Australians readily use devices such as smart phones, e-readers and tablets to read books, yet Australia still doesn’t have digital-lending rights, meaning authors aren’t compensated in the same way they are for digital copies of their books held in libraries as they are for physical ones.
Authors like Hazel Edwards want that to change.
She is an Australian children’s author who has written roughly 200 books since first being published about 40 years ago.
“I think in the last couple of years, many people have moved for convenience to reading on their various digital devices, rather than carrying print books,” she said.
“Some buy initially, but a lot use through libraries and BorrowBox, and so on.
“I think that’s a very significant area of income that creatives are missing out on.”
While an average of 5 per cent of books borrowed from public libraries are e-books, that number jumps to 90 per cent for items borrowed from university libraries.
For those dedicating themselves to the written word, every dollar counts.
In the past two decades, author incomes have dropped dramatically.
In 2000, the average writer earned just $22,000 a year.
Today Australian authors earn on average $11,000 to $13,000 a year — well below the poverty line, if that was their only source of income.
At the Diamond Valley Library at Greensborough, north-east of Melbourne’s CBD, Edwards launched her latest book, Like Me.
The collection features a story about a child involved in Doggy Tales, a program run by Yarra Plenty Regional Library aimed at improving literacy, in which children read to dogs — a canine audience offering no judgement.
Edwards wants authors like herself to be properly compensated for their work.
“In the past, the digital area was seen as the sort of poor cousin, but in future I think it’s going to be the major area of potential income because of technological changes for most writers,” she said.
An issue of fairness
Olivia Lanchester is the legal services manager at the Australian Society of Authors (ASA), and says the Public Lending Right (PLR) and Educational Lending Right (ELR) schemes work well.
The ASA wants the federal government to extend Public Lending Rights and Educational Lending Rights to digital books, so authors, including those who have digital-only publications, aren’t disadvantaged.
“It’s just sensible to see the scheme apply to e-lending in recognition of the fact library loans are obviously changing with new technology,” Ms Lanchester said.
“As e-book lending grows, it’s only fair that digital-only writers aren’t disadvantaged alongside their print counterparts.”
The Australian Library and Information Association’s CEO, Sue McKerracher, told the ABC ALIA was supportive of the idea.
“Libraries are a fantastic marketing channel for authors, and we work very closely with the society of authors and with their members.
“It’s not actually libraries who pay the public lending right — it’s actually the Australian government — so it’s very much about the Australian government being involved in this conversation, rather than libraries having a pot of money to give out.”
Other countries changing with the times
In the UK, the issue prompted change, with its Public Lending Right now extended to include e-books and audiobooks as of July 1.
But in that country, PLR is calculated on the number of times a book is borrowed.
Here in Australia, it doesn’t matter how many times a book is actually read, the author’s payment is based instead on the number of copies the library holds of each individual title.
Unlike the UK, here payments are uncapped.
The ABC approached Federal Communications Minister Mitch Fifield for comment.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Communications said: “In 2017-18, the Australian lending rights schemes provided $22.3 million in payments to support Australian authors, illustrators and publishers. There are no caps on individual entitlements under the Australian schemes. In comparison, the UK system provides capped payments of 6,600 pounds. The Department of Communications and the Arts is consulting with stakeholders … to examine the landscape of digital lending in Australia, [including] identifying if adequate compensation for e-book use through libraries is not already provided for in commercial licencing arrangements.”
At the end of the day, authors like Hazel Edwards want to make sure the written word remains a source of delight for generations of tech-savvy readers to come.