It’s Just One Opinion

(I loved all your responses on the Friday Free-For-All, and will answer questions next week. I’m taking a blog hiatus and will re-post some oldies but goodies this week. Hopefully they’re just as good the second time around!)

Last week our book group had our monthly meeting. We were discussing The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. So I sat down and was all like, “Oh my gosh, I LOVED this book, it’s been such a treat to read, so well written, such a wonderful escape… blah, blah, blah.” But I sort of tapered off my rhapsodizing when I noticed less-than-enthusiastic looks on the faces of a couple of the people in my group.

“So, what, didn’t you like the book?” I asked.

“Well, yeah, of course, I mean… yeah, it was okay.”

Okay. OKAY?? Seriously, how could they not LOVE this book??

Ahem.

This is what it means to be in a business based on people’s totally subjective opinions. It’s not just your query or your proposal being scrutinized by people with vastly differing tastes. Eventually, it will be your book. People will discuss it, and some will love it. Others will wonder, “How did this tripe get published?”

So all up and down the line, we have to deal with the subjectivity. Of course, this is true of just about any business, right? Especially if you’re trying to sell something to consumers.

Just remember, every opinion you get from someone is just that: an opinion.

Come to think of it, this subjectivity is one of the reasons I don’t go to great lengths to describe why I’m passing on someone’s project. No matter what I say, I could be wrong. I don’t want to go around making pronouncements as if they’re meaningful. I’m just one person. It’s just my opinion. I don’t want to reject a future bestseller, only to be quoted later as saying in my letter, “Your writing sucks and this will never sell.”

Below, alleged quotes from rejection letters on famous books. I don’t want this to be me!

Lord of the Flies by William Golding: “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”

The Diary of Anne Frank: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level.”

Carrie by Stephen King: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”

Animal Farm by George Orwell: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”

Regarding John le Carré, author of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: “He hasn’t got any future.”

Of course, it always sounds stupid after they’ve gone on to win awards and sell millions. From where I sit, it’s easier just to say, “It’s not for me.”

(c) 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • B.K. Jackson

    >I can think of a few highly successful novels that I was underwhelmed by. But then when I hear stories of how those books touched someone's life, I have to bow and say the greater good has been served and my opinion isn't worth a hoot.

  • Megan

    >I love reading things like this, and how Harry Potter was rejected some what, fifty times or something?

  • Tessa Quin

    >I read an interview with Stephenie Meyer and after she got her deal with Writer House, she received a rejection on an old query letter saying that she'd never get published.

  • Katy McKenna

    >I loved this post just as much the second time. In fact, I needed to read it again to remind me that I've still got the book you raved about, "The Forgotten Garden," on my TBR shelf. Must. Read. Soon!

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >A great reminder that no author writes for an audience of EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER BEEN BORN.

    If we try to please everyone our number of satisfied readers decrease.

  • Linda Banche

    >It took me years to figure this out, but if I like or dislike something, there are lots of people out there who will agree with me.

    So write what you write, then find your audience. Of course, finding that audience is the hard part. Good luck to all of us.

  • Jessica Nelson

    >I'd rather hear "It's not for me" from an agent than "You'll never sell because you STINK". LOL

    My friend just got Forgotten Garden. I can't wait to see what she thinks of it!

  • Scott

    >I read that book a few months ago and absolutely loved the book, and the references to inspiration to "The Secret Garden". Very clever on Kate Morton's part.

    Did I mention I loved, loved, loved the book?

    S

  • Susan Bourgeois

    >This discussion can be compared to the review of a movie. I've been to a few where I simply got up and walked out. On one occasion I thought a particular movie was weak and downright silly. I later found out that my adult nephew loved it! It has now become one of of his favorite all time movies.

    Different strokes for different folks. This post is a great reminder that what we write will not appeal to all people.

    That's why agents and publishers invented the "target audience"!

  • Laura Pauling

    >I see it from an agent's perspective when I pick and choose what books to read. The books I love are certainly different from someone else. And not because of the writing. Just because.

  • Anonymous

    >If only William Golding had listened.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Consider this: Harry Potter was rejected by 97% of American readers. But I don’t find that particularly helpful when talking about my own books. I realize that most people aren’t going to read my books. I realize that some people love my books and I love hearing that feedback. I have no use for feedback from people who have no interest in my books no matter what I might do. But it’s helpful to consider the feedback from the almost persuaded. I’m like the lawyer who walks into jury selection and asks if anyone has a problem with how he combs his hair or the color of his tie. While there are some aspects of what I write that I will not change, some aspects just aren’t that important to me personally, but they might prevent some reader from buying the book.

    We might make fun of the person who said animal stories are impossible to sell when he rejected Animal Farm, but we don’t see many animal stories sold in the US. His mistake was in failing to recognize the power of the Animal Farm story, not in rejecting animal stories.

  • Erika Marks

    >This simple truth can't be said enough, which is why Erin Healy's earlier guest posts on knowing your reader were so important.

    Trying to please everyone (in writing, or life, for that matter) is impossible–better to do your best work and get to know (and treasure) those who value and enjoy your writing. It will make the journey that much more satisfying.

  • Fawn Neun

    >Just watching our intern readers at our lit journal is proof. All of our submissions go through several of them, and the contrast in opinions is so vast, it's amusing.

  • Marla Taviano

    >I LOVED The Forgotten Garden. LOVED.

  • Jennifer Lane

    >Thank you for this post. It's important to keep in mind that one reader's Twilight can be another reader's . . . Twilight. :D I'm thinking about my book club's varied response to Stephenie Meyer's hugely successful book. I found it quite entertaining but also felt uneasy about some parts of the romance.

  • Beth

    >As long as books have to pass through the hands of humans, there will be subjectivity involved in the selection process.

  • Amanda G

    >I met an editor at a conference who asked for my proposal and first chapters. He quickly asked for the full ms and two weeks later rejected it, calling it "a pretty good read" but saying he is "holding out for something extraordinary."

    I've read plenty of times that every agent/editor's opinion is subjective, that no one book can appeal to everyone, etc. Yet apparently, I can never read that too many times, because a nagging panic still whispered in my brain for the next week: Why isn't it extraordinary? What's wrong with it? What should I change/fix so that this person would find it extraordinary?

    This post is exactly what I needed to shut that whisper up (at least for awhile). Thanks, Rachelle.

  • lauradroege

    >I recently had my unpublished novel read by an anonymous committee on my writing review site. All said it was professionally written.

    One member: Fabulous! Hope you get this published.

    Another member: My attention wandered in the middle. Spice it up. No mention of which parts needed some cayenne pepper (or at least some oregano) added to it.

    Third member: Some of the scenes were melodramatic. Lack of character depth (in spite of saying that the characterization was great, the characters grew and developed in the novel, and they were realistic.)

    Subjective and conflicting opinions, sometimes even within one person's opinion. Sigh. Now I remember why I liked math class: you couldn't argue that the teacher's grading of your test was "subjective". 2+2 always equals 4, but how great my English essays were depended in part on the teacher's opinion of them.

  • Michael Stubblefield

    >As a writer, I would prefer having some helpful feedback with the rejection, rather than just "It's not for me.".

    Most of the examples above, though are not what I would call helpful feedback. They fall more into the range of hateful rants. There are no specific structural elements that they are providing points of critique on.

    The one for Animal Farm comes closest to having something constructive said, without being hateful.

    So, no I would not like to hear any of these in a rejection letter. I'd consider them unprofessional if I received them. But I would like to hear something constructive.

  • Anonymous

    >What irks me is that some lame books continue to get published because they got there FIRST (10+ years ago). Recently I read the intro of a mystery series in which the author actually tells their regular readers to skip to the next page as they reintroduce the MC with a laundry list of boring descriptions. Seriously?

  • James L. Rubart

    >Well worth repeating, Rachelle. And good to keep in mind before you're published.

    Currently my novel ROOMS has 90 five star Amazon reviews and 80 one star reviews.

    Yep, a lot of ravers and a lot of haters.

    Of course I'd like only ravers, but ain't gonna happen, it's the nature of art.

    I just don't want anyone to tell me they didn't like INCEPTION.

    Jim

  • Teenage Bride

    >Everyone has an opinion and quite often they will differ from everyone else.

    It was a treat to read these rejection lines, certainly made me giggle.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • MJR

    >I love THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN so far! (I'm actually about half-way through it right now). I've read well-reviewed books that have been on the bestseller list for weeks, like THE LIFE OF PI, that I didn't get. I'm not saying it's a bad book. I just didn't understand it, so I probably would have rejected it. But lots of people love this book.

  • Joe Iriarte

    >I've read these rejections and others before and I'm always stunned that anybody would write something so . . . specific? I don't want to say hateful and unprofessional, although many of these "you'll never make it" rejections seem that way. But beyond the emotional reaction, they just don't make sense. Why go the extra mile to let someone know how much you despised their work? Why make predictions about what will never be successful? What good can possibly come of it? It just seems like it's asking for an ironic result, like the rejected work becoming hugely successful and the rejector looking like a fool. It seems far more prudent to keep to the "I" and "me" statements rather than the "this" statements.

  • kellyeparish

    >I can't help but think some of the editors and literary agents behind those venomous rejections are themselves failed, embittered writers. It's kind of sad, but encouraging at the same time to see that these writers went on to become such wild successes anyway.

    You know what they say…those who can, can. Those who can't make a living raking those who can over the coals.

  • kellyeparish

    >ETA – Good incentive to see everybody as a diamond in the rough, eh Rachelle? :)

    The Carrie one in particular kills me, given King's advance on that book was $400,000.

  • Timothy Fish

    >I think people write detailed rejections or reviews with the belief that what they’re saying is accurate. While it could be that they despise the author’s work, it’s more likely that they want to be heard. We need to be careful about being too hard on these guys. If we aren’t, we’ll end up saying we shouldn’t criticize anyone’s work. The danger in that is that people can’t learn from their mistakes if we’re unwilling to point out what we believe is wrong. For example, I read a book the other day in which the author had a problem with echoes. For all I know, this author will make a ton of money with the book, but it’s a problem that needs to be eliminated. It’s a little late for the author to do anything about it now, but it would’ve been nice if the author’s editor or agent had pointed it out before it went to press.

  • Brother Cysa Dime

    >In the performing area, Fawlty Towers almost did not get funded by the BBC because several executives thought that it would be a flop. The Monty Python's Flying Circus cast unanimously thought that there was no market for the program in the U.S.

    I understand that the Chicken Soup series (sixty million sold) was turned down by publishers.

  • kathy taylor

    >Sweet. Gives me hope.

  • Joe Iriarte

    >You know Timothy Fish, I don't quite agree with you. I don't think the issue here is whether it's okay to criticize another's work, or whether we should point out what we believe is wrong. I have crit partners who are really tough, and I'm grateful to them for pointing out problems before an agent or editor sees them. And I've had one rejection on the WIP I'm shopping around, a personal rejection after a request for partial, where the agent explained why my work wasn't right for her, and I really appreciated it. I knew better than to resubmit the same work to the same agent, but I did go back and try to improve upon the parts that hadn't worked for her–and she also noted (as most rejections do) that another agent might not have the same objections.

    But calling someone's work "rubbish"–well that's not the kind of critique that will allow someone to, as you say, "learn from their mistakes." Similarly, how can saying that someone "hasn't got any future" be constructive in any way?

    Aside from that, when you predict someone doesn't have a future, it's kind of a no-win prediction. If you're right, who's going to be impressed? Most of us have no future in publishing. So If someone predicts you or I won't make it, that's just going with the odds. With the overwhelming odds at that. Can you imagine telling someone telling one of his agents, forty years from now, "Hey, I once predicted Joe wouldn't have any future in publishing, and, guess what? I was right!" On the other hand, if John le Carré turns into, well, John le Carré, whoever said that looks kind of like an idiot. So there's really no gain in telling people they haven't got a shot. ;)

  • Anonymous

    >Ditto to Joe! You can't please all of the people all of the time–and what a boring world that would be if we could. Sure, I get frustrated seeing generic novels getting published, and I can't get a break. But who are we to judge someone else's writing?

    Maybe we're just clueless and don't "get" that author's work–but it's great for someone else. Like they say, one person's trash is another one's treasure…

  • dining room tables

    >Everyone has a different opinion for everything. I think that is just okay. It is just his opinion. I know that book is one of the best. In fact I also have one.

  • Catherine Johnson

    >THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN is one of my favourite books. So much detail and plot twists.

    I think its funny how one book can do so well and another equally brilliant be so little known.
    THE RIVER by Patricia Wastvedt is also a fantastic read, but as far as I know she didn't write another book.

  • Marti Thomas Berman

    >I loved The Forgotten Garden too! But maybe I won't recommend it to my book club after the reception you got…

  • Messy mommy

    >So … if rejection is subjective and just one opinion, where is the line between–just one opinion, and maybe I should consider revising it because it could be improved upon–when every editor, agent and publisher queried rejects it?

    I am not to the query/proposal/rejection stage yet. I could see where someone could be prideful and stubborn holding fast to the idea that "it's just one opinion" and keep putting a ms out there that NEEDS revision.

    But I do appreciate the reminder and encouragement not to give up.

  • Joe Iriarte

    >Messy Mommy, what my wife did was if three people said the same thing to her, she figured there was something there whether she saw it herself or not, and tried to address it. She has an agent, so I reckon it worked pretty well for her.

    I don't have quite as many critters as she did. A lot of times, though, I agree with the things people point out. I'll be like, hmm, I didn't see that before, but you know, you're right, and then I'll change it. So basically I change it if I agree and if I think I can.

    Something else to consider is critters or agents can be wrong about their prescriptions but not about their sensations. So someone's advice may be off, but if they tell me something didn't work for them it really didn't, and maybe I can think of a different way to improve on the problem than whatever they recommended.

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