The Columnist

 

Dear PLR
            I want to know how much money I will be getting from my first book.
Yours etc

Dear etc,
            If you could tell us the name of your book, we will tell you.
Yours PLR

Dear PLR,
            I do not think you have quite understood me. I have not yet written my first book so I thought I would check with you beforehand to see if it were worthwhile. Not much point writing a book if I am not going to make a small fortune! I have noticed that in most bookshops people go in and read the books without taking them away, whereas in libraries they go to take them away and read them, so even a beginner writer like me can spot where the money is.
Yours etc

Dear etc,
The maximum we pay an author every year is £5,000.
Yours PLR

Dear PLR,
            £5,000 is a very reasonable sum, and I accept your estimation. Now I have a week or two free next month, and I thought I would write my book then. I was toying with the idea of writing a biography of a major figure who had died recently after a long and controversial career. Lord Mountbatten has obviously been done. You lot at PLR are obviously in touch with the common pulse, and I wonder if you could recommend someone big who has not been biographised yet. Do you think the world is ready for the life of Jeffrey Archer?
Yours etc

Dear etc,
Our figures show that biographies are not the big money-spinners. Richard Hough, who is the author of a Mountbatten life which sold a quarter of a million in hardback, also wrote a novel which sold 3,000 in hardback and went out of print some time ago. The novel earned him more from PLR because it was borrowed more often than the Mountbatten book. PLR pays you about 1.2p each time a book is borrowed. It takes people longer to read a meaty biography than a short racy novel, so it gets borrowed less often.
            £5,000 is only the maximum figure. Your book would have to be borrowed about 500,000 times to achieve that.
Yours PLR

Dear PLR,
I get the way your mind is working. You think I should write a short, racy life of Mountbatten. Well, this PLR business obviously works in favour of people who write books which have to be borrowed a lot, so I have abandoned the Mountbatten idea and decided to write a book called Great Farmhouse and Pub Holidays of England. That’s the sort of book that people really want to borrow. At least 500,000 of them, I would reckon.
Yours etc

Dear etc,
            Before you get stuck into farmhouse holidays, you should be aware that this sounds the sort of book that people consult in reference libraries without taking it away. That will not earn you any PLR. It is sometimes suggested that PLR should be based on the amount of time a book is borrowed, or the amount of times it is consulted, but the present system seems the best.
Yours PLR

Dear PLR,
            Phew, that was a near one. I had almost gone out and tested a farmhouse. What a waste of money that would be. I think the best thing to do would be join a writers’ group and pick their brains. Could you send me a list of groups like this?
Yours etc

Dear etc,
            It would be a waste of time. In the report of a questionnaire he organised among writers in 1987 our Registrar, John Sumsion , wrote: “It is quite staggering how little authors know in any objective sense about their fellow authors’ fortunes… Nor do they wish to know more.” Because of geography, innumeracy and disposition, he said, authors are exceptionally unclubbable and difficult to organise. So it would make more sense to avoid contact with writers and go straight to publishers and agents for information.
Yours PLR

Dear PLR,
Well, you have certainly put me straight there. I have to say that your boss, Mr Sumsion, doesn’t sound the normal sort of civil servant. Still, this doesn’t solve the problem of my book. So far I have got enough research done to write a 20-page book called Farmhouses and Pubs that Lord Mountbatten Stayed At. I don’t think that’s going to work. So I have decided on a new plan. I am going to change my name to Catherine Cookson and hope to get a slice of her profits.
Yours etc

Dear etc,
            It’s a possible idea, but our computer system now works so well, analysing nearly 700 million loans and dividing about £3.5m among 12,000-odd authors, that you’d be lucky to beat it. Mr Sumsion and the rest of us are not civil servants. We are outside people, acting in a Civil Service capacity, which is why we are fairly efficient.
Yours PLR

Dear PLR,
            I bet they made you sign the Official Secrets Act, though.
Yours etc

Dear etc,
Yes, they did, as a matter of fact.
Yours PLR

Dear PLR,
            Look, this is getting me nowhere. All I want to know is a good idea for a book which will make me a fortune. What we have established so far is that it should be a racy, short, readable, library-type novel with no details of farmhouse holidays. Can’t you tell me some topic that hasn’t been covered by racy, short, readable writers?
Yours etc

Dear etc,
            Well, this is strictly beyond our brief, but nobody has based a novel on PLR, as far as we know.
Yours PLR

Dear PLR,
            Brilliant! I can see it all already. The hero of the novel, the suave, super-efficient head of PLR, is puzzled because one of the authors of a registered book does not exist. That is, the name is a pseudonym and he cannot find the real identity. Idly going through the computer, he finds that the pseudonym lives at the same address as another writer. While investigating this, he gets a call from MI6. “Stop investigating! You are about to blow the cover of one of our top agents!” Having signed the Official Secrets Act, the head of PLR can talk to no-one about this, but one day, while on a farmhouse weekend at a place where Lord Mountbatten used to stay a lot, he is approached by a Russian agent…
            What do you think?
Yours etc

Dear etc,
            Go on. We were quite enjoying it.
Yours PLR

Dear PLR,
            OK. I’ll write it. I wonder if by any chance you could let me have that £5,000 in advance, just to tide me over…?

Dear etc,
No.
Yours PLR


                                                                                     


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