The current market for writers seems to be dwindling. The advent of big box bookstores has led to a situation where more then ten times as many copies of a book has to be published, so each store can have enough copies to not sell, meaning even more copies are not selling, meaning a much smaller percentage is selling. So publishers are spending a lot more to sell the same number of books as always. So they're not willing to take chances. If you're not Steven King, John Grisham or Danielle Steele, they don't wanna talk to you. Authors with long publishing histories are now being utterly ignored. So, cuddly and cute as Tom Hanks was in that movie, big box bookstores aren't good for authors.
Worst of all, because aspiring writers are just not a valuable commodity, editors feel even less justified in making personal responses to them or telling them specifically what's wrong with rejected works. They never spent much time, but they spent some. When I first submitted to Analog fifteen years ago, I got a personal response, encouraging me and complimenting my style. When I last submitted last year, they didn't respond at all. And I do mean at all. Four polite communications with return postage on my last submission. Nada. Nothing. To me that says, "You don't even matter." To them, it probably only says, "We're drowning in work."
And that's frustrating especially. You polish a submission until you can see it shine. You have beta readers look at it. You cut and cut and cut. And then you submit it to every market you can find. In the end, you're left to wonder, "What was wrong with it?" Honestly? Maybe nothing. It just may not have been flavor of the day. My friend Howie, an NYT Bestseller himself, comforted me by saying that, if my stuff wasn't selling, it was about numbers and nothing else. It was in no way about a lack of quality. That was kind of him, and I have to believe it or quit.
But those grains of doubt nag at you. What was wrong with a given story? Recently I received a rejection from the last available, paying market for my story "The Golem and the Gypsy Girl." I considered it the most commercial thing I'd ever written. It had a hook most people recognized, the Golem. It was set in the past, during an interesting time (in the Chinese sense.) It had, I think, an appealing protagonist, a young girl being forced to marry someone she didn't know.
So what killed its chances? Length? It was over 10,000 words. That's awfully long. But stories are as long as they are. You can always shorten them some, but there comes a point where you need to stop.
Was it my writing about a time I didn't live through, a place I've never been, one protagonist who isn't real and another who belongs to an ethnic group I only know through research? Maybe. I'd contend I know more about the Roma than the people who wrote all the Universal horror films did.
Was it the sex? People seem to be more squeamish about sex now than they have been at any time in my life, with liberal Democrats joining the religious right in a quest to sanitize our lives and public discourse. And more on prudery later.
Bottom line? You never know, because it's too much of a burden for editors to tell you. And I say that with no disrespect intended. It really would be a burden to tell every submitting author what was wrong (in the editor's opinion) with a story. Largely because most of them would argue the point ad nauseum.
But Robert Heinlein said, once you've finished a piece, you keep it on the market until it sells. I don't know how he would have reckoned the Internet and Creative Commons, but I'd like to think that, all paying markets exhausted, putting a story out for the public to consume without the blessing of the New York literati still constitutes "keeping it on the market." So my Golem and his encounter with a Romany girl will go on my podcast. And then my listeners can tell me what they do and don't like.
The point of telling a story is to have it heard, after all, by a receptive audience. Perhaps the best way to do that is not to first have all stories heard by people who hear too many of them and are sick and tired of listening?