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Public lending and the plague

THE FREELANCE has reports from a number of members of the NibWeb group of children's non-fiction authors that their Public Lending Right (PLR) payments were significantly down this year. So where did the money go?

PLR is payable to book authors - including illustrators and translators - because you are the author - even if you have been pressed to sign away copyright. In other words, in the UK PLR law is quite separate from copyright law - as it is in all countries that have PLR, except Germany and Austria. The payments are calculated from a survey of selected libraries, extrapolated statistically.

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A sculpture in the foyer of the British Library St Pancras site showing a chained-up library book from the Olden Days.

The Freelance asked the British Library (BL) for figures that might help explain the change. The BL has administered PLR since 2017.

Total borrowings fell, by 3.88 per cent - from 192,026,780 in 2019/20 to 184,576,305 in 2020/21. This is attributed to libraries closing their doors in the covid-19 pandemic.

The number of authors who received a payment in the year fell by 2 per cent, from 20,911 in 2019/20 to 20,475. Since PLR is funded by the government setting a total budget for the year, which is divided between authors whose books are borrowed, the payment per borrowing increased, from 9.55p in 2019/20 to 11.26p in 2020/21.

As far as the BL can tell, total borrowings of non-fiction books fell much more steeply, by 24 per cent - from about 42.6 million in 2019/20 to about 32.3 million in 2020/21. Put differently, they fell from 23 per cent of all books borrowed to 18 per cent. The BL stresses the "about" here - many books don't have their "genre" recorded in the PLR database.

That would seem probably to explain the reports we've received.

Another data point is interesting but not unexpected. Lending of ebooks has been included in PLR calculations since July 2018, The number of such borrowings was then reported as around 6,750,000 - by 2019/20 this had risen to 7,682,992 and during the pandemic it rose by 35.2 per cent to 10,383,708 in 2020/21.

We don't have a breakdown by genre and delivery format. We looked at the shortlist for the 2021 ALCS Educational Writers' Award and discovered that the winner, Sometimes I feel..., written and illustrated by Sarah Maycock, is available in a Kindle edition. So are the runners-up I am not a label, written by Cerrie Burnell and illustrated by Lauren Baldo; Be amazing: an inspiring guide to being your own champion, written by Chris Hoy and illustrated by Miguel Bustos; A climate in chaos, written and illustrated by Neal Layton; and Our planet, written by Matt Whyman and illustrated by Richard Jones - but not, that we can find, I am a book. I am a portal to the universe, written by Miriam Quick and illustrated by Stefanie Posavec. So the question may not be lack of availability for e-lending - but we're checking how Kindle editions relate to PLR.