I get asked a lot if I had an "in" before getting a publishing contract, such as a referral to an agent, a published author friend who chatted me up to an editor, etc. The answer is no. I didn't know a single person in the publishing world when I first started submitting my novel.
I knew I wanted an agent, because I had no desire to negotiate contracts myself. But I also knew I'd try some publishing houses, too, just in case one like my book. Unfortunately, I didn't know much beyond that when I started out. I bought a copy of Writer's Marketplace and read it from cover to cover. It introduced me to query letters, agencies that were seeking new clients, and publishing houses that accepted unsolicited manuscripts. I also went online and scrounged up information on which agencies repped my favorite authors, adding them to my Wish List. Then I began the first of countless attempts at a query letter.
My first query letters were bad. I mean, laugh and point bad. The beginning of my novel wasn't good, either. I started with backstory, and kept riding that Backstory horse for several chapters (which was far beyond what any sane agent or editor would read). Needless to say, my rejection rate was 100%.
I'd heard rejection was part of the game, though, so I didn't give up. I chopped at the beginning of my novel, hacked at my query letter, and tried again. And again. And again. How I'd come to hate those "Dear Author" form letters, but finally, I received requests for my full manuscript from two people. One was an agent who'd rejected me previously, and one was from a small-press publisher. Finally, my chance!
A few weeks after I sent the agent my novel, she emailed me a detailed reply saying that while she liked my characters and my writing 'voice', my book wasn't strong enough for her to take on. She cited numerous things that didn't work for her in the story. At the end of her critique, the agent invited me to resubmit if I wanted to revise based on her suggestions.
To sum up an otherwise very long story, I decided to revise, but it took me three BIG revisions. I ended up deleting over thirty thousand words and rewriting about twenty thousand new ones, before the agent signed me. It worked out, though. Three months after the agent took me on, Harper Collins gave me a two-book deal for my novel, Halfway to the Grave. Later, Harper bought three more books in the series. And, as Halfway to the Grave made two bestseller lists, is now in its third printing, and just sold German rights, you could safely say I'm happy I did all those revisions :).
In short: You don't need an "in" to get a publishing or agent contract. No matter what you hear, networking is not the way to go. Spend your time writing, revising, and querying instead, because the slush pile still works.
So, who else is a Slush Pile conqueror? FFF members, feel free to start a new post telling how you beat the Slush Pile odds. Watchers, please tell us your success stories with the slush pile, be it magazine articles, short stories, requests for fulls, whatever. Let's spread some holiday Slush Pile cheer :)