The first bit of advice that every designer gets about trying to get a game published is to approach publishers who will actually be a good fit for your game. You want to look at what other games they've put out on the market and get a feel for their catalogue and their general philosophy. Some companies have a very narrow focus. Winsome is a prime example. About a dozen years ago, Winsome's John Bohrer was interviewed by some guy named Tom Vasel, who asked Mr. Bohrer what he was looking for in a game:
Well, first of all, the game has to have something to do with trains or railroads. This pre-condition is a lifesaver for me 'cause it cuts the number of submissions way, way down. My buddies Bernd, Stefan and Wolfgang are inundated every year with tons of submissions. They have to look at 'em all, fool around with 'em to figure out if there is anything there worth having; and, if there is, they have to figure out a setting and theme for the thing. Then they consider doing development on it! What a rat race! It is no wonder that they all have gray hair. Nope, the submission has to have something to do with trains or railroads, or I just ship it right back to the author. Makes my life a whole lot easier, yes sir, it does indeed. Note that a rummy game called "Big Train" doesn't count as a game that has something to do with trains or railroads. Changing "Park Place" to "Pennsylvania Railroad" will not get you anywhere here, either.
Other companies have less narrow parameters, but it's still relatively easy to figure out that Fantasy Flight probably isn't interested in a zero-randomness nerdy economics game, or that Rio Grande probably shouldn't be your first choice for a six-hour asymmetrical space opera dice-fest. Or, at least, it should be relatively easy to suss this out, but I also know what it's like to be a new designer, very eager to get my first game published. I read the articles, and I internalized this key bit of advice. Don't approach every publisher in alphabetical order, starting with the A's and working your way down, but only those who will actually be a good fit for your design.
But there's a kind of desperation that settles in when you haven't signed your first contract yet. You convince yourself that your game is so different from anything else on the market that there's no publisher that would really be an ideal fit, and so you approach as many of them as possible. Or you do some mental gymnastics to justify submitting your game to a publisher who you should know full well is going to have zero interest in the design.
Like I said, I know what it's like to be a new designer. In the early days, I approached euro-style publishers with combinatorial abstracts. I submitted what was clearly a small magazine wargame to big-box wargame publishers. A push-your-luck game about bananas I convinced myself was a good fit for a publisher specializing in science fiction games. Of course none of this was even remotely successful. And as I continued to not have success - as I continued to fail - that only made me more desperate, which led me to make similarly bad decisions, which made me more desperate, and so-on and so forth. My obsession with punishing feedback loops is more personal than you'd think!
There were two things that helped me be a lot smarter about how I was approaching publishers. The first was that a publisher asked me, "Why do you think we'd be a good fit for your game?" I couldn't really answer the question, and that made me realize that I wasn't really doing the groundwork. That I was so blinded by my desire to get someone, anyone, to publish one of my games that I was just throwing it at the wall and hoping something stuck.
The second was that I started designing games with specific publishers already in mind. I designed my first train game, which would eventually become Northern Pacific, because I wanted to do a game for Winsome. I designed the first Shields & Swords game because I wanted to work with a certain little game company that could. Tailoring the game to fit their mold from the start resulted in a much smoother development process.
The danger with this approach of course is that you might make a game that's too similar to what the publisher already has on offer. And if the game fits too neatly into one publisher's wheelhouse, and they pass on it, it can be troublesome to roll it into someone else's. If Winsome had passed on Northern Pacific, I have no idea what, if anything, I could've done with it. And while my intended publisher did agree to publish the first S&S game, it got lost in development heck, and likely wouldn't have found another home if I wasn't in the right place at the right time. But that's a story for another time.
My submission days are over; I only need to convince Mary that a game on this topic or that one is a good idea, and she's a pushover if I throw in a foot-rub. But the both of us are still very cognizant of what it is to be that new designer looking for that first "yes", and it breaks our heart every time we say "no". We've been lucky, generally speaking, in that most of the submissions have been something that at least resembles the other titles in our catalogue.
There's only been a couple of times where it was apparent that the designer hadn't done their research, and that they were approaching us only because they had exhausted the A's through the G's. They don't know that we're primarily a wargames publisher and they don't know that we don't have retail or European distribution; otherwise, they probably wouldn't be approaching us with standard-issue euro-style family games that play two to five in sixty minutes.
When one of those designers wanders aimlessly into our orbit, somehow convinced that our little mom-and-pop direct sales print-on-demand Michigan company is going to win them the Spiel de Jahres, we try to be helpful. After all, I've been where they are. And so we ask them that magic question: Why do you think we'd be a good fit for your game?
I'm not really sure if it helps them the way it helped me. None of them ever respond to us after we ask the question. But we hope it does.
Related article: Pitching, advice on pitching your game to a publisher.