Now it might be you have an agent. Well, good for you. But even so I would read through that contract. Because some agents are better at making deals than sorting out the fine legal detail, and in the end, it's your neck that's on the line. It might look boring and/or complicated, but you need to read every word. Just take it slowly and most of it is quite comprehensible.
If you are in the UK and you already have an agent or a publishing contract I'd recommend making use of the Society of Authors contract checking service (unfortunately you need to have an agency or a contract before you can join), but even if you do this it's worth checking through yourself.
I can't identify every nasty that could be in there, but here are a few things to look out for:
- Has it got your name and address right - trivial but can be messed up.
- Are the basics of the book right - length, delivery date and the like.
- If there are illustrations, who is paying for them? These can cost a lot, so if it's you it's worth querying this.
- It's usual for them to expect you to warrant that the book is your original work.
- The contract should specify that the book will contain a copyright statement in your name and the assertion that you are the author.
- Your advance (initial payment from the publisher) will typically be split into two (on signing/acceptance) or three (signing/acceptance/publications) chunks. These shouldn't be too heavily loaded to the later payments. You can always try negotiating on the advance, though the publisher may not have much movement. Your advance is only returnable if you don't write the book, or the book isn't acceptable (this, of course, can be a bone of contention). They can't have it back even if they only sell two copies of the book.
- Check the royalties (the payment per book sold, which will first offset the advance, then be paid to you if the advance is ever paid off) - it's not unusual for paperbacks to start around 7.5% and hardbacks around 10%. This is likely to be 'net' or 'on revenue', not on cover price - so it's a percentage of what the bookstore pays them. If there isn't an escalator (the percentage increases after so many thousand sales) ask for one. Most publishers will give way on this, as they only pay if they're making a fair amount of money.
- A fair number of contracts have a 'witholding' clause. This means they can withold a percentage of the royalties in case booksellers return too many books. This is quite common and as long as it's not more than about 15%, not too onerous.
- Ebooks cause a lot of concerns. These days you won't get much higher percentages on ebooks than on ordinary books, but you can argue for a little more.
- Subsidiary rights like translations and serialization should bring you at least 50%, otherwise they are ripping you off.
- If Accounts are rendered annually, ask for six monthly accounting, otherwise they are sitting on your money for around 15 months.
- There should be a specified number of free copies for you - this is typically between 5 and 20. If you have an agent they should get their own free copies on top of this - you shouldn't have to share.
- Going out of print is a thorny issue. If it's the sort of book you might want to resell or publish yourself after it goes out of print, make sure the 'out of print' clause doesn't include Print on Demand and ebooks, and has minimum sales levels. Otherwise the publisher can hang onto the book indefinitely.
Updated to correct requirements to join SoA - thanks, Emma