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I've just received the written feedback from an editor in a large publishing house. On the whole it's very critical, with the occassional "could be good" thrown in at the end of sections with a list of negative points.

TLDR: are editors generally negative with infrequent positive comments, or is this a reality check?

Fuller question: I understand that I need to focus on the weaknesses to make it a better story in its entirety, but given the sparcity of positive feedback, should I take a step back from the entire project for a while to get a better perspective or should I act line-by-line in the spirit of her response? After getting quite a lot of positive feedback from amateur beta readers, I'm now confused by differing inputs - some are common (therefore easier to implement) whilst others contradict each other.

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I was in just this position as few years ago. Extensive comments from an editor at a top house, mostly critical. I did a rewrite and got a "better, but not quite" back. No invitation to try again, so that was that. I was having more success on the non-fiction front so I put the fiction in a drawer and am just starting to get back to is as my latest non-fiction project finds it way to print.

Obviously the advice or someone who got to this point and got past it to acceptance and successful publication would be of more use to you. But until that person turns up, I will offer some thoughts.

  1. Editors always have more stuff than they can possibly read. Every minute they keep reading you MS is a huge compliment.

  2. Editors have sales targets to meet. If they spend time critiquing your work, that is because they think it shows economic potential. Every critique they make, however negative, is therefore also a huge compliment.

  3. Editors are not, generally, literary scholars. Their critiques are reactions in the moment to what they are reading. The real problem with the MS may lie earlier, or may lie in the overall structure. The place where the shoes pinch is not always the place where the design of the shoe is faulty. Fixing the sentences they commented on is probably not going to fix the problem.

  4. The editor no doubt had a love of books and of stories, but in the end they are looking for product to fill a sales channel. In the end, their critiques are about how well you MS would fill the sales channel they are responsible for filling. In my case, I think the real problem was that my book looked like it would fit in a sales channel that was then very popular, but it didn't actually do so, because it was not designed to do so. That is not really a problem you can fix. You can't turn a shoe into a hat just because it has been picked up by accident by a hat buyer.

  5. Beta readers are congenitally encouraging. They value the relationship and they don't want to be responsible for upsetting you. Their feedback is almost invariably too kind. Plus, beta readers are not trying to fill a sales channel and don't bring that perspective to their analysis.

Recommendations:

  1. If you were asked to correct and resubmit, do so. Such chances don't come along every day. But don't be in too much of a rush. Publishing is a slow business. Take the time your need. If you weren't asked to resubmit, that avenue is almost certainly closed. (Though some people do have the chutzpah to find a way through locked doors.)

  2. If not, step back. Spend the time to figure out what got you that far, and what kept you from getting further. Depending on the nature of the problem, you might conclude that this is the book to throw away and start work on a new one. Or you might see the way to make significant improvements. If so, make them. But try to get some perspective and understanding first, rather than just hacking away. Maybe go back and read a bunch of books in the genre and try to figure out what they have that your book does not. And remember that the answer to that may be mundane and have little to do with quality or art. Publishing is a business and we always have to understand it that way.

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