What to do about Morals?

In a post written last weekend Richard Curtis, agent extraordinaire, expressed surprise at a new morality clause that has apparently appeared in HarperCollins’ contracts. Read his post here [warning: there is some Adult content and comments included in the post].

What the general market doesn’t realize is that many Faith-based publishers have had a “moral turpitude” clause in their contracts for a long time. Moral turpitude is well defined in this post on Wikipedia. It is understood in the legal community as actions or activities that can get you fired from your job, deported if you are a foreigner in this country on a Visa, or have your contract cancelled if you are an author.

Here is a typical version of the clause found in many of the contracts our agency negotiates:

MORAL TURPITUDE. In the event Author is publicly accused of an act of moral turpitude (substantiated by the preponderance of evidence, a court decision, or Author’s own admission), a violation of any Federal law or any other conduct which subjects or could be reasonably anticipated to subject Author or Publisher to public ridicule, contempt, scorn, hatred or censure, or could materially diminish the potential sales of the Work, Publisher will have the right to terminate this Agreement upon written notice to Author of the public disclosure of such conduct or alleged conduct.  In the event of such termination of this Agreement, Publisher will have the right to demand from Author and receive payment within thirty (30) days of the demand, a sum equal to all advances paid to Author under terms of this Agreement that have not been recouped by Publisher prior to said termination.  Upon such payment all rights granted to Publisher in the Work will terminate and vest exclusively in Author, provided that Publisher will have the right to sell or otherwise dispose of all remaining copies of the Work in any manner Publisher deems appropriate.

I do not begrudge a publisher for including this clause in a contract. It makes perfect sense. There any many cases, and a few currently pending, where a very public Christian figure has had to step down for immoral behavior. When that happens, the publisher is left holding a bag full of books and no place to sell them. (Conversely, a few agents have jokingly asked why there isn’t a moral turpitude clause that applies the same standards for the Publisher!)

Recently we did a contract with two co-authors. This moral turpitude clause had to be carefully written so that if one of the authors went off the rails the co-author would not be held liable for those actions.

The bottom line is “Don’t do bad things!” and then you won’t ever have to worry about a clause like this being misinterpreted or misapplied.

Update 01/20/11: Ursula LeGuin, author of some legendary science fiction and fantasy, posted a riff satirizing the morality clause in the HarperCollins contract. Read her article called, “A Riff on the Harper Contract.”

7 Responses to What to do about Morals?

  1. Patrick Craig January 19, 2011 at 8:49 am #

    Steve, good information. I agree that Christian publishers should have the ability to terminate contracts for the above reasons. Unfortunately, the author can then often make more money writing a book about his failure, than he ever did with his “Christian” books. I know that when I first got saved I shared my testimony about life in the secular music industry, with all my moral failures, in a lot of churches. When I “grew up” a bit and went back to those churches to preach on, say, the Lordship of Christ, I found that most of the people were disappointed that I didn’t air my dirty laundry.

    • Steve Laube January 20, 2011 at 8:34 am #

      Andra, below, is correct to make the distinction. This contract clause is all about a publisher’s ability to sell books. Imagine if you were the publisher of a very well known preacher who was publicly disgraced (for example: Jimmy Swaggart in 1988). After this public nightmare the author’s books have little credibility.

      For HarperCollins general trade to begin adding this clause means they have been burned by authors whose books can no longer be sold because of some “moral” problem. Think back to some examples in the general market, like Pee Wee Herman

  2. Larry Gray January 20, 2011 at 5:24 am #

    I agree with the clause and it should work both ways. My children have often asked me why I did not have a radar detector for the car and my response has been “If you don’t speed, you don’t need one.”

  3. Andra M. January 20, 2011 at 8:11 am #


    There’s a difference between doing something wrong and writing about the lessons learned from the failure verses doing something wrong after a book or books are contracted and published.

    I believe that’s what the clause is meant for: not for past deeds, but possible future ones.

  4. Sue Harrison January 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    I’m very interested in this post. HarperCollins/Wm Morrow published my last two novels. A question for you, Steve, do you think a moral turpitude clause might have a positive impact on the behavior their authors?

    • Steve Laube January 20, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

      Sue, that is a good question. I don’t think you can keep someone from doing bad things just because there is a penalty in a contract. It is like the issue of trying to legislate morality. I edited a book by that title many years ago Legislating Morality: Is it Wise? Is it Legal? Is it Possible? by Norm Geisler and Frank Turek.

      An NBA player will still shout at a referee despite the fact they will get fined if they receive a technical foul. It doesn’t stop them. However, the threat of being ejected for their second technical does noticeably keep their tempers at bay.

      The simple answer is that, no I don’t think it will change an author’s behavior. But it will save publishers a penny or two some day.

  5. Sue Harrison January 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    I was just hoping…. But you’re right, Steve. That basketball reference – spot-on.

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