The real cost of loaning out a book

Who hasn’t borrowed a book from a friend, or loaned one out? I raise my hand to having done both. Some time back I even heard the host on a national television book show offer to loan a novel to a fellow panellist. That makes it okay. Right?


When a reader tells me that they loved my novel WILDLIGHT, I want to cartwheel through the house then pirouette along the street. But the joie de vivre subsides when the reader adds, enthusiastically, that they’ve loaned their copy to a friend.


Recently a local book club invited me to join their forthcoming meeting, WILDLIGHT being their selected novel. Yeah! I am delighted to attend book club gatherings when I can, and ever grateful to have my book read and discussed. In fact most authors I know are good sorts, eager to contribute to book clubs, appreciating that each member has purchased the novel, or borrowed it from their public library. With this particular invitation the host innocently explained that she hadn’t yet read WILDLIGHT as it wasn’t her turn. Her turn? The club, it seems, shares a copy, passing it down the line, reader by reader.


Here’s why.

When an author has a novel accepted by a publisher, the publisher determines how many copies will be printed based on how many copies they believe will sell. The publisher pays the author a royalty in advance, being an amount per book for predicted sales. For authors in Australia, excluding best selling authors, the print run can be as low as 1,000 copies for a small publisher, or up to 5,000 copies for larger publishers. Royalties will be around 10% of the recommended retail price, amounting, all up, to a few thousand dollars. Modest reward for what amounts, in the case of WILDLIGHT, to two years of writing, months of research, and time and effort in promoting the published novel. I am not alone here. A 2015 survey of Australian authors conducted by Macquarie University revealed that the average Aussie author earns less than $13,000 per year from their writing. Call us knuckle-heads for choosing such a profession. The majority of us supplement our choice to write with other income-earning work. The publisher is not the bad guy here. They carry significant financial risk by investing resources into assessing, editing, producing and marketing the book.

If a book sells in excess of the predicted volume, everyone wins. The publisher finally makes a profit (they barely break even on many books), and the author is paid their due royalty for each book sold. Even more importantly for the survival of the author, book sales help protect our future. When the time comes to offer the publisher our next novel, in a commercial climate that for any writer remains forbiddingly unassured, the publisher will reflect on how the previous work performed in determining whether or not to support the new one.

Every time a book is shared, no matter how well intentioned, it means another chink in an author’s armour.


Look at it this way: in Australia a new novel retails for $24 – $32. An outlay, for sure, but one that provides hours of reading pleasure, and can be read again, like a favourite bedtime story. A ticket to a new release movie—2 hours of single viewing entertainment—costs around $20, more for ‘gold class’. If I want to purchase Season 2 of Outlander (which I desperately want to see), I’ll need to cough up $38 in return for 5 chapters of time travel. If I head out to a restaurant, or buy a special bottle of wine… you get the picture.

I SIMPLY CAN’T AFFORD TO BUY NEW BOOKS (as one astute tweeter remarked)

Soak up your public library. Libraries are wondrous, welcoming, switched-on places with bright-eyed staff, themselves keen readers. With each copy of an eligible book held at an Australian public library, the author and the publisher each receive a royalty payment from the Australian government. An author will earn around $2 for each book held at a library, while the publisher earns around 0.50 cents for each book (2013 figures). Public Lending Rights, as they are called, compensate authors and publishers for lost income in a public library situation where a single book is utilised by multiple readers. If your library doesn’t have the book you want to read, request they order it. You’re helping reader, writer and publisher when you make use of your library!


Okay. Okay. Then let me finish with this. I fully understand the temptation to loan out a book to a fellow reader. I have loaned books. I’ve borrowed books. I’ve also purchased many, many books and continue to do so. Speaking for the authors I know, we work long and hard to carve out a small space on the planet. We owe our existence to our wonderful readers, and of course our publishers, bookstores and libraries. When you next read a book that you love, spread the word around (but preferably not the book). Consider taking 30 seconds to rate and even review the book on GOODREADS, the world’s largest, free, website for readers and book recommendations. Most importantly, give yourself a pat on the back for supporting Australian literature.



27 thoughts on “The real cost of loaning out a book

  1. I read Wildlight a few weeks ago – the first person to borrow it from my local library. What an exquisite book! I love your beautiful prose and found myself noting some of the passages from the book. Vivid descriptions, evocative sounds and smells (the mutton birds and the tea tree) – made me slow down and savour it even though I wanted to devour it in one sitting. I have now bought my own copy 🙂 and it will be my first book review on my new website. Thank you for a great novel … and although I will recommend it to everyone, I won’t be lending it to anyone.


    • Hey, Colleen,
      I really appreciate your praise for Wildlight. Your reflections reminded me of just what a sensory place Maatsuyker Island is. Good on you for supporting literature through both your library and bookstore!


  2. Pingback: 26 ways to support diverse writers - Marisa Wikramanayake
  3. Hi Robyn, thanks for the very informative post… When someone recommends a book to me, I try to borrow it from the library and then if I love it, I want to own it so I buy a copy. I didn’t know about the Government royalty payments for books held in a public library…good to know. One other point… in our (ageing) household we are increasingly concerned about accumulating objects, even books which seem to have so little recycle value these days (some of our local charity shops no longer accept books and our library won’t take anything more than a couple of years old)… so I try to buy e-books when I can. What are your thoughts on e-books wrt to royalties and author benefits? Marg.


    • Hi Marg
      Thanks for these insights. A correction on my part re Public Lending Rights: the royalty is paid on the number of books held in Australian libraries, not the number of individual loans. As for ebooks, the author also receives a royalty from the publisher each time somebody buys an e-copy. As you know, ebooks are less expensive than the printed versions, so while the royalty percentage may be the same, the actual amount an author receives is less. Nonetheless, I am sure I speak for other authors by saying we are very happy to have readers buy our books in either format.


      • If I could just add to this: another way readers can help writers (if they feel so inclined, of course!) is to request our books from the library and give the library feedback about books they like. And if the library doesn’t have a copy, a suggestion that they buy one can lead to an increase in our total number of copies held and a corresponding increase in PLR payment. 🙂


  4. It’s interesting the practice of loaning out books to people. I mean we don’t loan out our cooking pots or pans or items of clothing. Have libraries inadvertently “normalized” this practice? I try hard not to loan out books, for reasons already mentioned. Instead I usually buy books for people. I think most people are clueless about how little authors get, so I make it my business to inform people how authors basically live on thin air, whenever I get the chance.


    • It is a curious thing, what we choose to loan out and the things we would resist loaning! As far as people’s understanding of the realities of publishing, I think Amanda’s comment below hits the mark. If the only information we see, en masse, focusses on the JK Rowlings of the writing world, or an individual author winning a great pot of money, it must sway the every day person’s understanding of where 90% of writers sit. Thanks for your excellent reply.


  5. Robyn, being a self confessed bibliophile, I have to say I can’t bear to lend any of my books – be they reference or novels – for the simple fear of them never being returned! Reference books become part of my library and novels, by the time I have reached the last page, are like old friends and I don’t give my friends away. I simply don’t lend and my friends know not to ask.

    However …. this does become expensive for me. If I read a book that I really enjoy and have a friend that I know will also enjoy it …. I usually end up buying another copy to give away to them!! I don’t want them to miss out on the experience of reading it – but they are not getting their hands on my copy.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m sure most readers don’t understand the fragility of the publishing industry and the near-impossibility of an author being able to recoup the investment of years put into their work—especially when the only time they might hear about this other side of publishing is in media reports about JK Rowling’s sales. Posts like these help to raise awareness, so well done, Robyn.


    • You have hit the mark, Amanda. If nothing else, I hope the post helps people understand the reality of the publishing process. Thanks for this feedback.


  7. Dear Writers,
    I don’t wish to diminish the importance of writers and artists being paid a living wage in our society, but I would like to ask a question. If it comes down to being borrowed and read or not purchased/borrowed and not read, isn’t it better to be borrowed and read? Unfortunately for many readers (particularly in the current economic environment) it does come down to this. I am an avid reader, but my weekly income leaves only enough for the occasional purchase from the $4-$5 book table at the DDS or at second hand book stores or school fetes. If I want to read a new author or new book, I join the reserve list at my local library. The alternative would be to not read or engage with new and topical writing and ideas.


    • Hello SD, Thanks for your thoughts on this. I appreciate that we all have differing budgets. Borrowing from the library is an ideal avenue for reading new and not-so-new books; an avenue, I hope I expressed in the post, that works all round, benefiting reader, author and publisher. When people tell me that they lend books to their friends, it isn’t meant with ill intent, but it does show a gap in understanding of what this practice on a regular scale ultimately costs an author whose livelihood depends on book sales. The example of the book club a case in point. If people read this post and decide to keep lending, so be it. At least the choice will come from a basis of understanding.


  8. Robyn, you have said what I, am most other authors, feel. I don’t know how many times people, friends even, say with bright smiles “I’ve just lent your book to … they loved it!” Shudder! It is such an insult, even thought they think it is a compliment.


    • I think it comes down to people being uninformed about publishing without ever realising their huge gaff. One reader of my first novel assumed I simply sent my manuscript to the publisher and instructed them on how many copies to print. If only! As I declared in my post, I have loaned and borrowed books on occasion. Fellow author Annabel — see comment below — offers a measured look at this. I can rest easy that I am way in front when it comes to book purchases.

      Liked by 1 person

    • When this happens to me I jokingly say, ‘Right, you owe me $2.50!’ I don’t feel insulted by it though. As Robyn says, many readers simply have no idea how difficult it is for authors to make money.


  9. Some great points here, Robyn. I too lend (and borrow books) and I think this is okay in moderation, as long as people who lend and borrow books also support the book industry by buying books as well (which I do). The model for the book club you visited is one which would put most writers out of business – as if we aren’t hanging on by a thread already.

    I’m right with you on people’s gripes abut the cost of a book vs the cost of other things. I recently read a tweet drawing attention to the fact that most people don’t even blink at paying $5 to $7 for a greeting card – a piece of cardboard and some cheesy words, but object to paying for a book. I say handmake your cards and buy books instead!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I like these sentiments, Annabel: your approach to loaning and to supporting the industry by buying books. Thanks for offering another way of thinking about it. Greeting cards, yes; when I compare the cost of a Hallmark card, it’s startling!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Have just read ‘Cost of a Book’ and feel compelled to confess if I wish to read a book, I always buy it – I just love having and keeping all books I read. If I enjoy a book, I certainly encourage friends to read but seldom share – have been caught out once too often with people not returning a book! Now, whenever I buy a book, I will think of Robyn’s ‘Cost of a Book’ and remind myself I am not being frivolously extravagant, I am doing my bit to support both and author and a publisher!

    Liked by 2 people

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