These days it's common knowledge that it's hard to meet an agent or an editor through an unsolicited mailing. They are more likely to pay attention to a submission coming from someone they have met in person. To that end, writers flock to conferences so they can get some face time with real live agents and editors. And that's great. I believe writers should get out and network.
But those conferences can be pricey. It's best to combine attending conferences with a few other strategies that are easier on your wallet. Here are 3 you may find useful.
1.) Attend Author Readings
Make a point of keeping track of writers who do work similar to yours. When they're in the vicinity go hear them read. Sometimes--not all the time--but sometimes the author's agent and editor will be in the audience. If they aren't, see if you can steal a few moments with the writer and ask with whom he or she works and whether they have been pleased with the experience.
You can either ask for an introduction or contact the people on your own. If you're going to do the former, first develop a rapport with the writer and stay in touch. They may not feel comfortable referring you to their agent or editor right off the bat, but in time as they get to know you and your work, an introduction may be a possibility.
2.) Attend Classes Offered by Continuing Education Groups Such As The Learning Annex
Agents and editors are in the business of looking for the next hot writer and making a name for themselves in the publishing world. That's why you'll often find agents and editors teaching classes related to their work at places such as The Learning Annex, which has locations in New York City, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta and Boston (http://www.learningannex.com). Recent instructors include literary agent Katharine Sands, editor Marcela Landres (formerly of Simon & Schuster) and Vickie M. Stringer, founder and CEO of Triple Crown Publications. The courses can cost as little as $30 or $40 and last about three hours so you have some time to find out if the instructor can help you or point you in the direction of someone who can.
Remember the agent or editor probably has aspiring authors handing them manuscripts all the time, so make sure you stand out from the pack. Have a killer query letter and synopsis (if your book is a novel) or book proposal (for non-fiction works) at the ready. You'll make a great impression simply because you're not making them lug a 500-page behemoth home in their briefcase!
3.) Look for Agents and Editors Who Have Their Own Personal Websites
When you come across the name of an agent or editor who may be appropriate for you, Google them to see if they have their own websites with email addresses that may be different from their corporate mailboxes.
Some are authors themselves (like literary agent Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel) and have books of their own to promote. Email them and, again, try to develop a rapport and get a sense of what they're working on and what they're looking for. It's best to know as specifically as possible before going through the trouble of making a submission.
I recently heard about a writer who submitted to an agent looking for African American authors, but in fact the agent was looking for African American authors who wrote urban romance--which was not the writer's genre at all.
One Last Note: These ideas should get you started and I hope they'll inspire you to try other creative routes. It does get easier because you will find that as you go to more events and tell more people what you're doing, the more likely you will be to find the connector that will build the path between you and your future agent or editor.
Resources: New Novelist Software