Dear unpublished Montana writer:
You are correct in stating that there are no agents in Montana. In fact, there are very few agents in the western U.S., except for a predicable crowd in Southern California. A Writer's Market map shows the gory details.
But forget about where the agents are for a moment and consider some basics. Your attempts to attract an agent or publisher must begin with a search for names and contact information. That means research.
Bookstores and libraries are excellent places to find the information you need. Look for books similar to yours. Make a note of the publishers, then go to their Web sites and search for "submission guidelines." Sometimes a list of agents the publisher works with is noted somewhere on their site. You can also find information about publishers and agents in books like The Writer's Market. (And no, I am not affillated with TWM in any way. It just happens to be a resource I'm familiar with.)
Once you have a list of potential publishers and agents, write a riveting query letter. No more than one page. Take a minute to imagine how many such letters agents and publishers receive in any given week (hundreds or thousands), and you'll understand how crucial this letter is. Your query letter must hook the reader (probably an intern) from the first sentence and pull them through to the final sentence. And be sure the letter is addressed to a specific person, not "Dear Editor" or "Dear Agent." Do you enjoy receiving generic letters? Of course not. So don't offend the people whose attention you are trying to attract.
Again, look for a book that contains examples and advice for writing query letters. Or find a reputable online resource.
So, back to your manuscript. If it's fiction, you should have three finished chapters ready to show an agent. Finished means they have been re-written many times and been through a copy-editing process.
For nonfiction, a first-time author might need an entire manuscript—a well-written and well-edited manuscript—unless your proposal is clearly unique or surprising. Or the agent can tell, by reading your query letter, that you are an exceptional writer with an exceptional idea.
You also mentioned the possibility of self-publishing, so here's a bit about that:
The most important thing to remember about self-publishing is that you have no perspective on your own work. So, you'll need to hire a professional editor, which will be a major expense. And don't skimp on the book's layout by choosing narrow margins and a cramped presentation in order to save money on the number of pages. Look at books published by major houses to get layout ideas. Another thing about self-publishing is that once you have boxes of books stacked in your garage, the real, and very time-consuming, work of marketing and selling your book, one copy at a time, begins. Do you enjoy marketing, lugging boxes into the UPS store, cheap motels, and January road trips?
Writing and publishing books is thrilling work when it goes well and depressing when you feel rejected. But keep in mind that making books is like everything else: You have to work at it every day, celebrate small victories, and enjoy the process.
Thanks for sharing my passion for The Write Question.
Wishing you the best in all your writing and publishing endeavors,
Chérie Newman's articles and book reviews have been published in Montana Magazine, High Country News, the University of Montana Alumni Newsletter, the Billings Gazette, the Missoulian, Montana Senior News, Outside Bozeman Magazine, and on numerous Web sites.
Her media portfolio includes radio plays, special audio programs featuring
artists, and a weekly literary program for public radio stations — The Write Question — which is distributed through the Public Radio Exchange (PRX.org) and as a podcast through the Montana Public Radio Web site (MTPR.org).