Any assistant or former assistant to an agent will tell you that the most aggravating job is to review a contract. This comes up from time to time, especially when there's considerable negotiations between a bestselling author and the publishing house. The job I'm given is to make sure that the version we have lines up with the version we want, which is usually the standard boilerplate with some revisions. There are multiple reasons why we do this. We could have forgotten something to add or ask to be deleted, there could have been an honest miscommunication, or (very occasionally) the company deleted a key line here or there and hoped we wouldn't notice. This is why you should get an agent. We have all of the standard company boilerplates around in the office for each major company, and we can line them up.
It's more difficult than it sounds. A publishing contract is anywhere from 10-18 pages long, in legal-sized paper with lots of small print. Often for some ridiculous reason the font size or alignment has changed between revisions and it makes it hard to "line up" the lines with a ruler. Sometimes entire paragraphs are just realigned and I have to flip through and find them on the old version. Sometimes words are just rearranged, which is technically a change but not a significant one - it just throws you off. It's a very tiring mental activity; I'm glad I only have to do it once in a while.
The reason the contract is so long is because it covers every eventuality for anything ever, including (1b) "acts of [G-d]." The contract is meant to protect both the author and the publisher and make sure the money goes to the right people by the right time. More recently paragraphs have had to be added not just about audio books, but e-Books, "electronic media," and "media that may be invented in the future."
Standard topics include:
- The author's responsibility to get the manuscript in on time and the publishing company's deadline to ask approval for changes
- Who pays for what legal fees if the author and company are sued for content in the book (called "the Work")
- What happens if the publishing company goes bankrupt or the author expires in terms of rights to the material
- What percentage of royalties are given to the author for bargain book contracts and bulk orders.
The good news is that the language is pretty plain, and if you happen to be an author negotiating a contract without an agent's help, you just need to read it very carefully and make sure it doesn't sound like you're going to get ripped off at some point or abandoned if you get sued.
Sound exciting? The publishing world is for you!