So, while I sub to agents and short story markets, I usually don't talk about it much to other people. I confess, over the years, I just feel like I've grown more and more distant from popular opinion on how this works. There are several assumptions that I take issue with, and they're worth exposing to anyone who's trying to build a career in this field.
1) Agents sell all the books they represent: Wrong. Any agent will be able to list off to you all the books he or she hasn't been able to sell. While often the progression in a person's career is: write a book -> get an agent -> sell the book -> publication, you can get hung up at any of those steps. So when you've got a slew of agent rejections - and it isn't a bunch of form letters, because too many of those indicates you've got craft issues - consider that they need to make a business decision and if no editor is buying what you've written, an agent can't magically make a sale materialize out of the ether for you, and odds are they won't take your book. They may take you on, but they'll immediately ask you to write something else. Many seem to see agents as magical gatekeepers who dole out publishing credits like tempermental gods bestow blessings. It doesn't work that way. They face the same market of editors you do; all they've got is more up to date information and personal contacts in the field, along with knowledge of how to negotiate a contract.
2) The commercialization of art means no one recognizes true genius. Sometimes, but nowhere near as often as people like to think. The writer who sent their manuscript around to everyone on the planet until someone finally decided to give them a break and then the book went on to sell millions is a really popular tale. I think a lot of aspiring authors fantasize that they are so maligned. Thing is, sometimes a ton of rejections and one acceptance has to do with the market changing (see the paragraph above), and more often than not, these stories of people who subbed "everywhere", fall apart upon closer examination. Subbing to ten agents isn't everywhere, nor is subbing to twenty. Okay, if you've been rejected by a hundred, that counts, but realize that there are a lot of agents and a lot of unsolicited manuscripts in the world. It makes sense that it can take a dozen, two dozen, or more submissions to find someone you click with. By the same token, being rejected by six publishers is common, even normal. I've seen people rejected by twenty or more.
Furthermore, there are great books released at the wrong time or with the wrong cover or in the wrong section of the bookstore that subsequently go nowhere. It happens, and everyone in the industry works to prevent it. Anyone in any kind of business can tell you about the beautiful house that no one would tour because something bad happened in that neighborhood (real estate) or the hybrid Rav 4 that went for well under bluebook value because everyone wanted a Prius (cars) or the new super healthy grain that went on the market right before Atkins took off (food). The same kind of thing happens with books, so when a publisher says a project is wrong for the market, it's entirely possible that they're right, rather than just a dictatorial killjoy. Sometimes someone bucks the trend and breaks through. Often publishers make the wrong call and don't pick up a bankable project or pick up one that's toxic, but the impulse to romanticize how they always do this to poor, unappreciated authors of greatness really wears me down.
Yeah, I get tired of subbing everywhere, and I have way more rejection letters than acceptance ones, as in waaaaaaaaaay more, but I find myself defending editors and agents a lot these days. I just spoke to an editor who's rejected five of my novels, and I have to say, I like this person. They are honest, they respond to my emails within a day or two, if not hours, and they keep telling me they'd like to publish something by me. This person is not the enemy, nor will they be if I get a sixth, seventh, etc. rejection letter. It's all good; we're both trying to achieve the same thing. If they really didn't like me, they wouldn't be reading all these books I've written. We're both working hard - they've got to read a lot of books by unpublished authors, and have you tried that? Ye-ah...
3. That manuscript of yours that you don't like and have abandoned could be a bestseller. Well, how to be nice about this? It probably isn't. In fact, it almost certainly isn't. Sure, there are wickedly brilliant people who are too hard on themselves, but odds are, you aren't one of them. My discarded manuscripts are unpublishable, and if I'm wrong about that, I'm pursuing the wrong career. If I can't discern even this, then I'm like a gemologist who can't tell diamonds from cut glass.
4. You could be the next Stephenie Meyer! Look, the only person I've ever heard of who was Stephenie Meyer was... Stephenie Meyer. Very few books ever sell as well as the Twilight series, and very few authors write a their first book, get an agent, and sell to a publisher within six months. Having those two align for that one author was just one of those things, not likely to be repeated anytime soon. Even most overnight success stories you've heard are fiction. I had one friend talk about having discovered this "great new author" (Connie Willis, just after Passage came out). I called Carrie Vaughn a new talent as her first novels came out, and she pointed out to me that she'd been writing and selling short stories for about a decade before that and started attending conventions even before that.
5. Any of the above is a great excuse for why I'm not published. Forget excuses. Harlan Ellison put it best when he said, "The reason why you're not selling is because you're writing crap." He's not known for being diplomatic and I won't defend everything that comes out of that man's mouth, but that one is essentially true. There's only one way to make it in writing, and that is to be good enough at it. If you're not there yet publications wise, it's most likely because you aren't there yet work-wise. And that goes for me too ;-)
Though I'm actually in quite a good mood as I write this. I've gotten some lovely, personalized rejections this week. Progress is slow, but it's still progress.