It ain’t like it used to be. Not sure J. D. Salinger could even get published these days. The traditional publishing business model involves relatively low profit margins and the desire to find that next unknown, but potentially best-selling author out there somewhere. These publishers were willing to take risks to get interesting writing to the public, but they still couldn’t pay very much in royalties. They did provide the author with a channel from the typewriter to the bookstore and the advertising exposure needed to build an audience. The publisher had to deal with the risk of printing x number of books, selling them to the bookstore, and having to take unsold merchandise back. No other product works like that, so the risks for the publisher were pretty high.
But, no more. Today, the major publisher is looking for a much lower risk/higher return on their investment, so they are much more conservative in their acquisitions, and they expect the author to do a much larger percentage of the marketing. They also want more ownership over the author’s content and brand. Although a traditional publishing contract can be quite an advantage, it’s not the same value as in the past.
There’s nothing wrong with shopping around for a good literary agent (particularly for fiction) or presenting a book proposal to publishers who accept proposals and manuscripts, but I’m seeing a trend toward combining the traditional publisher hunt and self-publishing. Some folks are starting with the latter and getting attention from the former with a good-selling book, and also starting with a traditional publishing contract and then taking more control (and more profit) later on by self-publishing. So don’t close any doors for yourself in this process.
I am seeing a lot more openness to author submissions and more publishing activity among smaller, niche publishers. So, take a look at what you want to put out there, and don’t discount a publisher who specializes in your type of story or message just because they are small (like a handful or two of books per year). The Literary Marketplace is one general source for publisher information, but the Web itself, and searching by subject or audience can net you a number of prospects.
I don’t know any literary agents at this point (I work primarily in nonfiction), but I’ll post them here when I get recommendations.