Heavy engineering
Rhyme and un-reason

Unspectacular decency

The Public Lending Right payments which have just been announced have made me think. If The Mathematics of Love alone can clock up that many loans for me in only eighteen months, how many books by how many authors are being borrowed by how many people nationwide? How many people have wanted to read a book, and gone and found it in a library, for free? How many have gone in to find a revision guide for their exam, and come out clutching a novel which will change their life? Or vice versa? Particularly touching, somehow, are the several hundred loans my PLR statement lists of the Large Print edition. PLR don't handle audio books, but I'd love to know about them, because then I could imagine more concretely that someone has sat in their car in a traffic jam, on the M3 or the M62 or on the Severn Bridge, and listened to Stephen and Anna speak. That's what drives us authors to write: knowing that our books are read, or listened to. A very badly-off friend apologised that she'd ordered The Mathematics of Love from the library, rather than buying a copy. I was being honest when I said that I don't care about sales, in that sense. I would far rather know that lots of people had read the book by whatever means; that it would sit on the library shelves for (hopefully) years to come; that I could imagine it going home with lots of people in an armful of books breathing that strange, unique, library smell.

It isn't, for me with a single new book, a vast sum. But for some authors PLR income can be a significant proportion of the whole. Expensive technical books, textbooks and self-help manuals, classic standard works on obscure and specialist subjects, and swathes and swathes of good honest fiction by little-known names can't easily command space on the painfully expensive shelves of your average high-street bookshop. Nor will the newspapers and magazines, always looking for new things, glance back at the older ones which have proved their worth over time. Nor will the ferocious accountants who loom over the trade publishers allow such books to be kept in print for the sake of so few sales per year. But those books keep being looked for, requested, borrowed, read, returned, and looked for again, year after year, and the income from PLR may be what keeps these authors in business to write books that, unarguably, people want to read.

But there's a wider point than keeping some excellent authors in business, and encouraging the rest of us, for whom writing can still feel a bit like singing our best, our most heartful poetry from the top of a mountain for only the four winds to hear. They're also about reminding the rest of the world that books aren't only about the latest mega-deal or highbrow-seeming prize, and that libraries aren't only about internet access and dodging the tramp snoozing in the corner.

The book side of libraries is constantly being nibbled away. Tim Coates is ex-Waterstones, and his blog is only one of the most sharp-eyed of the library campaigners. Susan Hill, too, has said her piece. Mind you, it's not necessarily the philistinism that the doom-and-gloom merchants of the right-wing press deplore that causes the demand for books to fall, if it does. These days, thank goodness, someone who wants to get a qualification or improve their prospects or enlarge their mind doesn't have their local library as their only hope. They're more likely to sign up for an access course at their local FE College, college library and all. And then there's the Net: I probably do about 75% of my in-depth, technical research for a novel without stirring from my chair. But libraries need to be THERE, and there with open shelves full of books: so often you don't know what you need, or what to search for. 'Access for all' only really works if it's truly open, needing the absolute minimum of confidence, prior knowledge, skill or education.

The PLR system isn't perfect, of course. If you regard it as a stand against the ruthless capitalism of the book market place, you'll be disappointed: the top earner was invariably Catherine Cookson, and is no doubt now Martina Cole, though the payout is capped, to leave more for the rest of us. Nor are the loan numbers perfectly accurate. They're based on data from a changing sample of 1,000 branches, carefully distributed across the eight regions, and multiplied up. The chief losers from this system are authors who have a strong but very local readership, if the handful of libraries where their books are most borrowed happen not to be in the sample at the moment.

But it's not only better than nothing, though it's that too. I don't know if our PLR was the first such system in the world, but I know it was pretty early. Certainly the UK used to have the highest number of libraries per capita in the world - maybe it still does. But to my mind the PLR system is symptomatic of the unspectacular, decent behaviour towards the needs and desires of the population at large, which is the mark of a civilised democracy.

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