My nom-de-real-life frequently reminds me that she's already published one book and is under contract to write another. This would be impressive if anyone cared.
She writes boring articles related to her boring job as a librarian, and the book she wrote--also boring--is not something you've ever heard of. It was never meant to be consumed by a popular audience.
For academics and others who write technical or professional literature, the barrier to publication is fairly low. First you pitch an idea to the press, and if they like it, you go about writing the book, already knowing that it will have a home.
What I am trying to do is much more difficult. With popular fiction, you write the book first, even though probably no one will ever want to publish it. It's depressing as hell but it's the statistical truth: most novel manuscripts never get published.
If you want to be not just published but published by one of the big five (HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Macmillan, or Hachette), you should paint landscapes or tutor children or develop alcoholism, whatever it takes to distract yourself from the slow realization that your dreams have failed.
There is a very small number of people who do break in to the big five, but again: statistically, you won't be one of them. Sorry.
If you refuse to listen to reason--if you are resolved to die on this particular hill--then you attempt to get a literary agent, because otherwise you can't even get your foot in the door with the big boys.
This is an arduous process in itself, but to cut to the chase: I got an agent. I got an awesome agent. I got an awesome agent and three months ago I signed with him.
Then nothing happened.
This was by design. I explained that I was moving and wouldn't have time to work on the manuscript.
A common nugget of writerly advice is to write every day, even if it's only for a little bit. "Make the time," they'll tell you. "Don't make excuses. You have to sacrifice if you want to be a writer, you know."
I sort of want to push them off the balcony of my new house, but I'm sure they mean well.
My agent completely understood that my time would be consumed by little tiny things like maintaining a full-time faculty job and buying a house with a sufficiently high balcony. He gave me plenty of time and space to move and settle and unpack.
Actually I still have a couple of boxes to unpack but anyway.
Yesterday my agent sent me his proposed revisions. These are the changes he recommends to make my manuscript as attractive as possible to the five-count'em-five publishers we'll be courting.
In other words, I just got a hell of a lot of free professional editing.