First, there are different ways to go about it depending on what type of book you are writing. There's fiction vs nonfiction, and in nonfiction there's trade vs. academic.

For fiction, your book needs to be finished and edited before you can solicit publication.

Nonfiction is different. While having a finished book can help, it isn't necessary. All you need is a proposal which has at most three sample chapters in it; though usually has one or two. A great resource is, "How to Sell, Then Write Your Nonfiction Book." Though that seems counterintuitive, for nonfiction, publishers often like to influence the final product.

I know a lot of people who say, "I'd really like to write a book." The only way to be a writer is to write. The only way to get good at it is to keep writing. But if you have a nonfiction book, write a few chapters, then focus all your efforts on the proposal. You still need to have a detailed outline of your book, but you waste a lot of time if you write the book before trying to sell it. The publishing process is slow. Very very very painfully slow (if you are an ER doc like me). So write a few chapters, write the proposal, try to sell the book, then continue writing the book.

A common question is, "Can I go straight to the publisher to sell my book or do I need an agent?"

Fiction: While there are certainly exceptions, most authors must get an agent to solicit a publisher to buy your book. Harlequin is an example of a publisher that will take direct submissions. Not sure? Go to their website. It will tell you if they read unsolicited manuscripts.

Nonfiction Trade (books that sell to the general public): If this book can be sold to a large number of people, you'll need an agent. If it is for a niche market, you often can do a direct submission. Again, use the websites for information. Sending manuscripts to places that don't want them will be a waste of time, and a poor use for the trees that valiantly gave their lives in vain.

Nonfiction Academic: Usually is direct to publisher-no agent required. Look on your bookshelf for textbooks. There has been a lot of corporate consolidation, so there are not that many independent players. You'll find that different labels are often supplied by the same editors. Make sure you pay attention to this-it would be a mistake to send your query to the same editor more than once.

Another major question aspiring authors ask, "Why should I get an agent when they take 10% of what I earn? Won't I do better going straight to the publisher?"

Answer: Agents earn their money. Publishers will negotiate with an agent items that you'll never even know to ask for, and how to ask for it. It is likely that you will get a better contract working with an agent, even accounting for the lost 10%. Now if you do a direct submission to a publisher and get a contract, I recommend spending the $300-$400 an hour for a literary attorney to negotiate your contract. It sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but you'll get that back and more because of a more favorable contract. I recommend Paul S. Levine because he is an attorney and agent, so you kinda get a two for one special.

To be continued...

In my shameful act of self promotion: if you are a health care provider or know one, please buy my book, "How to Survive a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit." Link to buy is on the upper right of my blog