[Edited to add that Anna Bowles, who's in the biz, posted an insightful counterpoint to this post. Go. Read. Learn. Think.]
I'm about to discuss something heretical in the world of writing. Those with weak stomachs and MFAs will probably want to click away now.
Lately I've been studying unpublished openings, as in first chapters, especially those entered in the many, many contests out there. Or, more to the point, I've been studying critiquers' reactions to the openings.
First, most critters are either just very, very nice people who can't bring themselves to say a harsh word to anyone or else they are very sincere in their beliefs about what they like. If we assume the latter, then the majority of the stories being critiqued have fan bases -- people who enjoy the samples provided and would keep reading past the 1, 2, 5, 10 or 50 pages submitted.
I've seen a dozen readers gush over an entry, explaining why they like it and how they're drawn in. Then along comes the industry professional to spoil it all. A person who obviously doesn't "get" the work or respond to it in the same way the "regular" folk do.
This dichotomy is especially prevalent, I think, in contests that encourage "readers" (those who don't write at all) to critique alongside "writers."
When I hung out with the Romance Writers of America, I'd see the same lament from scores of writers plastered across the message boards: I entered so-and-so contest and the first-round judges (typically readers) gave my work perfect or near-perfect scores. Then the agent/editor read it and shot it down.
Why the disconnect?
Industry professionals tend to focus on the craft: the spit and polish, how the work is presented. In short, how professional it comes across, judging to a certain institutionalized quality. A quality that I certainly think the typical reader appreciates -- just maybe not to the extent industry professionals believe.
Much of the reading public seems able to forgive writing that isn't quite polished if the story or characters interest them. Let's call these works the literary equivalent of velvet Elvises and dogs playing poker. They may not win awards, serious art students may snicker, critics may look down their noses, but they get hung/read in a lot of average homes. Just look at fanfic sites. Readers who could be reading quality, industry-chosen works are spending time reading amateur works instead.
I've spent a number of years as a writer/editor for large corporations, have done design duty in the past, and have worked directly with printers to produce marketing collateral, so I do understand the value of editing, of paper quality, of page design, and all the rest. I've made a pretty good living for an awfully long time capitalizing on the value these things bring to a project. But I also understand how subjective everything that's creative is.
Project approval in big business often depends on the green-light from a non-creative department. The accepted "rule" in design is to always give the decision-makers a choice so they feel invested in the project. A "trick" designers use when presenting ideas to decision-makers is to give them one obviously inferior design along with the design they want to push. The problem is that an inordinate number of times, decision-makers fall in love with the inferior design. What was "obvious" to a professional isn't so obvious to someone not in the game.
The same goes for writing. I can't tell you the number of times I've returned copy for approval only to have highly intelligent, degreed reviewers change perfectly good grammar to something that's atrociously wrong. Writers and English majors know the difference; the average person on the street, not so much.
Beyond nitpicks in grammar, problems with content around continuity of theme, persuasively building a case, redundant explanations, and unsupported claims (the equivalent of story continuity, character development, tight writing, and plot holes in fiction) often go unremarked . And here's an important point: While the average non-writer will agree that the edited version is better, when they don't have anything to compare the original to, they often feel a draft written by someone only moderately versed in writing is perfectly acceptable.
The ease of self-publishing coupled with the coming ebook revolution is a game-changer not just for writers, but for readers.
Yes, there will always be dreck that no reader, discerning or otherwise, will be able to slog through. Readers will quickly learn not to purchase anything online before skimming through a sample chapter. But if a story fits their taste and is told engagingly enough, many, if not most, readers seem to be willing to overlook a plain and perhaps imperfect exterior because they know it's what's inside, deep down, that matters. That's how they judge a story.
So who cares about quality? Everyone, to an extent. We just don't all agree where quality ends and value begins.