I've mentioned my tragic addiction to The Passive Voice blog, and my discovery of The Business Rusch. Passive Guy is a lawyer, and Kris Rusch used to be a reporter, and between the two of them they have complied the most hair-raising accounts of what you find in agency and publishing contracts nowadays! It's bad stuff--and the most disturbing thing is that these aren't the dirtbag "agents" or vanity presses, which you can assume are out to rip you off. It's the respectable people doing it nowadays.
Seriously, read these guys if you are thinking of signing with an agency or a publisher. With Rusch, I would start here at the bottom of the page and work my way up to the more-recent posts. With The Passive Voice, look at the "contracts" section (he's a bit of a tougher read because, you know, lawyer, but soldier on).
They made me pull out and read over my old agency agreement. Yes, I fired them, but with some of these contracts, that doesn't matter. I don't see anything too frightening there--I did read before I signed it, but events have proven that I was too trusting back then, so no harm in double-checking.
I had read that the agent I fired was doing things that I thought were a little sleazy, but I kind of chalked it up to the fact that he clearly was the sort to cruise on reputation, so what would you expect? But apparently that's just par for the course nowadays--the distinction between reputable and disreputable is becoming very thin. It makes me worried for the people I know who are seeking agency representation and hoping to get a contract with a commercial publisher....
Today Passive Voice has a link to this post by author Sibel Hodge detailing an agency contract she was offered. She (assisted by Passive Guy, who she hired) explains very clearly all the bad clauses and why they are bad. It's an easy read, and it touches on a lot of different issues very concisely, so it's the one to read if you absolutely hate legalese or don't want to sort through a ton of posts on the topic.