PLR: what is Public Lending Right?

by Roy Hunt

Public Lending Right means Irish authors can be paid when their books are borrowed from libraries. The pictures is of a boy grinning through the gap in a colourful row of books. He has a book open on the shelf in front of him and behind him are out-of-focus bookshelves from a library.
Long after your book is unavailable in shops it can be read and enjoyed in libraries: and you can earn income for this via the Public Lending Right (PLR) scheme.

What is PLR?

Public Lending Right or Public Lending Remuneration (PLR) is a small payment to authors every time their book is borrowed from a library. The payment is made annually. The finance for PLR comes from government. The concept of PLR is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which authors are entitled to expect income from any use of their work. If you are an author, illustrator, or translator living in a country that has a PLR scheme then you should avail of it: in many cases, PLR is an author’s biggest source of income.  Some categories of books (such as romance) are borrowed more than purchased, so PLR is of huge importance to these authors.

Since the 1992 Directive on Rental and Lending Right (reconstituted in 2006), EU member states are required by law to provide authors with an exclusive right to lend out their works or provide them with remuneration for the lending out of their works.

PLR gives authors and other rights-holders, ‘an exclusive right to licence or prohibit the lending of their works by libraries’…[unless] they remunerate rights-holders for the loan of their works.’

UK author Maureen Duffy, one of the original campaigners for PLR, says:

First and foremost, PLR upholds the principle of “no use without payment” … It supports the creation of new work.

How to register for PLR

The best way to begin is to apply on line initially at https://www.bl.uk/plr. The reason for this is that you can register for both UK and Irish PLR at the same time. The online UK registration is automatically inclusive of Irish PLR payments. You will need the following address to forward registration papers and supporting material: contact the British Library at Public Lending Rights, British Library, PO Box 751, Boston Spa, Wetherby, LS 22 9 FW. UK. Don’t worry, the process is straightforward and paperwork in minimal.  If you have problems with the procedure, you can contact them directly by phone at 01937 546030. If you have trouble with internet access, write to them in the first instance and that will kick start the procedure. Alternatively, you can contact the Irish agency for PLR, the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency (ICLA), contact details are at the end of this article.

What is PLR worth to authors?

In the UK and Ireland, PLR is distributed to authors in the form of payments related to how often their works have been borrowed by readers. In 2019, the rate per loan in Ireland was 4.12 cent. The Irish Writers Union believe this rate is too low and is approaching a level where the scheme in Ireland will be considered derisory and therefore in violation of the EU directive. Moreover, it has been in rapid decline and there is little transparency around this. The Local Government Management Agency (LGMA), has no advisory input from writers’ organisations and this, plus a failure by various governments in the period since the scheme was introduced (after a battle, see below), has led to the pool of income for distribution falling from 2009, when PLR author payments were €350,000; to €200,000, which is the figure that was issued in 2015 and which has not increased since then.

PLR is nevertheless worthwhile and even this small amount mounts up if you have several books in the library system. There is a cap on payments at €1,000, which is a principle that allows PLR income to be spread much more evenly that income to authors from sales. The sales market can generate astronomical incomes for top authors, but earnings then drop off a cliff for those outside the bestsellers. PLR is therefore a relatively fair system that doesn’t reward the top authors too heavily. Again, the IWU believes both the amount of money distributed and the cap should be lifted, so Irish authors can obtain a non-derisory income from the scheme.

Another point in favour of PLR is that it allows books to have a longevity when it comes to earnings for authors. Many writers have the experience that books which are no longer in shops are very popular in libraries. With the pace of publication so rapid these days, very few titles get a shelf life of more than a few months, let alone years. Whereas in the library, it can be borrowed, enjoyed and borrowed again, bringing in a small but helpful income to the author.

There is another positive aspect to the PLR system besides that of providing an income for the author. It also gives you accurate figures on which title of yours are being read and therefore helps your profile for obtaining engagements in speaking and teaching.

Outside of Ireland, some authors really depend on PLR payments, such as the Dutch romantic writer, Gerda van Wageningen, who says that fully half her income comes from PLR. She has penned over 100 romantic fiction titles.

Shirley Hughes, UK children’s author, says PLR is not only a life saver, it is also ‘one of the great spurs to fresh endeavour’.

Presently, there are about 22,000 writers, illustrators and translators (so it’s not just authors) getting approximately £6,000 apiece in the UK.

Established writers, and those who have seen their works go out of print, testify to the importance of PLR. It means they continue to get income from their books each time one is borrowed from the library. Look at Enid Blyton, as we have shown, on the Irish libraries list for 2018. Another example of this is Erica James, who says she has a lot of readers who borrow her books and she looks forward each year to the annual payment. Also, authors in the UK and Ireland find reading the details of the report sent to them annually, along with their payment, to be a great moral boost. Irish Writers Union executive member Conor Kostick says,

I always look forward to my PLR statement. It’s encouraging to see that a book that is no longer in the shops, like The Book of Curses, say, is still popular with young readers and getting borrowed some one thousand eight hundred times. It’s a great spur to keep you writing when the sales figures have otherwise dried up.

Most borrowed books in Ireland

The LGMA release a certain amount of PLR information each year, mainly in terms of the figures for the most borrowed books. Of the twenty most books borrowed in 2018, all were children’s. The most popular was JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone series. And, incredibly, in the top ten, coming in at number seven, was Enid Blyton. So, whoever is running that estate is still getting a regular income from Enid’s work, long after that lady has gone. There’s the value of PLR right there. Build a platform of books, and not only could it benefit you the author, but possibly your grand-kids as well!

The most borrowed adult book for 2018 from Irish libraries was Solar Bones, by Irish author, Mike McCormack. Four of the top five most borrowed books were by Irish authors: Mike McCormack, Graham Norton, Liz Nugent and Marian Keyes. Other popular titles were The Long Gaze Back: an anthology of Irish Women Writers, edited by Sinead Gleeson; also coming in in the top twenty was Healthy Ireland at your Library series.

The top five authors whose books were borrowed from Irish libraries for 2018 were Roderick Hunt, Roger Hargreaves, Daisy Meadows, Francesca Simon and Julia Donaldson. The top five books borrowed were Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (JK Rowling), Diary of a wimpy Kid; Old School (Jeff Kinney), The BFG (Roald Dahl), and four and five again were JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

In the adult section, the top five authors borrowed in Ireland were James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Lee Child and Anthony Horowitz. The top five Books borrowed from Irish libraries were Solar Bones (Mike McCormack), Holding (Graham Norton), Lying in Wait (Liz Nugent), Guinness World Records and The Break by Marian Keyes. 

The history of PLR

In September 2019 I attended, on behalf of the members of the Irish Writers Union, the Thirteenth International PLR Conference. I spoke with one of the originators of the 1970s PLR campaign for authors, Maureen Duffy.  This had been the previous evening at the welcome reception and the UK PLR fortieth birthday event in which Maureen was interviewed by PLR International chair, Barbara Hayes. Maureen Duffy, the writer Bridget Brophy, along with others, set up the Writers Action Group (WAG), to fight for compensation or payment for authors when their books were borrowed from libraries. The group was created to fight for PLR and authors rights generally. Fortunately, that effort has overflowed to Ireland and many European countries. It is now also being fought for in parts of Asia.

As previously stated, PLR is [now] the legal right authors have to receive compensation from the government whenever someone borrows their book from the library. This was the argument of Maureen Duffy and Brigid Brophy, along with three others, back in the early 1970s. It sounds straightforward now, but a great deal of planning and campaigning went into this initial idea.

‘The UK PLR system: how we achieved it.’

WAG, Maureen Duffy explained, was a humorous attempt to make the point that the tail was attempting to wag the dog, in that a small group of writers had to influence big government to get what they wanted.

One of the first things WAG did was to protest to one of the main proposals to set this idea in motion. The idea was to fund the scheme by adding a percentage to the purchase price of all books destined for the library. It would be the publishers job to then collect this money on behalf of the author.

The thinking behind WAG’s idea in rejecting this proposal was that if Government was willing to run a free public library system, as part of their social programme, in much the same spirit as education and health, then they should be willing to pay for it. Plus if PLR came from library funding, it would put financial stress on the available library book fund, and this they believed would have the knock-on effect of fewer books being purchased, which in turn would adversary affect writers, the public and publishers.

It was all very well to turn down ideas, but had they anything better to offer? What Maureen Duffy and Bridget Brophy wanted more than anything was to put a simple idea into motion. Not a handout for authors, but payment for use. Their target instead was the Arts Council literature grant of the time.

But a seemingly insurmountable problem faced them. If it was a be a payment each time a book was borrowed instead of a set fee, how on earth was it to be policed? This was the 1970s and such software didn’t exist, or nearly didn’t. Librarians were overworked as it was, and most resisted this possible extra administrative duty.

Maureen Duffy had noticed how bar coding for stock control of groceries was being adapted in supermarkets. It was still in the earliest phases but appeared to be working. She began to wonder, could the same idea be applied to ISBN numbers on books?  There were thirteen million books nationwide at this time with a mind boggling 700 million loans a year. She was intrigued with the idea but had no clue would it work and what kind of money would it cost. The cost alone might sink the idea before it even got off the ground. She needed help and began to research her options, one of which was to start reading Computer Weekly, which she confessed she understood only about  twenty-five percent of; but as it turned out, that was enough.

Eventually, WAG secured the interest of three of the leading computer companies at the time and put the problem to them, explaining that there would be little or no money out of the research. But the companies were interested to know if it could work, and eventually, one, Logica, became their technical advisor.

In 1978, nearly six years after the idea first formulated itself, Maureen Duffy spoke at the Brighton annual Trades Union Congress (TUC) and got her motion for PLR passed. Some writers groups were already affiliated with the TUC and their backing could give considerable leverage in government. They were on their way. A fledgling idea, backed up with foresight in what was coming down the tracks in computer technology, became a reality. With the motion passed at the TUC congress, the plan became official TUC policy. With this momentum, on 22 March 1979, the PLR Act received royal assent.

How e-plr has been campaigned for and the value of ISBN numbers for e-book authors

Roly Keating, CEO of the British Library, noted the increase in e-lending and the growing trend of the ebook as a source of PLR income for authors. The panel to discuss how e-PLR was achieved consisted of the Panel chair, Tony Bradman, author and chair of the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). The panel members were Kate Ebdon (Head of public lending rights operations at the British Library), Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the British Society of Authors; and Carol Boswarthack, head of the Barbican and community libraries for the City of London.

PLR in many countries now stretches to audiovisual material as well, including audio books. So another growing aspect which can increase an author’s income stream is now e-book lending. A decision in 2016 by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), the Renting and Lending Right Directive, now covers e-book lending. What this means in practice is that an e-book version of an author’s work is borrowed on a one-copy one-user system. The copy can only be borrowed by another user when the previous one has finished and ‘returned’ it to the library. This is now the case in the UK.

Tony Bradman made the point that it was initially a ‘wild west’ as far as e-books and legislation were concerned. E-books are a mixed bag, in that many people didn’t want to borrow them, as they wanted a break from screens, Carol Boswarthack said, and so many readers preferred print books.  Tony Bradman pointed out the advantages to readers of the likes of Kindle, is that you can store so many books without taking up physical room. You must have an ISBN number on your e-book to collect PLR. It is possible (for example with the likes of Amazon), to publish an e-book without an ISBN number. So, it is advisable not to take this short cut: instead, get yourself an ISBN number as with a printed edition. In fact, as we have seen, the use of ISBN numbers is one reason the PLR system can be policed and administered so successfully.

PLR in Ireland

PLR in Ireland is managed by LGMA and paid to authors by the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency (ICLA). Public Lending Right in Ireland was established by the Copyright and Related Rights (Amendment) Act 2007 only after a hard struggle in which the late Anthony Quinn, then Chair of the Irish Writers Union, advocated vigorously for the scheme and after the European Writers Council supported a case taken against the Irish Government to the European Courts. Since 2012, the LGMA announced enhanced co-operation with the UK PLR system. Now the UK PLR system and the Irish system are connected by an agency agreement between the ICLA and PLR UK.

According to the LGMA website, a total of 6,011 authors from 22 countries qualified for a payment in 2018 (based on 2017 loan figures). Eleven authors received the maximum payment of €1,000.

Brendan Teeling, the deputy city librarian for Dublin city libraries spoke to the Thirteenth International PLR Conference about PLR progress in Ireland. He explained the system is tied up with the UK system and if you register for UK PLR you can sign up for Irish PLR at the same time (see ‘How to register’ at beginning of this piece and FAQ at the end). This is what this author did. The Dublin Library head explained that the ISBN system was a big help in structuring PLR in Ireland. In Ireland, he explained, they had one other administrative advantage in that a single library system helps PLR administration. He also mentioned the assistance of the Irish Writers Union with the scheme that came on stream in 2010. As with the UK, there is a growing interest in PLR around statement time, he said. The media have become adept at using the figures in various ways, looking at which authors benefit the most, what they’re paid, what categories of books do best. The library head said the economic crash of 2008 caused a severe strain on funding. There were, however, reasons to be positive, including the fact that fines on books were removed.

How to improve the PLR scheme

The campaign to introduce PLR was fought alongside librarians, writing societies, governments and ministers. Maureen Duffy made the point that to succeed in a PLR campaign, you must have someone in government and the media that can help you. ‘Do not alienate these groups’. Also you must bring together writing societies and the libraries. WAG started in 1972 and reached its PLR goal in 1979 with the introduction of the Public Lending Rights Act.

And we should remember the ‘others, some now dead, some half-forgotten, who also stood on the barricades and did noble deeds… For younger writers the principle and practice of paying authors for the use of their books must seem as natural as the rising of the sun at dawn’.

So fill out the form, register, it is your right and there’s an income in PLR.

And to help campaign for increases in Irish PLR payments, consider joining the Irish Writers Union, the main advocacy body for Irish writers.

PLR FAQs

What is PLR?

Public Lending right (PLR) is a payment to authors every time their book is borrowed from a library. It is paid annually. PLR is administered in Ireland by ICLA (icla.ie).

How much do authors get paid?

It depends. The bottom limit is one euro. The top limit in Ireland is €1,000 euro but Irish writers can avail of PLR in the UK where the upper limit was £6,600 in 2020. Children’s books and romance are the most borrowed genres.

How do I register?

You can go to the ICLA site (icla.ie/plr), click on ‘Authors and Publishers’ and go to section marked ‘Dual Registration.’ If you don’t have internet access, see ICLA’s phone number and address at end of the faqs. Or apply on line initially at https://www.bl.uk/plr. Either way, you can register for both UK and Irish PLR at the same time. For those without internet access, see section ‘How to Register’ at beginning of this piece for the postal address.

When is PLR paid?

Annually. In Ireland PLR is paid each February.

Can I get PLR on ebooks?

Since 2016, PLR has been paid on ebook borrowing in the UK but ebooks do not currently form part of the calculation in Ireland.

Who do I contact with PLR payment queries?

Irish Copyright Licensing Agency, 63 Patrick Street, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, A96 WF 25, info@icla.ie, Phone: 01 6624211. Or, http://www.plr.ie/contact-us/

Alternatively for assistance write to Irish Writers Union, 19 Parnell Square North, Dublin 1. info@irishwritersunion.org