Everything starts with vigorous research. A point in your favor is that you are here, reading this, which is an excellent starting point, but it won’t be enough. Any time you get into a situation where you need to hire someone or strike a business deal, you’ll want to make sure you know what you’re getting into. A lot of authors eager to see their book out on the shelves rush into and through the process and end up getting themselves into a lot of trouble. There are a lot of people and businesses out there willing, able, and eager to take advantage of someone’s lack of business experience. Even honorable, reputable business professionals will look out for their own interests first, so it’ll be up to you to look out for yourself and keep safe.
If you already have some friends or contacts in the industry, start there. Reach out to authors and ask them which publishing house they’re with, whether they have an agent, who their editors and cover artists are, and how they like working with them. If you don’t know anyone, go to the second step: a simple Google search. You can search for genre-specific agents or publishers in general, or look for them by name.
Once you find them (whoever it is), check their website thoroughly. Is it professional and well put together? Do they have a listing of services and a breakdown of prices/fees/royalties? Do they have a portfolio or testimonials page? Are the authors they have worked with ones you know or have heard of? Do their books and websites look professional and well put together? The more information you can glean, the better. If all of your questions are answered just by browsing their website, it’s an excellent sign that this person or business has their stuff together, that they are transparent, and trustworthy.
If you still have questions left over, reach out to them directly and ask. You should get an answer in a reasonable amount of time. Standard business rules say within 24-hours, but sometimes people get busy so be patient. However, if you wait a week or more for an answer, it’s a sign you probably don’t want to work with them. What if they make you wait that long every time you need something from them? The response you get should be courteous, informative, and to the point. They should answer your question(s) clearly and to your satisfaction, without any vagueness, contradiction, or hedging.
Once you have information on multiple options (because you should get at least a few), compare them side by side to decide which will be the best fit for you. One size does not fit all, and you want to make sure that your business of choice is experienced in doing what you need them to do, and that you can be comfortable working with them.
Having made the decision, you are now ready to initiate the process.