There's something a bit humiliating about knowing how popular your book is. One way is to scan the online ratings. My heart quickened when I saw the sales of my recent book on Pompeii, Fires of Vesuvius
, reaching double figures on several sites; and it slowed again as it slipped to the hundreds then thousands. But in the UK, a better way of seeing who you reach with what you write is the statistics provided by the Public Lending Right
This scheme was set up in 1979, paid by the government. It gives British authors a tiny royalty for each time their books are borrowed from a British public library. They don't actually know the real total, of course, but each year they sample a few libraries and multiply from there. And they make a payout on that basis. This year's has just been announced.
Don't hold your breath. In the last twelve months I made all of £22 (slightly down from last year's £24). Out of the 23,000 authors who benefit, more than 17,000 get between £1 and £99. Just 352 get between £5,000 and £6,600 (where the payment is capped). I only once did considerably better, and that was when one of the randomly selected libraries was in my home town — obviously all my mother's friends had been borrowing me like mad (innocently, I should say — as the names of the libraries are deadly secret).
The scheme is hugely important and a pledge of good faith from government to author. But it's not all that great news for the historians amongst us. The only "adult" nonfiction author in the top 100 is James Martin, with his environmental/new technologies book, The Meaning of the 21st Century. In fact, more than 40 percent of the books loaned are fiction, with J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows coming in first. All the best borrowed authors, each with a million library loans over the year (James Patterson, Jacqueline Wilson, Daisy Meadows, and Nora Roberts), are fiction writers.
But even if you look into the nonfiction hits (much lower down the charts than the fiction), there is still not much comfort for the historian. No Schama or Fergusson. Next after James Martin, comes a British comedian's autobiography, Griff Rhys Jones's Semi-Detached, and then a Bill Bryson.
This may all seem a gloomy prospect for even low-brow history. But I am trying to look on the bright-side. I'm spending my £22 on a nice couple of bottle of wine, and reflecting that maybe people buy non-fiction rather than borrow it.
But, just in case, I've registered my new Fires of Vesuvius for next year's payout.