Put Down that Beer, Ms. Children’s Author.

Robin B., Diana Holquist and a few other folks have sent me the link to this article from early August in the UK Guardian about a clause in some Random House contracts for children’s book writers that attempts to dictate behavior. From the article:

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.”

Oh, come on now, and I mean it. What defines acts or behavior that damages value of the work? And what’s up with casting childrens authors as role models for all? The Society of Author’s Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group has advised authors who receive that clause in their contract to ask for its removal, but the idea that its in there in the first place makes my jaw drop for a host of reasons.

 

The degree to which authors in many genres are asked to serve as spokespeople for their books, marketing themselves as much as the book itself, is profoundly, in my opinion, bizarre to the point of being fucked up. But in the latter part of the last century, the romance novel authors who received the lion’s share of press were also those who lived to some degree that opulent fantasy lifestyle – or appeared to, anyway. Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steel come to mind. One dripping with pink and pearls, the other pictured in jewels and couture in her posh flat with art in the background.

So if authors are called upon to market themselves as well as the work, is it such a jump for a publisher to have a preference in conduct for that author? I’m not saying it’s appropriate or that it’s not profoundly insulting, but in the current marketing atmosphere, it doesn’t seem like this clause is coming out of nowhere.

But on the other hand, shouldn’t a publisher know better than the cast all its authors according to a stereotypical mold according to genre? Do the mystery writers have to wear trenchcoats and carry magnifying glasses when they go on tour? Are the romance writers going to get upper east side apartments or at the least a big string of pearls (literally, not figuratively!)? What about erotica writers? A no clothing clause? Holquist mentioned the same in her email to me, and I shudder to ponder the erotica author clause.

The Guardian article mocks the entire concept of the clause based on the number of titty-licious stars whose fame has led to contracts for children’s books, from Jordan to Madonna. But the part that really caught my eye:

Publishers often flirt with the idea that sanitisation equals success, presumably copying an American business model, and this is utterly, utterly wrong.

Agreed, ma’am. Utterly agreed. Meet you at the pub.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Faellie says:

    I suspect that the clause in the contract is about paedophile behaviour (a current pre-occupation in the UK).  The employer of anyone working with children or vulnerable adults in the UK has to check with a central records bureau for information which makes that person unsuitable to be work with children – such as convictions for sexual offences or other offences of violence. 

    So I see the fell hand of a cautious corporate lawyer here.  If a children’s author did something to be deemed unsuitable for working with children and that became publicly known, their books would be unsellable.  What’s more, if the publisher had a contract with that person which required them to pay money over to the author after eg a paedophile conviction, the publisher would be publicly condemned for paying money to such a reprehensible person, even though they only did so because of a contractual liability. 

    The clause should have been drafted to make its extent and purpose clear, eg by saying “being put on the register as someone not suitable to work with children”.  But the laywers have not made the link to the register explicit (although the wording used is similar), and have rather clumsily tried to catch the interim period between doing (or appearing to do) something heinous to a child and being put on the register, and so have made it look at first glance very much wider than I suspect was intended.

    I don’t think there’s anything in the clause which requires an author to behave in a particular way.  As long as Katie Price isn’t planning to be naked from the waist up while promoting her books to children, I can’t see why she isn’t suitable for working with children – she has several of her own and no sign the social services are planning to take them away from her.  And on the publicity/sanitation arguments I’m in complete agreement and happy to join you and the author of the article in the pub.  Cheers!

  2. 2
    emmy says:

    after all the various blogs recently re:author behavior,it does make some sense. If I were publishing some of these authors, I’d want the right to cancel too.

  3. 3
    lee says:

    I wonder if this has to do a little bit with Jack Gantos, the author of the popular Joey Pigza books, who published a memoir about going to jail for smuggling hashish. It ruins the public expectation of people who write for children being child-like (or parental) themselves. [Not to say I think this is a reasonable expectation, but it’s similar to morality clauses in the contracts of school teachers.]

  4. 4
    Cailin says:

    Two words – William Mayne. Award-winning children’s author, arrested and imprisoned for paedophilia in 2004. On the other hand, I’ve had fellow students in library school tell me they wouldn’t read/recommend or probably not purchase Roald Dahl’s books because he was anti-semitic (which he was). Oh, and btw I would certainly never want to meet or otherwise interact with William Mayne, but I still love his books, especially the wonderful Hob the Goblin stories.

  5. 5
    Marianne McA says:

    I’d agree with Faellie – I’d have read it as being about paedophilia. And if that’s it, perhaps it should be more explicitly spelt out. But I can’t say I’d shudder at the injustice if a publisher decided not to publish a children’s book because the author had pulled a Gary Glitter.

  6. 6

    I read it the way Faellie and Marianne McA did. It is phrased in a very vague way which could cover a lot of situations, but if an author had been accused of molesting children, there would be serious child protection concerns about that author, certainly with regards to book-signings where they’d come into contact with child fans.

  7. 7

    What they said…^

    I wouldn’t care about what they do at home unless it involved harming children. Not only doesn’t it harm the image of the publisher but it puts children in the path of such people without that clause.

  8. 8

    I meant ‘does’ not ‘doesn’t’.

  9. 9
    Dechant says:

    I fret only because that clause is not specific enough, and those of us who are not Katie Price-famous may find ourselves targeted for leading, shall we say, unconventional lives.

    I can be a good YA writer (not author—yet!) with a wife instead of a husband, or both if I like, and though I know I am not harming children in my behavior, I am aware that certain right-wing factions would equate how I live with pedophilia (see also Rick Santorum).

    So I may never be published by Random House, but really, given their willingness to reach in and tweak their authors’ personal lives, I may not want that honor.

  10. 10
    ev says:

    I have to agree with the others too- it definately smacks of referencing pediophila, and child abuse, without actually saying it. I know I wouldn’t want to sell/read/reccommend a children’s book by someone who had been arrested for either of the above. Probably drug use/convictions either, at least for the kids books.

    Someone want to send me the address to the pub, please.

  11. 11
    GingerW says:

    The Jack Gantos memoir is actually often considered a Young Adult title.  It was a selection of the American Library Association’s Great Stories Club, a teen book club for underserved youth.

  12. 12

    If anyone asked me to sign a contract stating that I have to act a certain way in order for my book to be published, I will GLADLY go back to working at McDonald’s, thank you very much.

  13. 13
    Alex says:

    I find this amusing—one author I keep up with is Ursula Vernon. She’s written a children’s book (Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a Somewhat Brave Shrew), and I’ve seen pictures of her…well…

    Look, here you go.

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3248/2375688965_bebbf3f08e.jpg

    That’s a kingfisher (and fish) tattoo on her right arm/shoulder, and she refers to the boots as the Boots of Doom.

    As a side note, I’d recommend Nurk. It’s a cute book.

  14. 14
    Lyra says:

    Echoing those who say that a) this clause references pedophilia and b) that it is worded too vaguely.

    However, in light of recent activities, I would rather enjoy seeing publishers write a “Don’t be a moron on the Internet” clause into their contracts.

  15. 15
    Robin says:

    It’s the vagueness—what the lawyerly types call “overbroad”—that bothers me, and I have no doubt that it was written that way as a catch-all, with the overbreadth only a problem if someone challenges the clause legally.  But giving lots of room to the publisher for interpretation, depending on the author and the circumstances.

    I find this one of many ironies in the publisher – author relationship, a relationship that sometimes seems paternalistic but not mentoring, interfering but not supportive.  When it comes to an author wanting promotion or the like, they’re independent contractors and the publisher is hands-off.  But when it comes to assessing appropriate behavior, the author is contractually bound to adhere to some unspecified code of conduct.

  16. 16
    Farrah says:

    “Oh-Kaaaaay”…it’s one thing to be a pedophile, murderer, rapist, or drug lord to be release from a contract, but drinking (unless you’re drinking yourself to a stupor and smell like alcohol when speaking in public representing the publishing company)?! Come on…  Most author’s are too damn old to be “role models” for the kiddies.  Mentoring kids is one thing but a role model for your kid?! Find someone closer to their age gap or at least the younger crowd or keep them away from the “bad people” of the world like most good parents would.

    Farrah from…
    http://www.wifeandmomof3.wordpress.com
    http://www.tbfreviews.wordpress.com

  17. 17

    Agree with the others re pedophilia, and the worries that it’s overly broad and vague, especially in today’s climate where there are people who seriously argue that it sets a bad example to drink a beer in front of children, or eat a double order of fries.

    However, I don’t necessarily agree with this:

    And what’s up with casting childrens authors as role models for all?

    I think anyone who meets with some success in their field is cast as a role model—witness the arguments about athletes being role models or not.

    Personally, I would much rather my child view authors as role models than someone like Britney or insert-flavor-of-month-here.
    I’m not saying I agree with the clause or the idea behind it, but just as we expect writers not to threaten readers online and hold to a certain standard of professionalism both online and in public, I do kind of expect those who write for children to make sure their public behavior is kid-friendly.

    Because when searching for someone to hold up in front of my children and encourage them to emulate, I’d be inclined to pick someone clever and literate, someone who worked hard to accomplish a goal, someone who did good things or helped others—in other words, authors would probably be near the top of my list.

    JMO.

  18. 18
    Brandi says:

    On the other hand, I’ve had fellow students in library school tell me they wouldn’t read/recommend or probably not purchase Roald Dahl’s books because he was anti-semitic (which he was).

    Could you point me to some examples? I’ve (fortunately?) missed out on this.

    I wonder if they would avoid purchasing Agatha Christie? (I actually acquired a copy of And Then They Were None that carefully excised any references to “niggers” and even to Indians—they call the place Soldier Island—but restored the bluntly anti-Semetic descriptions of a minor character that were removed from some American versions.)

  19. 19
    Harlequin says:

    I read it as a paedophilia thing too – total cover-your-ass broadness but I’d bet it’s aimed at paedophile behaviour.

    I don’t want to know too much about the private lives of authors I love – occasionally it’s interesting and tells you something about why they might write what they write but it could also spoil the books a bit. I loved Roald Dahl’s books and since I can’t recall any actual anti-semitic stuff in the books themselves, his anti-semitism in reality doesn’t spoil my enjoyment. When certain beliefs the author personally holds get in the way of the stories, then it becomes a problem for me. E.g. the horrible Terry Goodkind who dedicates his fantasy books to the Secret Service and write stories that glorify extreme right-wing dictatorships *shudder*

    With Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton and even in some cases the magnificent Georgette Heyer, I just try to remember I’m looking at these books with modern eyes and that they were written in a different era when it was acceptable to have certain views about class or race or use certain words that aren’t PC now or appropriate.

    Ultimately, I don’t think a person’s private life should be policed by their publisher and I don’t think children’s authors should be held up as role models for children and obliged to live by certain rules in order to fit into that ‘role model’ viewpoint.

  20. 20
    Nonny says:

    If the wording were specifically targeting pedophilic behavior or other forms of child abuse, that’d be one thing. The way it stands, though, the contract phrasing leaves them open to dump someone because, say, the religious right gets its panties into a twist over a pagan / GBLT / polyamorous / what-have-you author as “inappropriate.” Or, theoretically, to drop someone whose books aren’t selling well enough under the guise of “inappropriate behavior”. I kinda have a big problem with that.

  21. 21

    Pedophiles shouldn’t write children’s books, eh?

    You can have my copy of Alice in Wonderland when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

  22. 22
    JaneyD says:

    Well, bang goes the orgy I’d planned for the book launch party for “Cutie-Panda’s Museum Trip.”

    I’m out the price of a 50-gallon barrel of baby oil and 400 square feet of rubber sheeting for the room, dammit!

    At least I didn’t buy the booze and drugs ahead of time, so small favors.

  23. 23
    Seressia says:

    Well, I don’t think Agatha Christie is targeted to children, but I could be wrong…

    We’re all assuming that the clause is in reference to pedophilia, but the clause doesn’t specify that, does it?  So it could mean anything.  There are watchdog groups in America that launch letter-writing campaigns against TV shows, commercials, rumors of offensive content, etc.  All it would take is finding out RH has this clause and one of their children’s book writers lives a committed polyamorous life with their two long-term same-sex partners and their kids.  One letter writing campaign later, and it’s game over for that author.

    Seems extreme?  Perhaps.  But it would fit the guidelines of that clause.  And this is the house that scratched publication of the Jewel of Medina over one letter from one of their authors.

  24. 24
    Cailin says:

    “On the other hand, I’ve had fellow students in library school tell me they wouldn’t read/recommend or probably not purchase Roald Dahl’s books because he was anti-semitic (which he was). “

    “Could you point me to some examples? I’ve (fortunately?) missed out on this. “

    As far as I’m aware, it is not referenced in any of Dahl’s books (although one could discuss the possible racism of the various incarnations of the oompa-loompas). It comes mostly from various remarks he made – you can find a discussion of this issue in Jeremy Treglown’s Roald Dahl a Biography. Or you can just skim wikipedia. Actually, it’s more up for grabs – Dahl claimed to be anti-Israel not anti-semitic, although that’s subjective. Anyways, as far as I’m aware it wasn’t a major part of his life that people really noticed.

  25. 25
    Cailin says:

    Oh, and if you want a children’s author with a really radical life, E. Nesbit, famous author of Five Children and It and The Treasure Seekers among many others….had an open marriage, raised her husband’s mistress’s children as her own, and was a founder of the Fabian Society, a socialist organization considered highly shocking at the turn of the century.

  26. 26
    Liz says:

    Didn’t hear the story about William Mayne at the time; he’s the author of one of my favourite books of all time, No More School. Wonder if that’s why it’s impossible to find a copy now that my friends’ kids are all reaching the age where they’d enjoy it…

  27. 27
    Harlequin says:

    I *love* E. Nesbit! :-)  That’s the problem with these ‘morality clauses’ – maybe they’re intended to give the publishers an out if they find they’ve been encouraging a paedophile author to interact with children at book-signings etc but they also cover whatever situations the publishers think the public will find morally distasteful, whether that’s heinous acts of child abuse universally regarded as BAD or unconventional relationships or unusual views on hot-button topics.

  28. 28

    All it would take is finding out RH has this clause and one of their children’s book writers lives a committed polyamorous life with their two long-term same-sex partners and their kids.  One letter writing campaign later, and it’s game over for that author.

    Knopf, one of Random House’s imprints, has published a lot of gay-friendly YA books.  Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Boy Meets Boy, Full Spectrum, etc.  So I don’t think this clause is about conservative values or keeping authors out of the pub.

  29. 29
    AgTigress says:

    So many things to respond to here.  I think maybe one has to be a Brit to be perfectly certain that that intentionally vague clause refers to active, criminal paedophilia, leading to prosecution and being placed on the sex-offenders’ register.  I think every Brit here (you can tell which we are by the way we spell paedophilia) is sure of that.

    I don’t think there is any evidence that even Lewis Carroll was an actual paedophile:  he was certainly strongly attracted to little girls, but simply being sexually attracted to someone other than one’s spouse does not make one an adulterer.  A person has to act on the attraction for morality, or law, to be contravened.

    With Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton and even in some cases the magnificent Georgette Heyer, I just try to remember I’m looking at these books with modern eyes and that they were written in a different era when it was acceptable to have certain views about class or race or use certain words that aren’t PC now or appropriate.

    Absolutely right.  Matters such as anti-semitism or the use of terms now considered offensive, but not considered offensive when they were written (which covers Christie, Heyer, Marsh, Sayers and many others) is a completely separate matter.

    I am sure that the clause is basically a practical one:  as others have pointed out, if a children’s writer is actually found guilty of molesting children, his sales are going to drop to zero.

    All of us, I am sure, enjoy fiction and other art created by people whose personal ideologies and lifestyles would be very unattractive, or even repellent, to us.  I know that many of the novelists of the past whose work I love had social and political attitudes that I should find deeply distasteful.  But artistic creation transcends such time-related, society-related matters.  The publisher’s clause is not about that at all;  it is about the bottom line.  Hey, they are publishers, not writers or readers!  What else can one expect?

  30. 30
    Harlequin says:

    I think maybe one has to be a Brit to be perfectly certain that that intentionally vague clause refers to active, criminal paedophilia, leading to prosecution and being placed on the sex-offenders’ register.  I think every Brit here (you can tell which we are by the way we spell paedophilia) is sure of that.

    Not a Brit despite my spelling! I’m Irish!

    But agree with everything else. :-)

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