It’s All Subjective . . . to a Point

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Feb 08 2011

We talk a lot about how subjective this business is, about how an agent could be rejecting your book simply because she doesn’t like dogs and you have a dog as a sidekick, or because she doesn’t like characters named Sara. And this is true, but not to the extreme I think some of you like to think or agents like to use as examples. Certainly there are times when we reject books or queries simply because it’s not the type of thing we represent or are interested in representing. For example, I won’t even bother to read Tom Clancy-esque military thrillers because I have no interest in them. They are not my forte, so in that case it is entirely personal preference.

When reading in a genre I do represent, however, there’s more that goes into a request for more or a rejection, more than just the fact that I love dogs or am entranced with Steampunk. My subjectivity is often also based on the market or how well the concept is working for me (which of course is subjective). For example, I love all things food. Query me with a chef or restaurateur and you’ve immediately piqued my interest. That doesn’t mean that just because you’ve included a chef or restaurateur in your book I’m going to offer representation. There’s so much more to it than that, so much more to it than just my personal preference.

When judging a manuscript, whether I’m reading it for myself or for someone else, my subjectivity comes into play in how the book works for me, not that I don’t like dogs. In other words, I might not like dogs, but does the dog in your manuscript work? Does it have a role, does it feel like it belongs, is the purpose of the dog realistic? That’s the trick. A good author will make the book work for just about anyone. If it’s not working, that’s the problem, and that’s when I’ll remember that I don’t like dogs.


11 responses to “It’s All Subjective . . . to a Point”

  1. Great insight to keep in mind.

  2. Avatar tericarter says:

    Well said.

    I'm reminded of a book I once read about Christmas tree farming in Wisconsin. I am not interested in Christmas, trees, or Wisconsin, but I couldn't put it down.

  3. Avatar Phil says:

    How very true, Jessica! I'd hazard to guess that most agents look for voice first, and if the voice fails them, they often then notice the dogs that they so terribly despise.

    @tericarter – Good point. I often value books for when they teach me to appreciate the unexpected or unknown, broadening my horizons in some fascinating and inimitable manner.

  4. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I may be wrong, but I think you just validated how subjective it all is with this post. In other words, if a dog in a book doesn't work for you than you're obviously not going to be interested. Or, if chef in a book doesn't work for you…even though you love food books…you're not going to be interested. The same dog (or chef), however may work for another agent, which is the same with readers. It's also why we see so many one star and five star reviews for Jonathan Franzen's new book, FREEDOM. (In FREEDOM I don't think the Joey charater's business venture with the government worked, but many people did think it worked…subjectivity again.)

    You almost had me on your corner with this one 🙂 But, speaking from a subjective pov, even though the post works well, it doesn't make any sense at all with respect to the title of the post.

  5. Avatar Nicole says:

    I use subjectivity to remind myself that I'll always have a chance at getting published. You never know when you might tap an agent at the right time or you've written something they'll totally fall in love with.

    I also use it to try and figure out which agents might be the best fit. For example, I read a book that BookEnds helped put out there. While I, ah, was glad it was an ARC and that I hadn't bought it myself, it still helped me to get a taste of what works for you and what has publishing potential.

  6. Avatar Sharla says:

    LOL, I'll try to keep that in mind as you have my ms with both a dog and a character named Sarah! :))

  7. Avatar AE says:

    I get it. But how can you make that come across in a query? For example, an agent reads my query, and rejects it based on some subjective quality. How do you get it past query so the agent can see it's worth its salt?

  8. Ah yeah. I think you're right, calling getting an agent "totally subjective" isn't necessarily true. When an author blames their query getting rejected on the subjectivity of all agents, it reminds me of a girl getting dumped and saying, "He said it wasn't me. It was him."

    and I just kind of go, "Isn't that what your last bf said?"


    "and…those 29 bfs before that?"

    "Yeah, guys are just so fickle."

    "…fickle yeah. It must be them."

    Cause the truth is, while there may be hundreds of nuances and factors going into it, agents are still looking for talent and skill, and yes, when you query properly, to agents who represent your genre, I really do believe they react to talent and skill quite logically, and oftentimes, similarly.

    "Doesn't work for me" is shorthand for a whole lot of things that are most likely not subjective at all.

    And submitting a Tom-Clancy-like novel to an agent who doesn't represent that genre doesn't get you rejected because of "subjectivity." You were rejected because you didn't do your research.


  9. I have never been wild about Neil Gaiman's writing.


    That doesn't mean I don't like his books, or that I can't see how well-written they are. It just means, for whatever reasons, the books don't resonate with me they way they do with his fans.

    If I were an agent, and Neil Gaiman queried me, I'd be interested, but I truly wouldn't comprehend what a gold mine I was looking at.

    And that means Neil Gaiman would do better to find another agent who did.

    Subjectivity is the difference not only between getting an agent and not getting an agent, but between having a competent agent and having a zealous, battle-through-fire champion on your side.

  10. Avatar Jeigh says:

    I think your last sentence sums it up perfectly. It's about presentation. You can have the best idea in the world and mess it up with bad execution.

  11. Avatar amy says:

    I think what is most difficult for the querying author is determining when it is truly a matter of subjectivity, or a matter of needing improvement. Phrases such as, "I encourage you to query widely." or such even in a personalized rejection can send an author into throes of rejectomancy. One is almost unsure of the need to submit elsewhere or fiddle based on the scraps of feedback. It can be a maddening process.

    Thankfully, there are more regular readers than there are agents and editors…one day we'll be able to find an audience that, although as fickle, has more fish in the sea!