By Caitlin Kelly
A check arrived this week that left me so excited I burst into tears.
It wasn’t the amount on the check — $491.00 Canadian — but its source, a Canadian gift to authors called the Public Lending Right Program. If your books qualify, (only those published within the last 20 years), you can register your work and receive, in effect, a royalty paid out once a year for the public’s use of your books through Canadian libraries.
The enrolment period is open now, until May 1. Maybe your works qualify!
I was also thrilled to receive a payment that didn’t feel covered with blood and sweat, the way so much of my work now does.
The publishing/journalism business today too often feels less like a creative endeavor than a protracted and wearying battle — rates remain low, publishers pay late and editors refuse to negotiate contracts that claw back 3/4 of your fee if they decide they just don’t like your final product, even after multiple revisions.
One Canadian friend, with four books in the system, says she used to make a pretty penny from the sale of her intellectual property. A book’s advance, ideally, is only the first of an ongoing revenue stream from your work; with Malled, I also earned income from a CBS television option and multiple, well-paid speaking engagements.
Like most mid-list authors, I’ll never “earn out”, repaying my advance and earning royalties, so every bit of ancillary revenue from each book is very welcome.
Twenty-eight countries have a similar program to Canada’s, with Denmark leading the way in 1941.
Not, sorry to say, the United States.
It’s a sad fact that writers here are not considered successful unless they sell tens of thousands of copies of their books, a bar that very, very few of us will ever be able to clear. Not because our books are boring or poorly-written or sloppy. They’re too niche. They’re too controversial. They’re too challenging.
Or, more and more these days, with the closing of so many bookstores and newspaper book review sections, readers simply never discovered they even exist, which makes endless self-promotion even more necessary than ever.
Here’s a new website to help readers discover year-old books — called backlist books, in the industry — they might have missed.
And another, focused on business books.
There’s a fascinating resource called WorldCat.org — do you know it? If you’re an author, you can search it to see where your books have ended up; mine are in libraries as far away as New Zealand and Hong Kong. A friend once sent me a photo of three copies of my first book, Blown Away, on the shelf in a Las Vegas library. I felt like waving.
Measuring your worth and success as a writer solely by your financial income is unwise. But if you measure your books’ value by the number of readers reaching for them, even a decade after publication — as people clearly did with this statement, for my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns — you can enjoy a different sort of satisfaction.
That first book came out in April 2004, still finding readers. Certainly, gun use and violence in the United States is an ongoing issue — I knew that when I chose my subject.
My second book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail came out April 2011 and in China last July. According to this PLR statement, it, too, is still being read; in this rough economy, many people have tumbled from well-paid jobs into low-wage, hourly labor.
Our books feel like dandelion seeds, something light and ethereal blown hopefully into the wind. Will they take root and bloom and spread, our ideas heard and discussed and maybe even remembered?
Beyond our sales figures, authors never really know who’s reading us.
Having proof of ongoing readership and influence?