Until recently, the term “moral turpitude” is not one that crossed the lips of too many people in book publishing. But Bill O’Reilly, Milo Yiannopoulos, Sherman Alexie, Jay Asher, and James Dashner changed all that.
A legal term that refers to behavior generally considered unacceptable in a given community, moral turpitude is something publishers rarely worried themselves about. No longer.
Major publishers are increasingly inserting language into their contracts—referred to as morality clauses—that allows them to terminate agreements in response to a broad range of behavior by authors. And agents, most of whom spoke with PW on the condition of anonymity, say the change is worrying in an industry built on a commitment to defending free speech.
“This is very much a direct response to #MeToo,” said one agent when asked about publishers’ growing insistence on morality clauses. Most sources interviewed for this article agreed with this sentiment, citing the way sexual misconduct allegations and revelations are ending careers and changing the way companies do business. But it’s not just sexual harassment charges (which embroiled bestselling authors O’Reilly, Alexie, Asher, and Dashner) that publishers are scrambling to protect themselves against. It’s also the fallout that can come from things their authors say.
The situation with Yiannopoulos highlights this. S&S’s purchase of his book Dangerous in December 2016 caused a backlash in certain circles of the industry, with some complaining that the right-wing provocateur peddled in hate speech and should not be given a platform by a major publisher.
In February 2017, after the deal received bad press and several of S&S’s authors threatened to leave it, the publisher canceled Yiannopoulos’s book. The cancelation coincided with the resurfacing of an old interview Yiannopoulos gave, in which he appeared to condone child abuse.
S&S said that it canceled Dangerous because the manuscript was not to its liking. (The language in most author contracts gives publishers quite a bit of latitude in determining what constitutes a suitable manuscript.) Some felt, however, that the publisher was looking for a reason to drop the “alt-right” bad boy. Yiannopoulos sued S&S but wound up dropping the case earlier this year.
The controversy surrounding Dangerous highlights the stakes for publishers at a moment when platforms and reputations can be built, or destroyed, with a tweet. For agents, the Yiannopoulos case underlines some of the biggest concerns about morality clauses: the threat of muzzling speech.
“The gist of it,” one agent said in reference to a clause in Penguin Random House’s boilerplate, “is that [the publisher] wants the right to cancel an author’s book anytime the author says or does something the publisher doesn’t agree with. It’s crazy.”
Another agent, who admitted to having concerns about some of the morality clauses he’s seen, said he nonetheless understands publishers’ rationale for using them. “There are obviously a lot of very complex things going on here,” he said, speaking to the way publishers are reacting to the shifting social climate. He also noted that most publishers he’s dealt with have been open to changing these clauses. “When you go back to [publishers] and remind them that authors are allowed protected speech, political or otherwise, my experience is that they’ve been very responsive.”
But the agent who called these clauses “crazy” said he felt that more nefarious possibilities lie ahead. “Once Medusa’s head is removed from the box, a whole series of events can occur,” he complained. “Maybe [the publisher] signs up three books for $1 million, and the first book doesn’t do so well, and they use this clause to get around what’s legal and fair. This is like dropping a pebble in a pond: there are a lot of ripples.”
Mary Rasenberger, president of the Authors Guild, who has seen some of the morality clauses publishers are using, said she also understands why houses are moving in this direction. “There are instances where it is appropriate to cancel a contract with someone—if, say, they are writing a book on investing and they’re convicted of insider trading.” But Rasenberger has concerns about the new boilerplates she’s been seeing. “These clauses need to be very narrowly drawn. The fear is that clauses like these can quash speech that is unpopular, for whatever reason.”
Another agent admitted to being distressed by the fact that some of the morality clauses she’s seen “are going very far.” She said that though she and many of her colleagues think it’s “not unfair for a publisher to expect an author to be the same person when it publishes the book as when it bought the book,” she’s worried how extreme some of the language in these new clauses is.
“If you’re buying bunny books or Bible books, these clauses make sense,” said Lloyd Jassin, a lawyer who specializes in publishing contracts, referring to deals for children’s books and Christian books. He wondered, though, about a publisher trying to hold authors of any other type of book to a moral standard. Noting that morality clauses are about money, not morality (specifically, they’re about a publisher’s ability to market an author), he posed a hypothetical. “Is the author of The El Salvador Diet, which touts a fish-only regimen, allowed to be photographed eating at Shake Shack? That goes to the heart of the contract.” He paused and added: “This is definitely a free speech issue.”
Sources at the major publishing houses, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said agents have been largely receptive to the fact that publishers need to protect themselves from unexpected—and potentially extreme—behavior by authors. None of the sources at the publishers said they felt free speech was at issue here.
“[The agents] have gotten [these clauses] and understood they’re addressing the current marketplace reality,” said one insider at a major house. A source from another Big Five house said, “We’re not trying to be the morals police here,” before adding that this change is simply “a sign of the times.”
Richard Curtis, a veteran agent with his own firm, disagreed. “The Terror was also a sign of the times,” he said (referring to the period following the French Revolution when thousands were put to death by the revolutionary government). For Curtis, the answer to morality clauses is to fight them into nonexistence. “The agents must find their cojones to stand up against this kind of control. They must.”