Have no illusions about going public. The process is demanding, wrenching, and governed by a host of seemingly incomprehensible government regulations and countless time- and cash-hungry tasks.

It helps to prepare long before your company's initial public offering seems likely. Here's a useful tool: The Ernst & Young Guide to Taking Your Company Public, by Stephen C. Blowers, Gregory K. Ericksen, and Thomas L. Milan (John Wiley & Sons, 1995, $34.95). These three E&Y accountants have written a book that is readable and comprehensive. One of its noteworthy features is a chapter aimed at business owners who simply don't know whether a public offering would help or hurt their company's prospects.

The authors also offer valuable advice on the selection of an underwriter. Too many entrepreneurial companies have leaped into the arms of the first underwriter willing to take their IPO dreams seriously. Among the issues this guidebook recommends you consider in your evaluation of underwriters are the following:

· Underwriter reputation. Prospective investors in a young company's stock look for underwriters with good track records in launching profitable IPOs.

· Aftermarket support. It's wise to have an underwriter whose involvement with your company's stock continues even after the initial offering. Such an underwriter will continue to disseminate information about your shares and make a market for your company's stock.