I stand my ground in saying that your *story* is what will get you published, because at the end of the day, no matter who you know, it's still a numbers game. Agents and publishers are in business to make money and that means they have to sell what they take on. If they can't sell it, they won't publish it/represent it. If they do "favors" and push through stories for everyone they know, they won't be in business very long. Not unless all the people they know are amazing writers, each with a salable story. Does knowing someone in publishing give you a better shot at getting your work in front of an agent or editor? Maybe, but it still is no guarantee that work will be published.
And for the record, knowing someone and asking them to help you get a foot in the door somewhere isn't "cheating." No more than knowing an editor or an agent, and asking them to look at your story is. Since the word "cheat" carries such negative connotations, I resent the implication that anyone who is published must have resorted to tricks or unsavory acts in order to get there. It's ridiculous and simply untrue.
The Romance Writers of America events and conferences always offer spots to pitch to agents or editors at publishers who look at unagented material, but it's like a cattle call. You get about five minutes to impress them, the same way you get a few lines of a query letter at best to catch their interest. And the PAN - Published Author Network - members get first dibs at the spots anyway, so a brand new, unpublished author has a small chance of landing a time slot. I know dozens of authors who were unpublished and pitched at a conference, got a request on the spot for the full, and were not offered a contract.
At those same conferences, if you try to chat up an agent or publisher at the bar or in between sessions, you're likely to only piss them off because they're as busy and as stressed as anyone at those things. In fact, the accepted etiquette is that you *don't* try to do that.
We had a well-known agent who reps romance and a well-known editor who publishes it come to events at our RWA chapter when I lived in Tennessee. Both times they read pitches from the members and not one member was offered rep or a contract from those events.
I know there are just as many stories of chance meetings or events where someone did get an offer, but it wasn't because the agent or editor knew them. It was because they had a salable story. And that's my point here. Write the story they want, at the time they want it, and so well that they can't pass it up, and it won't matter if you live on Mars and have never met another living soul.
I know some will feel these are bad examples, but don't forget that Twilight was on the slush pile and was originally rejected. It was an intern at that agency who liked it and gave it another look. You may not love the books, but you can't argue with their commercial success.
Same with Fifty Shades of Grey. Love it or hate it, no one can argue with the commercial success. And her work wasn't even pitched in the traditional way at the outset.
This is why it's always stressed to first know your market. Know your audience. Who are you writing for? Who is going to buy this type of book? This is also why I discourage first time authors from doing things like writing a hybrid book of twenty genres, or writing a book so long that no one is going to even want to look at it. If they don't know where it will fit in the market, they aren't going to take a chance on it. If it's so long that they know it will cost a fortune to send to print, they are already so turned off by the length that they don't bother to read one chapter. Don't give them a *reason* to reject you from the get-go. Once you're established and have an audience, you can break all the rules you want as long as you know your readers will follow you.
Know your audience. Understand AND READ in your genre. Doesn't mean you're copying anyone, but how do you know what sells if you've never read someone else's book?? Learn your craft. PERFECT your craft. LISTEN to advice from those who are already where you want to be. Get feedback - not your BFF's feedback, but feedback from a published author who preferably writes in your genre. Keep writing. Keep perfecting. Keep studying the market.
I spent 20 years doing everything wrong and it wasn't until I dug in my heels, got my head out of my ass, and did all the *right" things that I was offered a contract. And it wasn't a contract on that story I worked on for those 20 years. It was a new story. And I didn't know anyone in publishing. I merely put in the work, listened to the advice, and wrote the best story I could write at the time.