Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Morality clauses

I just read an article at Publishers Weekly about the advent of morality clauses in author contracts from major publishers. Considering the recent furor over misbehaving authors, I understand their dilemma. But how do authors protect themselves from the nebulous nature of this development? Or, to be clearer, how will our agents protect us? I'd love to know your take on this, and what we need to be aware of before we sign off on one of these.
Morality clauses regulate author behavior not book content. And not too long ago it was "immoral" to live with a man you were not married to, engage in "homosexual acts", or any of a number of other things. Funnily enough it was not immoral to beat your wife, drive while drunk, or fire women who had the temerity to demand equal pay for equal work.

I find morality clauses repugnant, never in the author's best interest, and oddly NEVER applied to a publisher's behaviour.

As such, when a contract arrives that includes such a beast, we routinely ask it be stricken in its entirety.

If there is push back, there are ways to limit what a publisher can do, and when they can do it.

And what I say to publishers who want to include a morality clause: None of these #MeToo stories about badly behaving people are new. They've been circulating for YEARS in many cases. No one was surprised when the people in question were outed as douchebags. The only surprise is they're finally being held to account for their trespasses.

If publishers want to avoid being tarnished by people behaving badly here's an idea: don't buy books from douchebags.

27 comments:

Kitty said...

I'm sorry if this is off topic, but I thought I'd tell you what I learned while working on my pitch & paragraph.

I dug out an old WIP, which I haven't worked on in years, and thought I knew what the P&P would be. I worked on them and thought they were good. But I kept returning to them which told me something wasn't right. I'd get the pitch but not the paragraph; then I'd get the paragraph but not the pitch. Which is how I realized the focus of the WIP was wrong. I might actually finish this WIP after all. Thanks, Janet!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Morality clauses in publishing sounds a lot like censorship to me. If a reader deplores an author’s behavior, they really can choose not to buy the book. The cold, hard truth is some of the worst behaving people (depending on where you stand, of course, because subjective and all) have been the most gifted and timeless artists going back to the beginning of the printed word. Saints rarely make for good fiction or anything literary. Somehow, often a brilliantly diseased mind creates amazing art.

Flawed writers create deliciously flawed characters that drive fantastic stories. “Perfect” characters are boring and present no conflict. Holier than thou folks write a lot of didactic hogwash. Ok, the morality clause pisses me off. A lot.

As Janet said, look what was deemed immoral a short time ago. This seems a way of promoting trite propaganda instead of the advancement of art. Shame on publishing for caving to this kind of thing. If the publisher is worried, Janet has the best advice, “don’t publish work by douchebags.” Yeah, such advice might exclude me from publication. I am no saint, and I gave up trying to be by the time I hit puberty. Imagine what a morality clause might have done to the likes of Truman Capote or Oscar Wilde or any number of marginalized voices. Seriously. Stupid.

Kitty That is fantastic. Janet is a kind of saint with all she does for her. This pitch thing is really helping me gear up for querying.

Colin Smith said...

Janet: I would contend it has always been immoral to beat your wife, but without an absolute standard of morality, you will always have shifting views of what's right and wrong. Though, oddly, there are certain things that even moral relativists are sure are not good (e.g., murder, cheating, crimes against children).

This is a really thorny area for any business to get into these days, and I have too many thoughts for a single comment (or even three). I may blog about this one. But I do think we need to consider long and hard the basis for our moral judgments, and how we balance freedom of speech with moral advocacy. And especially within the entertainment industry, which has long come under fire for glorifying sex and violence, I think there needs to be some careful soul-searching lest the accusations of hypocrisy ring true.

Just some thoughts to rattle around... :)

Julie Weathers said...

There are a whole lot of classics that wouldn't have been published penned by both men and women due to these morality clauses we see popping up today. This isn't going to be popular, but I'll say it anyway. We're going down a slippery slope with the #metoo movement and a few other things.

An actor, I don't recall his name now, was accused by a woman of assaulting her. He denied the accusations, but was suspended from the show he was working on anyway. Guilty until proven innocent and all and we have to show how very in tune we are with the movement. Fortunately, he could prove he wasn't where she said he was and couldn't have done what she said, so they let him go back to work. If he hadn't been able to prove his innocence with rock-solid evidence, the woman would have been able to ruin his career with her rush to get her 15 minutes of fame.

What idiots like this don't realize is it takes away from individuals who have been genuinely hurt, but so it goes and if they had a conscience to begin with, they wouldn't have falsely accused someone.

When my oldest boys were eleven and twelve, they would work sometimes at the gun club on the weekends for some spending money. Yeah, I know, I'm horrible for letting my little darlings figure out how to earn money on their own for things they wanted. Anyway, they came in after one tournament and crashed without even taking a bath. Later that night, I've got police at the my door. Do I know where my boys are?

Yup, they're passed out in bed. They've been working a shooting tournament at the gun club all weekend.

Mind if we look?

Not at all. Police come in the back door, which I didn't have locked. We go in the bedroom where the boys are sawing logs and lo to my surprise, police are standing at the windows.

Someone broke into some local funeral homes, desecrated corpses, cut the penis off one and left it in the neighbor's mailbox. The kid across the street where the penis was left said he saw my boys at a funeral home earlier when he was riding his bike. Yeah, well, turns out that sick puppy was the one breaking into the funeral homes.

Someone had also been knocking on my door in the middle of the night and then when I'd get up, no one would be there. This was always when Don was gone, of course. So, I chained Blue, one of our Aussies up in the front yard one night. Blue let him go up on the porch, but decided that's where the kid would stay. The kid was busy doing a highland jig dancing back and forth when I opened the door. "Oh, I saw someone prowling around here. I thought I'd check it out."

"Yeah, well, the next time you come over here, I'm going to let that dog have you. Just for your information, once he does the skit em thing, he kind of doesn't hear the down boy thing."

Anyway, back on topic. Kristen Nelson wrote about this also and said they were trying to minimize these clauses. This letter came out right after a publisher dropped a popular children's author.

The problem with the morality clause, is who gets to decide what's moral? I'm pretty sure to a lot of people owning a gun is immoral. (No, I don't want to get into the gun debate here and I'm not going to.) Who gets to decide what is proof? Apparently, now all you have to do is accuse someone.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

JulieExactly. Super slip and slide into oblivion slope. Who gets to say what is moral? History tells us it is usually the tyrants. And in today’s diseased, social media culture, a single accusation pulled out of hot air can destroy a person’s life. Your example of that actor is not a lone incident. We have degenerated from a system of innocent until proven guilty to a system of guilty until proven innocent.

And let me tell you something, none of us are innocent. Like Clint Eastwood said “in Unforgivem, We all got it coming” So best drop that stone of a morality clause.

Anonymous said...

I think there are a whole lot of good intentions that have skewed the problem in the other direction. Now, people are trying to overcompensate, leading to problems like morality clauses.

A favorite webcomic artist of mine grew up reading Orson Scott Card's books. She loved them to pieces, shaped her own morality based off of them, and credits them with creating the person she is today. Unfortunately, she read some interviews that revealed he's a racist, xenophobic bag of used buttholes. Now, she refuses to read his books anymore.

It's kind of that easy. If you disagree with someone's morality, don't give them your money. But not everyone has to agree with you or care (which is what a morality clause is trying to enforce).

Sam Mills said...

I've heard the argument before about not wanting to lose good art by ignoring/refusing to hire brilliant douchebags, but what about all of the brilliant minds we never heard from because they were driven out of/blocked from the industry by said douchebags? Or the potentially brilliant actors/actresses/directors/add-whatever-profession-you-want driven out of their fields? We've missed out on a lot more than we've got.

That said, I agree it shouldn't be some ambiguously defined morality clause that can be invoked at the whim of the publisher. Stick to standard workplace legalities. If it would get them fired from the office, then yes, cease buying their books.

Mister Furkles said...

Morality is not about, and has never been about, right and wrong. It's really about the public's views on various behaviors. In the nineteenth century, it was disreputable for socialites to invite Jews to a social event. How strange is that? It was also quite respectable for wealthy men to keep a mistress. In fact, wealthy men often look askance on those who eschewed infidelity.

So, the 'morality' clause is only about "Don't engage in behavior or public speech that dissuades the reading public from buying your work." But they can't say that because it's too vague to be legally enforceable. And, as noted by EM and Colin, what might be ignored today may well be 'immoral' tomorrow.

Many people believed a producer, director, or movie star would be nuts not to take advantage of young attractive actors and actresses who were desperate for a start in the movie business.

Try to guess what is acceptable today that will be considered improper in fifty or a hundred years. If you write futuristic fiction, add it to your stories.

In the meantime, don't rape young people looking for a job.

Mister Furkles said...

Sam Mills is right about such bad behavior driving talented people out of the arts.

One successful actress said she always took a friend--a.k.a. a witness--to meetings with directors and producers; that would typically kill a part for most unknown actresses.

A friend I knew some years ago was offered a feature part in a popular soap but to secure it, had to spend a weekend on Fire Island with the gay casting director; his acting career never got off the ground.

So, for every young artist who is sexually assaulted, there are several who never got a chance because they avoided meeting alone with the horndogs.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

I know I could do my own research, but does anyone know where the douchebag list is, so I can easily dodge them?

Then again, with so many second hand books coming at me from my retired mother, the only books I buy these days are from a small handful of authors of which I'm too impatient to read the sequel to wait for her to hand them off.

C.M. Monson said...

Some of my favorite movies are Weinstein Productions and Kevin Spacey is a really great actor, but ever since everything has come out to light on them and countless others, it has been difficult watching them. Should I feel guilty because I enjoy their work? But then again, what about the other actors, directors, etc who have a job because I own that movie or watch that show? I think with books it is easier to turn your back on an "immoral" author because you don't see the other people employed who make the books and sell them. But then again like Janet is saying, what is immoral one day is accepted the next. (Violent crimes against others should never be tolerated.) Sorry if I'm rambling, but this is how my mind works issues out.

I am glad agents like Janet look after us woodland creatures, because I wouldn't have a clue on how to navigate these contract waters, I mean, clauses.

Gigi said...

I second Morgan's question: Anyone know where the douchebag list is? Someone recently mentioned an agent who was on it and I feel like that's the kind of thing I'd like to know pre-querying.

CynthiaMc said...

It's interesting to see how things have changed. My husband and I were deemed prudish and old-fashioned because we didn't live together prior to marriage, as most of the people we knew did. My rule was and still is I refuse to give up valuable real estate (closet and bathroom space) to anyone I'm not married to.

Once upon a time I hoped to have an acting career. I refused to be preyed upon and was called old-fashioned and a prude for that. Back then sexual freedom was the rule and anyone who didn't sleep around was mocked. A lot of actors and actresses used their bodies as bargaining chips. Now they're crying assault. Things change. People change.

I work as an actor for and with people I like and respect and who like and respect me. I'm picky about the projects I do and the people I work with. Will I get rich or famous? Probably not (outside of Orlando). I decided long ago nothing was worth my self-respect.

My co-star and I won Best Actor and Actress several years ago for the 24 Hour Film Festival. It's a little short called Tic. It's probably as famous as I'll ever get but I'm proud of it. It's on YouTube.

Colin Smith said...

To touch on C. M.'s dilemma, and to underscore a point Julie made, how far back do you want to take the "douchebag" list? Depending on your moral standard, that list would include a lot of classic authors. How many still read and buy Anne Perry's books? She was tried and convicted of murder.

What would a morality clause do to the Penguin Classics series? If the clause would apply to living authors, why not grandfather in Homer, Plutarch, Cicero, and the Marquis de Sade!

I did blog about this a while ago, and I think my conclusion was that we each need to decide how we handle the issue. We can't, and shouldn't, judge people because they are able to separate, say, Kevin Spacey the douchebag from Kevin Spacey the talented actor. I don't think it's an endorsement of the douchebag to still watch their movies, read their books, or listen to their music. Flawed, sinful people can make good art (Claude Debussy is my poster boy for this principle). And while you may feel that buying a douchebag's book is supporting them, remember, there are a lot of "innocent" people who profit from that book too (including the bookseller). Likewise movies and music.

Not an easy conundrum, and one, I think, we each need to wrestle with and come to our own peace about.

BrendaLynn said...

Are you telling me that there are writers who can pry themselves out of their coffee stained pajamas for long enough to do something epically immoral? Just when I start to think I’m keeping up with the pack ...
Seriously though, with social media and the press as invasive as it is we really have to guard what we say publicly. I follow a few famous authors on twitter and it astonishes me how ready the odd troll is to misconstrue statements made by that author.

C.M. Monson said...

So true, BrendaLynn.

And Colin, I had no idea Debussy was so scandalous. Perhaps it is the demons inside artists that help them break through the barriers of social norm, allowing them to be the Outliers in their field.

Steve Stubbs said...

There is a quote by H.L. Mencken. This is from memory but I think it is close: "Great artists are never saints and are seldom even conventionally respectable."

You might havw to give them a long leash.

If declining to publish someone is "censorship," though, that implies publishers are obligated to publish everyone. If publishers have finite resources and are awash in stunning, brilliantly written, super publishable MSS, it seems they simply must make a selection.

If I were a publisher and O.J. Simpson wrote another memoir about murdering his wife and Ron Goldman, I would decline to publish it.

I also followed Ms. Reid's advice and declined to buy Jack Abbott's memoir (IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST) about what a creep he was, even though I wanted to read it. I did not want Jack to get a royalty out of me. I also did not buy O.J.'s memoir.

That's not censorship. That's sensible-ship.

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
E.M. Goldsmith said...

Steve I was not talking about declining to publish someone as censorship. Of course, there is no obligation to publish anyone. The morality clause is problematic AFTER publication so yes, it has the potential to turn into censorship. That all is I meant. Or maybe you were not talking about my comment. Which is fine. My point is valid. Or not.

For example, the publisher decides a certain topic is “immoral” due to political climate, attributes the topic to the author’s morality, and pulls a book off the shelves despite good sales (effectively banning the book) because they don’t want the author’s voice heard anymore. That can happen. Next thing we’re going all Fahrenheit 451. Now, the publisher has a funny armband and is dutifully publishing government pamphlets while great works of literature burn and history forgotten and we are taken over by cats and robots.

Ok, maybe that is an extreme example, but why risk it? Get rid of the damn morality clause. Either publish the book or not. Then let the public decide if the decision to publish was a good one. We are quite capable of declining to buy something we don’t approve of for whatever reason we choose; no money, no time, don’t like the genre, don’t like the author, or maybe you’re a robot. Whatever.

Art is dangerous. It provokes thought, new understandings, a reshuffling of reality. This leads to new ideas. This threatens power. Always. It is impossible to control people who can think for themselves, and great art can awaken those sleepy brain cells to start firing all on their own. Art is magical like that. It turns despair into hope. It offers a new view, new insights, and new questions. Rarely is the artist a paragon of society. Hey, but who is? Ok, one of my cat masters says I have to get back to work.

Craig F said...

Hopefully morality clauses will be a phase, like those of cats and children, and just fade away before makes a spectacle of themselves. Perhaps the reaction to them is already running.

I used to like James Lee Burke's Robichauex series. Then people began to call him out for how he looked at the world. He responded with the book ROBICHAUEX. It seems to be a gratuitous look at the racist and sexist people of the world.

To me humans are beasts a moral beast is an oxymoron. There are too many tribes in humanity. That means not only varying signs, omens and portents but different reactions to those. That doesn't even get to the fight or flight reflex or those that are really evil. Those things are there and do not conform to any moral code.

Anonymous said...

Morality isn't the problem, it's a subtext. The real problem is power, and often absolute power over an industry. Just like rape isn't about sex, but power.

I see the #MeToo movement as people taking power for themselves they never had before, and promoting to power the directors and producers and fellow actors who (supposedly) won't abuse them-- and yeah, there are always going to be people who take advantage of a movement like that for unrelated personal reasons. Same with grass roots politicians rising up to win seats from the old guard (of both parties) in DC; they'll become the new problem soon enough.

Or independent authors taking back power from trad publishing, and then running smack into the power of Amazon (and others). On this topic of "morality" clauses I find it ironic that publishers, the ones with all the power in their equation, are attempting to wield even more of it.

Pick ANY industry with a hierarchy and you will find abuses of power, whether that involves sex, money, success, promotion, acclaim-- whatever can be used to control people and solidify power.

This has always been true. I imagine it always will be true. Someone is always in power and rarely are they altruistic. We all just need to defend ourselves as best we can, find power of our own.


Anyone have a step-ladder? This soapbox is higher than I remembered.


Casual -T said...

The main issue is that morality has nothing to do with the law. A business contract, in this case between author and publisher, should concern itself ONLY with the legalities of the business relationship, not the behavior and/or social ramifications of said behavior of the parties involved. These morality clauses seem to be a very short distance from “do as I see fit, or else.” Might want to talk to Winston Smith and Guy Montag about how slippery that slope really is!!

Adele said...

Got to say I sympathize with publishers who lose money after it is discovered that their fabulous best-selling author eats kittens. The loss isn't the publisher's fault, but the answer is not a clause in all contracts saying that the author must never do or have done anything that could ruin their sales potential.

Casual -T said...

But see, that's the thing, I don't have an issue with anyone eating kittens. Who's to say what's amoral? The issue should be whether something is legal or not. And, as has been stated prior, a person's behavior and that person's artistic expression are not necessarily synonymous. I can still appreciate someone's "art" while not agreeing with their worldview or behavior.

Panda in Chief said...

For some reason this conversation is depressing the hell out of me. On the one hand, there really ARE douchebags with power out there doing stuff to people who just want their art to be seen, their books to be read. On the other hand, there are the pretend victims who want to grab a piece of the movement. (And any $$ that may come with it)

Don't get me started on the lost opportunity costs of people who refused to play ball with the power douchebags, or were considered beneath their notice. Art museums are full of paintings by serious douchebags, and I miss my podcasts of Prairie Home Companion.

I think I need to go back to bed.

DeadSpiderEye said...

Eating kittens is immoral? There you go, you learn something new every day, I'm going to miss the crunchy texture of those gristly forelimbs though. What other kind of stuff do they put in these clauses, is it just concerned with the in vogue moral panic, that is: don't grope the bints or is there some kind of loony attempt at a moral credo, thou shalt... etcetera?

AJ Blythe said...

Colin, actually, it's funny about the Anne Perry thing. I read her books until I found out who she was but then found I couldn't read them anymore - mind you, New Zealand is practically a state of Oz, so possibly too close to home (I know the story very well and learnt of it when I was the same age she was at the time of the murder).