At a recent con I met a fairly big name science fiction writer--multiple Hugo and Nebula awards and a publication history that goes back to when I was . . . very young. We did a panel together and, some time later, met in the Con Suite (a room at most science fiction conventions, usually with drinks and snacks, sometimes real food, where folk can relax, meet, and talk) where we chatted. One of the things he did was give me some advice on advancing my career--what cons I should attend in order to meet editors and agents in the hopes of doing business, that sort of thing.
One of the things he said was that if I wanted to be successful I had to "get out of the slush pile." (the "slush pile" being that gigantic stack of manuscripts that people send in hoping to be published.) As he explained it, first readers have to reject some large number of manuscripts per hour (this is forced by the reality that a very large number of manuscripts are submitted but only a few can be published). Now, while most stories submitted can be easily rejected (bad manuscript format, poor spelling and grammar, that sort of thing) even on the "possibles" (which includes your story, right? You've cleaned up the spelling and grammar? You've made sure to put it into proper manuscript format? You've done all that right?) a decision has to be made quickly. And in that rush it's entirely possible for good stories to get overlooked. In fact, good stories are going to be rejected because there are more good stories than there are slots at any paying publishing house.
If I understand what he was telling me, the best chance you have, if your story is any good, is if you can avoid the "slush pile" and get directly to an editor who might buy your work rather than being handled by a first reader whose job is to reject as much as he can as fast as he can.
And that was when we got to talking about conventions. A bit later I mentioned a book manuscript I was shopping around and mentioned that I was limited because only a couple of the major publishing houses accepted unagented manuscripts. He promptly named two that I had missed and mentioned that the editor of one of them had recently won a major industry award. I took out my iPod Touch and quickly noted this information down, asking the writer to repeat the name of the editor so I got it correctly.
When I got home, I mentioned this to another writer I know and in an email I laughingly said I should submit the story saying "Author XXX suggested I send this to you."
My friends reply was a single line: "Author XXX recommended you as a possible contact."
Oh. He was serious.
And so I sent off the manuscript (that publisher takes submissions via email) with a cover letter starting exactly as my friend suggested.
In a matter of a couple of hours I got a reply that said "I'll take a look on XXX's recommendation."
So two days later I get another response. "Thanks but no thanks."
Well, I got out of the slushpile but, in this case, it was just to get a faster rejection.
Oh well. That's the way the game is played.