This leads to the further belief that a referral is gold: just get someone to like your work, and you're in. It's not true, but a referral can help. Here's the method I used to get mine:
- Be friends with other authors. Whether they're published or not, without caring what they can do for you. (Note: Commenting on published authors' blogs and responding to their public tweets is not the same as being their friend.)
- Critique other authors' manuscripts. Again, whether they're published or not, and without caring whether they can critique yours in return. In fact, assume they won't.
- When you have a manuscript for critique, ask these same author friends. When you ask, treat it like the huge favor it is. Critiquing an unpublished novel is a lot of work, so be very, very nice when you ask, and make it clear that you understand if they can't/don't want to do it (that is, make it easy for them to say no). It's hard to go overboard on this.
- If one of your critiquers is in a position to give you a referral, don't ask for it. Asking for a direct referral only puts them in an awkward situation. If they love your manuscript AND think their agent will love it (these are two different things, by the way), they'll probably tell you. If you think they're not for some reason, then just ask if they think it would be a good fit for their agent.
The thing is, it can hurt to ask, especially if you're pushy and don't take no very well. You can lose a friend. (I guess you could also lose a network contact but, I dunno, I think losing a friend is worse).
And in this case, in my opinion, it doesn't hurt to not ask. The query system works, guys, and I'm not just saying that because I got picked out of the slush pile. I've always said that. If your work is good, and it's right for the market, it will find a home. If it's not, a referral isn't going to change anything.
Usually a referral will only get you a quicker rejection, and handled badly, it can lose you a friend. To me, that's not worth it. Don't hunt for mythical shortcuts. Use that time to become a better writer instead.