The trouble is I have (or had) a fixed idea about the right way to go about this. So first the method, then the (probably flawed) justification.
You have your novel (I’m not going to drone on about it being “polished”, etc; I’ll leave that to the dreary advice sites), and now – being a denizen of that height of civilization, the free market economy – you must “market” it, or, put simply, hawk and whore it to a bunch of agencies and/or small publishers that you hope against hope will be interested in the fruits of your labour. This usually requires producing a synopsis and cover letter and sending it off with the first fifty pages of the novel to an agent of your choosing as per the instructions on their website – so usually by email these days, though some still insist on postal submissions (for fiction anyway).
There are loads of sites offering advice on writing synopses and cover letters. Most of them – the sites – have a jaunty commonsensical tone, really as though they’re preparing children for the REAL world. “So you’ve written your novel, polished it, and made it the best it can be – good! Now the hard work starts.” Oh, ha ha… You’re tuned to Radio Free Smug.
Having once submitted your novel, you’re advised to forget it, or at least not brood overly much upon it. Rejection is routine; it will hurt routinely, and diminish you in small ways. You, sadly, believe in something intensely that the world is happy to ignore. Lots of people are in this situation, and the price of rejection is not always so gentle (sometimes you starve, sometimes you die; here, usually, unread writers just go on doing their living-making thing).
So why is the agency approach a good one? Or why was I convinced it was so? I suppose because I imagined you were submitting (in some sense) to an arbiter of quality, someone who could tell the shit from the sugar. To get an agent is an achievement because it says some other someone believes in your book enough to want the privilege of representing it to the world (a younger me naively imagined this had to do with art rather than money). You’re validated; you can write. Or, at least, someone else – someone in the biz – thinks you can.
Nowadays, of course, there are many routes to get your book out there, most of them bypassing the nod or approval of another person, never mind one that knows anything about writing. Bands do this, of course: they get gigs and build an audience around their music and act. Why shouldn’t writers appeal directly to an audience and build a readership without recourse to the percenters in the middle? Of course, they can and should. And some have done this successfully, though most of them turn out to be dreadful writers. Whenever there’s a story about a writer who’s got a big advance as a result of being successful on the web, I look them up and invariably have the same reaction: Oh, yes, more shite. The vast majority of the big, bad world out there doesn’t know what good writing is (sorry, but it isn’t just what people want to read). I suppose my fear is that it’s all like that now. Despite saying that they’re looking for “unique” and “unusual”, what agents really want is stuff that will sell by the truckload – sod the quality.
Self-publishing has never appealed to me; indeed, it has, for me, something of a whiff of failure about it. This might be a limitation in my way of thinking. After all, I’m blogging here, not submitting this to a magazine or paper for someone’s approval. But, of course (and this has to be recognized and acknowledged), I’m also mostly being ignored.