Some things in the world of books remain reassuringly constant. Amid all the changes that have buffeted the career of the professional writer over the past few decades, the right of authors to be paid for loans of their titles from public libraries endures as it has done since 1979. Public Lending Right, it is called; and as well as ensuring that this year every author who registers for it is paid 7.67 pence per loan, up to a threshold of £6,600, it also provides a fascinating annual snapshot of what library users across the country are reading. Thanks to the data provided by PLR, we know that the UK’s most borrowed author over the last 20 years was Catherine Cookson, that the most borrowed children’s author was Jacqueline Wilson, and that no one has been more consistently in the Top 20 than Danielle Steel. All in all, then, a clear lead for female writers.
What, though, of 2014/15? The data suggests that there has been something of a male fightback. The most borrowed author, as he has been for the past eight years, was James Patterson. With Lee Child laying claim to the top two individual titles – Personal and Never Go Back – it would seem that the surest way for a male author to be heavily borrowed by UK library users is to write about US crime detection. It certainly helps to be a novelist. None of the top 10 most borrowed authors in 2014/15 were non-fiction writers, and only Jamie Oliver prevented The Official DSA Theory Test for Car Drivers from topping the podium as the country’s most borrowed non-fiction book. With Jack Monroe at three, and Mary Berrytaking the top spot as the single most borrowed non-fiction author, it was a good year for authors who knew their way around a kitchen.
As well as providing national data, the PLR figures also shed a fascinating spotlight on variations in the regions. Although Simpsons comics were the most borrowed books in the humour category, the south-east and Wales – where library users opted instead for the Top Gear franchise – bucked the trend à la Jeremy Clarkson. In England and Northern Ireland, the most popular travel books were guides to Italy; in Scotland, it was Edinburgh for Under Fives, and in Wales Griff Rhys Jones’s Insufficiently Welsh. In the Home and House Maintenance category, readers in Yorkshire favoured Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, while those in the south preferred Ian Rock’s Home Extension Manual. Northern Irish readers seemed to rate Berry over Oliver.
The really big story, though, is to be found elsewhere in the data. Four authors this year registered more than a million loans; and three of them write for children. Coming in behind Patterson were Julia Donaldson of The Gruffalo fame; Daisy Meadows, the pseudonym for the various writers who contribute to the Rainbow Magic series; and Francesca Simon, the creator of Horrid Henry. Jacqueline Wilson, ever a PLR favourite, comes in at eight. An even more telling indication of just how comprehensively children’s writers have dominated last year’s borrowing figures, though, is provided by the list of authors with the most books in the Top 100. Patterson – inevitably – tops this ranking as well, with 10; but directly behind him are Jeff Kinney, creator of the Wimpy Kid Diaries, with seven; David Walliams, with five; and Liz Pichon, the illustrator and author of the Tom Gates books, with four. By comparison, Child, John Grisham, Michael Connelly and Jo Nesbø all come limping in with a mere three.
The same pattern can be found in the details of this year’s audio-book loans, which have also – for the first time – been covered by PLR. Strikingly, a full half of the top 10 were children’s books. Three were written by Walliams, who is the only author on the list to have recorded his own work, while two of the top three most borrowed audio books were Harry Potter novels. JK Rowling also boasts two of the five adult novels on the list, at five and seven respectively, under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. Clearly, the magic is still potent.
At a time when there is much pessimism about the future of libraries, both because of government cuts and a declining number of readers, the evident enthusiasm of children in this country for borrowing books is a sign, perhaps, of a brighter future. Just as the habit of reading is one best implanted in childhood, so too, of course, is the habit of borrowing books. For writers, then, PLR is doubly a boon. It is a source of income, to be sure; but it also provides an assurance that the love of books is being renewed across the generations. “Long may they live!” Walliams’s salute to libraries is one in which every author poring over these PLR figures can enthusiastically share.
• Tom Holland is a writer and historian and chair of the Public Lending Right.