I'm often get asked by aspiring authors for advice on getting published. This is a piece that I wrote some time back, but it's still pertinent advice if anyone is still looking for a head's up...
There's a process for most fiction authors and it generally runs the same course. Some people are lucky in that they get a contract on an idea and a few chapters, but it's not usually the norm. It's best to get your full book written before you even start to look for an agent or publisher, as being 'untested' they will want to check that you have the stamina to write a full novel and can carry your idea through to the end. A book these days usually runs anywhere from 80,000 to 130,000 words, and you maybe want to get the book to those kinds of proportions before you begin seeking representation or publishing.
There's no right or wrong way to write. Some meticulously plan and plot the book out before writing it, others, like me, write from the seat of the pants. I just have an idea and go with it and see where I'm going to end up. BTW, my books tend to run at about 90,000 words (for comparison).
When your book is ready to start sending out, my advice is to seek representation from an agent. Now this is the difficult bit. Agents act as middle men and clearing houses for publishers these days, and to be taken on by an agent is a massive step, almost as difficult as getting a contracted deal from a publisher. Very few publishers accept submissions directly, and use the agent to send them only the best. When your book is written, go back over it with a fine tooth-comb and edit it and sort out any typos or inconsistencies. Get someone else that you trust to also read it, but also someone who will tell you the truth if you have any weaknesses or hanging plot lines (your family and best friends tend to tell you only good things which doesn't really help).
When that is done and you've made it the best you can, start checking out agents who might be interested in your style of book. The bible for this is the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook which lists all the reputable agencies and contact details. Also check on the internet and look at authors you admire and find out who their agent is. It is always better to have a name to send your book to rather than just sending it to the agency itself, as it shows you've taken time to do your research.
When you have an idea of who might be interested check their submission guidelines (often they're on their websites or in the fore mentioned WAA yearbook). The industry standard tends to be that you must mail them an intro pack. This comes with an introductory letter, in which you briefly describe your book, and any plans you have for follow ups (they're looking for writers who have more than one book in them) as well as the approximate word count, followed by a brief bio of yourself. Say for example that you're an ex soldier. Mention that in your intro letter as it is your USP (unique selling point) particularly if your book involves soldiers/military etc as it shows you have the know how. Also mention other writers you think your book may be targeted towards to attract some of their readers. e.g. "I believe my book is in a similar style to that of Lee Child and Matt Hilton etc" as it then helps them think of their target audience and marketing strategies very early on. Also you will need to include a short synopsis of your book - usually a one side A4 sheet - with all the salient points and characters from your book included. Lastly you send the first 3 chapters or approximately 30,000 words of the beginning of your book. Again there's a standard in that it must be on A4 paper, double spaced with a clear margin, and on only one side of the paper (black ink). This is to allow editing and notes as early on as this. If you don't stick to that format they'll probably just bin your submission without looking at it. It's always a good idea to include your contact details in your intro letter, but also put them on the first page of your book incase the letter and book get separated. Also include a SAE for return of your pack if they don't want it (courtesy is everything).
Usually you can expect to wait a few weeks before you hear anything. Don't be disheartened if you are rejected, just move on to the next agent on your list. Rejection is par for the course, but who knows, you might strike it lucky early on. If there's any feedback take it on board. If an agent requests to see your full book you've achieved a massive first step. Be prepared to work hard. They'll probably ask for changes - but they're the experts and know what the publishers want so go with it. If you become precious about your book they might find you awkward to work with and not take you on. There's usually a test period of a month or two before they will agree to represent you and in this time they can still turn you down.
A few pointers:
Avoid anyone who asks you for money. Some agents do charge a reading fee, but most don't. They make their money (commission at about 10 -15 percent) when they sell your book. Anyone raving about your book who then asks for money are cowboys. Sadly there's a lot of them out there. Don't be caught out by flashy websites and graphics, and big promises. If in doubt, Google them and see what others are saying about them. Usually frauds are exposed this way, and yet still some aspiring/desperate authors end up handing over piles of money to them with no book deal at the end of it.
Avoid vanity publishers. These are the companies who rave about your book (without an agent) and say they'll print it for a fee - usually £thousands - and all you get is a few poorly printed books with no marketing or anything. You often see them advertising in the backs of newspapers or popping up on the website with such claims as 'We want your book' or 'We'll print Your book' and such like. Criminals, that's what they are.
Ebooks or print on demand is a new way of publishing yourself, but it's always best to go the traditional route first.
I think that's all for now. Good luck and I look forward to seeing your book on the stands.