(By Chip MacGregor, President, MacGregor Literary, Inc.)
In a general sense the two most important ingredients are clarity and completeness—that is, your book contract covers all the important issues, and does so in a way that you can understand.
Here are a handful of things I believe are important in publishing contracts.
1. A reasonable grant of rights. You own your words. But you're granting a license to your publisher to produce and sell them in some form, and the grant of rights details what forms that can take. Anything not specifically granted to the publisher ought to be viewed as being retained by the author.
2. A clear expression of what the author will do. Your due date, word count, and the direction of your writing will certainly be in the contract, but so will expectations about your participation in marketing, your provision of art and photos, your ability to write other books that may or may not compete, and your willingness to sell other ideas to other publishers. Seek clarity on these issues.
3. A complete accounting of money to be paid to you. You need to pay close attention, and you need to know the industry standard. Ask for the ability to have a professional auditor check the publisher’s accounts.
4. Details about the editing, production, and sale of your book. Make sure the copyright is in your name. It's reasonable to have the contract state that the book will be produced within 24 months or so after turning in the manuscript. And make sure you, the author, can buy copies of your own book at a reasonable discount.
5. A clear and complete explanation of everyone’s legal promises and protections. This is a legal document that governs everything about your book for as long as it’s in print. When you think of it that way, you want to make sure the legal protections are clear.