Question of the day: I'm finishing up the work on a book and starting to think about looking for an agent and I have some questions. I assume that when you do finally find an agent, you sign some sort of contract with them? What kind of things are in the contract and what kinds of things should not be in the contract? I assume that in this type of situation their is the potential to sign your writing life away (just like with publishers) or am I just being paranoid? Any clarification would be helpful, thanks.
You are not being super-paranoid - this is a great question. Too few writers don't think about the fine print and can end up getting screwed as a result.
Every agent and agency handles contracts differently. Some (I'd venture to say most) agencies do indeed have standard contracts that they'll issue to you once you've been offered (and accepted!) representation. The clauses in the contract may include everything from stuff like the percentage fee that the agent receives to how they deal with foreign and film rights to how you can both remove yourself from the agreement. If you have any doubts about some of these clauses, I do suggest that you hire a lawyer - for one hour's fee, he or she can save you a lot of headache in the future. But basically, you should definitely ensure that you're not granting the rights to your agent for any and all future works and that there are clear terms on how to end the relationship. Agents are going to be inflexible on some things (i.e. their fee, which the industry standard dictates is 15%), but if anything is a real red flag and they won't waver, remember that having shady representation does no one any favors.
That said, there are plenty of agents - good, top agents - who operate with a gentleman's agreement. And this isn't necessarily indicative of whether or not they're legit. If this practice makes you uncomfortable, simply ask your future-agent to put it in writing: it won't be the first time he or she has been asked, trust me, and it shows good business acumen for you, your career, and your future.
So readers, what are some other contract red flags? What else can one expect to see in said paperwork?