My last book was self-published, so I didn't work with a publisher on that one. It was actually my 8th novel and I tried a little to get some of the other ones published but never really delved deeply enough into it.
In some ways, I wish I would have tried to do more with them, but then again I think something inside made me want to wait to mature as a writer and as a person. And no regrets, there is only now. And speaking of now, I've written a 9th novel, working title The Obamacare Experiments, and now I'm pursuing a traditional publisher for that one more rigorously.
Find an Editor
One thing I've come to understand is that you have to invest in your product. That means you need to seek out a professional editor. It's expensive but it must be done, for four reasons.
First, it's the best way to learn. It's like hiring a tutor.
Second, writing is a collaborative process. It is very rare when a person can just write something down and have it published (maybe impossible). You need that professional with credentials. Why? So you will trust their recommendations. Preferably, you should find one from NYC with publishing experience, again expensive, but worth it.
One more piece of advice on the selection I might offer: if you're a woman, find a male editor and vice versa. This is not a hard and fast rule, by any means, but in my own research (anecdotal though it may be) I found that this dynamic seems to lend itself to creation of a better product . . . food for thought.
Third, networking. When you're working with an editor, you're hobnobbing with an industry insider. No telling who they might talk to if they like your work. You have to make sure you find one that's plugged in, to a certain extent.
Fourth, the editor can help you figure out if your project has commercial value of if you need to move on to your next project.
For my editor, I went with a fellow Kentuckian who lives in NYC named Catherine Adams and she's doing a phenomenal job. I couldn't recommend her more highly. But I must say, the Tao or the Spirit, or call it what you will, led me to her virtual door. Not every editor is right for every author or every project. Take as much time as you need making your selection--it's a critically important decision.
Find a Marketing Guy
The next thing I would recommend is talking to a marketing guy. It will cost you about $300 but this person's advice will be more directed toward helping you to find an agent. You almost have to have an agent these days. Now read that sentence again but take out the word "almost."
When I finish with the editing in a few weeks or so, I plan on working with a guy named Mark Malatesta (http://literary-agents.com/). I haven't used him yet myself, but his website is extensive and free and has already pointed me in the right direction in many ways, so I feel good about what he will be able to do for me when the time comes.
Some people also like to go to writers conferences. I've been to one of them and they can be good once you get prepared per above. With those, look for the ones with a "pitch sessions" where you can talk to actual agents for a few minutes about your project. If you're prepared (see above), they just might bite.
With all of this you're looking at an investment in your product in the thousands of dollars. But you have to understand that half of writing is writing, the other half is business. You have to be entrepreneurial to succeed, which means risking money in the hopes of future gain. And you could come up empty, lose it all, with no royalties whatsoever to show for it.
Personally, I would rather fail completely than not really try. No meals will be missed. Everything will work out. The consequences of failure are not as dire as some fearful types would have you believe. And you will know that for the next project from personal experience--entrepreneurialism becomes easier and easier with each new attempt. And then one day you succeed and make the big bucks. That's how it works.
Look at it this way: you're asking other people to take a risk on you and your product. Have you done the same? Do you have the same faith in your work that you're asking them to have? In the business world they call this "having skin in the game." When you have taken a risk on your own product, you act differently and that comes through. It gets communicated. And you look at your own writing differently. You're more willing to evaluate it objectively and make necessary changes when you have money riding on it (funny how that works, isn't it?).
This is how it's done. Otherwise, you might as well buy a lottery ticket because that has about as much chance of success as going it alone. You've got to build your team to succeed. Fortunes are made by teams, not very often by individuals. An editor, a marketing coach, an agent, a publisher, a publicist, a lawyer, a web designer, a hairstylist . . . Start building your team.