Thursday, 19 January 2012

How was it for you?

Still with PLR, but from a different angle today. The question this time is - can you maximise your PLR payments? I don't mean by visiting the sample libraries and borrowing your books, or even mobilising friends and family to do that. Borrowing books to raise PLR is a sad and desperate (and doomed) tactic that will cost more than it raises. No. I mean - to borrow a phrase from the Crabbit Old Bag of Help! I Need a Publisher - writing the right book at the right time in the right way to get as much PLR money as possible.

Some books are borrowed more than others. You're more likely to earn lots of PLR from a racy romance than a handbook on cello maintenance, for instance. People borrow books for different reasons. They borrow books that they don't want to buy - either because they don't want to keep them after reading them, or because they can't afford them in the first place.

Picture books get a lot of loans because many people can't afford to buy lots of books for their children. Many who could afford them think (wrongly) that the book will take 20 minutes to read and so it's poor value for £8.99 - forgetting they will read the book again and again. Genre fiction earns a lot because readers consider it disposable. They read a romance/western/sci-fi book and will never look at it again. They might get through several a week. That's an expensive habit if you pay for each book, so libraries are attractive suppliers. (Loans of genre fiction might soon be hit by Kindle use - we'll see.) Non-fiction loans seem to be down, probably because people are finding information online that they would previously have looked for in a book.

My PLR goes up, year on year, because I write a lot of books. But libraries are buying fewer books. That means that having a backlist already in the libraries is important, too. But old books fall apart and are thrown away, not to be replaced, so very old titles don't earn PLR.

So - what's borrowed? No detailed breakdown for this year is available yet (though the annual report from PLR is), so I took a look at my own titles to see what's earning most.

Of 150 registered titles, half the PLR comes from the top four titles - they are all children's fiction. Of the top 10 titles, 9 are fiction. More of my titles are non-fiction than fiction, so that's a very significant result. The non-fiction title in the top ten is a glossy, very visual book on volcanoes published by Dorling Kindersley. Of the 9 fiction, all except one are published by a very large publisher, and all published since 2007. The books with titles most likely to appeal to children (in my view) did not score higher than those with less intriguing titles. (The official info that has been released so far shows loans of children's fiction up slightly, loans of adult books slightly down.)

My top-earning title clocked up two and a half times as many loans in the UK as sales worldwide. It's called Too Dirty and is published by Hachette.  All the top-selling fiction titles were for children aged 5-6. Even though the PLR is split 50:50 with the illustrator on these titles, the books generate a third of their advance each year in PLR.

The lesson from all this is that over its lifetime a book may earn more in PLR and ALCS payments than in fee/advance/royalties so we should be thinking about library-appeal as well as bookshop-appeal. Of course, the publisher is less interested in library-appeal so this has to be a covert agenda!

Which are your most-borrowed titles? Can we crowd-source enough info to put together a profile of the perfect book to write to get loads of PLR? Or at least, you might be able to maximise PLR-potential on your next book...

[PS - No, this is not an entirely serious proposal]

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

PLR =/= income tax (a curmudgeonly rant)

Yesterday was PLR day - the day all writers in the UK can find out how much they've earned in Public Lending Rights. There's lots of comparing - did you get more or less than last year? Which was your top earning title? Can we spot any trends? There's grumbling and celebrating, misinformation, conclusions that reveal scant understanding of either maths or the PLR scheme and - most chilling of all - a rush of people who declare it's very nice but a shame they have to spend it all on their tax bill.

Perhaps they are not telling the truth - tax has to be paid by 31st Jan, but the PLR payment doesn't come through until February. But let's assume they are, since we should take people at their word unless we have good reason not to. (Probably all the disasters in my life stem from that naive principle - no matter.)

[Note for non-UK readers: In the UK, income tax on self-employed earnings is paid in January. You have to work out what you owe on the previous year's earnings, and pay half in advance for the coming year, on the assumption that you will earn the same. You can adjust this guess if you think your earnings will be different. You pay the second half of the estimate in July. The following January, what you've already paid is deducted from what you owe. If you earn the same every year, you effectively pay half in January and half in July. If your income increases, you pay extra in January as there's a catch-up payment.]

What's so wrong with using PLR to pay your tax? Two things - firstly, it's unpredictable. You never know how much your will get. It's worked out by tracking loans at a sample of libraries and extrapolating. Much more importantly, though, you shouldn't have to! Why ON EARTH are these writers not setting aside the tax on their earnings as they get paid? It is the ONLY sensible way to be a self-employed person. You put the tax in a deposit account and you don't touch it, NO MATTER WHAT.

Some authors have other jobs, and their personal allowance (the amount you can earn without paying tax) is used up on their employed earnings. So they need to set aside 22% (or 40%, depending on their income level) of their income from writing. That's really easy - no hard sums at all. Those of us who earn only from writing have a rather more complex calculation to do, but you can create a spreadsheet to work it out for you, and as a guideline if you set aside 25% of everything (so ignore the personal allowance) you will have about enough. If you expect to be paying higher rate tax, set aside 30-33% of everything, depending on how far over the 40% threshold you expect to go.

Yes, you have expenses to deduct - don't worry about it. You also have NI to pay. You might get some money left over in your tax account at the end - and the first time you can use that to make the advance payment. After a few years, you can afford to take out some of the excess and spend it. But not immediately.

And finally - the figures don't work. The amount of PLR you can earn is capped at £6,600, and this year (2010-11), 263 authors earned the maximum. Now, if you're earning £6,600 in PLR you are earning a lot from your books - your tax bill is going to be a LOT more than £6,600. Actually, it would be interesting to compare tax bills and PLR income: ignoring payments on account, my PLR this year is around an eighth of my tax liability - so it wouldn't be a lot of help. Most PLR payments (nearly 15,000 out of a total of 23,000) are for under £50, so that's not going to go far in anyone's tax bill. I assume, though, that these trifling payments aren't going to professional authors but to people who've written the odd one or two books, probably some time ago, and maybe on obscure topics.

Authors manage to look unprofessional enough - let's not look extra-unprofessional by screwing up our tax accounts, or even pretending to. It's not cool to adopt an 'I can't deal with accounts' pose, it just makes you look incompetent. If I were a publisher, I'd be wary of commissioning someone who doesn't have the sense to set their tax aside - they probably won't take deadlines seriously either. After all, tax doesn't come as a surprise! It's not as though you just landed on Go to Jail - you always knew it was coming. And while flights of fancy and working outside the rules may be essential to your creative work, there's a lot of uncreative work involved in being a professional writer, and you need your feet on the ground for that part.

OK, rant over. You can all rant back at me now :-)

Monday, 2 January 2012

Devils and details

That post about research doesn't apply only to non-fiction. Even when you're making things up, you need to get the lies right. I've been doing the final reality-check on one of the vampire stories and noticed just how many things need to be checked. Just these from a chapter in the middle:

"Two hours later, the train slid into Gare du Nord."

Check on Eurostar timetable that it takes just over two hours from St Pancras. It does.

"... Juliette at the front of the boat, standing like a figurehead against the setting sun"

Simple enough - but check a map of Paris to make sure the setting sun would be behind someone on a bateau mouche going past Notre Dame.

Same evening, after a lot has happened: 

"See you in the hotel bar at 7.”  An hour.

So what time was sunset in Paris in early November? Was there enough time for all that to happen? No. Sunset was 5:30. Not time to nearly drown, be rescued, go home, get changed, have a shower and arrange a meeting for 7 while 7 is still an hour in the future. Change to meeting in the bar at 9.

"The executioner's black hood..."

Look at engravings of numerous executions by guillotine: the executioner is never hooded. Change that.

Oh, and a much bigger issue I noticed - a key character is in Paris in one book and in Russia in another book. At the same time. Not even vampires can do that. Calendar change....

It's easy to think you know what's happening, but important to make sure it actually could happen like that. So this is just a reminder not to be complacent about the lies you tell.

Happy New Year!