Nine times out of 10, you need a literary agent to represent you before you can even begin to THINK of selling your latest and greatest book idea to a publisher (especially when you're an unpublished author). But before you get yourself in a tizzy over an agent collecting anywhere from 10+% on the sale of the manuscript, remember: The agent is working for YOUR success. To earn the commission, they will work with you to make sure your book proposal is in top-notch condition before it gets sent off.
So, how do you get an agent?
1. Have more than just an "idea" jotted down on a cocktail napkin. To snag the attention of a literary agent, you have to have the book. Maybe not the entire thing, but there needs to be something more than just, "I want to write a book on ______." (More on this in Step 3.)
2. Identify the literary agency(ies) who would represent your kind of book. Some agencies, like The Lisa Ekus Group, represent a very specific genre (all things culinary, in this case). This is not the time for "spray and pray." Doing so will waste your time and paper. Poets & Writers has a great Literary Agents Database for perusal.
3. It's time to propose ... to the agency. Before you even get to send a book proposal to a publisher, you need to send a proposal submission to the literary agency. Once again, each agency is different, so read their submissions guidelines very closely and be sure to meet each requirement. Failing to do so will ensure that you land in the recycling bin.
These proposals will contain things such as:
Markets for the Book/Point of Differentiation
Book Table of Contents
Once you have your book proposal pulled together, give it a solid edit before sending it out (better yet, have someone else review it). Then you wait. This isn't always fun, but it's part of the process. And if you're lucky, you'll get the call or email you're hoping for. But if you don't, that's ok. Don't give up. There's a chance that there's a better-suited literary agency out there for you, so keep looking and sending proposals out.