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Authors' copies and discounts

6 July 2009

Authors should get better discounts on the books they buy direct from publishers, claims Philippa Milnes-Smith, the President of the UK Association of Authors: 'If an author can make significant sales on his/her behalf should this not be actively facilitated?'

Over the years there's been an interesting change in how publishers and authors view the 'author's copies' clause in their contracts. In the old days 35%, which was the standard trade discount, was the norm. Most authors would buy a few copies to give to their friends and it was a rare author who actively promoted and sold their own book. There was a feeling that this might cut across booksellers' efforts, but also it was assumed that authors would take a far more passive role, turning up to do the publicity the publisher had arranged, schmoozing the book trade and doing author signings, but otherwise concentrating on their writing.

Now, many authors are much more active in promoting their own work. Some of them, such as non-fiction writers who give lectures or poets who give readings, may play a major part in selling their work. It's good to know that a discount of 50% has become the norm, although there are plenty of publishers still offering only 35%. Mark le Fanu, General Secretary of the Society of Authors, says: 'Of course one would like 80%,' but this may be an unlikely outcome.

Authors' royalties are already under sustained pressure because the very high discounts given to bookshop chains and in particular supermarkets and online booksellers mean that publishers often pay royalties at a lower 'high discount' rate. You could argue that authors should share the pain, but whether this seems fair depends on where you stand. From an author's point of view the royalty they earn on an individual copy sold in a supermarket may be only half that relating to a copy sold in a bookshop. If you are a bestselling author, this may make a significant difference to your royalty earnings, which is one of the reasons why agents push for large advances for their big clients.

But for ordinary authors who are not writing bestsellers it's tough to find that a large proportion of the royalties your book has earned, particularly if it's sold well online or in the supermarkets, seem to disappear on their way to you.

Inside Publishing on advances and royalties