You Like Potato and I Like Potahto: Subjectivity and Publishing

by Erin Brown

The rocky road of the submission process, both for finding an agent and a publisher, is riddled with obstructions—but one of the most difficult things to triumph over is the subjectivity inherent in publishing. As I’m sure you know, agents and editors receive hundreds of submissions every year. I remember myriad instances in which I would absolutely adore a manuscript that came across my editorial desk (a story of girl meets boy meets mobsters crossed with a dash of Fitzgerald meets Jennifer Weiner meets Toni Morrison meets the Civil War mixed with a little Bronte—what’s not to love?). I would then pass this gem along to my colleagues and there would inevitably be one person (or hell, maybe more!) who would hate the work/want to turn it into kindling/talk about how it was the most horrible thing he or she’d ever read. Then, lo and behold, we’d publish The Great Godfather Was Good in Bed Sings the Song of Solomon Is Gone with the Wuthering Heights and the novel would get rave reviews and hit the bestseller list. Or, lo and behold, Ms. Debbie Downer would be right and the work would be vilified by critics and readers alike.  

So when you send off your baby to an agent or editor, remember that this business we call publishing is very subjective. Some will love your work, and some will hate it. Some will just say, “Eh,” and never think of it again. Keep this in mind when you get a rejection letter that reads, “I liked this, but I didn’t love it,” or “This just isn’t my cup of tea”—or from a real wanker, “I hate this and you.” Remember that there are many people that might adore your work, but you just haven’t found someone to fall in love and lead the helm.

I swear, if Twilight or The Notebook or Fifty Shades of Grey had come across my desk, I would’ve immediately written a polite rejection letter. Well, who had the last laugh on those minor bestsellers? One person’s burn pile is another person’s bestseller pile. Just as one person adores an Ann Patchett novel or the works of Jonathan Franzen, another person can think, “What in the world is this pretentious blowhard writing? Enough with the literary nonsense—give me some good S&M or a book about a shopaholic!”

Just as you have different tastes in literature, so do agents and editors.  Everyone is not going to love your submission. Just like every reader is not going to love the latest vampire novel or sappy love story. Even if something is inarguably well-written, the subject matter, characters, or plot twists simply might not appeal to certain agents or editors (or readers!). Or you might just catch that agent on a bad day—the subway got stuck on her way to work or someone stole her bagel (with her name on it! Sheesh, people, really?) from the break room. Realize that a few rejections will be totally, completely, absolutely subjective. Your novel could still be the next best thing since sliced bread (or an excellent non-fiction narrative on the quirky brainiac behind the idea of sliced bread), and still there will be some people who simply don’t like it. That’s the way it works. The bottom line is: don’t give up and decide that your work is no good just because a handful of agents and editors don’t like it.

On the other hand, if you send out your query and manuscript to a hundred agents and everyone truly hates it/you get no bites, then you might want to set it aside and start on a new project. But if you’re getting lukewarm or “no” warm feedback from a few people, don’t get too disheartened. Continue sending out queries, reaching for the gold, truckin’ right along. Because one person’s Fifty Shades of Crap is another person’s Fifty Shades of Bestseller! And one agent’s Hemingway is another agent’s litter box liner. So keep your chin up and remember that the agent or editor who likes your work is brilliant, and everyone else can go suck it (I’m just suggesting mantras here).

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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