- Write a book.
- Edit the crap out of it.
- Research agents to make sure they're legit.
- Send out your queries either by email or snail mail.
It seems that most who want to be commercially published neglect number 3.
There are plenty of well-meaning agents out there; but being well meaning won't get you a publishing contract. Contacts are the way agents know who is buying what, and if your agent doesn't have those contacts (either by working as a junior agent at a legit agency or working as an editor at a legit publisher), guess what? Your book is going to languish.
The Worst Are The Scammers, But...
Although I'll be a bit lenient on those who are clueless, I'm not about to absolve them of everything. If you don't have contact within the publishing business, don't bother becoming an agent. Period. If you want to become an agent, then start as other legitimate ones have, by working at a legitimate agency (those that get book contracts for their authors) or by working at a legitimate publisher. Learn your trade.
I mean, good intentions aside, would you really be doing an author a favor? No. Put in your dues, and then hang out your shingle.
Writers Have to Do Their Bit, Too
But writers can't just sit and blindly send out emails to every agent they come across.
Do. Your. Research.
I can't emphasize this enough. I've read on one writers' board I frequent where a poster will say something like, "I got a request for a partial. Anybody know if this person is legitimate?"
The time to ask this is before you put in your time and energy sending out query letters. You've spent time on your novel, so why wouldn't you spend time making sure 1) Agents are on the up-and-up and 2) Rep your genre?
Treat your book - and yourself - with respect!
Research the agents in your chosen genre. Ask questions, get feedback. Craft your query letter. Then, and only then, send out your query letters. If you groan and think it's going to take time to get that query shining, tough crap: Your novel did, too, didn't it?
Don't skimp on the research part.
What's the Worst That Can Happen?
Just ask PublishAmerica (PA) people who have their first rights sewn up for seven years.
Seven freakin' years.
During which PA won't do a damned thing for you. Because PA is geared to writers, not readers. PA doesn't give a damn about marketing or publicizing your book; you're expected to fork out dough for that stuff. (No matter that real publishers do marketing on your book, despite what some people might say; the only reason they don't do a lot of marketing for your book - a book from a newbie - is that you're an unknown quantity. Since you don't have a track record, guess what? They're going to spend less, but they will spend some money on your book. Commercial publishers are in it for the money, honey, because they're businesses.)
Sorry for the rant, but it really gets me when people start peddling that crap.
So, don't forget to do your research on agents before you send out your queries. Don't just click on that Google ad and expect instant bliss. Because most of those Google ads are for vanity presses and the like, and your wallet will be that much slimmer.