There is one incredibly undeniable fact in the world of publishing: Your chances of having a book published by a traditional publisher increase exponentially when you can prove success in the writing market. The book market isn't dead, but thanks to the internet and the whole of the earth finally deciding gaming is cool, it's nowhere near what it was ten or even five years ago. Every single editor at every single publisher in the world has to put food on the table by making decisions on what to buy and what not to buy.
To a publisher, you are a business decision. You will cost [x] amount of money to retain, they will print [n] copies of your book which will cost [y] amount, then they have to spend [z] to market and promote and ship your book. They have to pay the salaries of the sales guys they employ to sell your book to bookstores, who see you as a whole new set of business decisions. In total, you will cost them [x] + ([y] * [n]) + [z], and if your book proposal doesn't immediately convey that you can cover that expenditure, you get a nice form letter saying thanks but no thanks. If you're lucky, they'll even sign it by hand and put your name at the top.
If they even read it, that is. Because without an agent or a contact, your book proposal comes through the mail room along with hundreds (at a small publisher) to thousands (at a large publisher) of others. A week. It's called a slush pile, and it's a God-awful mess of a thing to see in person. Here's a fantastic article about Tor, the legendary Sci-Fi publisher, that features a few great pics of their slush pile. To keep you from having to click It looks like this:
That's their morning slush pile. One day's worth.
And don't think that decorating it in clever stickers or mailing it in a metal coffin or any other slick packaging is going to get you read. Unless it's REALLY clever (and by this, I mean so clever, you're better off putting that effort into your own marketing efforts on your own book so you make money on your book), it actually stands less of a chance of being read. And sending it registered mail with signature required will get you the signature of the already annoyed mailroom guy who has to deal with misconceptions on how this shit really works every single day.
I'm not saying this to discourage you. This is reality. I've seen it with my own eyes. I've watched an editorial assistant dump a box of submissions into the canvas wheelie trash bin unopened, at three separate publishing houses. They weren't making a show if it, it's daily life.
Let me be as direct as I possibly can: I really, really, really, really hope you'll self-publish your first book. Really. And that's not because I want you to pay any sort of dues and experience the hard work and cut your teeth on the experience or any of that. It's because I want you to have your book. It's the whole point of writing this guide. It's an incredible and powerful feeling; the moment you open the box containing your proof copy. You have a book in your hands with your name on the cover, and your stuff in the middle, and holy shit, you just did it. It'll motivate you beyond belief.
The chances of that happening with your first book if you choose the traditional publishing route are drastically reduced by several orders of magnitude. And here's the really great thing - when you self-publish, you own all the rights and the copyright, so if you ever do get tired of selling it out of the back of your truck, you can just package that sucker right up and send it to every publisher you were going to send the manuscript to, only now you'll have sales figures and a history of executing under your belt. Yep, that exact same book can still be published by the publisher. It's still your manuscript, it's just in book form, and has earned you a few bucks along the way.
I'll be discussing the financial aspects of selling your book to a publisher vs. self-publishing it and selling it to your readers directly in Chapter 5. For now, just know that the second money starts getting exchanged for things - even art - it's business. And thanks to the internet and print-on-demand technology, it's now easier than ever to just skip the middleman and, in the process, actually create this thing you've worked so hard making.
Now, on to the process.
Remember all that stuff I told you not to worry about while writing the book in Chapter 2? Well, now it's time to worry about it.
You can submit your manuscript any way you want. There's no rule that says the Post Office will refuse to deliver your package if your manuscript isn't set up just so. But if you want the editor to take it seriously, you'll want to do a few things. These rules apply whether you're submitting it to a publisher directly, or sending it to a potential agent.
1) Set up the manuscript. You'll need a cover page. In the top right corner, list the category of the book, followed by the word count. Middle aligned, in the middle of the page, put the title of the book (in bold), then "by", then your name. Put your copyright notice if you want, your name, address and contact info at the bottom. It should look like this:
The document should be double-spaced, with 1" margins all around. All paragraphs begin with an indent, not an extra hard return (don't double-double space). 12 or 14 point font, in a readable standard font. I like Georgia or Times New Roman for a serif font (recommended). Arial, Helvetica, Tahoma, Verdana for sans-serif. Some guides recommend monotype (that font you see on movie scripts). Whatever you do, don't use some cutesie or fancy or scripty font. And I swear to God, if you use Comic Sans or Papyrus, I'll hunt you down and slap you myself. Running headers on every single page, in the format of LastName / BookTitle / PageNumber (e.g. Peacock / Mentally Incontinent / 4). It should look like this:
Chapter heading pages should list the chapter number and chapter title (if there is one) at the top, and the manuscript copy should begin in the middle of the page, like so:
If you're wondering why the format is the way it is, read this incredible article by Annie Mini, who has a fair deal of expertise in these matters. Personally, I think the format looks stupid, but apparently people who edit books and read manuscripts all day like this way of doing it.
So do it.
If you want to, you can actually write your book in manuscript format to save a step. I can't stand it myself, so I write first, then format later.
It's not time to print it yet. First you have to:
2) Edit. Hire that editor I talked to you about. I don't care how much you edited it yourself, which of your aunts who got straight A's in English in college looked it over, or how many times you ran spellcheck. Hire a professional editor. There'll be several of them at any of the colleges near you. They work in the English department, and they'd relish the opportunity to work on your manuscript for a few hundred dollars. If you don't live near a college, or the one near you has a particularly horrible reputation, there are likely proofreading services near you.
I didn't have an agent when Gotham bought the second Mentally Incontinent book. My book was passed to a buying editor via another Gotham author, and the editor contacted me directly. But without that "insider" help, it's very, very likely my book never would have made it to an editor's desk.
That's what an agent is... A good one anyway. They have contacts. They know the market. They look at your work and determine if it's something they can represent, and once they do, they go represent it. They know the market, they know the language of the industry, and they collect %15 off the top. And getting through to an agent is almost more difficult than getting through to an editor at a publisher. The editor is salaried; the agent works on commission. They don't get paid unless you get paid, and so they're extra, extra, extra picky.
That said, you don't have to have one. But unsolicited manuscripts -- those are the ones you send with no representation, sight unseen, through the mail room -- end up on the slush pile, and we already discussed how that works. If you know how to market yourself, bargain for a better advance and royalty, and know someone who knows a guy who went to college with another dude who is owed a favor by an editor, by all means, save the 15%.
Google is NOT the place to find agents for hire, it's the place to research the ones you find in The Writer's Market (the link goes to the 2010 edition). Seriously, if you're going to look for an agent, just use The Writer's Market. Googling "Literary Agent" is going to return a ton of people out there looking to charge you reading fees or build their little boutique business.
When you do look in The Writer's Market, you want to find agents who represent what you write. If you wrote an epic Sci-Fi novel, don't query a mystery agent, or a short-story agent, or any other agent besides a Sci-Fi agent. You're wasting your time and theirs. They specialize in markets for a reason. Sending your amazing poetry to a historical fiction agent is stupid. Even if they were to actually take you seriously, do you want that person trying to sell your work outside of their market?
If you do find an agent, you will sign an agreement. This agreement will likely be 15% commission, plus expenses of printing and mailing your manuscript / proposal to publishers. They won't bill you until it sells. Like I said in the intro, DO NOT PAY AN AGENT A SINGLE CENT. No agent collects up front unless they're a scam artist.
Listen to the agent. They know the market. They know the publishers. They're your mama. Do what they say. That said, they're also your employee. If you're not happy, feel free to fire them. But know that ANY book they represented when you signed the agreement, if you sell it somewhere else without them, will still be subject to that 15% fee. Is this a scam? I dunno, that's a lawyer question, and I've not experienced that yet. But I know it'll happen. So be aware.
4) Submit the Manuscript. If you choose to pursue an agent, you'll have to submit the manuscript to them. Print the sucker out on bright white, 8.5" x 11" standard letter-size paper. Don't get cute and use non-standard sized paper, colored paper, tinted paper, recycled paper with the little flecks of what used to be toilet paper showing through the fabric... Bright. White. Letter. Sized.
A few notes, based on questions I've actually been asked about this process:
Agents and publishers are not looking to steal your work. If you're worried about that, stop. They don't have the time or resources to worry with passing your work off to someone else to write for less money or whatever. It's so much easier to just let the person who came up with the good idea write the thing.
You're not getting a two hundred thousand dollar advance. Don't buy that Viper just yet.
You're not selling the copyright to the work. You always own that. You're selling the rights to publish and distribute in print, digital and possibly audio.
If things go really well and you end up with two publishers expressing interest, don't start getting all Wall Street on them. You can let each know that the other is interested, and you might see a bidding war, but more than likely they'll just say "Okay, well, we hope you pick us, but if you don't, good luck." The industry knows itself, just like you know a lot of people in your current industry. And they talk. Start pitting one against the other, and you can expect they'll just call each other and figure it out.