Robert J. Sawyer is a very successful SF writer and a friend of mine. He recently posted this interesting bit on his FB page:
Robert J. Sawyer
12 hrs Â· Edited Â·
My old pal Steve Fahnestalk brought this question on Quora to my attention:
"In a few months (finishing the final draft now), I'll be looking to submit a fantasy novel to publishers. What is the best way to pursue this?"
The most-popular answer on Quora was:
"Whether we like it or not, most of the big publishing houses just won't accept submissions from first-time authors without an agent. If you have some contacts, you can still get into houses like Tor, but your chances of a big launch with a big publisher aren't good without an agent.
"I'd recommend going to every fantasy writing group and convention you can, and joining every related association you can. Get to know published fantasy authors. Ask if they'll read your first chapter and give you feedback. If they like it, offer to let them read the whole book (you might get a blurb from them), and ask if they can introduce you to their editor or agent. That gets your foot in the door and moves your manuscript out of the slush pile and into their in-basket."
MY TAKE IS DIFFERENT. HERE'S WHAT I SENT TO STEVE:
Only got a moment here, but I'd say that what's in the Quora response is not quite right. First, I always recommend people start not by going to conventions (as was suggested by the person you quoted), but to large bookstores. Spend hours -- days! -- studying the science fiction and fantasy section. Pick up each book in turn and look at it. See what it's about; see who published it; see how many printings it's had (the lowest number on the list of digits at the bottom of the copyright page is the printing number; it's a rough-and-ready estimate of how successful the book has been); if it's a paperback, see if it had previously been a hardcover (it'll list the previous edition on the copyright page; the books publishers consider more significant or expect better sales from tend to start out in hardcover); if it's a Tor book -- and you'll see a lot of them -- see who edited it; Tor is unique among the major publishers in listing that on the copyright page, too.
After you've done this, you should know what sorts of books Baen publishes; what kinds flourish at Tor; what makes a typical DAW book, and so. You'll also know which small presses are managing to get their books actually distributed in bookstores (few do). And, most important of all, you'll know where your own book would most comfortably fit in, leading you to the most-appropriate publisher (and, indeed, with Tor, to the specific editor) to query.
Most big publishers do prefer agented submissions, and will only take unsolicited submissions (that is, ones they didn't specifically ask for) from agents. But a well-presented query letter can indeed lead to an editor at many houses asking for (that is, soliciting) your manuscript, so it's not a completely closed shop.
Most of us who have agents got them by doing short fiction, and a new writer is well-advised to start with that (think of a novel as the Major League; do you really expect to start there, rather than first paying your dues in the minors)? Biggest advantage of an agent at the submission stage is that he/she can follow up repeatedly with the editor to hopefully get a more timely response; at Tor, for instance, the response time to unagented submissions is typically three years or so; an agent, if he/she has any clout, should get your manuscript read in a matter of months (or days, if he/she thinks the property is super-hot).
You quoted someone as saying, "If they [the author you've buttonholed at a convention] like it [your opening chapters], offer to let them read the whole book (you might get a blurb from them), and ask if they can introduce you to their editor or agent."
Ummm, well, yeah, maybe; but, y'know, editors and agents are professional gatekeepers. We authors aren't. We might choose to take someone under our wing -- I'm mentoring several writers of my own choosing currently -- but never once has a stranger at a con successfully pestered me into doing any of the things that the respondent suggested. And, y'know, although once or twice when I felt my editors were dropping the ball, I've been importunate enough to ask a colleague for a blurb, but in general, that's handled by the editor on behalf of the author, and occurs after the book is sold; it's very rare for authors to issue endorsements for unsold books.
The aspirant writers I have tended to champion over the years have been my own writing students. Some of us authors teach writing (often or occasionally); taking a course by one of us, or going to Clarion or Odyssey, is a better way to cement relationships with mentors than going to SF/F conventions with the mindset of, "Oh, look! A published writer! He/she must have come here so that I could use them to advance my own career!" Puh-leeze.