Seriously, It’s Subjective!

Erin Brown


I remember clearly the moment I first saw it. I was sitting in my office – not a corner one, mind you – in the famous Flatiron building in New York City. The submission was a thick stack of pages, without an agent letter attached. Direct from the author, it had made it into my assistant’s slush pile (unagented submissions), and she had read the manuscript with great interest. She ran in one morning, a huge smile on her face, clutching the pages to her chest.

“I found one!”

Giddiness ensued.

Now, you must know, that most editors do not accept unagented submissions. But I was always the exception to the rule – I figured everyone deserved a shot, and even though it often meant super-late nights and extra-long weekends (even without reading unagented submissions, this is an editor’s life), we always made sure to slosh through the slush pile. Of course, it often took six months to get through everything, but every so often . . .

The title was a brilliant play on words, and the novel showed a marriage unraveling, a poetic and epic journey through a complex relationship between two artistic souls. I instantly fell in love with the writing and was completely transported into the author’s world. I read through the night, and by morning, I could barely contain my excitement – I had my next purchase.

At the editorial meeting the next day, I joyfully pitched the novel to my publisher and immediately made twenty copies of the manuscript to get feedback from other major players in the company – heads of marketing, art, sales, foreign sales, publicity, fellow editors.  

And then I waited. Got some coffee. Attended some meetings, had agent lunches, slept fitfully for a few nights. Two days later, I got my first response from a reader: “Weeeeeell, I liked it but I didn’t love it.” Hah, well, what does she know? I was still on my high!

My next three editorial readers adored the novel (they were obviously excellent judges of literature), but then three more readers “didn’t get it” or were “so-so.” Gah! And some of these thumbs-down readers were power players, like the director of marketing! If he didn’t get behind it, I was screwed. And the sales team was lukewarm. If I couldn’t count on them to personally push the novel into the stores, then I’d be doing a disservice to the book and author.

I know that as an author, it’s frustrating to receive rejections and to remember that this industry is incredibly subjective. But please know that as editors, we experience the same frustration in-house. Often, editors within the same publishing house disagree on the value of submissions. On the flip side, if you don’t make a splash at one house, you will at another. Same goes for agents – one may adore your book and another might pass immediately. Bottom line: it’s subjective.

I can’t tell you how many bestsellers I’ve abhorred, when hundreds of thousands of readers have adored them. And there have been books that I’ve rallied behind that didn’t find any love with an audience. But more often than not, you find the sweet spot – a submission you connect with that also finds support within the publishing house and with readers.

In the end, I didn’t make an offer on the unagented novel that I loved, because I didn’t have the support I needed. But I am happy to report that the author did sell the book to another company and found critical and commercial success with a team behind her that fully supported her novel. And that is what an author wants and needs. So when you get a rejection that states, “I liked it, but it’s just not for me,” take that agent or editor at their word, and know that your manuscript will probably strike someone else’s fancy – perhaps the editor in the snazzy corner office next door!



Erin Brown worked as an editor for almost a decade at two major New York publishing houses, William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, and Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press. She’s had her dream job for ten years now, as a freelance editor working directly with writers in order to improve their work (and hopefully find representation and publication!). You can contact her at You can also email her directly at:

Erin Brown2 Comments