We know how difficult it is to approach a publishing house, especially with your first work. Some publishers these days refuse to read unsolicited material, as they get so many manuscripts that they are snowed under. They know that a manuscript that has been taken on by an agent has already been assessed and considered worthwhile, and agents become their unpaid readers.
For this reason it is worthwhile looking for an agent. An agent has faith in your work; she knows the marketplace and knows where to send your manuscript; she works hard to get you the best deal because she doesn't earn a cent until a contract has been signed.
The downside of this is that an agent will rarely be able to agent many books at a time, as she receives no income until she succeeds in placing the book with a publisher. She also has a responsibility to those writers she has taken on already. This leaves the new writer with the ages-old predicament: how to get an agent?
Answer one is the usual one: find out the agents of other books like yours, and offer them your work. Find out what they need from you: the whole manuscript, a précis, an interview, etc; and make sure to include a stamped self-addressed envelope for their reply.
Answer two is the hard one: be your own agent. Especially if this is your first work, you may find it very difficult to find someone to take you on. Researching the market and writing your own proposal will help you understand the processes which start the publishing routine. You don't have to share your earnings with someone else; and, of course, once you are established as a writer you will have a far better chance of finding an agent who is willing to represent you, leaving you to the much more pleasant job of writing books instead of letters. In addition, most Australian publishers are still happy to receive unagented work. There are only four or five who will not—a look at publishers' websites or The Australian Writer's Marketplace will tell you which these are.
Before you send your manuscript anywhere, have it professionally assessed. Then sit on it for a few months, and come back to it with a fresh eye. Redraft. Don't miss these steps out and expect to get an enthusiastic response from an agent. You have to do more than your share of the work in presenting an absolutely excellent manuscript, and you have to be prepared to spend money for expert advice.
And never feel badly if an agent cannot represent you. It is not a reflection on the quality of your work, but on the taste of the agent and the current demands of the marketplace.
the book doctor
69 Sandville Place
(03) 6239 9423