So this sort of post seems almost de rigeur for an author blog, but it's in self defence. After 'Where do you get your ideas?' (Usual answer: I find them down the back of the sofa with all the pens and change)is a variant of this:
I've written a book. I suppose I just send it off and they publish it, right?
Answer: It's a bit more complicated than that. Though it can happen, I'm sure. Probably not with a publishing company you actually want though.
So, you've written a book, and your Mum and all your friends say it's better than Hemmingway and Rowling and King all rolled together. Bestseller material. So what do you need to do?
Firstly, stop listening to your Mum. She loves you and so do your friends. You could write a shopping list, and they'd love that too.
Have you actually finished the book? Rowling and King could probably sell a fiction proposal from a couple of jottings on the back of a beer mat. You are not them, and you need to have finished your novel.
Having typed The End, have you let it sit for a while, and then have you edited it till your eyes bled?
Have you found some writing peers (NOT your Mum! Well, maybe if your Mum is an editor at Tor) and had them beta read it? Beta reading is where someone reads your work critically (and often you read theirs in return) and points out potential problems: Plot holes, inconsistencies, that your hero just sits there waiting for events to happen to him, the fact that you always misspell whether as weather....Different betas will pick up on different things. You don't have to follow all their advice. But it is worth considering, because no work is perfect.
Have you then polished that sucker till it can be seen from space?
Now you're perhaps ready to send it out. And no, sending it off with a letter saying 'Please publish my masterpiece and send cheque by return of post' is probably not going to work.
Now self-pubbing is taking off just lately but that's a post in itself, so we'll concentrate on subbing to agents and publishers. There are some big pubs that still take unagented, unsolicited material (slush) but not many, and they are so inundated with submissions it can take years to get a no. I am not kidding. Some smaller pubs will take a look without an agent and you might hear back the same year. An agent worth their salt will get your MS in front of people that you just plain can't.
Whichever route you decide to take, the most important thing you need to do, before you send anything out, anywhere, is RESEARCH. I will say it again, it's that important, RESEARCH.
And also remember the number one rule: Yog's Law. Money flows to the writer.
If you want that big book deal, what you need to research is agents. First, you need to find agents that represent your sort of book. It's no good sending your steamy and scorching exploration of the underground BDSM movement to an agent who only represents children's picture books. For starters, try Querytracker. It lists lots of agents (not all - it doesn't have mine for instance)with links to websites, submission guidelines etc etc, and you can filter by genre. Also check out Absolute Write's Bewares and Background checks forum which lists a huge number of agents and publishers, with information on how legit they are.
Because there are scammers out there (They charge a fee to read your book, charge you a fee to represent you...) A good agent takes a commission from the money he has already earned you.
So, you checked out Absolute Write's Bewares and Background Checks forum, Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware. If your book has strong similarities to something else out there, check about and see who repped that, or similar works.
So you've finished your MS, polished it so it gleams and have checked out all the legit people you're going to sub to. Do you know how to write a query? A synopsis? One that makes people want to read the book?
These two, query and synopsis, are for many people even harder than writing the book. There are lots of resources out there for synopsis and query letter writing (Try Queryshark, where an agent rips apart queries and shows why they do or don't work or Absolute Write's Query Letter Hell subforum. Mind the squirrels)
A synopsis is a run down of the main plot points of the novel. You don't need to include sub plots, or necessary detail. You do have to show what happens in the book and why, try to get the feel of the story.
A query is, in essence this:
Dear Awesome Agent
I am subbing to you because you are awesome
This is why my book is awesome
This is why I am awesome
Only, you know, a bit more specific.
It's slightly different in the UK and the US (mainly because UK agents will often ask you to send a writing sample, so the query is less vital and more of a cover letter) but we'll concentrate on the US one, which is less a cover letter than an advert for how well you can write.
Part one: I am writing to this agent because: because they rep a book similar to yours, because they repped your all time favourite book, or you follow their blog. Insert something here that shows you have done your research and this isn't just a form letter.
Part two - this is the really hard bit. Summarise your novel in approx 200 words,and make it sound like something the agent has to read NOW! Remember an agent maybe reading dozens of these a day, so you need to show what is great about your book. Show (not tell remember) a particular person, what they want, what's stopping them get it, what they have to do to get it and what happens if they fail (the stakes. Oh and it helps to write it in the tone/voice of your book. Think like the back cover copy on a book, the bit that gets you wanting to read it. For me this is easily teh hardest bit about writing, and when you're sending to an agent that wants a query and only a query, it's pretty important to get it right.
The 'I am awesome' part isn't especially necessary. Put in any pro writing credits you have but if you haven't got any, don't worry. Some agents like a little 'This will appeal to readers of Book X and Y' so they have a clue what sort of market you're aiming for.
Once you've got a coherent, compelling query to go with your awesome MS, you're almost ready to go. You're going to send out your submission, but what you are going to do first is this : read each agent's submission guidelines and the follow them. Yes, they apply to you too.
Then send her off and wish her luck!