A “Morality Clause” in a Book Contract

In this era of intense political correctness, a disturbing trend popping up in the book business is the “morality clause.”

In case you’re unaware, a “morality clause” is a section in a publishing contract that requires the author to maintain a certain behavior and social presence, as dictated by the publishing house. What happens if the author fails to maintain this behavior?

The book contract is terminated, and in some cases, the author can be required to give back a portion of the original royalties they were paid.


So, what do the publishing houses require? According to the Author’s Guild, the author cannot be “accused of immoral, illegal, or publicly condemned behavior.”

As someone who went to law school, let me point out the most important words in that sentence: accused of. You don’t have to be convicted–all it takes is someone accusing you of bad behavior, and your contract can be stripped away. Boom. Just like that.

The next couple words you should pay attention to are: publicly condemned behavior. What does that even mean? Again, as someone who went to law school, let me tell you! It means, if people get upset for you, FOR WHATEVER REASON, the publishing house can cancel your contract.

“Publicly condemned behavior” is super vague language intentionally written by attorneys (I assure you, an attorney wrote that passage) specifically to have a blanket statement that can cover anything they want. This contract clause is meant to give a publishing house an out if they think their authors aren’t politically correct enough.

And trust me–there is a lot of that going around.

Have you heard of the author Amélie Zhao? No. And you probably never will. Before her book was published, a crazy Twitter group attacked her for having “racist themes.” Mind you, the book hadn’t come out, and this was judged solely by a few who read pre-release copies, but even from their accounts, the accusation is dubious as best. The book was never published.

Or have you heard of the author Kosoko Jackson? No. And you probably never will. Before his book was published, a crazy Twitter group attacked him for having a Muslin villain, and for focusing on American teens during the Kosovo War. The book was never published.

Are you noticing a theme? I SURE AM.

Publishing houses want the ability to recoup money lost on authors who “suddenly become unprofitable,” and they want their money back in the fastest way possible. If you don’t maintain their standards, they’re going to come after you for that advance, and then they’ll throw you to curb.

In a terrible (and creepy) way, this will do nothing but harm the book industry. I know people who champion political correctness are trying to improve the story telling industry with diversity and understanding, but crazy attacks on anyone and everyone for perceived wrongs won’t achieve what they want. It won’t encourage people to interact with each other, or grow a strong and inclusive community–this tactic will see everything burn to the ground and then wallow in the ashes. It’s a form of social control that breeds fear, not understanding.

And I fear the “morality clause” might just be the beginning.