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Morality is in the Contract of the Beholder October 2, 2011

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, VIPub, writing.
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A lot about this is being talked about on a news group where I lurk. Kevin Anderson mentioned it and Ursula K Leguin among others has commented on it. As has been pointed out, the legacy publishing industry is forcing authors to VIPub.

HarperCollins has inserted a “moral clause” in their new contracts. The British use of the phrase means something entirely different–you cannot pose as another writer for the purpose of defrauding. The VC Andrews books ran afoul of this after she died and a male writer continued the series without any indication he wasn’t Andrews (though his first name was really close). This makes an element of sense. I use pen names but the intent is not to defraud but to separate westerns from sf and differentiate audiences. Donald Westlake used various pen names within the mystery genre to separate his noir from humor.

But the HC “morals” clause is a beast of a different color. It is exactly what it sounds like.

Harper has the right to cancel a 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.” The consequences? Harper can terminate your book deal. Not only that, you’ll have to repay your advance. Harper may also avail itself of “other legal remedies” against you. (This quote via Richard Curtis)

Such immorality might benefit a book’s sales. What do you hear from Walden Pond? Would HC kick Hemingway out? Or Dashiell Hammett? What constitutes “serious contempt?” A lousy book review? How about Salman Rushdie having a fatwah on his head? What exactly is a public convention? What if we rack up too many entries in Attack Watch? Can a crime be as serious as suspicion of jaywalking? (Yup, when I was in college a guy got busted for this, handcuffed and carted off to the slammer–made the front page, though not above the fold) Loitering? Racy tatts? One guy I know has been arrested 14 times trying to exercise his right of free speech at a public forum–and yes, he has a TRO against the cops and it doesn’t matter. Who decides what “materially damage(s) the Work’s reputation?” The answer to that one is pretty obvious, I fear.

There is an easy way around this, of course. Don’t sign the contract with such a clause. We live in a country run by bureaucrats and lawyers gone amok. Fight back. Consider avoiding this legacy publisher (and any other with such a morals clause) until they excise the clause. And VIPub, of course. *That* publisher’s not going to cancel your contract for emulating Mahatma Gandhi (happy b’day today, btw, MG–hope you’re not spinning over in your grave too fast–or hoping you’d ever sell to HC).

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