Readers — a decade later. This is why we write

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.

malled cover HIGH

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 — 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?


13 thoughts on “Readers — a decade later. This is why we write

  1. Huh, I’d never heard of this program, though, being American, I guess that isn’t surprising. It makes me wonder if there’s a market for a Netflix-type subscription service for ebooks. I’d certainly be interested, but from the little I know, it seems that publishing houses are more protective and less inclined to adapt than even the music industry.

    What do you think? Maybe we could team up and become the next Reed Hastings(es)….

      1. Well, I was mostly joking about the Netflix part though it would be easy to imagine a service where you’d rent X number of ebooks a month and then they self-destruct.

        My question was more about if you think it’s likely that the diff’t pub houses would be able to band together to save their industry. I know almost nothing about how they operate but my impression is that there’s a lot of variation in deals/advances/rights/royalties between the players, so that just agreeing on anything would be very difficult.

        The mystery element here is that we don’t know if anyone (besides Netflix) is making money on their business model since they don’t report any numbers on their revenue streams. It’s known that they pay a lot for licensing titles/catalogs, but there’s no public info on how/if that trickles down to writers/actors/producers/etc.

  2. Thank you so much. I now know my romance novel is in libraries all over the U.S., in Great Britain, Australia, and Germany. That’s a thought to keep me going on a rough day.

  3. Congratulations on the Canadian library check. That’s a nice extra, Caitlin. I received my very first royalty check today for a niche sports book I co-authored. Small but satisfying, what with being laid off a year now from my good-paying journalism job and piecing together blog work and free-lance assignments. Tough going, but I still love to write.

  4. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Saturday links | A Bit More Detail

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