Letter from the President, Winter 2018/Spring 2019 Authors Guild Bulletin

You’ve probably heard that the Authors Guild last year conducted the most comprehensive survey of author earnings in recent memory—which is to say that we spent a lot of money and effort confirming something you already know: It’s getting harder and harder to make a living by writing books.

We surveyed our membership (you may remember receiving the daunting questionnaire) and the members of fourteen other writers organizations. The result, our 2018 Author Income Survey, can be consulted here. It’s a big basket of bad news. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

The answer is this: We’re going to begin a national campaign in support of a Public Lending Right in the United States.

Here’s something interesting that will come as a surprise to most Americans. Thirty-five countries—including the United Kingdom, every country in Europe, Canada, Israel, and Australia—support their authors with cash payments from the national government in compensation for the free library lending of their books. Over the past half-century, all these nations have established systems of Public Lending Right. That’s an awkward and somewhat opaque term, so for now let’s just use initials: PLR.

PLR recognizes two fundamental principles: the need for society to provide free access to books, and the right of authors to be remunerated for their work. These principles should not be in conflict. The Authors Guild believes in both. We plan to work with the nation’s libraries to create a system that will benefit authors and libraries alike. The Authors Guild Council considered the issue at our meeting in December and voted unanimously in favor.

If you’re a longtime Guild member and your memory extends to the ancient past, you may think you’re experiencing déjà vu. You’re right. The Guild fought a version of this battle almost forty years ago, when the idea of PLR was relatively new. At our annual meeting in 1980, we invited Lord Willis, visiting from the U.K., to describe the new British system to our members. “I particularly wish to stress that paying authors for library loans is not a charity,” he said, “it’s a right: a payment for the service of borrowing an author’s work.” Robert Caro, Barbara Tuchman, and Anne Edwards were among the well-known authors who championed the cause. Preliminary bills were introduced in both houses of Congress. Eventually, in the Reagan era, the effort died.

But overseas the evident justice and utility of PLR systems has persuaded country after country. Last year our counterparts in the U.K., the Society of Authors, led a successful effort to extend their program to include e-lending. Beginning July 1, authors became eligible for payments for library lending of their ebooks and audiobooks. More than 22,000 authors there receive payments of up to £6,600 a year—a modest sum, but enough to make a real difference in some writers’ ability to sustain a career.

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.

Meanwhile, author income that once came from the use of books in classrooms has been evaporating. Expensive high-speed scanners are now standard equipment in university department offices, and university libraries increasingly believe it is their right to distribute digital copies of chapters and whole books throughout their communities.

This turns authors into forced unpaid donors. A robust PLR system would restore some fairness. When university libraries distribute all or parts of books, those “loans” should be routinely recorded, and the authors should receive compensation. This stream of government funding should be thought of as supporting education and authorship together.

Can our politicians be persuaded? The late, great Gore Vidal didn’t think so. When the Guild’s previous effort foundered in the 1980s, he complained: “Since all civilized countries of the West have a Public Lending Right Law, it is only natural that the United States does not—and will not, ever. Our national bibliophobia is about as old as Dutch elm disease; and as lethal.”

Gore’s cynicism was legendary, and it was often justified. I think we can prove him wrong this time. We’ve still got more bibliophiles than bibliophobes.

Our earnings report finds that more and more authors are forced to subsidize their books with secondary sources of income, and that some naïve readers increasingly expect them to work for free. These are dangerous trends. Authors make a vital contribution to education, to literacy, and to the shared culture on which our society rests. Impoverishing authors threatens to impoverish that culture.

We welcome your comments, dear members. And we’re going to need your help and support.

-James Gleick