Someone asked this on a forum the other day, and the responses were horrible. Here's what I had to say.
* * *
Well, considering the source, the first answer you received is predictably dead wrong. Not even close. I suggest you make a point of ignoring such responses from people who are only guessing at what they believe to be correct or possibly have an even more insidious reason for making snap judgments and responding with false answers or, just as bad, those that don't come close to responding to what you asked.
To answer the question you did ask and not something about which some respondents totally missed the mark. My response to How can a beginning writer learn from rejection if the editor doesn't provide constructive criticism is simple: He can't. But you can. At least, you can learn something from a stock rejection slip, and that's this: Your book may not be ready for publication. At least, it may not be by that publisher. How can you tell for sure? You're going to have to put on your Big Boy Editor's Hat and see for yourself where your book misses the mark. Either that or hire someone more knowledgeable than you to do the job.
You see, there's a good reason that publishers don't give feedback on rejected manuscripts. They don't view that as part of their job. They're editors, not critics or teachers. Of course, I'm speaking as a rule. There are always exceptions, particularly if your book is really well done, but the editor doesn't think the timing, genre, or approach (your literary voice, writing style, marketing appeal, etc.) is suitable for his or her "list." That's the term publishers use for the twice-yearly acquisition period during which an editor signs up and publishes his quota of books for that season. In such a case, the editor may not want to discourage you from submitting to other potentially more appropriate publishers; so, he sends along a few words of encouragement or even some helpful hints. He may even say that, if you take his advice, he's open to receiving your revised manuscript for a second look. Very rare.
In other cases where the writing isn't professional enough, or the book is hastily slapped together, not within the publisher's realm, or riddled with mistakes, you can understand why an editor would reject it without comment. If he tried to include a substantive comment on every book that falls into that category, he'd have to work round the clock and would still never keep up. No, that's not his duty, and that's not his priority. And all editors know it.
Remember: Publishers are in the book-publishing business, not the manuscript-evaluation game. If you want constructive criticism of your book, you're going to have to hire a book doctor or a knowledgeable editor on your own to help correct the book's shortcomings and prepare it for submission.
Hey, not my fault! Don't blame me. I'm just telling you how the industry works, and I've been part of it—working both sides of the desk, now—for more than half a century.
By the way, if an editor should happen to take the time to tell you where you went wrong or why he's not going to make an offer on your book, listen to him. Consider his suggestions (notice the word, "consider") because they may be valid. If so, mark yourself down as one of the fortunate few, and set about making your book better or finding a different editor/publisher who's a more suitable candidate for the work you have to offer.
That may not be the answer you were hoping for, but it's at least an honest, unbiased, and accurate one. And, I'm pretty sure, a bit more appropriate than some of the other nonsense responses you received.
Just my take on the subject, of course.
Smoke if you've got 'em.
* * *
D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.com.