Random House asks young adult writers to contractually promise not to behave immorally

Random House is asking some of its authors of young adult books to sign contracts with "morality clauses" that allow the publisher to take back your advance and cancel your book if you're caught doing anything that "damages your reputation as a person suitable to work with or be associated with children, and consequently the market for or value of the work is seriously diminished." For the record, Random House Audio published my young adult novel Little Brother and did not request this clause.
An email arrives from the Society of Author's Children's Writers And Illustrators Group. Apparently, a well-established, enormous publishing house has decided to insert the following clause into its standard contract for children's books: "If you act or behave in a way which damages your reputation as a person suitable to work with or be associated with children, and consequently the market for or value of the work is seriously diminished, and we may (at our option) take any of the following actions: Delay publication / Renegotiate advance / Terminate the agreement."
Children's writers, don't misbehave (via Out of Ambit)


  1. With more obligations now laid upon the author, I trust that the author gets something extra for this increase of duty…more $$$ I hope.

  2. Undoubtedly, this particular gem ended up in one author’s contract due to some past “bad” behavior and subsequently went into the legal machinery to become part of the new boilerplate.

    I’ve yet to see a contract from a large company that didn’t include some variant of “by signing this we own you”.

    This is what big red pens are for. Strike it out and send it back. Don’t hold it against the editor, but be sure you read your contracts very, very carefully.

  3. shel silverstein is a prime example of just one reason this is a completely ridiculous idea. there are many, many others.

  4. @7: Expect Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass to be withdrawn any day now. That nasty Mr. Dodgson!

  5. A commenter on the Out of Ambit entry from which this was taken guesses that this was caused by the William Mayne case, in which a highly-respected 76-year-old author with a 50-year career in writing children’s books was found guilty of multiple counts of pedophilia.

  6. Live it up, Cory, go nuts before they contractually obligate you to attend church services, bar mitzvahs, and republican fundraisers.

  7. Stay away from TMZ. The artist/writer/musician/actor and what they create will remain separate for me. I don’t want to know an actor’s religion. I will always love “Rock with You” even if it was made by a musician who molested kids with cancer and yeah, Dodgson’s appreciation of the hookah.. anyway.. who decides morality?

  8. Eh, if I was asked to sign something like that I might bristle a bit, but I do think Sian’s reaction is a bit much. I seriously doubt RH (or any other publisher) is going to ditch someone who gets some negative press, they probably just want to avoid getting saddled with a literary Michael Jackson working in children’s or young adult lit.

    I bring up MJ because he’s probably the best current example of someone who could have probably gotten away with whatever he did or didn’t do with kids the first half dozen times, but he pushed his behaviour to the point where whether he did it or not, his name is pretty much synonymous with pedophile (or at the very least, creepy guy you wouldn’t leave alone with your kids).

    This seems like the kind of clause they’d only use when an author put them in a position to really want to cut their ties with them, not something that they’d use to control what they do. If anything it seems disingenuous to make such a fuss over it’s inclusion in a contract since that’s pretty much the way the entertainment industry works anyways (i.e. be entertaining even when you’re bad, but don’t cross the line and become a creepy person who drives away the paying customers)

  9. I agree with Dragonvpm. I doubt they would want one of their childrens book authors to turn up in the news with a “Kiddy porn dungeon” in their basement. Like that guy in Donnie Darko…

  10. This is strictly an economic consideration.

    If a children’s book author is discovered to be a pedophile, the market for that author’s books will plummet to zero overnight, and the publisher will lose a good chunk of their investment. As the author of over twenty books myself, I perfectly understand their reason for this morality clause.

    That being said, I probably wouldn’t sign it if I were a children’s book author. Not that I have anything to fear, but I just don’t like having my life controlled by someone else. Authors have to decide whether the money and exposure is worth the compromise.

  11. Like I’ve said, the publishers (some of them?) seem to be the problem. What a load of crap. If you want to write a YA novel and then your rep has been damaged via your own actions, who’s going to prove damages? The publisher? Does this mean dragging the author into court and proving that he/she is now unworthy to be a writer.

  12. @12 – When you are hired/contracted to do something, the employer is purchasing your labour and your product, not your body and soul. An employer has no right to control your behaviour outside of working hours. That’s slavery.

    Obviously for a children’s author being caught with a Kiddie Porn Dungeon or flinging his genitalia about in a porno theatre (poor PeeWee Herman!) is career suicide – it’s in the interest of both the publisher and the author to keep their noses clean. And I know publishing books costs money and I can understand that the publishers would want to minimize their risk. That doesn’t mean they have the right to control writers’ private lives.

  13. “There’s a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity .I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
    -Raold Dahl, Author of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, “James and the Giant Peach” and “The Witches”

    The immorality of an author fades, but the work will endure. This contract clause is lawyer-panic.

  14. Cory, I thought your book was published by Tor (part of Holtzbrinck). Did you get an advance from Random for the audio part?

    I don’t really see a problem with this, although I would ask to make it very clear what they mean by “[damaging] your reputation”… Drug use? Tax evasion? Assault charge?

    If I work for the city and I’m hiring an architect to work on a big public job and a few weeks into it he’s arrested on a pedophilia charge, I don’t think I would want his name associated with our library, for example.

    The idea, taken in moderation, is not bad. It’s too bad that it would require a lot of legal wrangling to basically protect you from this, since it seems so vague.

  15. I’m missing context on these posts about YA fiction. What is the age range for a reader to be considered young? I think an author who writes for 12 year olds than one who writes for 16 year olds.

    Previously, I had thought that YA was around the 10-14 year old group, but I just finished Little Brother and I certainly wouldn’t give a copy of that to anyone under 16.

  16. This is standard in all sports and celebrity endorsement contracts. Sponsors want to be able to distance themselves from entertainers/artists/athletes quickly if things get ugly. There are tons of boilerplate clauses out there covering this sort of thing. Same thing Olympic atheletes have to sign. NBA stars may have a bit of a sliding scale, e.g., Dennis Rodman.

  17. Morality clauses are bullshit.

    I wonder if this is one of those dumb “well it MIGHT happen” clauses or if something actually happened?
    Or is this an extremely delayed reaction to the co-author of “The O’Reilly Factor for Kids” getting caught with his hand on the loofah over at Harper-Collins?

  18. @18 – audio and text rights are often auctioned off or sold separately. Holtzbrinck is part of Macmillan now, and neither would go in for this kind of tomfoolery – very typical of random house, though!

  19. #19, I gave a copy of Little Brother to my 12 yr old nephew (signed by Cory with a little note just to him!) He’s smart and ready. I want to make him into a wolf, not a lamb. And he LOVED it! And I told him to hide it from his mother. I’m the fun uncle.

  20. I’m all for this. After I get done ratting out the top thousand names in the trade for phoney charges, the field will be clear for even my level of work to get published.

  21. Well given that RH only did the audio the morality clause wouldn’t probably apply to Cory, however Little Brother probably wouldn’t have been published by RH, because the book itself is promoting things which certain groups of people would consider highly immoral, stuff like ‘Thinking For Yourself’, ‘Not Buckling Under Authority’s Heel’, ‘Owning Your Technology’, etc. Screw the author being immoral, Cory could be pristine as a lamb, it was the book that would have given them nightmares. Its why I made sure I bought a copy which has passed through at least three hands so far.. probably more (I dunno where it is but as long as its being read and enjoyed, Im happy)

  22. @23 I’d say you’re the irresponsible uncle. Are you going to buy your nephew beer when he is 14 to show how cool you are?

  23. figment88: I’d say you’re the irresponsible uncle. Are you going to buy your nephew beer when he is 14 to show how cool you are?

    What’s wrong with that? Here in Italy (and in most other European countries) that’s legal and socially accepted. I didn’t start drinking regularly until I was older (I don’t like wine and that was what my parents drank), but my brother and my cousins (both male and female cousins) started drinking watered wine during family dinners at 10-12 years of age (that is, in the first half of the ’90s since we we were all born between 1980 and 1985).
    That was an improvement, because my parents and my uncles started drinking way earlier; in the ’50s my uncle and my mother went to kindergarten (4-5 years old) every day with bread and a little bottle (150-200 cc, I think) of sugared wine. Nobody in my family became an alcoholic, however.

  24. #26, are you saying that Cory’s book should be read only by people 21 or over? Are you saying I did something illegal? You’re a funny person. You make me laugh.

  25. THe biggest problem with the clause is simply this: who gets to decide what is immoral? Does going down the pub every now and then count? well shit there’s JK Rowling out.

    Lots of normal adult behaviour can, possibly be used. Maybe it’s a way to dodge paying authors.

  26. @27 I have no problem giving watered wine to underage people at a family dinner. I was referring to a stereotype of a “cool American uncle” who buys kids a six or twelve pack of beer and lets them go along their merry way.

    @26 Of course I am not saying Cory’s book should only be read by 21 and over. I said in my original post that I do not think I would give it to someone under 16. Where you are completely out-of-control is with this line “I told him to hide it from his mother.” If one of my siblings found out I was teaching their kids to hide things from them I would expect to be banned from their homes.

  27. The problem with the clause is that it’s WAY too vague. “Immoral” is a huge category open for interpretation. Does it mean you can’t be gay? Does it mean you can’t have sex unless you’re married? Does it mean you can’t leave the house without a burkha on? Does it mean don’t watch child pornography or don’t watch anything rated higher than “G” ? Does it mean don’t do drugs? Does it mean don’t swear? Does it mean don’t drive drunk or don’t drink? Does it mean you shouldn’t parade around on TV proclaiming your love for Satan or that you have to go to church every Sunday?

    I support the idea of the publisher being able to protect the value of his investment from negative publicity, but if they’re going to make people sign off on how they will conduct their lives, the standard they will be held to needs to be very specific. It should clearly list each and every un-approved behavior.

  28. Fig said, “… Of course I am not saying Cory’s book should only be read by 21 and over…”

    Then perhaps you should learn how to make an analogy. Do you want to compare Cory’s book to booze or don’t you? As for what my sister does or does not know: I had a cool uncle that let me read Rolling Stone when I was ten. I remember reading about sex, drugs and rock music. My mother wouldn’t have liked that either. Tough shit. Now, go give your brain a good washing.

  29. Anyone signing contracts like these is an idiot. The first rule of signing any artist contract is to strike out anything you may find yourself as having difficulties with. Even if it is a remote possibility.

    RH has NOTHING on RIAA mentality and when I came through the first time, I had struck several ‘major’ clauses — to which my lawyer added a few others (including almost a reverse morality clause…I pretend to be an academic at times and I needed to make certain that my real name *NEVER* came up as being associated with those I worked with). A few minutes of perusal and they agreed to the changes. None of the others I knew that were savvy enough to do this were presented with any problems what-so-ever.

    So, unless one is just sooooo disparate to get into the industry, why sign the first thing in front of you. Every civics course I’ve taken stressed that contracts are about give and take. In fact, if a contract is too out of balance, it can be considered void. Artists of all makes need to value themselves above all else…they are the reason these organizations exist…not the other way around. And the fact of the matter is, if you are at the contract stage you are valuable enough to have your work picked up by almost any other agency. As such, the artist has the real power even if they don’t know it.

  30. This sort of thing needs a turn about at the very least. The **publisher** should also be subject to a morals clause, so if they are caught, say, abandoning a book about Mohamed or ripping off another client, so some such thing…

  31. Two words: Judy Blume. She’s been one of the hottest authors to try to ban in libraries for years. If you’ve got people trying to ban your books due to what’s written in them, wouldn’t that constitute a violation?

    Can an author have a blog, then? Or what about the kid the author had out of wedlock ages before the contract? And what the hell constitutes making someone unsuitable to work with children? According to some reports, Lewis Carroll might have been a bit on the freaky side of kid-lovin’. How does that change the work?

    Whatever. Strike it out in red ink. And as an author, I’m starting to reject Random House after their recent behavior! If they want quality manuscripts, they should seriously reconsider their actions lately.

  32. If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear*

    *definition of wrong subject to change without notice

  33. Jenna, I just went to Amazon to see who is publising Judy Blume’s Are you there God, it’s me, Margaret. I thought is was odd that I got a message saying that the book was temperarily not available.

  34. DragonVPM:
    [MJ’s] name is pretty much synonymous with pedophile (or at the very least, creepy guy you wouldn’t leave alone with your kids).

    Try being an unmarried man over the age of, oh, say 35.

  35. Jenna: Hah, that would be good turnabout in negotiations. Morality clauses can cut both ways, and the publisher could absolutely be contractually required to go to the mat in a banning (or other hysteria) situation. Y’know, if they agreed to it. I guess you’d have to be a pretty established author to get that one written in, though.

  36. Uh oh. I’m writing a book for them this year. Is hanging out with drag queens and drinking too much champagne considered immoral?

  37. Bonnie, what are you doing with them? If Random House’s pit-bulls had their heads on straight instead of up their arses, I would think they would understand that a writer who is a bit of a trouble maker (aside from pedophilia), is probably a very good thing. Cory D. is a Geek bad-boy, a bit of a trouble maker; young readers can really get into his rebel yell. Seriously, I can too, and I’m not young. Tor is very lucky to have him.

  38. I would ask Random House to insert a similar clause in the contract to protect innocent authors from immoral acts by Random House management. It should allow increased royalties and advances if management is caught behaving in a way that puts authors’ income at risk. After all, fair is fair.

  39. The wording is absurdly vague. How small of a thing gets counted. Turning in a library book late ? Swearing if they stub their toe ?

    It could spur a great new industry though: blackmailing authors over trivial matters. Woohoo!

    Many of the female urban fantasy/romance authors would be nailed right off the bat. I’ve noticed that the majority of them also write adult romances which are, um, very adult.

  40. “and consequently the market for or value of the work is seriously diminished, and we may (at our option) take any of the following actions: Delay publication / Renegotiate advance / Terminate the agreement.”

    Did anybody else note that this is grammatically incorrect, and may not mean what we think it means? That last ‘and’ should really be a ‘then’ in order to make the last clause properly dependent. As it stands, it looks to me like they’re reserving the right to delay publication, renegotiate your advance, or terminate the agreement *regardless* of whether you act in such a way as to diminish the value of your work. That much more the fool the author that signs it as is.

    At the very least, I’d make them define exactly how both parties would know when a certain threshold of damage to one’s reputation had been done, such that the clause could be triggered. As it stands, even with a ‘then’, they take it upon themselves to unilaterally decide this, and could theoretically say, for example, “You state in this interview that you voted for Nader in 2000, you have sullied your reputation and have no value to us anymore”, without having to prove any real impact.

  41. Sure, Ill sign it. Just let me add a few lines imposing the same restrictions on RH executives, employees, and contractors. After all, a RH pedophile would ruin sales for all their authors…

  42. I agree that the terms of the contract are too vague, but it’s also hard to see how it might be made more specific. Realistically, no publisher is going to sever a relationship with a successful author because they voted for Nader, but it would be hard to sufficiently anticipate every situation in which they might want to do so (author turns out to be a drug dealer, murderer, rapist or whatever, in addition to what’s most likely the intended one, child molester).

    That said, the response here seems kind of hysterical. The clause doesn’t say, “you can’t do X” or that the publisher “owns” your private life. It says that if you act in a way that impairs the value of the product you’ve sold them, they have grounds to stop doing business with you. It is a totally different matter from, say, delivering an unsuitable ms, a contingency which is already provided for in book contracts. It’s just silly to say someone like Blume would be liable because her books are targeted by book-banners. Obviously, the publisher thought the books in themselves were appropriate because *they published them.*

    The publisher can’t throw you in jail or even sue you; at worst, they terminate their contract with you. (And in most such cases, the author gets to keep the already-paid portion of the advance). It’s not the end of the world. If said publisher is really the evil cackling fiend from Hell implied by some of these posts, then the author is probably better off taking the book elsewhere anyway.

  43. Ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous. Publish with other companies. I would not sign this clause if RH was my only hope.

    Anything can be construed as immoral, and probably would be if they decided to make cuts of some sort.

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