HarperCollins, kindly mind your own business

Good holy garters and bra straps, Batman, HarperCollins is forcing a morals clause on their writers. This means that your contract can be yanked if you fail to live up to their idea of morality – and pay back your advance. Richard Curtis’ article at E-reads states that Harper can cancel an author’s contract if:

“Author’s conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, or if Author commits a crime or any other act that will tend to bring Author into serious contempt, and such behavior would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales.”

Ok, I understand the crime bit, but I’m iffy on “lack of due regard for public conventions and morals” and “such behavior would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales.” Such behavior? Public conventions? According to whom? And what does that mean? How do they determine what types of behavior is responsible for damaging a Work’s reputation or sales?

What’s unnerving is the subjectivity, and HC is judge and jury. If your sales aren’t doing well, gee, how ’bout we conjure up something that states the author has engaged in unsavory behavior. Not only can we shit-can him, but we can force him to pay back his advance.

What the hell is HC thinking? Have they been inhabited by straight-laced Victorian aliens? What is their goal with this clause?

What really burns my Vickie Secrets is that authors are so hungry to be published, they’ll agree to just about anything as long as it comes from a major publisher.

This. Is. Wrong.

For one thing, a lot of contracts already have provisions that allow them to dump an author. I let an author go years ago because he was so verbally abusive I literally couldn’t work with him. He made it impossible to sell his book, so we were justified in showing him the door. But if he wanted to engage in making whoopie with rocks and lettuce, then who am I to cry “moral outrage!”

In reality, I’m sure HC doesn’t care one iota about what their authors do, HOWEVER, their contract allows them to stick their nose in where it doesn’t belong. And that, dear authors, is an outrage.

26 Responses to HarperCollins, kindly mind your own business

  1. Ray says:

    I prefer dirt and cabbage, thank you very much.

  2. I don’t think this is all that uncommon. And I’ll probably be booed for saying this…but…
    I think it is necessarily a terrible thing. It’s business. And whether I like it or not, we do have a choice about signing the contract.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all happy about companies sticking their noses into my business. HOWEVER, most everyone I know works for a company that has a “morality clause” of some sort. They expect employees to conduct themselves in a fitting manner, and expect them NOT to do anything to bring disgrace to the company, etc. They want their product to be in as many hands as possible. They want their BRAND to be in as many stores as possible. They want cash.

    And when they get cash – the author should, too. But if the author is out getting sloshed everynight before a book signing and showing up drunk, that might not sit too well with the readers attending the book signings.

    And if the buyers aren’t happy…the publishers aren’t, either. If, however, the bottom line (CASH FLOW) isnt’ affected by their behavior, then the sloshed author isn’t going to be affected and the pub will probably let their behavior slide.

    No matter the circumstance, I guess it boils down to this for me… If I sign that sort of agreement, knowing ahead of time that these things are expected of me, then the consequences are then on MY head…not the company’s.

  3. Donna, my problem is that it’s purposefully vague, and that opens the door for abuse. I understand all to well about authors showing up for events sober as a judge, ready to wow an audience. And if I had an author who did appear at an event blitzed, you can be sure he’d be sporting a new orifice.

    My point is that there are plenty avenues already in a contract that protects the publisher from an intemperate author without resorting to a silly morals clause. It’s archaic and insulting.

  4. NinjaFingers says:

    I already blogged about this. Whilst I do not think this would be a problem with Harper Collins specifically…

    There is a fairly vocal minority in this country that seeks to legislate certain kinds of morality. A ‘morals clause’ such as this could easily be used against GLBT authors. Or what if a publisher decides that, as smoking becomes less popular, lighting up becomes a ‘lack of due regard for public conventions and morals’.

    This is a slippery slope. And whilst you might say ‘Well, you shouldn’t be afraid if you haven’t done anything wrong’…I have done things that ARE ‘wrong’ by some people’s standards. I don’t see HC doing anything like this, but I could see other publishers deciding to drop an author…and demand an already-spent advance back…for tweeting that they think a same-sex celebrity is hot or admitting to having tried marijuana once as a teen.

    I would be very wary about signing such a clause, especially given how admittedly vague it is.

  5. The problem with this is who judges what is a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals? That phrase will have a hundred different meanings from one end of the globe to another. From one end of the street on which you live to another, for that matter. It’s too subjective. How can someone play the game if they don’t understand the rules?


  7. Holly Hunt says:

    One end of the street to the other? Around here it’s one end of a house to the other.

    But I agree. It’s not holding them to account for their actions that’s the problem (though they should really start with celebrities – I don’t know many authors who are showing up to events, as you say, blitzed or such), it’s how vague they’re being. Write us a list of what you consider immoral. I’ll sign off against the ones that I think are immoral, and the ones that are illegal, and we’ll both dodge those bullets.

  8. DOT says:

    Does this imply, if I am to sign with HC, I must agree with every opinion proffered by Fox News as well?

  9. Dan Holloway says:

    I was waiting for this post after yesterday’s comments. I think you hit the nail on the head – it’s unnecessary. Criminal activity would be enough to break the contract anyway. Any author expressing opinions that were so far beyond they were tantamount to incitement would be covered by criminality.

    I think Ninjafingers has it nailed too – I’m not sure HC, at the moment, is likely to abuse the clause – but that is one hundred percent not the point.

    I understand that sports good companies and theme parks and whathaveyoumart wrap themselves in a squeaky clean cloth when it comes to advertising (the fact that many are monopolistic, sweat shop exploiting rainforest stripping capitalist behemoths obviously being irrelevant compared to whether the smiley face on the advert put their todger where the local moral majority think he shouldn’t) but guys, this is the arts. It’s about chllenging thew ay people think not kowtowing. it’s worse than when Sensation was banned from some museums back when I was a student, because HC should be the ones defending.

    Then again, with an ever more commercial, less edgy list, maybe they are happy to place themselves alongside other global grey brands. They will probably continue to do well. But their list may look a little different in a few years.

    I am assuming these conditions will be applied to their dead authors as stringently as their living ones, by the way?

  10. daviddoct says:

    The fact that they are dead, Dan, is automatically questionable. Are they in heaven or hell?

  11. DOT, I seriously doubt HC is on the same side of the fence with Fox News.

  12. daviddoct says:

    Hmm, same owner and my connection with Murdoch goes back decades. He has always had a plot, non-publishable but executed nonetheless.

  13. daviddoct says:

    Just to clarify, I now have a WordPress account under the name daviddoct was formerly DOT

  14. Madison Woods says:

    I can understand a clause to bring penalties for showing up at HC functions ‘blitzed’. But what an author does in his/her time off, whether or not it conforms to societal conventions, should not be part of any contract. Unless it is clearly spelled out and the author agrees to the terms. For example, if the contract states that ‘the author shall not frequent nude beaches whilst the book is in print’, the author could agree or disagree to that term. LOL. Sounds easy enough, right?

  15. Lucky Keith Richards went with Little Brown instead of HC!

  16. Bill Webb says:

    Lynn, I gotta get serious on you and disagree with your post. Not that my opinion counts but I’m stuck in Nebraska with nothign but a free happy hour and a full laptop battery. Anyway, a morality clause is common and in my humble opinion necessary to protect the brand. Professional athletes have these clauses in their endorsements adn so should authors.

    Yes it is vague but in all cotnracts vague language just means you go to court to fight it out, but it does give the publisher an out if you get caught with the prostitute – again – while you’re writing children’s books.

    We have these at our company for our independent contractors and vendors.

    I am sorry but it is Harper’s business.

  17. Bill Webb says:

    And its not me, the typos are caused by Amber Bock

  18. Bill, climb out of your bottle before you drown, man. Moral clauses and non-competition clauses are common in certain businesses, but not in publishing. Athletes ARE the brand, and when they do something insanely stupid – hello, Tiger Woods – they are ruined.

    In publishing, there are stipulations already in the contract that allows a publisher to dump an author putting themselves in a position that risks the sale of the book. It’s not the business of a publisher to handcuff an author to vague morals clauses. It’s archaic and unnecessary.

  19. Bill Webb says:

    Lynn I repsect you, but no. Archaic would be to chop off an finger for pointing it the wrong way. This is not archaic but an evolution.

    The Tiger Woods example is the reason companies are doing this, and they should be ruined, temporarily, as most of these things pass with time.

    I will now get off the moral pulpit now, I don’t really do well up there. 🙂

    Darn, I hate disagreeing with you, it feels so dirty.

  20. Pelotard says:

    Interesting. Where I come from, “a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals” would mean things like supporting the death penalty, being critical of same-sex marriages, and disapproving of extremely strict gun control. In other countries, it could mean walking around with bare knees, or shaving. I’m no legal expert, but it appears to me to be so nebulous as to be unenforcable!

    The examples with athletes are misleading – they identify the brands they advertise in a way authors do not. Think Nike and Michael Jordan. What does HC have that’s in the same league? Clive Barker (who is openly homosexual)? Stephen Fry (likewise)?

  21. Bill: don’t worry about disagreeing with me. Differing opinions are what makes the world go ’round, right?

  22. RL Sutton says:

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. It’s a hard-assed, mean spirited world right now. Publishing included. HC is clearly looking for any excuse to dump a contract and grab advances… in addition to the many ways they already had to do this. Morals? Seems kind of grey and subjective.

    Tiger Woods, mentioned above, has not brought any company he represented, down the the skids and he still lives pretty well.. minus a family, of course. He’s now a recovery story. The spin goes on and on.

    IMHO, writers need to read ALL the fine print before jumping into any contract they may be offered. An agent’s commission seems a small price to pay for some degree of protection. We all need someone we can lean on… wait, not too close, now. Hold on a minute, Harpers might be watching…

  23. RL, as much as I think this whole moral clause is ridiculous, I don’t believe for one minute that HC is interested in dumping writers and grabbing their advances. Nor do I believe HC is interested in controlling their authors’ behavior. However, the fact that they can and have it in their contract bothers me to no end because it allows for possible abuse.

  24. Pelotard says:

    Well, I can see HC trying to prove beyond any reasonable doubt in court that a specific act by an author has “materially damaged the Work’s reputation or sales”. It’ll be fun 🙂

  25. This is too vague, and it amounts to “if someone complains, we drop you” which is a nice CYA move but not one that inspires loyalty or respect. We live in a pluralistic society. Any strong stance in any direction will offend someone. With this morals clause, if twenty of those someones phone the head office, the author gets censored. That’s not only bad for the intellectual life of the country, but it devalues the publisher themselves. Who needs a middleman if the middleman won’t stand up for a writer in a time of need?

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