Here is the deal, I've been reading tons of agent blogs lately. The common thread: all of them blog about angry authors at least once a week.
A little note on the publishing process: Write your book, write a query letter, send the query letter to an agent, wait for the agent to respond.
If the agent likes the query: You will get a request for a partial or full manuscript. If they like the partial, they request a full. If they like a full, they'll proposition you with representation. Then the agent has to sell your book to a publisher. Then you get an editor who will probably rip you a new one and tell you to re-write half your book. Oh, and in most cases, the publisher will choose the layout and cover for your book, not you. And they probably won't be the ones selling your book, you will.
If the agent doesn't like the query: You'll get a form rejection letter. Form letters are generic, unspecific letters that basically say: thanks but no thanks. Agents send form letters because they get hundreds of queries a week, sometimes thousands, and they just don't have the time to write you a 'Dear John' letter with perfume spattered all over it.
That's a simplified version of the agent process, but that's basically how it goes. It doesn't apply to all agents or publishers.
What the agents don't like are the writers who send queries, get a form rejection, and then throw a sh*t fit because they can't take the insincerity of a form letter. Or, in the very rare and auspicious case when an agent will write a personalized letter that offers constructive criticism, the author can't take the criticism and throws said sh*t fit. I sit and read these blogs and want to laugh at these authors. I understand where the authors are coming from. I've written a book myself, I've written two actually...they are just stuck together under one title. I've written all my life, my stories are my babies. I'm trying to get published just like everyone else. I can't believe these people would allow themselves to miff to the point where they bite back at an agent. Has America really come to that? Have we indulged in the honking horns so much that people think they are entitled to take up an agent's time with this kind of crud?
I try to tell myself not. I just think that people are not properly preparing themselves for the process before they jump into it.
1. If you haven't submitted to small literary publications, journals, or magazines then do it. People suggest you submit to these in order to get your name out there and have something to put on your query letter. While publication in one of these magazines or journals might help, it's not necessary. There are a lot of nobodies who get their novels published. I'm telling you to submit because I think you need to learn how to get rejected. Yes, you need to learn how to be a looser before you can even hope to be a winner.
Write a short story or a poem or send a chapter of your novel. Send it to the hardest to get into magazine. If you go to www.pw.org (poets and writers) you can find a very comprehensive list of literary magazines and journals that take submissions of all types of work. Even better, you can find the ones that are hardest to get into by doing an advanced search. I say try for the hardest because the publishing industry will be about as hard as getting into one of these magazines (probably harder). The likelihood of rejection is also just as high. Plus, these magazines send out form letters (just like most agents). If you get yourself accustomed to your work getting rejected on the micro level then it wont hurt too bad to get form rejection on the macro level.
2. Let knowledgeable people read your work before you submit it. This is an all encompassing statement. If you write a query or novel let at least ten people read and critique it. Not just anyone. You want smart people to critique your work. The last thing you need is someone who doesn't know a thing about grammar telling you to make all these changes. I've found that the smarter the person is about grammar, the more well read they are, the more comfortable they are with being honest with you, the better feedback you'll get. I guarantee it won't be all good and if it is, then you aren't getting the right kind of feedback. Everything has room for improvement and you're kidding yourself if you think you or your work is perfect. I wanted to cry when I got my first really harsh critique, but I sucked it up and told myself how much better I could be if I could get that person to tell me I did a good job in re-writing my work. Yes, writing is a form of art, but it's so much more. It's entertainment and history in the making, you have to practice, make is accessible, and get it just right if you want other people to appreciate it as much as you do. Sometimes complete strangers are the best. If you have a writers group in your area, join it and let them critique your work.
Also, I highly suggest going to a writers conference and having an agent critique your query. I thought mine was peachy keen, but one of the agents at Lunacon thought otherwise and gave me some really good advice. If you can get yourself used to getting this kind of constructive feedback on your work, then you are less likely to get upset when an agent does you the favor of writing a personalized response to your query or manuscript. Also, learning on this level how to take criticism and turn it into something that makes you a better writer will be what continues to put you on the bestseller list and not constantly butting heads with your editor (who will tell you the same exact things your critics told you from day one).
3. Lastly, please re-read and continue to improve your work. Like I said, nothing is perfect. I guarantee that if you've re-read your work so much that you can't find something to fix then you need to take a break and come back to it a couple of weeks later or someone else needs to read it. Do yourself the favor of finding out what the agents want in a query letter or manuscript and save yourself from an embarrassing disappointment. You shouldn't send a query to an agent more than once, so if you blow it the first time, that's it. Don't jump the gun, have patience and you will be rewarded.
I admit I haven't actually been published yet, but I think my suggestions are pretty practical and I am reciting a number of them verbatim from agents and editors who have talked about these topics on blogs and at conventions