Dear Miss Snark,
I am negotiating an offer with a well-known “how-to” publisher of writing books for a proposal that I submitted, which they are interested in. From the conversation I had with the editor, it sounds as though they will be making me an offer in the next couple of weeks. I am a novelist as well, and I am hoping to get back into the agent game (I was once represented for a different, unsold novel), but have been told by others that there really is no need to have an agent broker this deal. Do you think I should find an agent to broker the non-fiction deal? And if so, can I be so bold as to say: “Have offer, need agent…oh, and consider my novel too??”
Yes, you absolutely do have to have someone look at a legal document that you sign that involves your writing career and money. You don't need an agent to make the deal but you have to have someone (publishing lawyer or agent) look at that contract before you sign.
Boilerplate isn’t boilerplate; lots of things are negotiable even on a "standard publishing contract", and of course, there is this little known factoid: publishers write contracts that favor themselves (I know it's a stunner, but there it is).
Even if you sign it exactly as it is, if an objective reader looks at it and advises you, you’ll at least know when to send off that kidney.