When I started writing my novel One Blood nearly 8 years ago, I had no idea how harrowing the process of publishing could be. But you will never hear me criticize this process because it really does force you to become a better writer.
Here's how this publishing business works. You write your novel and you want the world to read it, right? Well, first off you have to make sure it is as polished as absolutely possible. By polished, I mean that you have to clear up all the spelling, grammatical and syntax errors in your text and get rid of all the elements that take away from the action of the story. Your first revision should focus on these unnecessary elements and your second should focus on the grammatical, spelling, and syntax. I would also recommend a 3rd revision after you have let your group of insiders read over your text and throw stones at you.
So you've edited and revised until your product is ready for prime time? Now it's time to craft your query letter. The query letter is basically a 1 to 2 page "pitch" for your novel that includes a brief description of the story and characters, a description of you the author, and any publshing history you may have. Why is this letter important? Because in order to obtain representation in the form of a literary agent, you have to first convince them that your project is worth investigating. Literary agents are the brokers between you and your potential editor/publishing house. Most publishers do not accept unagented manuscripts, so either you self-publish, or you go through this process.
The literary agent receives anywhere from 150-200 queries per week from authors all of all genres. That's why it is important to revise your query letter for maximum impact. The idea is to hook the agent with your first paragraph. If they are interested, they will request a synopsis, pages of your manuscript, or even the whole thing. The synopsis is usually no more than 5 pages long and is basically an outline of your story, including the ending. What they will be looking for as they read your synopsis and novel is a fresh voice, pacing, polish, and payoff. They want to know that your book will sell because they don't get paid until you do.
So you wrote the novel, completed the query and synopsis, and convinced a literary agent to represent you. What now? Well now comes the really fun part. Your agent must find and convince an editor that your book is THE BOOK to buy and you are the next coming of Stephen King. And what are you doing during this process? Well hopefully you are writing your next novel and not bugging your agent as to when he or she will be hearing back from the editors. Editors are looking for the same things that the agents are, but they are more focused on the saleabilty factor of your novel. Why should an editor be concerned with saleability? Because the are going to have to sell your novel to the marketing and sales department, before your novel ever sees the light of day.
So your agent convinced an editor to read the manuscript and the editor loved it! That's great. Now, the editor will have to defend your novel in a meeting with other editors defending their projects and marketing and sales leaders challenging them every step of the way. All the editors have to agree on the projects for your novel to get pushed forward. And sales and marketing can reject the book at any time after that.
If sales and marketing are with you, then your book is put in the publishing rotation. The publishing industry is usually a year and a half ahead of you, so if for instance, the publisher purchases your book in March of 2008, your book probably won't see a Barnes and Nobles shelf until September of 2009, if that soon.
So now you understand that the key to this whole process is you having the most complete package possible to present to your prospective literary agent. If they don't think it is polished enough, or sellable, or original enough, they won't represent you. Publishers are looking for sure things. There still exists some risk taking (The Kite Runner for example) but more often than not, they are looking for guarantees.
And why is that, you ask? Because in the publishing model there is a certain level of shared risk between the publishing house and book sellers. Publishers accept 100% of all unsold books. So if Random House (publisher) produces 10,000 copies of your book, and after 4 months, only 1,000 have sold, Random House will accept back 9,000 copies. And you only get 4 months to move units, because the publishing business operates in seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter). They've got to make room for the next installment of new books. You have got to ensure that your book sells.
Hence the rejection notices.
"We keep going back, stronger, not weaker, because we will not allow rejection to beat us down. It will only strengthen our resolve. To be successful there is no other way."
-Earl G. Graves