Publishing contract morality clauses may be unfair to authors

26 August 2022

Finding a traditional publisher for a novel is becoming ever more difficult. For one thing, aspiring — being unpublished — authors, are up against who knows how many other hopeful novelists. They also have to contend with a shrinking pool of publishing houses, as the industry appears to be going through a consolidation, which is seeing many smaller and independent publishers absorbed by larger players.

Even authors with several published works to their name, are reporting waits of up to a year to hear back about a pitch. But adding to the woes of many authors, emerging and established, are so-called morality clauses some publishers are including in their agreements.

In short, if a writer fails to meet a certain standard of behaviour, they may lose any advances or royalties they’ve received. The problem author advocates — such as the Authors Guild — have with morality clauses are the sometimes vague definitions of inappropriate or wrong conduct.

These contract provisions allow publishers to terminate a book contract, and in many cases even require the author to repay portions of the advance already received, if the author is accused of immoral, illegal, or publicly condemned behavior. Publishers insist they need the clauses to protect themselves in the event an author’s reputation becomes so tarnished after the book contract is signed that it will hurt sales. But most of these clauses are too broad and allow a publisher to terminate based on individual accusations or the vague notion of “public condemnation” — which can occur all too easily in these days of viral social media.

People should be held accountable for wrong-doing, but everyone is entitled to proper due-process. The concern is morality clauses, particularly where the definition of inappropriate or wrong behaviour is poorly defined, could be used unfairly against some authors.


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