Instances of so-called "morality clauses" in authors’ contracts have doubled over the last year, according to one prominent UK literary agent.
Caroline Michel [pictured], c.e.o. of Peters, Fraser and Dunlop, said that American publishers are particularly making use of the clauses, which make provision for the cancellation of the contract if authors do not uphold good standards of behaviour, but that she and other agencies are “fighting it” because signing these clauses could set a “very dangerous precedent”.
The issue was reported in The Bookseller last week following the Royal Society of Literature president Marina Warner’s address at the society’s summer party. She criticised the increasing pressure on authors’ personal lives, forced to “win gold stars for conduct”.
Warner's comments coincided with a reported rise in morality contracts since the #MeToo movement, according to agents who spoke to The Bookseller, as well as the Society of Authors’ chief executive Nicola Solomon. One agent, who wished to remain anonymous argued the clauses left authors dangerously open to the “subjective whims of a public outcry". Following The Bookseller’s report, the issue has been followed up widely on social media, in the national press, and internationally.
Michel revealed that the use of morality clauses has doubled over the last year, with US publishers increasingly employing it in their contracts, "especially Penguin Random House".
“As Marina Warner says, ‘Striving to be good is not the same as good writing’,” she said. "The way publishers are putting it in a contract without any objective test about how they judge it… it is too vague and it’s a very dangerous precedent, and does it have anything to do with good writing? What sort of performance is going to be monitored?”
Author Joanne Harris, who is on the management committee for the Society of Authors, agreed that it is the idea that publishers should decide what "good behaviour" is that is troubling. "I don't think whether authors should be 'good' or not is really the question here," she told The Bookseller. "It's whether publishers should be in a position to determine what constitutes 'good', and according to whose view of morality.”
Wording in the clauses includes things like: "‘past or future conduct….comes to light and results in sustained, widespread condemnation of the author’’, which Michel argues is too objective. “Who decides what ‘past or future conduct of the author’ is appropriate or not?”, she said.
“It feels as if the whim of social media is damaging basic rights of freedom of expression and we must fight hard against this and not have the vague clauses in our contracts. We need to look at our industry as a whole and the threats to it and adding a vague morality clause to a writer’s contract is clearly wrong. Are we really going to live in a world where a writer who has been published for decades perhaps and someone says ‘you did or said something inappropriate in 1973’ and the publisher is going to kill a career because of that?”
Michel described a recent incident at the Hay Festival which concerned her in which the public selected 100 books by female writers that have changed the world. “I was in an event where someone in the audience asked whether it was right still to include Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch given her recent comments,” she said. “The panel of writers on stage were united that an important work and a body of work stands always, and that if you started judging the behaviour of writers in the past, we wouldn’t have much of a canon of literature left.”
“We are a business of words, not in the business of selling bread and we have to use words correctly, not leave them open to interpretation by unnamed individuals in publishing institutions,” she said. “It is not right.”
Michel revealed that when her agency has been confronted with these clauses they “have fought it and renegotiated it”. While she has not yet encountered it in UK contracts, she argues the issue “has to be nipped in the bud".
Clare Alexander of Alexander Aitken Associates told The Bookseller: "There are countless writers of some of the greatest literature of all time whose behaviour was rather less than perfect. I would hope that British publishing would not try to enact some sort of Bonfire of the Vanities against writers whose behaviour they deem amoral."
"My chief concern about any proposed morality clause would be ‘in whose opinion’. Certainly, it should not be solely up to the publisher to decide."
However Alexander conceded that if the book is based on an author’s reputation in a specific area, such as a diet book where it turned out the author had undergone surgery or if an author is found guilty of a criminal offence, "then in certain prescribed circumstances there might be grounds for cancellation of a book contract".
She added: "Otherwise, should publishers go down this road, it would be a slippery slope with very serious implications for freedom of speech."
Agent and joint c.e.o. of Curtis Brown Jonny Geller was one of the industry figures to blast the increasing use of clauses on Twitter. “These “morality clauses” or “reputation” clauses creeping into authors’ publishing contracts are wrong and, well, immoral," he said. "Some writers draw from a deep and dark well -if a publisher has doubts, don’t buy the book. If not, buy only accountants’ novels.”
PRH US did not comment on its use of morality clauses. The Bookseller understands that the US publisher has included an author conduct clause in its agreements since 2016, but that the location of the clause has recently changed – it now has its own sub-paragraph whereas previously was included in another section. The clauses are widely used in US media, entertainment and sports contracts. However, unlike these industries, PRH US is not thought to ask its authors under review for this clause for repayment of the outstanding advance.
Following The Bookseller’s report on morality clauses on Wednesday (6th June), the issue was discussed in a comment piece by the Times where journalist in which journalist James Marriott argued that “Inserting a ‘morality clause’ in writers’ contracts encourages dull people to write bland books”. Solomon was interviewed in a news report for the Times, describing the issue as a “huge concern to us” while a Guardian journalist suggested that Warner was right and that “gold stars for writers leads to creative death”. On Saturday (9th June) Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, debated the validity of the clauses with author Anne Sebba, who labelled them as “dangerous and stifling” on Radio 4's "Today Programme".
The Bookseller first reported on the increased use of clauses in July, believed to be due to the case of high profile case of right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, whose controversial book deal with S&S US was eventually cancelled.