Now top literary agent Claire Alexander shows why it’s important for the publishing community to stand up for its authors.
The news that a GCSE examining board has decided Carol Ann Duffy’s poem: ‘Today I am Going to Kill Something’ glorifies knife crime and has dropped it from the curriculum not only indicates a failure to understand the very purpose of literature, but seems to chime with a number of recent stories. There’s the one about Random House in America deciding not to proceed with publication of The Jewel of Medina, or Random House in the UK insisting on the change of ‘twat’ to ‘twit’ in Jacqueline Wilson’s My Sister Jodie. In the meantime, some publishers have begun to ask for new contractual warranties from authors to cover some pretty far-fetched eventualities, including that writers of children’s books not behave in an unsuitable manner.
What are we so afraid of? The purpose of literature is to make us think, empathise and imagine. Good writing takes risks, and good publishers know that. There are manifold examples of publishers standing by their authors to ensure their freedom of expression, so why is there a whiff of anxiety in the air at the moment?
In my long career in publishing, I only once encountered an author who knowingly libelled someone. Most authors are terrified of being in breach of their warranties, but a legal department’s view can be skewed so that publishers put protecting themselves ahead of promoting their books.
We need to rediscover our core values. Now that authors can make their work available themselves, a publisher can best add value through their selection and promotion of the best writing. If they need extra protections when publishing certain types of books, so be it, but most of the time they need to work in partnership with their writers. But first they have to trust them.
Update: My old friend Andrew Biswell has dropped into the comments box with more tales of contractual silliness.
Speaking of contracts, I understand that some non-fiction authors are being asked to indemnify their publishers against possible losses arising from libel or breach of copyright. This isn’t yet a standard condition, but it’s a depressing sign.
Other aspects of contracts are simply bizarre. Authors of fiction and non-fiction agree that they will not include any recipe likely to cause harm or death to the reading public (although I may have breached this clause by describing how to mix a Hangman’s Blood on page 265 of The Real Life of Anthony Burgess.)