Library rent money fails to support quality literature

  • 2005-01-26
  • By Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - Leading fiction writers are dissatisfied with the country's current royalties system, according to which translators are rewarded more money than the authors of books borrowed from public libraries, and they intend to change it. Writers are arguing that not only is the system unfair, but it's detrimental to the development of national literature.

For example, the Estonian version of "The Courier," a thriller written by Jay MacLarty, tops the list of most popular fiction books borrowed from the Tallinn Central Library between October 2004 and January 2005. The only Estonian book to place among the top 10 is Heino Kiik's memoirs, taking a modest ninth position.

Mati Sirkel, translator and deputy chairman of the Estonian Writers' Union, said that there has not yet been a significant amount of money coming from libraries. Every time someone checks out a library book translated by Sirkel, a little over one kroon (0.06 euro) is added to the translator's annual payment. In 2004 the state allocated 1 million kroons for library royalties.

"But we hope to have [this number] increased and tied to the amount of money given to libraries for purchasing new books," said Sirkel.

He explained that in Finland the sum allocated to authors is equal to 10 percent of a library's new-material budget. Further-more, funds come from the state budget, not from libraries.

The Estonian system, similar to that of countries across Europe and around the world, has been in effect since 2003, even though local authors were lobbying for it already in 1997.

"The politicians did not accept it then [in 1997], but because of EU membership they had to accept it later," Sirkel said.

Sirkel added that the majority of Estonian novelists have applied for library payments. Though currently the system is valid strictly for leisure/media material, from books to CD-ROMs available only in Tallinn and Tartu libraries, the authors ponder its expansion to universities and public libraries elsewhere in the country. The National Library's material is not subject to writer royalties because, as the largest library in the country, it does not provide a checkout service.

In 2003 the top beneficiaries out of the 384 authors who joined the system were Karin Suursalu and Jana Sillart. Both were translators who contributed to over 230 fiction and popular science books published in the last six years and earned about 5,000 euros through the library rental system, according to the Author Compensation Fund.

Most royalties are measured in tens and sometimes hundreds of euros.

The Tallinn Central Library, the capital's largest public library with a check-out service, had 85,103 registered readers by the end of the year who visited the library's various departments 1,078,982 times in 2004. The number of rentals last year decreased slightly from 1.99 million to around 1.87 million.

Jaan Kaplinski, a well-known Estonian poet, essay writer and translator, said he considered the system to be overly bureaucratic and inflexible when compared to the Finnish one. "We are essentially supporting the authors of best sellers, such as astrology or romance novel authors, with extra money while they already earn more anyway. A book's popularity is not a measure of its value. So this system does not support the literature that actually needs it," said Kaplinski.

"To me the system has brought about a couple of thousand kroons, which was pleasant, of course," he added.

Kaplinski said that best-seller authors and translators apparently have earned the most, while there was hardly anything sufficient for poets, who earn the least with their work. "So the effect on the Estonian authors is twofold. Works [appealing to] mass culture are being further stimulated while serious literature is not getting anything essential," he said.

Poet Paul-Eerik Rummo, who is currently minister of population affairs, supports the Culture Ministry's system, led by his Reform Party colleague Urmas Paet. "I appreciate the system particularly for its logic and legal correctness. Authors usually get their royalties depending upon the sale of their works. But at the same time such a scheme does not take into account that a large number of readers do not buy books but use libraries," said Rummo.

"So neither printing nor sales of this or that book adequately express its value. Counting library rentals allows us to reduce this inadequacy and more correctly measure the social meaning of an author's work," the minister concluded.