Nick Earls, Markus Zuzak on Digital Lending Rights

‘It buys me writing time’: authors call for library ebook compensation

ASA Ambassadors Nick Earls and Markus Zuzak are arguing for this important right: article in The Age,

What are the Public Lending Right (PLR) and Educational Lending Right (ELR) schemes?

Established by the federal government in 1975 and 2000 to compensate book creators for royalties lost when books are loaned out. However, the scheme does not currently include digital formats, meaning that authors and illustrators are compensated for the print books available for lending at the library, but not for books in ebook and e-audiobook formats.

As the article notes, the impact of the pandemic has made the issue of Digital Lending Rights more urgent, as libraries have seen substantial increases in ebook borrowing, and intend to continue growing their digital collections. 

Nick Earls has been interviewed as an ASA Ambassador on this issue:

How important are PLR/ELR payments to an author? 

In June I got my annual payments. In July I had open-heart surgery. I had to cancel every paid talk and every writing commission in my diary for about two months, then shift to part-time work after that. Week after week, I earned nothing. I’m self-employed. I last had paid sick leave in 1988. My cardiac condition means I can’t get income protection insurance. But I had my PLR and ELR payments there to pay the bills.

Typically around 20% of my income comes from PLR and ELR. Over recent years, my ELR payment has been stable, but my PLR payment has declined in each of the last three years, falling 35% from the 17/18 financial year to 20/21. We know that libraries are increasingly opting to replace worn older paper books with digital alternatives, and that an increasing percentage of their new book purchases are of digital formats. It’s likely that my PLR payments are being affected by that – libraries are still stocking me, but an increasing percentage of what they’re offering of my work is in digital format.

Why is it vital to expand the lending rights schemes to include digital formats? 

Australia led the world in introducing PLR and ELR, acknowledging that library holdings mean that authors miss out on sales, and should receive some income for all that reading. The existing scheme served us well when all books came on paper, but a digital world needs a digital scheme. Ebooks and audiobooks make up an ever-increasing percentage of libraries’ holdings and borrowings, but they don’t count towards lending rights. It’s time to catch up with other countries such as Canada and the UK, treat all books equally and reboot lending rights to include ebooks and audiobooks, as well as print.

PLR and ELR help keep Australian writers writing. For many writers, those payments in June buy writing time – time when they don’t have to teach or take commissions or do non-writing jobs to earn money, but can focus on their next book. PLR and ELR are a key part of keeping many Australian writing careers viable. Without PLR and ELR, we would see fewer writing careers develop, fewer careers sustained and fewer Australian books written. This is why it’s so important that PLR and ELR adapt to suit the times.

Across the political spectrum, it’s acknowledged that Australians need Australian stories – that our books are an important part of who we are, and that we need to value the work of our writers. This is evident in the history of PLR and ELR. Gough Whitlam introduced PLR and John Howard introduced ELR. These schemes have been of huge cultural benefit, and a digital lending right is just about bringing them into a post-Whitlam, post-Howard era.

How many of your books are held in digital format at your local library service?

Putting my name into the Brisbane City Council Libraries website delivers 56 hits. 31 are for books in digital formats, 25 are print. Both old and new books are there in digital format. The library system is doing its job and responding to its patrons and the way they want to read. It’s operating effectively in the digital age, so the scheme needs to adapt to reflect reality. I’m appreciative that my local libraries stock a wide range of my books, and in a way that meets readers’ expectations, and I’m confident the library book buyers get no joy out of it when they make the platform choices they need to and those choices cut my income.