1) You write a book, you rewrite the book, you polish the book and make it the best you can write.
2) You query agents. Agents take several months to respond to your query. After some time, (could be anywhere from a few weeks, to months, to a year or more), you finally query the right agent and the agent offers to represent you and your manuscript. OR, no agents offer representation and if that is the case, return to Step 1 and write another book.
If you are offered representation, proceed to Step 3.
3) You and the agent MAY or MAY NOT decide to rewrite and/or re-polish the book before submitting it to editors at publication houses. Don't take too long in doing this. The agent signed you and your book and wants to sell it, don't make them wait too long or the marketplace might shift.
4) Your agent submits a letter to editors at publication houses pitching your book. Editors will take days, weeks, months, to a year (or never) to request to see a copy of the book - either a partial submission [the first 50 pages or so], or a full submission [the whole thing]. IF no editors request a copy of your manuscript, return to Step 1 and write another book, then skip to Step 3 (if your agent feels your next book is ready for submission).
5) You and your agent wait for the editor to read your book. This can take days, weeks, months (most typical), a year (or more), or you may NEVER hear back from the editor (which means No). This is a good time to go back to Step 1 and write another book.
6) If all the editors your agent has submitted to either don't request a copy, or pass on the submitted book, and your agent feels that all editor options are exhausted, then return to Step 1 and write a new book.
7) If an editor responds positively to your book, two things can happen:
A) The editor requests a 'Rewrite and Resubmit' based off their editorial suggestions. This means you will go back and rewrite the book to this editor's specifications without pay. There is no guarantee that the editor will then buy the book and publish it, but it is also a good opportunity to garner good will and prove that you can take and implement editorial notes in a timely manner (editors like this), and also, there's a chance (if they don't buy it), you can use this improved draft to submit to more publishers. In my experience, a 'Rewrite and Resubmit' (commonly called an 'R&R') only serves to make you a better writer. UNLESS, the editor is asking you to change the entire premise of the book, or is asking for the impossible, in which case, you should have your agent politely decline the request.
B) The editor has responded positively and wants to publish your book.
What Happens Next:
8) Your agent will contact all the other editors who requested a copy of your book and let them know you have an offer. The other editors will be given a deadline (usually a week or two) to also make an offer, or bow out. If multiple editors makes an offer, your book will be put up 'for auction' and your agent will pit publication house against publication house to get you the best deal.
This is why you have an agent.
If no other publication houses makes a counter offer, you proceed toward contract negotiation.
9) Once your agent finds you the best publication deal they will then negotiate the terms of your publishing contract with the "winning" house. The terms may or may not include an advance (for a first time author, it can range from $250 to $10,000, or so) and the conditions of the publication (e-book only, print-on-demand paperback (only available through Amazon), trade or mass market paperback (on websites and in stores), or hard cover (available everywhere). The contract will also determine who retains the film and TV rights, the percentages of your royalties should you sell enough copies and earn out your advance money, and what would happen to the publication rights after a certain amount of time, and if you fail to sell enough copies to earn out your advance.
This is also why you have an agent.
The negotiation process can take weeks, months, up to a year. Typically, a publication house has up to 18 months to finalize the deal or you have the right to pull the book and sell it someplace else.
If terms are agreed upon, the publication house sends the final contract to your agent, who then proof-reads it, and sends it to you for your signature.
10) Once the contract is signed, and all parties agree to do so, you may then announce your publication deal to the public. At no point during submission, or negotiations, is anyone outside your trusted immediate family to hear of your impending book deal. This is for your safety (what if the deal falls through during negotiations? How embarrassing!) as well as for your protection should another publishing house hear of the deal and run off and buy a book similar to yours to beat you to the marketplace (tsk, tsk, tsk). So KEEP QUIET. Once the contract is signed and received by the publisher, your advance check, (if applicable) will arrive in the mail a few days to weeks later. You will pop champagne and feel like you've arrived. But before you quit your day job, you might want to slow down and keep reading.
11) Once the deal is finalized and public, your editor will then send you an editorial letter requesting changes to your manuscript. The editors can take days, weeks, and sometimes months to send you this letter. If they take too long, have your agent "nudge" and request the letter as soon as possible. Editorial notes can be very few, to drastic enough you wonder why the editor bought the book at all. Contractually, you (usually) have two weeks to two months to complete these changes.
12) If the editorial changes you made are accepted by the editor (sometimes a draft can be passed back and forth from the editor to the writer, two, three, four times (!) depending on the severity).
[Side Note: You will be working WITH the editor to rewrite and re-polish the book, technically, you don't have to change anything they suggest - although, I would pick my battles very very carefully].
Then the book will be sent to a Copy Editor, who will mark and correct every punctuation, spelling, grammar, continuity, and minuscule mistake you made in the book. You have the option to accept these changes, or reject them. Again, I remind you to pick your battles.
This is a fine line: you don't want to be considered "difficult to work with" but you also don't want to roll over and change things in your book that you don't fully agree with. In the end, when the book is published, if it does poorly, YOU take the full blame. Nobody will be bashing your editor in the reviews - that'll be YOU. So be sure you agree with the changes before you redo your whole book.
13) After copy edits are accepted and approved by your editor the book goes to the presses, and you wait until launch date. Depending on the publisher and your deal, they may assign you a publicist to help you hype the book before it hits stands.
14) After a few months of hearing nothing you will receive a copy of your book cover. This is mostly a courtesy. The publisher (and Barnes and Noble, if you can believe it) will decide what your book cover looks like. You have little to NO SAY about anything [Edited to Add: Unless your agent negotiated a cover VETO clause into your contract [recommended]] , and if you hate the cover with an undying passion, the publisher is under no obligation to change it to please you. Keep in mind, however, that the sales team at your publishing house and Barnes and Noble know what kinds of covers sell better than others, so it would be wise to listen to their advice.
15) If your publisher chooses, they can submit your book to Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and all sorts of publications and request reviews. These reviews are tough, and sometimes brutal. Be thrilled if you get a good one, because those are hard to come by and could help your book sales. If you get panned in the reviews please don't lose heart: plenty of books that the critics HATED ended up as best sellers.
16) Your publisher also might request you contact any and all of your author friends and request they write a 'blurb.' This is a paragraph describing how this other (hopefully famous) author loved your book. These quotes can come in handy to raise awareness for your book, but as I said above, if you don't get any blurbs from a plethora of famous authors, it's not going to kill you - but it might sting a bit.
17) The book launches. Launching a book is a bit like playing darts in the dark. You aim the best you can, you throw as straight as you are able, but whether or not your book does well? Well, that's luck.
After the book launches, and if there is no second or third book attached to the publication of the book, your contact with the publisher and editor ends (mostly). The publisher will send you paperwork showing your sales numbers and also a check (usually twice a year) if you've sold enough to earn past the amount you were advanced.
The publicist may or may not contact you with book events and scheduled appearances (if you are a first time author, this is unlikely and I recommend you take care of this yourself).
18) Congratulations! You've traditionally published a book. Please refer back to Step 1 and start all over.