book loans drop correspondingly with the general decline in library loans, then the increase in rate per loan will leave you back where you started.

The same goes for extending the PLR scheme to volunteer libraries, ebooks etc. If the total pot granted by the Government remains the same, this just means we get rather more loans counted in, at a rather lower rate per loan. If your book happens to be one that's especially beloved in volunteer (rather than council) libraries, then you could hope for a small increase. But on the whole, extensions to the scheme will add a bit to the admin, reducing the total pot for authors a bit.

The sampling scheme counts up from different libraries every time - roughly 1/10 of all libraries, then multiply the result by 10. Suppose your book is in just one library region, because it's of intense interest but only to people round there. One day your local library will be in the set, and then each loan of your book will count as 10. So while a totally fair countup might get you the £11 you deserve every year, the more random sampling would get you nothing for nine years then £110 every tenth one. (This is an extreme case where your book has no copies anywhere except in one region.) But subtract out from that the extra admin cost of the total sampling, and the fairer distribution will give you, say, £9 a year rather than £11. (I don't know the actual extra cost of total sampling regime.)

If I understand what you say about 'Dead Wood' correctly, then it's in just one library in Wales, which happened to be in the sample set this time around. In that case it could hardly have been lent out more than 12 times, and those loans would have netted about £1. Each of those loans got multiplied up to get you your £8.18. Probably that doesn't compensate for the loans in Angus that didn't get counted. But in the year when the sample gets around to including Angus, you will get a sudden surprise payout as each Angus loan will count as several. You have, though, been really unlucky that your area has been left out for so long. In your place I might attack the PLR people about that. It ought to be in the sample roughly every 10 years.

For authors like me (I get about £200 a year from PLR) it all evens out and I get much the same from year to year. A totally fair sampling method would simply reduce what I get slightly, by the extra admin costs. The difference it would make would be to people with small payments: instead of getting a small but random payment, they'd get a small but consistent one.

Yes, it's disappointing to get such tiny payments. The pot of money assigned by the government really is pretty small, when shared out among all the books published. A person reading a bought copy of a book costing £15 is worth something like £1 to the author. A person reading a library copy is worth 7p.

Chris Longmuir said...

At the time I did the research into this, the year 2012 to 2013, you were able to check which libraries the book was in, and that year it was Wales. It is possible the book might be in other libraries which were not counted that year, but have since been part of the sample. There no longer seems to be any way to check which libraries are included in the borrowing tally noted on an author's statement, but my statement does say 116 loans. My other 4 books, the ones that make nothing at all in PLR are popular in the Angus and Dundee libraries and there are always waiting lists for them, but these libraries have not been in the sample for so long that this contributes nothing towards PLR. I am not the only Scottish author in this situation, maybe this is not surprising considering the whole of Scotland is considered 1 sample region with 4 library authorities. My lack of PLR earnings does not worry me unduly, but I did want to highlight the issue because of the general assumption that PLR is paid for every library loan.