My first suggestion would be, while you're searching for an agent, keep writing. Write short stories and send them to literary magazines. Your best bet at getting something published is by submitting to several of the literary magazines put out by everything from stand-alone companies to universities. Even a small credit (and most of them are small credits--they'll pay you in contributor copies) is a credit that can help you get noticed.
Work on your platform. Do you have a blog? Write on it. Do you tweet? Start tweeting if you don't? Facebook? Talk up your book. A platform is huge these days in the publishing industry. Who do you think an agent or publisher will be quick to represent? A person who has written one book, or a person who has written one book, but who also has 1700 followers on Twitter, 600 people who follow her blog, and 2000 Facebook friends who will all eat up a little piece of marketing put out by them? There are several great resources out there for building your platform. I'll list some below.
Also, make sure your novel is strong and that it's polished. Polish your story, your query, your sample chapters, and even your name on the title page until it's sparkly enough to star in a Mr. Clean commercial. But that's a given anyway.
Here's a good resource to get some ideas on where to start:
- Nathan Bransford blogs about finding agents, writing, and the publishing business. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/04/how-to-find-literary-agent.html
- New Pages is a great place to find literary magazines to both read and to consider sending your work to so you can build a platform. They review literary magazines and give addresses where to send your writing, editors names, etc.: http://www.newpages.com/
- CRWROPPS - I'm not sure what it stands for, but it's a listserv that comes to your email box every day with publishing opportunities (and university job opportunities if you have an MFA) - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CRWROPPS-B/
- AWP - The Association of Writers and Writing Programs - If you can join it, join up. This is your contact organization as a writer. If you live close to Boston or can be in Boston, the yearly conference is being hosted there this year. Go if you can. It's a fantastic place to meet fellow writers, hear some great people speak (Margaret Atwood spoke at the conference in Chicago last year, and I'll admit, she was kind of my rock star moment when I had her sign my copy of Cat's Eye). At the conference last year, I was able to hear some of my favorite writers speak on the panels. - https://www.awpwriter.org/
Finally, get to know the publishing industry. A good book for that is The Merchants of Culture by John B. Thompson - http://www.polity.co.uk/book.asp?ref=9780745647869
. If you're going to get into the publishing industry, then you need to know the lay of the land. This book will help you understand it better.
Best of luck to you! And keep writing!
Edit: Oh, and for platform building, here are a couple of books/sites to look at:
- Booklife - http://www.booklifenow.com/
- I met this author at AWP last year, and I bought his book on platform building then. He's a great guy, and the book was very helpful!
- Here's a new book put out by Writer's Digest about platform building - http://www.writersdigestshop.com/create-your-writer-platform
Also, Writer's Digest puts out yearly market guides:
For Literary Agents: http://www.writersdigestshop.com/2013-guide-literary-agents
For Short Stories and Novels: http://www.writersdigestshop.com/novel-short-story-writers-market-2013