A beginning writer, whose first novel had just been rejected by two well known science-fiction publishers with very kind words about the manuscript but notes to the effect that it was tough to launch a new author these days -- and so they were passing with regret, asked me if he should give up, given that just having a good manuscript clearly isn't enough anymore. My response:
The traditional publishing industry is in the worst shape it's ever been in, and mass-market paperback originals -- which is what many houses traditionally used to launch new authors -- are selling very poorly, and in far fewer venues, than ever before. So, yes, it is tough to break in. It's been heartbreaking for me to watch as really talented established writers have been dropped by their publishers, and also heartbreaking to see so many talented newcomers finding themselves in the same situation you are in now.
The advice I have always given (for two decades now) is this: DON'T start with a novel; start with short stories. Get noticed there, and use that notice to get an agent who can submit your work to publishers. That's how about 80 per cent of the established names did it, and if one chooses to not go that route -- to audition for a Broadway play without ever having done summer stock; to try out for the Major League without ever having played in the minors -- one has to expect some pushback.
Now, you've got a finished novel, so my advice is slightly different: see if you can carve out a segment of that novel that stands alone as a short story (even if you have to write a new ending for it that contradicts how you used the material in the novel), and try to sell that.
Depending on what it is that you write, you might do better with one of the larger small presses than you have done so far with the smaller large presses. Paolo Bacigalupi became one of the top names in SF with a novel published by Night Shade Books. It and PS Publishing, Subterranean, Tachyon, and others are all very credible options these days. (There are also some excellent Canadian houses, but they tend to only publish Canadians, since they can get arts-council grants to do so.)
Are you going to the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago next month, or the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto in November? Either is a good opportunity to meet editors face-to-face (WFC is the better of the two for that), and although I never used to counsel this, it does seem that personal contact can help a bit these days.
Finally, I should tell you that "the market is tough" line is nothing new from publishers. They've been saying it to first-time authors for at least a full decade now. And it IS indeed tough, and has been for all that time.
Should you give up? To answer that is way too much responsibility for me to take. All I know is that if I had given up after three novel rejections (which came with kind words from the editors), I wouldn't be where I am today -- and I wouldn't be happy.
I sincerely wish you all the best of luck. | July 2012
Robert J. Sawyer is the bestselling author of 22 science-fiction novels, including Hugo Award-winner Hominids, Nebula Award-winner The Terminal Experiment, and Aurora Award-winner FlashForward, the basis for the ABC TV series of the same name. His latest novel is Triggers (Ace), and his next is Red Planet Blues, coming in April 2013. You can visit him on the Web at sfwriter.com.