My secret boyfriend Michael Chabon (like, well, many others) declares that the secret to literary success is the trifecta--luck, talent, and hard work.
Fine, fine. Talent and hard work, yadda yadda. Wait for a second, though--let's go back to that first one.
Luck. That merciless bastard, Luck.
This is the thing about publishing you didn't prepare yourself for (how could you have?): all your hard work and talent may very well amount to absolutely nothing at all. All that matters is that you hedge your bets correctly. You know--roll snake eyes... let me count... at least six times in a row.
First: Hedge your bets about your writing's readiness. You--you and no one else--have to choose the right moment to try to shop the right book that you'll ever write to be your debut. Is your manuscript ready to attract an agent? Or do you need more time?
Some authors carefully write and then sit on 23 manuscripts before finally submitting their 24th to great success; some submit their first and have great success. And of course lots of people have no success at all. But the point is, what you don't want to do is end up in the initially tantalizing but ultimately disasterous scenario where somehow your book gets picked up by an agent, then by a house, only to fail in bookstores. Because then, you know, it's harder to sell your second book than it ever was to sell your first.
Second: Hedge your bets that you've chosen the right agent. You know, one who has the right connections to the editors who acquire the kinds of books most like yours (but without being SO like yours that they won't want another). Do you go with the absolute most impressive or famous agent on your list? And maybe risk getting stuck in their midlist? Or do you go with a lesser-known agent whose best friend is the editor at the imprint by which you're most dying to be published? What if you only get one offer from one agent, but that agent is very young and is only starting to make connections? Do you accept the offer in hopes of getting a deal, period, regardless of where or on what scale you're published?
Third: Hedge your bets that you've taken the right manuscript development suggestions from all the cooks spoiling the broth. You wrote a novel; your crit group tore it apart. You rewrote it; your friends tore it apart. You rewrote it; your mother tore it apart. You rewrote it; your agent suggested 15 rounds of changes. You fought for some things, were flexible about others. All right. Now let's reflect--your book is 5% of what it was when you started. Fantastic. Are you ok with everything that's happened? Is it still a book that's true to you and what your initial dream was?
As an editor, I'm always the one telling people their initial dreams need some, uh, reconstructive surgery. That said, I do totally see the author's side. You only get to be a debut author once, and people are poking and prodding you in the direction they think will make you most likely to succeed. Are they experts? Yeah, some of them. Are experts ever wrong? Yeah, sometimes.
Fourth: Hedge your bets that your book is ready to submit. Here's the thing. There are some exceptions, but for the most part, an editor will only look at your manuscript once (that is, unless they saw some real promise there and specifically say they want to see it again). So obviously your agent is going to start submitting to your first-choice editors/houses. What if they all reject you because your manuscript wasn't ready? Or because they see it going in a different direction? How can you hedge your bets that your manuscript is closest to what your dream house would want without overriding your vision for your book?
Fifth: Hedge your bets on a publishing house and editor. Do you take that small offer from your absolute favorite house ever and risk falling by the wayside in their bottom midlist? Or are you better off at a small house with an enthusiastic editor (and, um, teeny-tiny distribution)? Where are your odds better? What if that editor ends up leaving or being dropped? How can you guess which options feel better as you're vetting? What if your only offer is one you're not enthusiastic about at all? Is it better to take it for the sake of being published, even not the way you dreamt, or should you hold out and try to write another book?
Sixth: Hedge your bets on your rights sales. Do you let your publishing house have World rights? Is your agent going to be able to sell those foreign and subrights her/himself? If you retain foreign rights in hopes of making more money, what'll you do if you can't sell any of them and end up just not seeing your book in any other countries? Crikey.
I do seriously sympathize with authors on all these fronts; I have a lot of friends who are authors and I've seen all of them go through these various jams (most people will run aground at one stage or another). Luckily (ha!) we here have one another, and the advice and ideas we share, so we've made a little of our own luck.
But do keep in mind these are all things to think about as you go rushing ahead. Don't be afraid to ask questions; the more knowledge you have, the luckier you'll be.
Also, in the wise words of Marge Simpson, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Don't be afraid to ask for help and attention at each step of the way. (You know--just be nice about it).
And as a final word, be your own advocate. The people who are most self-sufficient and proactive tend to be the luckiest. By default.