Reminder: you don't need an ereader to read ebooks. Cat and cuppa definitely help though. (Image: hocus-focus, Getty Images)

Nicky Pellegrino on libraries and ebooks and the very real need to make a buck

Libraries pay a lot for their ebooks, and each copy ‘expires’ after a certain number of loans. Here’s why that’s fair.

There are times I feel as if some librarians don’t like authors much. Last week, for instance, when I read Rebecca Hastie’s Spinoff piece, which began as a guide to making the most of public libraries during lockdown and turned into an attack on publishers for trying to earn an income for their writers. This is CAPITALISM, according to Hastie (her upper-case not mine). Well, if so then it’s not a particularly dazzling example.

For a start we’re not talking big money. A novel published in New Zealand might sell 10,000 copies if successful, but may only shift 1,000. The author receives a percentage of the cover price, which varies depending on the format, but can be as little as 7.5%.

Most New Zealand writers of adult fiction have a paying job, even the well-established ones. Many teach – Catherine Chidgey, Paula Morris and Emily Perkins. Danielle Hawkins combines producing bestsellers like last year’s hit When It All Went To Custard with working part-time as a vet, farming and family life. Greg McGee writes TV and film scripts.

I have supported myself largely with magazine journalism although post-Covid that’s not looking like such a great option. My novels sell internationally and my last book, A Dream Of Italy, was the top selling NZ fiction title of 2019 yet that part of my career pays less than minimum wage. And I’m doing better than many others – at the last count the average earnings for an NZ writer was $15,200 a year.

It is true that some authors receive funding through arts grants and residency programmes, but typically the literary ones. We writers of commercial fiction have to be our own patrons.

To be clear this isn’t a whinge. I love telling stories and am grateful I’ve been able to design my life to have the time to do it. But it’s a lot of work dreaming up those characters and plots, it involves many hours crafting hundreds of thousands of words, it’s a job, not a hobby.

Nicky Pellegrino’s latest novel, Tiny Pieces of Us, was set to release in March but has been postponed to September.

Books are an investment for publishers too. They have to fund highly skilled editors, designers and proof-readers, publicists, marketers and sales reps, as well as pay for printing and distribution. If a book doesn’t sell well enough, it might not return that investment.

People need libraries. Libraries need books. Publishers need to make income. Writers need to be paid for their efforts. Somehow we have to find a fair and practical way to make that work.

This is the system at the moment. Libraries buy physical copies of books, sometimes direct from publishers but often through Australian distributors. Writers benefit thanks to the public lending right scheme, an annual payment that is based on the number of copies of our books held in libraries rather than how often they’ve been borrowed. That only applies to paper copies, not ebooks and audio, although this is currently under review.

For ebooks there is a different, subscription-based system. Libraries purchase a license, many from an American distributor Overdrive, rather than an NZ company (wouldn’t it be nice if “buy local” prevailed post-Covid). This license means the ebook can be loaned a certain number of times within a fixed period then it must be renewed.

Over lockdown, with stores and libraries closed, more ebooks have been borrowed and people have discovered how easy it is to get them for free. This will mean more expense for libraries, as licenses will have to be renewed sooner, which is tough because they operate on tight budgets, but then so do local publishers.

In her article Hastie argued that if people can’t get ebooks for free from libraries then they will pirate them, implying that publishers might as well allow unlimited access. Would she tell Peter Jackson that since people are bound to download his films illegally, he might as well give them away? Or stores facing a shoplifting problem that the solution is making the products free for everyone? No, of course not.

I love libraries. When I was a child they fed my voracious appetite for fiction, and my mother took me to our local one every Saturday morning. I want my books to be on their shelves and find new readers. But to carve out the time to create stories, all those hours and hours, I need to derive some income from them. Capitalism isn’t the driver here … copyright is.

Ironically, despite a mandate to provide free reading, many public libraries charge a fee for borrowing the more in-demand titles. Last year I was sent a photo of my novel A Dream Of Italy, on a library shelf with other new releases and a sign alongside that basically said, “Don’t spend your money on the latest books, rent them from us for less instead.” Well that may be how capitalism works, but it’s not the way copyright is meant to.

A Dream of Italy by Nicky Pellegrino (Hachette, $34.99) can be ordered from Unity Books


A note from Rebecca Hastie: I wanted to share with people the many online resources that are available through their library and encourage people to find comfort in their local library during this difficult time. I discussed the lending model behind ebook borrowing to let people know why they will sometimes have to wait in a queue for very popular titles. I would like to make clear my deep appreciation and love for the arts, especially our very talented local authors in Aotearoa – I believe strongly in supporting them and encourage the public to purchase their works directly if you have the means to do so. I should have made it clearer that my comments were a broad global opinion on some publishing structures whose models don’t always fairly compensate authors, even when they have the means to, and unnecessarily restrict accessibility for library users at no benefit to author compensation.



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.