I frequently get phone calls and emails from people who want to know how to get published. They figure there must be some trick of the trade, some wisdom, that I can impart. A winning query letter. A perfect pitch.
The nasty truth is that getting published is basically about connections and luck. (Just type “how I got my agent” into a google search and you'll see what I mean.)
This is how I got published. I wrote a book. Then, not knowing a thing about how to get it into a publisher's hands, I called a former boss of mine who was the editor of an academic journal. One of his friends happened to have a sister who was a publisher. The friend made a call to his sister as a favor to my former boss. Then the publisher called me. “What have you got?” she said. I described the book, and she said, “I'll send you a contract.” That was it.
This story may fill you with self-righteous indignation and/or despair. After all, if you haven't been published, stories like mine will just piss you off. But wait, there's more.
My publisher turned out to be a dud. But, several years later, when I had written a work of fiction and had mailed out hundreds of query letters to agents who replied with one-sentence form rejections on coffee-stained paper (they aren't even doing that anymore), it dawned on me that my publisher had used an agent to sell my book to a second publisher. Voila! I already had an agent.
I called the agent and informed her that she was my agent. She seemed to believe me, because she said, “Send me your manuscript.” And, after a couple of years, my novel got published.
That is also how my second, third and fourth books got published. No query letters, no agent's “auctions,” just one phone call to the right person at the right time.
This is how the entire system works. You don't get an agent by sending out query letters. You get an agent by knowing a guy who knows a guy who can hook you up. That is also how you get a manager, and a publisher, and an editor. It's a sad fact of life – but getting your work into print is all about who you know.
Don't jump off a bridge – yet. You can meet people in the industry rather easily.
There are numerous conferences and workshops that are attended by agents and writers. Go to one and talk to them. Join writers' groups and talk to other writers. (Don't even think of contacting editors directly. I did that once. It surprises me that I am still alive.) Get out there and meet people, physically, in the flesh. Let them know you are a real human being. You never know. Some of them may like you.
Here are some good sites for finding appropriate conferences (research them carefully!). Please read foliolit's article on conference etiquette first. It's got some wonderful tips.
Now, get out there and shmooze!
Must-read article on etiquette at conferences.
Agent Query's excellent list of conferences.
Shaw Guides' great list of conferences with detailed information.