It may seem as though I’ve already covered this, but I’m actually widening the net now. Let’s assume that your story is written, and you want to fire it off.
Read the guidelines.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re sending to an agent or a publisher. Before you print your work, before you buy a box to put it in, before you stack it neatly inside and post it, read the guidelines.
To illustrate, here’s the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2007 (if you want up to date information, buy yourself a copy). Let’s see what it has to say about Penguin Group (UK): Penguin General Books (division):
No unsolicited MSS or synopses.
That’s quite clear, isn’t it? If they want your work, they’ll ask you or your agent for it. Roughly translated, that means don’t bloody send it to them unless they ask to see it.
See how this works? Good. Let’s try another.
D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd – Publications.
Publishers of newspapers and periodicals. Children’s books (annuals), based on weekly magazine characters; fiction. For fiction guidelines, send a large sae to Central Fiction Dept.
Now this one’s quite cunning. What you do is you get an envelope, write your name and address on it, put a stamp on it, then send it to them inside another envelope with their address on. You do not send them a query letter, a synopsis, any chapters of your novel, or your first born child. Cleverly they also mention their target audience, so you likely don’t want to waste the postage on them if you’ve written lesbian erotica.
Now to something more complicated:
A & C Black Publishers Ltd.
Children’s and educational books (including music) for 3-15 year-olds (preliminary enquiry appreciated – fiction guidelines upon request); ceramics, art and craft, drama, ornithology, reference (Who’s Who, Whitaker’s Almanack), sport, theatre, books for writers, dictionaries. Subsidiary of Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. Founded 1807.
A & C Black, back in the 2007 imprint of the W&A Yearbook, would be happy for you to contact them with an enquiry and request their fiction guidelines. Note that an enquiry is not “Here is a synopsis and the first three chapters of my novel. Would you like to see the rest?” An enquiry is more “Hello, I was wondering if you were currently looking for submissions. If so, please may I see your guidelines?”
Obviously don’t say that exactly. You’re a writer. Think of something.
Of course if you don’t really want to get published, don’t bother doing your research. There are plenty of agents and publishers out there who are perfectly happy to bin your letter or manuscript if you’re stupid enough to send it to them when they either didn’t ask for it or it doesn’t follow their guidelines.
Increase your odds. Learn to aim.