Friday, August 22, 2008

Nibbled to death by ducks

Random House has to be the world's most craven publisher.

Today, it was in the news for pulling a book to censor it. In Once upon a time, a book for children had a very naughty word in it.... The Scotsman reports:

The author Jacqueline Wilson has come under criticism for using the insult t*** in her book My Sister Jodie, which has sold more than 150,000 copies.

Ach! Not the dreaded insult t***! How dare she! Luckily Random House was on the ball, and is reissuing the books with one letter changed. (The offending word now reads t***.)

The author of the article spoke to the voice of sanity, who said that t*** might be pretty d*rn offensive, but everything else was much worse, and we're going to heck in a handbasket and we're all gonna die. And stuff:

She pointed to the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight, which has been criticised for exposing children to violence. She said: "It should be a 15 rating at the least. It is cruel, sadistic and paints a bleak world view. And yet any child of any age can go if their parents take them, and parents assume if it's a 12A it must be OK."

Bloody films. It's all their fault.

A couple of days ago, our hero Random house was in the news for scrapping a book entirely. In Writers accuse Random House of censorship, explains that:

The Jewel Of Medina by US journalist Sherry Jones tells the story of Aisha, Mohammed's favourite wife, who was promised to him when she was just six years old. They married when she was nine and he was 52.

Random House decided to pull the book after advice that it "might be offensive" to some Muslims, and "could incite acts of violence by a small radical segment".

"We stand firmly by our responsibility to support our authors and the free discussion of ideas, even those that may be construed as offensive by some.[...] In this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else [...]

So they thought being offensive might be okay, but getting in the firing line wasn't such a good idea. In other words, yes, the terrorists did win.

But most irritating of all, Random House wants to keep its authors in line. In early August, one of the Guardian's blogs reported:

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."

The publisher's name? [...]
Random House.

The writer, Sian Pattenden, pours cold water on the idea and notes in passing that given the way our famous people are lauded for bad behavior, a better cap to that clause might be:

..and consequently the market for or value of the work is seriously increased, we may (at our option) take any of the following actions: Rush publication / Up the advance / Ring Richard and Judy immediately."

Quite right.

This is fussy and nannyish and irritating. Businesses can do what they want, unfortunately. As long as it doesn’t go against a protected freedom, like religion or sexual orientation, they can tell their authors how to behave. But there are two problems that I see with this stupid contract. First, they won’t get famous, interesting authors, and second, it's not going to stand up in a court of law.

No established author is going to put their name to a dumb, vaguely-worded paragraph that orders them to be upright citizens. Who is going to decide if someone has acted or behaved in a way that damages their reputation? More substantially, how are they going to enforce the contract? Now, Random House could have said they have a right to drop a contract if the writer is convicted of whatever a felony is called in England. (I have forgotten.) Bringing the work into disrepute does cost the publisher sales, and being convicted of a crime could plausibly do that. Someone in the comments to that piece brings up child molestation as a reputation damaging move. True – I'd agree with that, but child molestation is already a crime, not a personal foible.

But Random House chose not to be specific. It wants to control 'acts and behaviors". Such as? It doesn't state. If it's Associating With Bad People or Drinking Too Much, then they are in speculative realms - and trouble. If Random House tries to drop a contract on that basis, then the author is likely to sue, for defamation of character and subsequent loss of earnings (which in this case they can actually prove, since the contract has a monetary value).

And Random House can't win. Their contract states that you can’t behave in a way such that “consequently the market for or value of the work is seriously diminished”. That means to drop you for breach of contract they have to prove 1) That the value is diminished 2) That it is ‘seriously’ diminished (whatever that means – I don’t think a lawyer drafted this) and 3) That the market diminished ‘consequently’ (because of) your drinking spree or 18-year-old-Spanish-pool-boy-adultery incident.

This isn’t even a case of “OMG won’t somebody think of the children!” Someone points out in the comments that children used to have to behave for adults, now adults have to behave for the children. In fact, Random House isn't trying that line. It specifically mentions market and value – it has to, in fact, as English law recognizes monetary loss, not non-specific ‘damage’ to individuals.

Most authors will probably just cross the paragraph out and initial the correction. I would.

Still, the world does in some ways seem to be going back to the thirties. Allowing business any control over your private life seems topsy-turvy to me. I’m subject to random drug tests here, which pisses me the hell off. If I don’t turn in good work, or if I’m convicted of a drug crime, fair enough. But random testing is an invasion of privacy. This shit started, I guess, when someone said, “Oh my god we don’t know what PILOTS are doing and our life is in their hands! Test them!” and everybody agreed. Then the shit rolled down the slippery slope until the it swelled into a chorus of “We also don’t know what BURGER FLIPPERS are doing and our patties are in their inadequately gloved hands!”

By then, like frogs in a pot of cool water on the stove, unable to feel the heat, people just nod in agreement and let the laws roll over them. Nibbled to death by ducks, if I can mix my frog/duck metaphors.

Note: I am not a lawyer.

Thanks to C. for pointing out the contract terms.


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