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UK library borrowing habits are good news for writers

21 April 2003

A boost of £2 million in the funding for Public Lending Right has given 1500 more British authors the first chance to share in the payment made for library loans.

There were 382 million loans in 2002, a drop of nearly 119 million from five years ago, a pretty discouraging statistic. After lobbying from the Society of Authors and other bodies, the amount available for author payments has been increased from £4.5 million to £6.2 million for the year ending June 2002. The average payment has grown from £255 to £325 and many writers will receive a 30% to 40% increase in what they get. This doesn't sound like much, but at least authors are getting some money from library borrowings.

Library users seem to be more faithful to writers they like than book-buyers as a whole. Catherine Cookson has been the most-borrowed author for many years and, still with 3 million loans a year, no other author comes near touching her record. Although J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the most borrowed title, the author only ranks 42nd in overall number of loans, since she has only published four books. Authors such as Audrey Howard and Jack Higgins do much better comparatively in libraries than in bookshops, suggesting perhaps that library borrowers are a more conservative and probably older group than book-buyers.

There is also clear word-of-mouth operating here: ten years after it was first published. Jung Chang's much-loved Wild Swans is still the most borrowed historical biography. Travel writing, historical biography and cookery are the most popular non-fiction categories. Modern fiction, crime and romance between them amount to nearly half of the total loans. In spite of the drop in borrowings, we can safely assume that public libraries are still supporting the fiction-reading habit of some of our most avid readers.