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A Time For Generosity

The benefit of this program is that authors make more money. The downside is that that money has to come from somewhere or, rather, from someone.
| Jan 30, 2019 | 15 comments |

The Authors Guild has announced that, as a curative to writers’ falling incomes, it will champion a national Public Lending Right program. The President’s Letter didn’t lay out the details, and PLR programs vary in their particulars (thirty-five countries already possess some version of it). The essential idea, however, is that public libraries will pay authors for the loaning out of their books. It’s a kind of royalty payment: a little money every time a book is checked out, with a cap on how much any one author can receive. For a factual examination of PLR, drop by the Steve Laube Agency blog. For a strongly-worded opinion, stay here.

Now, the benefit of this program is that authors make more money. The downside is that that money has to come from somewhere or, rather, from someone. The Authors Guild proposes the classic solution to this age-old problem: a federal government program. They are advocating (I must quote this) “creating a new government entitlement program.” The idea that Congress would create an entitlement program solely for published authors is touchingly ingenuous. The Authors Guild should consider – I suggest it with gentleness – that it is not a national issue that authors would like to make more money. Everyone else would, too.

The point of a federal PLR program is to shift costs from local governments, which are often poor, to the federal government, which is also broke but possesses nuclear weapons and therefore can be trillions of dollars in the red. This is unlikely to happen, but even if it does, it is still only shifting the cost. The inevitable result of any PLR program will be to increase the cost of public libraries. The ALA estimates that Americans check out an average of eight books per year, a number we can extrapolate to 2.6 billion books checked out per year. If public libraries must pay a fee every time a patron checks out a book – even a fee measured in pennies – the annual cost will be tens of millions. At the princely royalty of four cents per loan, the cost will top 100 million. (This will be multiplied again if – and why shouldn’t this happen? – Hollywood and musicians decide to get in on the game and libraries must make payments for CDs and DVDs, too.)

People talk glibly of raising taxes and government entitlement programs. But you cannot charge the public library system millions to loan out their existing collections and expect that library services will never be reduced.

So the costs of the PLR will be borne by the public. But there will be costs for authors to pay, too. Make libraries in general, and library books in particular, more costly, and it’s only a matter of time before someone lights upon the expedient of fewer library books. The least established authors will find the raised bar hardest to clear, and the consequence of making the system more profitable for some authors may be to push others out of the system entirely.

I am sympathetic to writers struggling to make their work profitable. It’s certainly true that readers should have a spirit of generosity toward writers. But there is also a time for writers to be generous to their readers. Public libraries exist for the public, especially the less well-off public: seniors on fixed incomes, families with small children, adults getting by, voracious young readers whose parents can’t afford all the books they want. It is already profitable for authors. Even authors should have concerns beyond making it more profitable yet.

Shannon McDermott is the author of the fantasy novel The Valley of Decision, as well as the futuristic The Last Heir and the Sons of Tryas series. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website, ShannonMcDermott.com.

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Autumn Grayson
Guest

Yeah, I agree. As nice as it would be to make more money off books, there would still be a lot of the downsides you mentioned. As it is, libraries are technically still supporting authors since when they buy a book for their library, the authors at least make a royalty off that one sale.

One thing I’ve actually asked myself lately, though, is what the difference is between a library and someone who buys an ebook and puts it online for people to pirate. I suppose one of the biggest things is that if a library has it, then someone or other paid the author for that book. A pirating site could just be posting and ARC copy or something.

Furthermore…I think the difference between a pirating website and a library is the attitude it inspires in people. Pirating websites are more likely to inspire a ‘why should I have to pay for books’ attitude, since once people download from a pirating site, they have a copy to keep forever. If people are used to getting something for cheap or free, they often start to value it less. Libraries are different because people don’t permanently keep the books they borrow. If they want a permanent copy, or maybe another book by that author that isn’t currently in the library, they have to buy it themselves.

There are digital library borrowing services for libraries now, and I think they should pay authors for the ebooks, just as they would to have a physical copy in the library. But having the libraries pay a fee every time someone checks out a book shouldn’t be necessary when libraries rarely make money off rentals at all.

Maybe we could consider a tiny fee when a library sells a book that they aren’t going to keep anymore. My local library has a used book store to help finance its summer programs and such. Organizing all those payments would make things more complicated than necessary, though, and charging a fee for sold books will quickly become irrelevant as ebooks take hold.

Also, would authors be alright with having their taxes raised to finance the fees libraries would have to pay? From that standpoint it would probably only benefit extremely popular authors.

Lauren
Guest
Lauren

Just adding to your points — libraries have to repurchase ebooks after a certain number of checkouts (this is set be the publisher). If I remember correctly it’s after something like 10-25 checkouts. The ebook can only be checked out by one person at a time.

I’ve worked in public libraries since high school and I can’t champion enough how wonderful a well run library can be for community. Libraries are one of the few places that really do serve an entire community across all class divides.

Jes Drew
Guest

Good grief. Just one of many times the government should take a laissez faire stance.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Maybe something worth exploring instead would be to encourage sites like fanfiction.net to give a percentage of the ad revenue to the intellectual property owners. I don’t know if I think the government should force that, but it would probably technically be the right thing for fanfiction.net to do, and it would help support authors.

notleia
Guest
notleia

No, the power differential usually stacks the other way. The most popular media already nets its owners billions of dollars, and they have a legions of corporate lawyers ready to slap a cease & desist on everything that moves, whether warranted or not. I know a lot of YouTubers have to deal with bullcrap over just reviewing stuff, and they have to take down their content — and miss the clicks and the monetization — until they prove their case under Fair Use laws.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

I know a lot of the nonsense that goes down on Youtube, and it’s why I’m careful with what content I use in my videos. I don’t use other people’s music in my speedpaints, for instance, since I don’t want copyright strikes on my account, though it’s actually sort of understandable for musicians to dislike their music being used in that manner. Still, a fully fledged version of my idea might actually help with some of those issues.

There’s a lot of people that try to make money off of selling fanart, or through patreon pages revolving around their fanfictions and AMVs. One big reason why intellectual property owners crack down on that is because those people are often violating copyright laws, and sometimes disrespecting copyright owners without being willing to compensate them. If websites like Youtube and fanfiction.net came up with a good system for compensating both the copyright owners AND the fanworks makers, then maybe there would be less copyright strikes issued, and maybe fans would become more willing to respect the authors of the stories they claim to admire.

One of the big problems with Youtube right now is they don’t seem to have enough human eyes available to investigate copyright claims thoroughly and fairly. Solving that would be vital for my idea, though they need to fix those dysfunctions in their system regardless of what happens.

When it comes to reviews and certain other things that are in that vein, though, I don’t think copyright owners(of the work being reviewed) should be able to demand a percentage of the revenue. The same probably goes for analysis videos and educational videos that reference stories as examples. Though, of course, that’s mostly in keeping with fair use laws.

When it comes to fanfiction.net… although they are offering an important and valuable service(and they’re at least somewhat respectful of authors, compared to some other sites), they are still making money off the efforts of both intellectual property owners AND the fans that post their fanfictions. In a lot of ways it doesn’t bother me, but depending on the circumstances I wouldn’t mind them trying to compensate both the authors of the original intellectual property AND the fanfiction authors.

I still do have lots of concerns with this idea, though. Amazon is doing something kind of like this (I think it’s called Kindle Worlds, though I’m not certain). Reading through their terms, though, I remember having some sort of problem with it. I think they were claiming copyrights or film rights or something for the fanfictions published through KindleWorlds, though I don’t remember for sure. I wouldn’t want something like that to become common.

In many ways, though, I actually would prefer that fanworks remain a passion hobby, rather than something ANYONE is allowed to directly make money off of. Aside from roleplaying, I’ve pretty much never posted one of my original stories online, and that’s because I’m not ready to publish yet…which means someone could easily steal any original writing I post online, claim it as their own, and start making money off it. Fanfiction, on the other hand, allows for a safer way for people like me to practice their writing/get feedback on it without getting completely ripped off. Of course someone can steal fanfictions and post them up on their account to gain attention or whatever, but at the very least it’s much harder for them to make money off what they’ve stolen. Without that monetary incentive, people are less likely to steal in the first place.

Allowing for monetary compensation for fanworks takes that away, but…I don’t know. There’s ways to address that, and it sounds like a much better idea than levying fees on libraries. So although I’m not super into the idea of letting people monetize fanworks, it might help solve some current issues, and would probably still be better than charging libraries for every rental.

Travis Perry
Editor

The federal government has nukes so it can be trillions of dollars in debt really struck my funny bone! Shouldn’t be that funny, but for me, it was.

As for paying authors for books that are checked out, in theory it’s not a bad idea, but any new spending needs to be run through a no-kidding reality check of “where is this money gonna come from.” A small user fee per book checked out could probably cover it, but that rather runs contrary to the point of public libraries.

I’m not holding my breath on this one that anything is gonna happen with this…

WriterOfMinds
Guest

“… it is not a national issue that authors would like to make more money. Everyone else would, too.”

If I may take a guess as to what’s going through the heads of the Authors’ Guild … they may believe that writing’s free-market rewards are disproportionately small compared to the value it creates for our nation. They may feel that stories provide such clear benefits that their creation ought to be incentivized on a societal level. “People won’t willingly pay for this, and yet we need it.” And if this were the case, it *could* make sense to create some kind of government subsidy for authors. There’s precedent in existing programs like the National Endowment for the Arts.

But is the claim true? Are authors receiving less than their labor is objectively worth? That’s a tough one. I would certainly agree that, unless you hit a *very* lucky break and write the next smash hit series, writing is probably not a career to make a comfortable living on. It may not be a career to make *any* kind of living on. I also agree that books (SOME books) can have incredible worth and make a real impact on people’s lives. But small returns notwithstanding, we still have quite a number of people writing books. Hundreds of thousands are self-published every year. So it seems as though we’re paying enough for books to make authors want to keep writing, at any rate. We aren’t facing some sort of alarming literary output shortage.

We could still ask whether we’re being fair to authors — perhaps they keep writing because they’re just surprisingly willing to be taken advantage of. But that kind of thing is tough to measure. How do you take a book’s emotional/philosophical/spiritual impact on a population and translate it into dollars owed? What minimum number of authors do we need for a healthy society, and should we reward any beyond that number, or turn them toward other professions? How do you even make sure you’re rewarding the right books? (One thing I do like about this library fee proposal is that it would pay the authors whose books *get checked out,* as opposed to subsidizing every author or awarding arbitrary grants. So the public wouldn’t be paying for some book that nobody even wants to read.)

When all’s been said, my natural preference is to let the “invisible hand” decide what books are worth. But I also recognize that the main value of a book lies not in the physical paper and binding, but in the opportunity to lay one’s eyes on the contents. If a book is paid for but once and then serves dozens or even hundreds of readers, author revenue is lost. While libraries are the friend of the low-income, they can just as easily be used by cheapskates who could afford to buy a book and don’t want to. What’s the best answer to this issue? Not sure.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Could I interest you in an essay on universal basic income?

Social Security for everybody would give a lot of people the means to pursue their hobbyist-type dreams like writing and art and non-industrial agriculture. And also continue to live in rural areas if they so desire (THERE ARE NO JOBS THERE).

Autumn Grayson
Guest

More internet jobs/making working from home more acceptable would solve a lot of the joblessness in rural areas and such. The internet is becoming far more available in rural areas by now. I have a lot of cousins that live out in the country and internet availability has drastically improved over the years.

I’ve thought a bit about what would happen if I were to hire animators for projects in the future, and I really like the idea of letting them work from home, provided they had all the tools they needed and turned in quality work by their deadlines. So that could be an example of what people could do.

notleia
Guest
notleia

But are there enough jobs even by way of the internet to support enough people?

Autumn Grayson
Guest

That depends on a lot. If you had a ton of people wanting to move to rural areas, we might run out of internet jobs eventually. But, at the same time, if there were really that many people moving to those tiny country towns and the areas surrounding them, those areas would obviously be growing, which would of course increase the demand for non internet jobs. So in those areas, joblessness would be reduced in either case. And it’s not like we would be trying to support the entire nation through internet jobs. There would still have to be plumbers, doctors, etc.

The amount of internet jobs will probably continue to increase as time goes on, though. Companies often search out ways to reduce costs and widen the pool of potential candidates, and internet based jobs can be a way to do that. Changing the nature of how business is conducted can help with that, too. More lawyers could set up their appointments through a program like skype, rather than have in person office visits. Of course they would probably still have to appear in court, but maybe they wouldn’t necessarily have to have a big office in order to conduct business.

Even now, there are indie authors hiring virtual assistants. There are also people who can narrate audiobooks, do voice acting, translating books, etc. from their homes. Finding opportunities like that might not be as simple as typing ‘work from home jobs’ into Google, though. A lot of the opportunities I hear about have been side effects of other things I research. I learned about the virtual assistant thing while listening to indie author podcasts, for instance. The authors simply mentioned that they hired a virtual assistant to help with some of the more redundant and time consuming aspects of their business. Comments like that can be easy to overlook, but it general I would encourage people to keep their ears peeled for stuff like that. One never knows when being aware of such jobs can come in handy.

Kathleen Eavenson
Guest
Kathleen Eavenson

As a retired public librarian and long time survivor &/or observer of annual budget battles, may I say that libraries already have a huge hill to climb in these battles.

Did you know that “now that we have the internet, we don’t need libraries anymore”, hmmm? If I’ve heard that one once, I’ve heard it… So, believe me there’s not much wiggle room in budgets. In really tight budget years, we would have the choice of letting go of our trained staff (who help the public) or taking a hit in the materials budget (books, newspapers, magazines, business services, etc) which was the only really other source of cuts. The choice was usually made to take the cuts in materials budget, figuring a better economic year would come and we’d still have trained help available. There were some interesting battles over the years over these difficult choices though!!
[Hope I’ve caught all the typos! 😀]

Travis Chapman
Member

Oh, I think we’re totally using that quote in our Cost of War articles.

“…to shift costs from local governments, which are often poor, to the federal government, which is also broke but possesses nuclear weapons and therefore can be trillions of dollars in the red.”

I, too, laughed substantially at that statement, and then cringed that I was laughing, and then smiled inside. Priceless. Thank you Shannon!

As someone well above the 8 books/year metric, I could see my reading curtailed as the cost of “leasing” a book slowing rose, either through a tax or an individual fee. I always believed libraries fell into the category described by Prince Caspian as “things worth having.” If we claim to be a free, civil, democratic society, then having libraries be free is a good thing. No library scheme will ever make up for the income from dedicated superfans, and that’s OK; I know I actually want it that way.

Leanna
Guest
Leanna

Wanting libraries to pay royalties per loans is very very very very wrong. NO.

Also, I can’t be the only person in the world who likes to read a book before buying it. Most especially when it comes to trying a new author. Libraries are FREE marketing for authors and that’s not a small thing!

Also also what about us terrible people who love to lend favourite books to others so they’ll read them too? If the libraries have to pay so should we. 😛