First, think hard about what you have. Yes, you wrote it. You know it inside and out. But try to think about your work subjectively. Be honest with yourself. Is it commercial? Could it appeal to a wide audience? If so you have two choices:
Query agents – If you are looking for someone to help build your career as an author, manage your submissions, and be your business partner. Agents want books that have broad appeal. They also want manuscripts that haven’t been shopped around. So if you have a manuscript that has a large potential audience and want an agent, SUB TO AGENTS AND AGENTS ONLY first.
Query Publishers – Unfortunately, having an agent doesn’t guarantee a book sale. While there are publishers that are closed to unagented submissions, many are open to queries and some are even open to writer submissions. So, if you want to go straight to the people who create the books, submit your work to publishers. Still assuming your book has that commercial appeal, start with the larger publishers IF you find that your manuscript could fit into their publishing program. Research those publishers and editors and see what they’re looking for. Only send them your manuscript if it fits their publishing criteria!
If your manuscript is specialized, regional, or quiet, perhaps looking at smaller and independent publishers would be a good idea. There are loads of smaller publishers who publish great books! But don’t neglect studying the large publishing houses as well. You need to be familiar with them and what they are looking for and who knows, you might find a good place to submit.
Something to think about…
Agents generally like to know that you’re a prolific writer who is this writing business for the long haul. They can tell that by reading more of your work and may very well request more if they are interested in representing you. You need to be prepared for that.
Do your research. Make sure that the agent you are submitting to represents what you write. And lead with your strongest work. How do you decide what is strongest? Again, what has the widest potential audience? What is the most commercial? What could bring in the bigger payday? (This is business, after all.)
Of course, you can’t know all these things for certain. You can only make your best, most educated decision. So start reading those submission guidelines! Read interviews and market guides. Find out who has published what. Make lists! The more you know about publishers and agents, the stronger your submission strategy will be.
How many submissions to send at a time? Read Part 2 of Create a Submission Strategy.