Someone on my Yahoo group asked me how to get published. Well, I'm about to try for that myself, but I've done a lot of research on it, so following are my thoughts on going from idea to publication. Since I'm only published as a newspaper/magazine freelancer, I'm sharing my research, not my experience. When I have fiction publishing experience to share, I will certainly do so!
There are LOADS of books out there on how to get published. The best thing you can do to learn about writing and publishing is join a writers' group online where pro's and wannabe-pros (like me!) both post. Critters.org is a good site if you write sf/f/horror (mine are fantasy, so I fit there), but earning critiques there takes a long time. I use www.notebored.com for my crit group, Hatrack River Writers Workshop (Orson Scott Card's site) for the lessons there and the message boards (mostly the boards) http://www.hatrack.com/writers/index.shtml. Liberty Hall is a good site, but it's invitation only (I'm a member but don't participate there much - too busy, but it's a good site). All the sites I'm involved with are for sf/f/h writers. There are similar sites for romance writers, children's writers, etc. You just have to search for them.
The first step to geting published is to write, write, write, then revise, revise, revise (*way* more than three times!!). Set the story aside for a month or two and find something else to occupy your mind so that, when you look at the story again, you'll see it with fresh eyes. Then revise, revise revise AGAIN! After it's as good as you can get it, ask people whose opinions you truly respect to read and critique your writing. Be sure the people you ask like the genre in which you're writing - don't ask those who like techno-thrillers to read a fantasy novel, for instance. Your loved ones -- spouse and children -- may refuse to read it because they're afraid they'll hurt your feelings if they don't like it - which is why nobody in my family has read any of my fiction, *sigh* (and they're into techno-thrillers instead of fantasy, so that's another problem).
Don't argue with your readers, learn from them. Every opinion has SOME validity, even if it doesn't make sense to you (if it doesn't, ask them to clarify their meaning, to give specific examples from your story and perhaps they will also be willing to suggest ways to rewrite the problem areas).
Go through as many critiques as it takes for you to get to the point where there is very little you can find to change in the manuscript (I had 3 betas, my Brit-picker, two critique groups and two or three other folks critique mine). When you think it's really, truly finished, see if your most vocal critic will read it one more time to help you find any leftover plot holes, words used too frequently, etc.
While he's working on that, you can start researching agents you want to query. If it's a novel, those who know the industry suggest you try to find an agent first, rather than a publisher. An agent can get you through doors that you'll never get into by yourself. You can meet agents at writing conventions, many of which are sf/f/h conventions as well as writing conventions.
There are guide books published each year by Writer's Digest books and others that list both agents and publishers open to new writers. The 2007 Guide to Literary Agents is my next research assignment, once I get the polishing on "Star Sons" a bit further along (no, wait - I can do it today, since I'm polishing chapter 10 right now). Some agents want you to send the first five pages, others the first five chapters, a rare few the first hundred pages. When I have the first hundred pages polished again (I'm nearly there now), I'll start sending out queries to agents, ten at a time.
www.AgentQuery.com is a good site that has up-to-date lists of agents and tells what they're looking for. Jeff Herman has an annual guide to agents that's really nice because they answer questionnaires that tell their other interests, such as favorite films, which can help you get to know them better before approaching them (so you can do a better job of choosing who to query).
I've read many times that it's a good idea to break into publishing by creating a name for yourself by selling short stories. I'm not very good at writing short stories - I tend to think in "long form" - so I haven't tried that route. I do write articles for magazines and newspapers - I'm working on some now to publicize my daughter's new farm (a training/boarding facility that features educational clinics for riders - www.dancinghorsefarmoh.com), but short stories just don't seem to flow from my fingers all that well. It's a good idea to try them first if you can write them.
Query letters are difficult to master, IMO. The query letter has to catch the eye but be professional-looking and SHORT. A synopsis is also hard for me to write, as is a "blurb" (a one-paragraph explanation of the story). But those are all things you need to learn how to do.
All that said - hang out in writers' forums. Participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month - nanowrimo.org, I think), or at least read the forums. Read every book you can find on story, structure, character, dialog, plot, scene, description, etc. Read every book you can find on every aspect of writing and submitting your novel. There is a "Complete Idiots' Guide to Publishing Your Novel" that explains the process in simple language, and many others that are just as good. Learn to love spending time at B&N or Borders browsing the writing books! Subscribe to Writers Digest (www.writersdigest.com) and check out their book club, as well. WD covers everything from freelance articles to memoirs to poetry to screenplays to short stories and novels, and has books in the book club that are tremendously helpful for any form of writing.
Beware of vanity presses and POD (print-on-demand) places if you want to be published "for real." There are two distribution companies in the US that distribute books to all the big chain stores. Ingrams is one of these, and I can't think of the other, sorry! I've read in articles and on several forums that PoD places and vanity presses (both of which involve the writer paying to have the book printed) cannot get their books into the chain bookstores (Barnes & Noble, Borders, Waldenbooks, Books-A-Million, etc.) or even WalMart-type stores. So you'll have a garage full of books unless you can talk your family and friends into buying them or do a lot of SERIOUS marketing on your own. (To be fair - there are POD and vanity press success stories such as the "Soup for the Soul" books, but those are rare.)
Bookstores won't deal with distributors who won't take returned books (those that haven't sold in a certain amount of time), which is why they deal pretty much exclusively with Ingrams and that other place (darned swiss-cheese memory! *sigh*) POD and vanity presses won't take returned books.
POD books are fine for those with a small niche market - I did that for my "how to" book on sculpting ("Sculpting 101: A Primer for the Self-taught Artist" which, like "real" published books, has an ISBN number and UPC code). My art business (Whimsy Hill Studio) is listed as a "publisher" in all the places that matter. I didn't bother to try to place the book with a real publisher nor did I worry about distributing it through Ingrams, since it has such a small niche market. I sell it from my website (www.thesculptedhorse.com) and in my booth at shows. I also wholesale it to art teachers and sculpture supply stores, including the largest one in the US (as far as I know), The Compleat Sculptor in NYC. That's good distribution for such a book, and I make a tidy profit from sales. I actually need to revise it and do a second printing - I'm almost out of the first edition. But that kind of thing, church cookbooks and family memoirs are pretty much all PoD and vanity presses are good for if you're serious about being a PUBLISHED author, as I am. (And you can't count such "publication" on a writing resume - the pros in the field know who the PoD publishers are and will give no credance to such "credentials.")
Once your novel is as good as it can be, print it out and edit it again. You'll be surprised what jumps out at you when the novel is on paper rather than on a computer screen.
Once you narrow down which agents you want to query, find out how the agent wants to be queried (that's what AgentQuery.com and those books are for, to give up up-to-date names and addresses of agents who are LOOKING for new writers!) Print your novel out in the proper format (do some research - I don't have to tell you *everything* LOL! That can be another post sometime anyway) and send a fresh, clean, crisp copy (not your ONLY copy!) of however many pages they want (if any), along with your query letter, etc. and a self-addressed-stamped-envelope for the agency's response. Then cross your fingers that you get a good response!
Oh, another thing to do before querying is to go to a bookstore and look at books similar to yours. Look in the "acknowlegements" for each one (not all of them will have them, but mine includes this group, my betas, and the others who've helped me get my novel into publishable form). Find out who the agent is for the writers whose books are similar to yours. Then look in the guidebooks to see if that agent is taking new writers and query them, since you know they like work similar to yours.
If an agent asks for more of your manuscript (and you do NOT copyright your manuscript!! That's very amateurish. No agent or publisher is going to rip off your story), send them exactly what they ask for (but if they ask for the first five pages, for instance, and the chapter ends on page 6, go ahead and send page 6 - they'll accept that). After that, make sure you find a lawyer to go over the contract you're offered (if you're so lucky!) before signing it, and you're in business!
A reputable agent will not charge you a reading fee or any other fees up front. Once you have a contract, they may charge an "office fee" for copying, etc., but you shouldn't have to pay anything else. Agents are like commissioned salesmen - they make their money by making sales, not by charging writers fees. If, in your research, you run across an agent who charges a reading fee or other fees, don't query him. That's what all the pros say, and I think it's good advice.
If you're lucky enough to find an agent, and he's good enough to find you a publisher, the publisher should put you together with an in-house editor who may make suggestions about your story. Listen to the editor - he knows what works in the real world of publishing. But remember, too, that it's YOUR story. If you question something the editor says, there's nothing wrong with asking about that point (or so I've been told - I'm not at that point yet!)
Eventually, you'll be sent galley proofs to read so you can make sure the story was printed as you wrote it (you'll be looking for typos and real errors - no "polishing" allowed at this point). Once the galleys are approved, the book goes to press. Then you and your agent or publisher will discuss which book signings you'll attend, etc. and you'll hope and pray that lots of folks buy your book! (You should talk to the agent and publisher about how your book will be promoted and how much travel you're expected or are willing to do to attend book-signings, etc. If you're comfortable giving interviews, it will benefit your book for you to be interviewed on radio and TV and in print, so let your agent and publisher know if you are comfortable in front of crowds that way - that's where my years as a performer - both singing and sculpting in public - will be helpful to me! Yay!)
This is the publishing business as far as I know it from extensive research and talking to friends who've been published (but not in my genre, dang it, although one friend did try to hook me up with an agent friend - but that agent doesn't handle fantasy, *sigh*, nor did she know any such agents - I did try to get the networking thing going, but it didn't pan out, alas).
Hopefully, this rambling post is a bit helpful to you!