I’ve had a couple author friends who got hooked up with less-than-stellar publishers, and they would fork over a major organ to be free of them. It’s rare that contracts can be dissolved unless there’s proof the publisher has engaged in actions that violate the contract. So yes, sadly, you’re probably stuck. But there’s no worse feeling when the contract also has a First Right of Refusal clause. Now the authors feel tied to their publishers like a case of head lice.
So let me help you to feel better. In most cases, all this clause means is that your publisher gets to see your manuscript before anyone else, and has the right to offer you a contract, or reject it before you show it to anyone else. Hopefully, your contract will have some sort of deadline – like three months – that they have to accept or reject your manuscript. After all, you can’t allow them to sit on your manuscript forever.
The good news is that just because they offer a contract, it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. You can politely refuse the terms of the contract and clearly establish that you’ve fulfilled the terms of your contract with respect to First Rights of Refusal, and that you plan on querying your work elsewhere.
Check your contract’s wording of this clause to be sure of the stipulations. Then pull out a margarita and celebrate that you are not stuck.