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Public Lending Right announces 25-year cap for older titles, introduces audiobooks to the program

Major changes are coming to the Public Lending Right program, which compensates authors, illustrators, editors, and translators for free public use of their books in libraries.

PLR cheques mailed out to recipients on Feb. 15 will be accompanied by a letter from the commission’s chairperson, author Daniel Poliquin, outlining the revisions, which include the introduction of a 25-year registration cap and the eligibility of audiobooks for future payments. Further details are available on PLR’s newly relaunched website.

According to PLR manager Peter Schneider, any titles registered with PLR to date since the program’s inception in 1987 – regardless of how old they are or if they are out of print – have been eligible for payment. The amount is determined based on how often a title appears in an annual survey of select public library system catalogues. Moving forward in 2019, any titles or editions that are more than 25 years old will be retired.

When PLR sent out its first cheques in 1987, there were 4,000 writers registered. That number has increased exponentially to the current figure of 21,565. The Feb. 15 payment of $9.8 million is divided among 17,553 of those writers, at an average of $556 per cheque. “PLR isn’t based on library loans, but availability as expressed in a library catalogue. If the title shows up in the public catalogue, no matter whether it’s been loaned out 1,000 times or whether it has been on a shelf as a reference copy, the author is paid,” says Schneider. “As you can imagine, over time the registration has grown and grown, and the budget doesn’t always keep up with the incremental growth.”

In December, PLR announced a $5-million budget increase, the largest raise in its 30-year history. The first $2.5 million will be distributed to registered participants in 2019, with another $2.5 million slated for 2020. Schneider says, “We’re trying to steer the investment with the new money coming to PLR so that new books and new creators who have never benefited from the program before can benefit in the same robust way that the founding generation was able to enjoy during the first decade of the program.”

Another upcoming change is that 2018 is the last opportunity for writers to register titles published more than five years ago. The cap is similar to that in Australia’s PLR program and is aligned with evidence from Canadian librarians that public interest in a book is typically highest in the first five years after its publication. PLR already determines payments based on a four-category sliding scale, depending on the age of the title. For instance, a book that was registered with PLR between 2013–2017 currently receives $50.75, as compared to those registered between 1986–2002, which receive $25.38.

“If a book is new, it is in print and subject to losing revenue and royalty payments when it’s free in the library,” says Schneider. “There are many books that are paid out through PLR that are out of print, and are not returning other revenues to the author so the library isn’t necessarily providing an alternative form of distribution. The argument that there’s a loss of sales revenue does not factor into the rationale for the payment.”

While older titles may be on their way out, the program is making way for audiobooks, which has become a $2-billion (U.S.) per year industry and the fastest growing book format. The PLR commission – comprised of authors, artists, and publishing professionals – is currently researching eligibility criteria and how payments will be split between writers, translators, and possibly narrators, for a 2019 launch.

“The commission is looking at the format as relevant and an increasingly popular format of literary creation that they see as valid and being enjoyed by an ever-increasing audience,” says Schneider. “We want to provide an equal and transparent playing field for all titles coming into the program that is easy to understand.”