One of the most frequent questions I get asked is what agents/publishers/editors are looking for? I wish there was a set formula to answer this question. I have many friends who are authors who are seeking representation, considering self-publishing, or have now been published....all of their stories are different.
As you know, I am currently at the pre-published stage of my career. My books have garnered a lot of attention from the publishing industry from small indie publishers to some of the best know agents in the industry. It's exciting yet also a roller-coaster of highs and lows. As far as my current status goes, one of my books is being considered by a publisher located in New York. They are a small publisher but looking to expand this summer. The first book in my Forest of Mist series is on their list of possible aquisitions when this happens. So...back to the original question...what are the publishing professionals looking for?
I can only speak from my own experience...and it is a lot of hard work...research! Know the audience you are targeting your book towards and research publishers/agents that represent what you write. Research their websites and blogs. Make sure you look for their submission guidelines and follow those instructions to the letter. Also, if there are multiple editors/agents, research them all and query the one that most closely reps what you write.
To save time, I have written a standard query letter that I can quickly change as necessary when sending queries. I also have a one page synopsis, a five page synopsis, and the first three chapters saved as separate files. There is no set formula. Publisher A, may request a query, one page synposis, and the first ten pages copy and pasted into the body of an email, whereas, Publisher B, may request a query, long synopsis, and the first three chapters. By having these items ready on my computer, I can spend my time actually writing on one of the books.
The other piece of advice is to grow a thick skin. You have spent your time developing your story, characters, etc...it literally becomes a part of you. You send out your queries and bam...your inbox is flooded with responses. Unfortunately, many of those will be form rejections, some will be rejects with a little bit of personal advice thrown in, and some will be a request for the full manuscript. Those few that request a full can be enough to sustain your happy bubble. Ultimately, those request for a full will go either of two ways...a "we're sorry but after much consideration, this book is not for us" or "I'll call you to discuss a contract." Remember...it only takes one agent/publisher/editor to get your book into the market.
Finally, research any agency you think of signing with on Preditors and Editors or one of the writer beware sites. I cannot tell you how many times I thought I found the perfect literary agent on the internet or the perfect indie publisher, only to discover that they have a bad reputation with their authors.
Basically, do your homework, know your audience, and in the end, go with your gut feeling when signing that contract. If you don't have an agent, you may want to consider a literary attorney to review any contract before you sign it.