The short answer is, “Who the heck knows?”
The long answer is that a lot of factors are at work here, and if you haven’t had any luck selling to a traditional publisher you may be bouncing from one brick wall to another through no fault of your own.
Writing is art, publishing is business. You’ve probably heard it all before — most of the big publishing houses are now owned by conglomerates that care only about profits, so editors and agents are reluctant to take a chance on less than a sure thing. Bringing out a book, whether hardcover or paperback, costs thousands of dollars up front. Publishers want to make that money back and turn a profit. The big houses are looking for books that will appeal to a large audience. Small publishers, which are proliferating to fill the niches left over, aren’t geared to turning out bestsellers and are more receptive to first-time authors without obvious star power. The bad news is that small publishers are indeed small — they can’t afford to bring out many books each year, so competition for a slot is just as fierce as it is with the larger houses.
Agents and editors don’t always know what will sell. They love books. They wouldn’t be in the business if they didn’t. But like the rest of us, they also love eating and paying their bills, and that means representing and publishing books that make money. They don’t always recognize those books when they see them, though.
Many celebrated writers, present and past, struggled to get into print. An agent told Tony Hillerman that his first Navajo mystery was hopeless and that if he insisted on rewriting it, he should “get rid of all that Indian stuff.” An editor who rejected The Spy Who Came in from the Cold declared that John LeCarre “hasn’t got any future.” Agatha Christie, James M. Cain, Mary Higgins Clark, Nevada Barr, Harper Lee, Tolstoy, Arthur Conan Doyle — the list of successful writers who endured rejection is endless. You’re in good company.
Agents and editors are individuals. What works beautifully for one will leave another cold. I could provide endless proof of this from my own files, but here are just a couple of comments from rejections I received — both for the same book:
“The characters were not quite as believable as we would have liked.” (But she thought the plot was good.)
“I found the characters compelling and well-rounded.” (But he didn’t like the plot.)
Maybe your book isn’t ready to be published. If you’re getting the same criticisms in every rejection letter, it’s time to stop, take another look at the manuscript, and fix the problems. Are your characters fully developed? Does your plot make sense and come to a satisfying conclusion? Do you understand what your story is really about? I’m not talking about the surface events — somebody gets killed, the sleuth solves the crime — but the underlying story that gives meaning to the events. Is your book special in some way that will make readers remember and talk about it? If nothing about your novel makes it stand out from a thousand others, you may have learned something from writing it, but you’re probably wasting your time trying to sell it.
Getting published isn’t easy, but if you’re a real writer you won’t give up. If you can live without writing, save yourself a lot of grief and stop now. If writing is your passion, if you can’t imagine life without it, you should never stop learning, growing, and trying to reach an audience. You may not sell what you write, but you certainly can’t sell what you don’t write.
If you believe in your work, and believe it will find an audience, self-publish it. But before you plunge in, be sure you know what the process involves. Be ready for the amount of work it requires. Have your manuscript professionally edited, and have your cover professionally designed.
Learn to bounce when you’re dropped. A lesson that will serve you well in all endeavors.