Monday, January 17, 2011

Moral Ambiguity

Sometimes I'm unsure of what exactly being a writer really means. I mean, who am I to think that other people would want to read my scribblings? A hearty dose of the usual medicine quells such concerns and allows my mind enough space to write. I mention this because these are the kinds of thoughts that often keep me up at night. One of the many thoughts that doesn't keep me up at night has to do with how my personal conduct will reflect on my (potential) future publisher. This does, however, appear to keep them up at night, at least in the case of HarperCollins.

I direct your attention here.

Now, on the one hand, I can sort of see Harper's point. The anecdote about Eliot Spitzer really shows how a morals clause might protect Harper from that kind of behavior. They could feasibly spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on such a contract, just as an advance, before the book is even written. I would say it's possible the outlay would be millions of dollars for certain books (particularly celebrity memoirs and such). However, they're going to be giving Mr. Spitzer a much, much larger advance than me, and I very much doubt that his contract would be boilerplate.

I write queer things for people interested in reading queer things. I write, on occasion, blog entries about publishing. I am in the middle of a novel which I hope will be picked up by a publisher someday, which I hope will make me a little money, but we're talking, at best, about Stuart Dybek money, and probably more along the lines of now-I-can-afford-the-extra-toppings-on-my-pizza money, not Eliot Spitzer/Sarah Palin money. Harper's need to protect themselves from indiscretions I might (and most of their authors might) commit is minimal at best. This sort of a clause belongs in a contract with Eliot Spitzer. It does not belong in a contract with me or with you. Infamy can only serve to help my sales, since it cures me of that worse sin: anonymity.

So mostly I am confused by this move. Mostly I wonder if it's not something the lawyers insisted in as a precaution, not as something they intend often to enforce. But, as such, I rankle at this kind of stricture—I think contracts should be as clear as possible and contain nothing extraneous. This is of course at odds with what Harper's lawyers probably feel, since the primary purpose of a lawyer in such a position is to make sure that Harper's liability is as limited as possible, both legally and fiscally. Still, I'd urge them to reconsider. Clauses like this one scare me as a writer to no real benefit for the publisher, since they could potentially be abused beyond their intended purpose.

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