When I put out the call for writing questions, one of the most popular ones was about how to get published. This is also the question I seem to get most often in real life when someone finds out I'm an author: "How did you get published?" I'm afraid they're usually disappointed in my answer, that I wrote a book, sent it to an agent, then she sent it to publishers. They seem to be hoping I'll have some magical formula or special circumstances, like I mailed the manuscript during a full moon after making a sacrifice to Zuul, or I rescued an editor's daughter from alien abduction, so she agreed to publish my book.
I often use the analogy that getting a book published is like losing weight. There's a very simple formula, but it's very hard to actually do it. Losing weight comes down to using more calories than you consume -- eat less, exercise more. And yet people keep looking for some secret way to do that and make it easier or quicker, like eating certain foods or certain combinations of foods or eating at certain times. Even so, it's very difficult to successfully lose weight. When it comes to writing, the formula is to write something and then submit it. But people are always looking for shortcuts or magic tricks to make it easier or quicker, and very few people who attempt it are successful.
Let's break down that simple formula:
Step One: Write a book
That's both the hard part and the easy part. It's hard because writing a book is difficult. A lot of people have great ideas for books. Fewer ever actually start writing those books and even fewer finish those books they started. But it's the easy part of the publishing process because it's the one part you really control. You can control what you write, how you write and how much you write. Almost everything else depends on someone else. This part, though, is yours.
Yes, there are stories about people who got a three-book, six-figure contract based on an idea scribbled on a cocktail napkin, but you hear about these things because they're so rare as to be newsworthy, and what those stories usually don't mention is the fact that these things often happen to people who've written several previous books that just didn't find a market, so the editor or agent in question is well aware of the writer's ability. Don't base your career planning on an abnormality. Write the whole book. Even with as many books as I've completed, I still find myself learning a lot about the story from the process of completing a draft, which affects the beginning part that would go in a proposal. You'll put your best foot forward if you complete the book and revise the whole thing before you start trying to submit.
Of course, the book has to be pretty good to be published -- not necessarily brilliant because subject matter and market trends are possibly even more important these days -- but your odds are better the better your book is. Here's where you can go to seminars, find a critique group, enter a manuscript contest that gives feedback, read books about writing, read blogs about writing, etc.
What should you write? I would suggest writing the book you can't NOT write. Write what you want to read. Chasing trends is dangerous. Generally, if you hear about a trend, by the time you can come up with an idea and write the book, the trend will be dead. But passion always comes through, and writing the book that's burning a hole in your brain will give you the kind of authentic voice publishers are looking for.
Step Two: Submit the book
This actually falls into two sub-steps
You need to know where to submit your book, so start looking for agents who represent that kind of thing and publishers that publish that kind of thing. There are a lot of differing opinions on whether to get an agent first or submit to publishers first. I sold my first five books on my own, but they were category romance. I wouldn't even attempt it on my own these days. A lot of publishers now won't take unagented work except under special circumstances, and even if they do, it can take them forever to respond. At the same time, agents can afford to be very picky about choosing clients. Most libraries carry some kind of writer's marketplace book that lists publishing companies and agencies. You can also find a lot of information online. Many authors mention their editor and/or agent on the acknowledgments page in their books, so look there. Look at which publishers are publishing the books you like to read. There are also a lot of scam artists out there, so check on Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors to make sure you're dealing with legitimate publishers and agents. Many agents now have blogs where they talk about what they represent, how they work and how to contact them. This research is a lot of work, but you need to do it up front. Don't go submitting to someone and then asking about whether they're legitimate (if they ask for money from you up front, they aren't). Beyond these pointers, I'm going to leave you on your own because if you can't figure out how to find this stuff for yourself, you need more help than I can give you. If you can't find the right information without being led by the hand, then you may be in the wrong business.
This is another one of those easy/hard things. It's not too difficult to follow the submission guidelines specified by your target editors or agents. Don't try to be cute or fancy. Doing something contrary to their specifications only makes you stand out in a bad way. If they say they don't want phone calls, calling them will annoy them, not make them think that you're a real go-getter. Remember above all that you want it to be as painless as possible for them to read your work. And then you may have to wait. And wait. You'll likely get rejections. You may have to move to your second-tier list of targets. During this time, keep writing. If this book doesn't do it, the next one might. Most people don't sell their first books. If you're getting a lot of rejections, it could mean that this isn't the right book right now or that you're not ready, so come up with something new.
There's a lot of talk about networking and contacts, but I'm not sure that anything other than pre-existing celebrity status will really put you ahead. The networking and contacts may get you a faster read, but won't sell a book they wouldn't have bought anyway. Where the networking and contacts can help is with choosing your targets. You'll have a better sense of who is most likely to be receptive to what you write if you read agents' and editors' blogs, stay on top of what's selling and listen to editors and agents speak at conferences. A conference pitch is one good way to get past the "no unagented material" problem with publishers, so if you'd rather not find an agent before getting an offer from a publisher, then look for writing conferences that give you the opportunity to meet with editors.
Now, selling a book differs from losing weight in one key area. While there are genetic and glandular factors that can come into play, losing weight is mostly something you can control. Most of it is up to you. In publishing, it ultimately is out of your hands. You can write a book and target it as well as you can, and then beyond that, you have next to no control over what happens. Selling a book comes down to getting the right project on the right desk at the right time -- and you can't know what "right" is ahead of time. You can get clues, like learning editors' individual preferences (that's where an agent is valuable), but timing is the hard part. That right desk may have already been swamped by "right" projects, so even perfect targeting can involve bad timing. Luck plays a huge role. You can increase your odds by writing and continuing to submit (the more times you play, the better your chances of breaking in and the better you'll be with the practice) and by paying attention to the market.
And that's really all there is to it. It's incredibly simple while being incredibly difficult.
If you're relatively new here and want to catch up on all the writing stuff I've discussed in the past, which includes some of the basic how-tos, I put together the first couple of years worth of writing posts as a pdf e-book. You can download it here. I'll probably do another one at the end of this year.