It’s easy to understand how writers get into these binds. So excited that someone, finally, loves his work, the writer simply asks a few questions about his particular hot-button issues (or not!) and gets out the pen to sign.
Writers, it is critically important that you understand what you’re signing. That contract is not the Golden Ticket, and the publishing house is not the Chocolate Factory. The contract on your desk is the playbook for your relationship with that potential publisher: it contains all the rules and plans for the operation of getting your books into the hands of customers, and each one is different.
Let me stress that: each one is different. Each publisher has a preferred boilerplate contract, which is different, if only in seemingly minor things, from anyone else’s; and any individual contract is likely to include modifications specifically for the project in question, which reflect the writer’s, the agent’s, or the publisher’s particular needs and wants at this moment. And whether or not you understand the terms it sets out, by signing you have agreed to its terms. You won’t successfully argue these points later.
The bottom line: if you can’t read and understand the contract, right down to the letter, it is incumbent on you, in not only your best interests but also the interests of everyone else involved, to stop and make sure you do.
There are a variety of resources available. Your agent, if you have one, can help you understand the details of a publisher’s proposed contract. (We hope you are sure of the conditions of your agency contract as well!) If you don’t have an agent, there are books on publishing contract law, notably Kirsch’s volumes, that can break down the meanings of clauses that aren’t readily understood by people new to the industry. If you can afford it, consult with a lawyer who is familiar with publishing. Take the time to know exactly what you’re signing.
It’s true that there are some so-called publishers who are really just in the business of separating writers from their money; there are ample resources on the internet to help writers check out the reputations of publishers and agents they’re considering working with. But just because a publishing house has a good reputation does not mean it operates in the way you assume it does, nor does it mean you would be pleased with your specific contract if you took the time to understand it.
Please, do yourself and everyone involved a favor: understand what you’re signing, and don’t sign until the document (not the verbal agreements, but the document itself) reflects terms you’re prepared to live with. Anything less at this stage is just a recipe for misery later on.