I've been reflecting a lot on publishing contracts lately, especially since I just signed my second one for the sequel to Perilous. The first time I signed one, I got lucky that the company I signed with (WiDo) was an honest company and not about to do me dirty. That's good, because I knew nothing about contracts. I didn't know what to avoid, what to look out for, and what to make sure it included. I've learned a lot since then.
When you're a debut author and you get that contract offer, often it's so exciting that you sign without a second thought. STOP. Take a moment and think. This is a decision that will affect you forever. And there are things you need to do.
1) Make sure this is your best offer. If you have other submissions out, contact the other agents/companies and let them know you have an offer. Give them the chance to compete for you.
Now that you've chosen a company, look your contract over. Some things to look for:
2) An expected release date. Make sure the publisher specifies an expected time period for editing and revisions, and when you can expect to be done. You don't want them to sit on your book for years without doing anything, keeping the rights and not letting you do anything with it. If they don't hold up that time frame, you get your rights back.
3) Your responsibilities. The contract should outline quite clearly what is expected of you. Deadlines, revisions, editing, etc. You have to hold up your end of the bargain, also.
4) Assigned rights. Some publisher only wants print rights. Other want the whole shebang, from print to digital to film. Whatever it is, just make sure you're aware.
5) Author name. The contract should state what name will appear on your cover. Make sure this is the name you want. If you plan on using a pseudonym, now would be the moment to bring it up. While not likely, there's always the possibility your publisher won't approve it at press time otherwise.
6) Royalties. Hugely important! Royalties need to be specified for all forms of release, from ebook to mass trade paperback. The contract should also specify at what point, if any, royalties increase. It should tell you when payments are sent, as well.
7) Advance. If there is to be an advance, get it in writing. The contract should also state how many books (or how much money) you need to sell to hit your advance, or how many books before you start earning royalties.
8) Right to audit. Of course you have the right to check up on your publisher and make sure you are actually selling the number of books they are paying you for. I imagine that even if the contract didn't mention a right to audit, you would still have that right. But it's always better to get it in writing.
9) Free copies and ARCs. Know ahead of time how many books the publisher will give you and provide for advance readers. The contract should also state your author price for purchasing more books.
10) Breach of contract. Along with your responsibilities, the contract should also outline the consequences if you (or them) default on your part of the bargain.
11) Return of rights. The contract should state when, if ever, you get your rights back to your works. This could be after a few years with no sales or if the publishing company goes out of business or both. Whatever the terms, make sure you are comfortable with them.
With all of these contract terms, you have OPTIONS. Be happy with what you choose.
Oh, and one more note of caution. While most contracts don't specifically say that sharing details is a breach of contract, I have heard of authors being let go of for sharing details. So stay on the safe side. Keep your contract private.