Photo Diary

Libraries and Writers

Last week I went out. It was nice to be allowed out for an evening. This week, I’ll be out again. Both events courtesy of libraries. As a writer, it’s nice to be allowed out occasionally.


Last week’s visit to Tavistock was great. It was a good event, in a packed town hall, which had been paid for by the enormously kind, generous and supportive “Friends” of the library. The Mayor was there, and a councillor, and I couldn’t count all the authors. As well as my friend Bernard Knight, there were Maureen Duffy, Lilian Harry, EV Thompson, and a number of others.


You want to see pictures? It’s called Celebrating History. Look here:


(I have had problems with the link, but if you click on the second set of photos from the left, you’ll be taken to the right page. There is a glitch somewhere, but I think it’s the way the set is created)


A good audience, friends to speak to, enthusiastic supporters of writing – and I came away with a real sour taste in my mouth. Nothing to do with the gig, it was what I had heard during the afternoon on the radio.


A year ago, maybe more, I was invited to chat on the radio. I was asked whether I thought library visitors should pay for the services they used. I thought about it, and, bearing in mind the dreadful state of British finances, I reckoned yes, perhaps a minimal fee for those who could afford it of some 15 pennies or so per loan would not break anyone’s bank. And, importantly, it would go a little way to supporting the Public Lending Right.


This is the system whereby it is agreed that authors who allow their books to be used in libraries are reimbursed. After all, authors are generally badly paid folks. Yes, honestly. The last I saw, three quarters of authors earned less than the national average wage, and two thirds less than the half that. Half earned less than ten thousand a year. Authors are not well paid.


The PLR is a brilliant scheme that pays authors six pence and a bit per loan. It’s not a huge sum of money. And it’s a way of reimbursing authors for their work in writing a book in the first place.


Now, I know some people will begrudge paying anything for reading a book. Just as there are some thieves who enjoy watching films for free by stealing – sorry – downloading them from illegal sites, and there are listeners who steal – no, actually I’m not sorry at all – the work of musicians, so there are also thieves who want to steal my work and the work of other writers.


So, why does it make me and other authors angry? Like others, I have a house and a mortgage. I have a family, dogs, and all the other little trinkets most people want. I like to be able to pay my TV licence, and put petrol in my car. And eat. To do these, I work – usually from sixty to eighty hours a week, for most of the weeks of the year – and the result of my work is a book or two a year. I think it’s sort of fair that after my efforts, if someone likes my work, I ought to be paid for it in some way. Sometimes it’ll mean earning pennies because I am paid a percentage of the price of the book (royalties) and other times it’ll mean I get money for all those library loans.


I am not a charity. I don’t write for fun. I write as a living.


Some people think authors are automatically millionaires as soon as the first book is published. Ha ruddy ha. Even the PLR is capped. An author can only earn a maximum of some six and a half thousand. Nice money, if you get it – but if your total other earnings are less than ten thousand, it only boosts your income to borderline hardship.


I made this suggestion, then, that libraries should start asking for money. Not from pensioners, not from kids, but from the gainfully employed the libraries could have asked for some fifteen pence without trouble.


At the same time, I asked why computers were being installed. I know people like to use email – but why on earth should anyone think that they should be entitled to free use of a computer for emails? The libraries never used to issue free postage stamps in the heyday of the library services. Computers are invariably out of date before they’re installed, and if you want a library as a repository for information, computers tend to be bad sources. They have access to webpages which could be written by a professional – by a professor, even – but how do you tell that it wasn’t put up in a bored moment by a pimply youth from Middle Wallop?


Books: encyclopaedias, dictionaries, all kinds of research material, are tested. They are checked by an author, if he or she is reputable. Then they’re checked by an editor. Then by a copyeditor. Sometimes by fact checkers, and certainly by proofreaders. All these people are there just to ensure that what you see on the page is accurate.


How many websites go through such a rigorous process to ensure that facts are correct?


So, I would always contend that a book is a safer medium for a library to hold. It takes less space, it is reliable technology that is still, I reckon, not out of date, and it is accurate.


Right, rant over.


But only so I can get on to the big one.


Why was I bitter and twisted last week? Because I had heard this.


Now some people may not know Will Self. He is an intelligent man, usually. But in this chat, which was intended to explain his support for libraries, he said that he did not go, never used his local library (except to pick up audio books for his daughter). He said libraries never invited him (that’s probably because since he’s regularly on TV shows, libraries know damn well they cannot afford his appearance fee). He said libraries were supported by “middle brow writers” like Philip Pullman, Jacquie Wilson because they made “a considerable amount” from their library loans.


So, he dismissed two millionaire authors, who are amongst the most successful UK authors (it sounds terribly like bitter jealousy on the part of Self here). Many authors like them don’t bother to claim their PLR, and I’d be interested whether Will does himself. Still, that has nothing to do with it. There are many other authors, like me, who depend on the few thousand pounds we receive from PLR every year. It was crucial to me when I was earning three thousand a year as a new writer. It is plain dumb for him to suggest that PLR is only for wealthy authors. Sorry, “Top borrowed authors” making “a considerable income”. Can you hear me spitting tacks?


And then, he went on in a mean-mouthed way to insult librarians. He called them people with “a jobsworth mentality”.


Words fail me. But I can only assume that Will Self has no interest in libraries whatsoever. Instead of talking in support of them, he denigrated the buildings and their use, then went on to deliberately slight a group of people who will never earn the sort of money he has. It was mean-spirited in the extreme.


I was enormously disappointed. Still, it’s given me the added incentive to do what I can to support libraries.

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