I got a phone call this morning from a friend of a friend who's done some self publishing in the education field and was interested in connecting with a trade publisher. One of my previous trade editors has moved to an education publisher, and I'm looking forward to playing matchmaker, whatever the outcome. Knowing somebody in any business is always a good way to get your foot in the door, but nepotism is also at work in the publishing industry, and unfortunately, nepotism pays. It all goes back to the fact that marketing is king, and names sell. If you were a big trade publisher and you had the opportunity to sign the child of a bestselling author or a famous person to write a book, you'd have to take the name recognition into account.
When I was a teenager, you had to know somebody to get a job at a supermarket. The job market was tight, now they have hiring booths by the entrance in supermarkets and they practically beg retired people to come in and work a few days a week. For some reason, I have fond memories of the old system, even though I never knew anybody with enough pull to get me a supermarket job. Maybe that's why I've spent so much time trying to put people together with jobs, or maybe I'm just a busy body. In either case, the only "industry" where nepotism really bothers me is in government. State government in particular. Massachusetts to be specific:-)
Getting back to the publishing industry, the latest thing (going back more than 20 years) in knowing somebody or outright nepotism is agents. As the major trades have consolidated and eliminated readers, agents are responsible for an ever growing percentage of the unsolicited manuscripts that are given real consideration by trades. This is especially true in fiction, where the writer's professional qualifications can't be used as a first screening for the slush pile. Many fiction publishers rely on agents to function as an outsourced acquisitions department, and some of those agents have been very successful in obtaining six figure trade contacts, for their spouses!
Like all other form of nepotism, outside of the government monopoly, there are natural limits. If an agent continually promotes inferior manuscripts from family or friends over better manuscripts that are in circulation, the agent will slowly lose currency with acquisitions editors, unless they too are related. So, while it certainly helps to have a low friend in a high place, the system hasn't approached the point where outsiders are simply locked out.
I might also point out that there's not really that much difference between "knowing somebody" and being "in the know." Being in the know means that you don't waste time approaching agents who don't work in your genre, that you package and pitch your manuscript properly for the publishers and agents you approach, that you don't spend your time trying to explain to everybody why they're wrong about your book. It's like the old supermarket job I never broke into, you have to play their game. If you didn't show up in a suit and tie to apply for a job as a bagger, you didn't stand much of a chance back then. Playing the part of a professional writer is just as important in the publishing business today as it was in the bagging business twenty-five years ago.