A Riff on the Harper Contract

New language in the termination provision of the Harper’s boilerplate gives them 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.

From a blog by Richard Curtis.

* * *

Dear Mr Rupert Murdoch,

Forgive me, for I have sinned.

Because I did not read my contract with your wonderful publishing house HarperCollins carefully, I did not realise my moral obligations.

There is nothing for it now but to confess everything. Before I wrote my book Emily Brontë and the Vampires of Lustbaden, which you published this fall and which has been on the Times Best Seller List for five straight months, I committed bad behavior and said bad words in public that brought me into serious contempt in my home town of Blitzen, Oregon. In fact the people there found me so seriously contemptible that I am now living in Maine under the name of Trespassers W. This has nothing to do with the fact that some parts of my book come from books by Newt Gingrich and other people, in fact quite a lot of them, but everybody borrows from great novelists, because information wants to be free. It was nothing really materially damaging, only just the money and i.d. I stole from the old man with the walker and some things I said about some schoolgirls with big tits back in stupid Blitzen. I have really suffered for my art. I hope maybe you will forgive me and not terminate me and make me pay back the money because I can’t because I already had to give most of it to some stupid lawyer who said I had defaulted on a loan and was behind in my child support which is just a lie. That stupid brat never was mine. I am sure you will understand better than anybody else could that the only actual crime I have committed was writing my book. And I believe you will see that it was expiated by your giving me the contract for it and publishing it and making a lot of money out of it. So it is all right, I hope. I really hope so because I have nearly finished the sequel Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Zombies of Sex-Coburg and my agent says it is going to be a blockbuster as soon as it comes back from the person who is rewriting it. You would not want to miss it I am sure! And here in Maine I am paying strict regard to public conventions and morals just like you do. I would not go to a Democrat Convention if they paid me and crime is the farthest thing from my mind. I would feel so terrible if I damaged the reputation or sales of my Work, or your reputation. You are my Role Model.

Please believe me your loyal and obedient author,

Trespassers W.

King Dog: A Movie for the Mind’s Eye is now available at the Book View Cafe eBookstore.



A Riff on the Harper Contract — 38 Comments

  1. That is a truly unfortunate condition in the contract.

    It seems Harper Collins would have terminated their contract with Oscar Wilde, who not only transgressed the standards of his day, but was tried for and convicted of his crime, and famously endured incarceration in Reading Gaol.

    None of which prevents Harper Collins from publishing several books – including a volume of complete works – by Wilde in under their imprint.

    I will be watching the publisher’s mark on the spines of books I buy more carefully now. I do hope HC does not have an exclusive contract with any author whom I especially enjoy.

  2. Oh, oh — Saint Augustine would never have been published by them either. Remember? He was a juvenile delinquent once, ran with a gang and stole some pears from a neighbor’s tree. What’s more, he was in a long-term relationship with a woman and never made it legal.

  3. This is quite strange! Since when does falling into public contempt and thereby garnering media attention contribute to declining book sales? And how can you demonstrate the connection between sales and authorial behavior? Isn’t that like trying to sue a chemical company for cancers that occur in the general population – how do you really prove the connection? And lastly – where is the reverse clause, granting rights to authors in the case of unethical behavior by publishers? (That’s a joke). I’m very curious about the context that gave rise to this strange clause. I can’t see how it’s even workable unless you assume that authors would not have the will or resources to mount a legal defense and would simply give in if the clause was invoked.

  4. Could one, I wonder, insert a rebuttal clause in the contract requiring Mr. Murdoch and his empire to adhere to my community standards? I’d hate Harper (or Murdoch) to bring my book into disrepute and damage my sales by their actions.

  5. OMG that is so rich! A publishing contract with a company owned by Murdoch – to dollars behind Fox News – has a MORALS clause!?!

    It could only be more ironic (depressingly so) if they were signing authors to write novels that attacked morals and THEN fired them, while damning other publishing companies for NOT doing the same thing.

    And then featuring the destitute authors on their numerous shows as public examples of what happens when YOU threaten OUR way of life.

    OMG. Ursula, please please please have your agent(s) find someone else to purchase your stuff (oh and btw, make sure you have a nice escape route planned since you’ve now outed yourself as a public enemy of the state; when News Corp juggernauts Palin into the presidency, you’re going to be looked for).

    Already close to Maine, already on the “Those Who Have Exercised Their Freedom of Speech in the Wrong Way” list, just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    (Made my morning btw 🙂 )

  6. Oy veh!

    I would think that this would require some reciprocity, possibly along the lines of “If my association with a company owned by Faux News brings shame and calumny on my reputation, Harper agrees to treble my royalty payments, publicity budget, and future book advances.”

  7. Dear Trespassers W.

    Where was your agent? Aren’t agents paid to among other things, to advise their clients not to sign contracts that are stupid, outrageous, and hypocritical. If horror of horrors, your husband is your agent, make him sleep on the couch with the dog.

  8. Proscriptive decrees as to How We Should All Behave must always be viewed with caution, paticularly when their advocates view opposition of their reasoned arguments as any kind of recipe for anarchy and debauchery.

    As we gaze into a future uncertain as ever it was with eyes that perceive more uncertainty than usual, it’s hardly surprising there should be more skittishness about the place, more battening down of hatches.

    But genies are not for bottling. It’ll be cramped for a while for some, but this vogue will pass.

  9. I thought book sales thrived on secrets, bad behavior and contempt, deserved or not. The clause in the contract is rather parental and could allow the publisher to get rid of an author through caprice or by simply suggesting they (the author) spat on the sidewalk in front of impressionable readers.


  10. Yikes! Something right out of the McCarthy era! Will they be giving any thinking writer the boot?

    Dear Trespassers W. I hope you have a safe get-away spot in Hundred Acre Wood.

  11. I ran into a similar clause in the late 90s. We called it the Morals Clause, but also the Eat Your Peas with a Spoon clause, because it appeared to cover behavior from eating your peas with a spoon to committing high treason.

    It disappeared. My theory was that some actually competent lawyer pointed out that if they acted on it, lawsuits were almost inevitable.

  12. As a teacher of tender and delicate high school students, I’ve long been subject to morality clauses regarding my behavior outside the classroom. Which is the main reason I’ve declined a second job as a stripper, and have instead gone into soapmaking to further my meager salary.

  13. For God’s sake, stop running to Maine to hide! We’ve got most of the PC & Morals police underfunded and working the tourist trade in Kennebunkport. An influx of intellectual rowdies like this could get them to spread out and look at the general population, like me.
    I’m sure Rupert knows what he’s doing. The enormous increase in sales and the overall financial welfare of the publishing industry alone prove that.

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  16. It’s a good thing Harper-Collins dosen’t publish any versions of the Bible. If one believes it was written by the hand of God, well, talk about Ackward. Jesus was a socialist and clearly anti-business (busting up the money-changers in the temple). And all those OT guys were the original cheerleaders for prostition, slavery, and polygamy.

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  18. Since when is Rupert Murdoch a moral person? He made his millions buying up Fleet Street tabloids, have his journalists harass people, to publish sordid stories.

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  21. “…some things I said about some schoolgirls with big tits…”

    I believe the Moral thing to do is to say nothing. Just publish pictures of girls with big tits in your newspapers.

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  23. I wonder if my definition of “public contempt” is different from theirs. Because my definition would rule out all political memoirs and most What It Was Like Being On Strictly Celebrity X-Idol type books…

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  25. I’ve got to disagree with the majority of commenters. I don’t think that having a morals clause is a bad thing. Throwing a fit about a morals clause says that you would still like the option to behave badly and commit crimes and generally act like a douche in public. Why would you WANT to do anything like that?

    No, I think the unfortunate part of this clause isn’t the fact that HC expects their authors to behave with some semblance of dignity. I think the real issue is a question of philosophy: Who decides what is “moral?”

    As a Christian (and an apologist, as you can see by my website–though I’m leaving Joan Hess’s ignorance alone), I believe that only God has business judging a person’s morals. A vague clause like that could terminate someone’s contract with HC for almost any sort of behavior that offends anyone. And, from what I’ve seen, people have thin skins where offensive behavior is concerned.

    What they need to do is be more specific about the sort of behavior that could terminate the contract.

    And, to echo everyone else’s sentiments: The last time I checked, an author in the news for ANYTHING has an overall effect of increasing book sales. Media attention always has a positive effect on sales, even if the person in question is engaged in some sort of bad behavior.

    Also, how is it to be determined that an author’s bad behavior is connected to the decline in book sales? It might be obvious, such as a marriage counselor with a best selling book on divorce-proofing a marriage going though a messy divorce. But if it isn’t obvious, it seems that terminating a contract for a morals clause will just lead to a lot of lawsuits.

    Finally, reading Richard Curtis’s original post, it seems pretty hypocritical of HC to start building this clause in to their contracts, since scandal has sold their books as well (the Toni Bentley story at the end of the blog is particularly illuminating here).

    So, at the end of the day, a morals clause just isn’t a good idea.

  26. yes they would seem to be clowning around, do you suppose there are other publishers about, “Under the name od Sanders” maybe.

  27. uh hmm. The same Rupert Murdoch who apologises sincerely for his journalists on The News of the World (Screws) UK daily paper hacking into a number of celebrities’ and politicians’ home phone lines? The Rupert Murdoch who sells ‘The Sun’ the wholesome family daily newsrag with topless photos of girlies on page 3?

  28. Rupert Murdoch owns Fox News? No wonder it’s soo fricken right wing!!! I bet him and Palin would get a long very well, (which reminds me, McCain thinks she will win the next election but I hope everyone knows what a tool she is)

    For the first time I wish Glee was not on Fox, cos who getting the big bucks from that show? Rupert Murdoch no doubt.

    I seriously hope nemesis/karma will kick him in the ass.

  29. Jess–as we now know, Nemesis surely did. In fact, Nemesis has tap-danced on Murdoch, his family, and his top editors this summer. Where was THEIR morals clause?

    Oh and by the by, Motivation Monday, as an author of over 300 books, most for children (and a few under the old Harper contract) I have never signed one with a morals clause. Not sure where you found that factoid, but it isn’t true.

    Jane Yolen

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