The Subjective Editor: Why taste matters (and why that’s okay)

When I first started as an editor, I hated sending rejections to authors or agents with a note saying, “sorry, but it just wasn’t my thing.” I always wanted to give concrete, constructive feedback about why I didn’t feel I could acquire the book. I still want to do that, if only because that’s my job.

But sometimes, there are no typos to blame. Sometimes the characters are interesting and well developed. Sometimes the book may be the most marketable thing since sliced bread (or, you know, since the latest novel by John Green). But I still may not have completely connected to the story or the writing. And taste isn’t something an author can fix by running spell check or making a few tweaks.

In those instances, I dreaded writing rejections. What good was I doing anyone if I said the book just wasn’t a fit for my taste?

Well, it turns out, I was doing everyone involved a lot of good.

Because when editors and publishers take on manuscripts simply because they’re so-so or they’ll sell and not out of passion for the story, we get crappy books. An editor won’t work day after day pouring a hundred and ten percent into a book they don’t connect to. And if we don’t give that a hundred and ten percent, it’s going to show. A lack of enthusiasm, or even false enthusiasm, on the part of an editor will lead to a book that doesn’t reach its full potential.

Let me put it this way: Are you more likely to put time and energy into something you love (like, let’s say, eating chocolate), or are you more likely to focus your efforts on something you only feel lukewarm about (like eating tofu)? Which one will you talk about with your friends, post about online, and spend entire days dreaming about?

Spoiler: the right answer is chocolate.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to say no to a project that doesn’t move me, because it might move someone else. And that person will be a thousand times more excited about the project than I could ever be, which makes the experience better for the editor and the author. Every author deserves an editor who thinks their book is chocolate.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how I make my acquisition decisions. And the very first thing I do when I am considering a submission is determine whether or not I’m in love with the story. Love is one of the most subjective emotions in the universe! I can’t quantify it, qualify it, or even explain it. But I know when I’m in love with a manuscript, and I know when I’m not. And that’s the most honest answer I can give for a rejection.

I’m lucky that I work in an industry where passion projects are championed. I’m lucky that I can find and acquire books to get excited about. I’m lucky that now I can say, “sorry, but it just wasn’t my thing,” and not feel guilty. Because it will be someone else’s thing.

And I know I’m going to find that next book that makes me cry or laugh or dance, and I’m going to love it.

7 thoughts on “The Subjective Editor: Why taste matters (and why that’s okay)

  1. Sara says:

    Thank you for sharing this! I’ve recently had a couple agents respond to a query saying my book just wasn’t their thing, and I’ve gotten a few short story rejections where the editor didn’t connect with my characters. Your post makes me feel better about my decision not to revise after those rejections (I had already revised a lot and gotten a lot of feedback). Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wen Baragrey says:

    Hi Jillian! This post is so perfect. I’ve been telling my querying friends exactly this for a while now and I’ll be sharing this with them so that they can see I’m really not kidding. It’s hard to believe when you’re in the trenches and it seems like you’ll take any yes, so long as it’s a yes! But it’s definitely the wrong thing to want.
    I usually say that it’s like walking into a bookstore. It’s filled with hundreds of books that were good enough to go through all it takes to be published, and are clearly good books, and yet you will only walk out with one (okay, a dozen, let’s be honest, but definitely not ALL the books). You pick the one/s that you couldn’t leave behind. So do agents and editors, and you want the one who couldn’t leave your book behind.
    I think that book connection is a little like love. It’s not something you can define or put your finger on, but you know second best isn’t going to cut it.

    Liked by 1 person

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