May 8, 2018

God help us if publishers become “the morals police”


For Publishers Weekly, Rachel Deahl reports that book publishers are pressing for “morality clauses” to be included in deals with new authors. In the most immediate sense, this is a reaction to how #MeToo is influencing “the market” — an author who fetches a huge advance, wins prizes, and sells zillions of copies one day might become a financial liability when sexual misconduct allegations arise the next day. We have seen this happen over and over again, and it makes sense that publishers are nervous about it.

On the other hand, as Deahl explains, there’s an argument over whether such a clause limits an author’s right to free speech. Where is the line between a publisher’s right to cancel a contract because an author has, say, been accused of a crime, and a publisher’s right to cancel a contract because an author has said something the publisher doesn’t agree with (or, more cynically, book buyers are not likely to agree with)? To what extent can we (must we?) conflate an author’s private and public lives when we’re signing book deals?

The consensus, extracted from various anonymous comments, seems to be that so long as a publisher is getting the book that it paid for, the publisher has a responsibility to honor its contract with an author. S&S, for example, knew exactly what they were getting into when they signed up Milo Yiannopoulos, and to express dismay when he made wildly offensive comments based on paper-thin arguments is … dubious.

While it seems clear that such a clause is a reasonable reaction to market realities, it seems just as clear that the language itself must be very carefully and narrowly drawn—something that will probably take months if not years to settle into the big house boilerplates.



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.