There's tiers to this whole publishing thing. So you have different angles of attack, depending on what you're writing. We'll start with cautions, though:
DO NOT pay any money to anybody to get your work published. Anyone who wants a payment is a crook. Seriously. The flow of money is ALWAYS toward the author (even if it's not a big flow). Second, do not expect to quit your day job. I'm told most frequently published writers of non-fiction travel-type books just about break even with their expenses (which is great, if you think about it - they get to travel and have great experiences and other people pay for them). There are, of course, some few full-time authors, just as there are a few professional athletes. The comparison (and rarity) is apt. Finally, do not get discouraged! A typical PUBLISHED book is rejected more than eight times. This is the way the business works! Almost every major author has a wall covered with rejection letters.
Okay. Now that we have those out of the way, the different approaches... probably in order of preference.
You can approach a major publisher. If you can get a major publisher to want to print your book, everything else can fall into place. They can easily churn out thousands of copies and throw more money into advertising than you can imagine, and can do so at the drop of a hat. Further, major publishers will turn you into a 'brand'. They want people to buy books for no other reason than because you have written them (this is great for you!). It's easy to tell a lot of books from major publishers because the author's name is larger than the title, while all they claim for themselves is a small logo on the side. The bad news: there aren't really many such companies, and the competition they have is fierce. This means they don't want to take risks, and they are inundated with submissions. I've heard editors of major publishing companies bemoan the really good works that they weren't allowed to publish because they couldn't justify them to their boards of directors. However, owing to the advantages above, all major authors eventually migrate to this source of publishing.
Slightly less good is to get a good agent. An agent DOES do things you can't possibly do, as well as things you're not likely to do. For one thing, they look at hundreds of contracts, so they know a good one from a bad one, and they know it within seconds. It's like the difference between processing your own divorce or hiring an attourney. The professional knows exactly what to look for and undoubtedly has considered options you have probably never even thought of. Furthermore, major publishers are used to working with agents. Your agent knows all their phone numbers, who is looking for what kind of work, and probably has lunch with the bigwigs to shmooze them on a regular basis (good luck doing that on your own). The bad news: agents can be as selective as major publishers themselves. An agent only makes money if they can sell your book, and further since they only get a fraction of what you get, they really want to sell dozens of your books. So if you can't demonstrate that you're a reliable, prolific, and profitable author, many agents will have no interest in you. I know of no well-known author who does not have an agent.
I've intentionally made the above two options look bleak, because practically speaking they ARE kind of bleak. But let me pause a moment to point out why it's not hopeless. Both publishers and agents really, really want to be the one who finds the NEXT big author. This pays not only in money, but in prestige, and prestige goes a long way in their business. Once you prove yourself, they'll both be fighting over you, but until you do, you'll have to fight for their attention. Both go through reams of horrible, horrible work to find the pearls within, and usually do this in their FREE time. You have to love your work to do that.
First-time authors often have more luck with the independent press. Independent publishing companies do not have a ton of money nor a vast reputation. They are trying to establish THEMSELVES as a brand rather than you - so their hope is that people buy a book simply because they printed it. They get by with print-on-demand service instead of huge printing facilities and warehouses full of books, and bookstores are often less willing to make use of their services because they can't eat the loss of unpopular books like major publishers can. So expect to see a lot more on-line selling and having to do the promotion for your book yourself. On the other hand, a good independent publisher is great for unknown authors precisely because you can piggyback on their reputation instead of the other way around. Likewise, because there are so many independent publishers, it is fairly likely that you'll find one who specializes in your kind of work, no matter what it is.
Outside of that, there is always the sideways approach: gaining a reputation for writing BEFORE you publish a book. You can do this by getting everything possible printed - the more printing credits you have the better. Magazines can be a great help, though online stuff isn't respected anywhere near as much as print stuff. Write a bunch of short stories, or try to serialize your first book. Some break in by writing other stuff too - journalism in newspapers, scientific reports, or even holiday cards. All of those things prove you can at least string words together and make SOMEBODY a profit.
Answered By: Doctor Why - 4/3/2007