My friend Michael Reynolds suggested that I blog on “what is writing talent from an editor’s perspective?”
Wow. That’s harder to answer that you might imagine, but I’ll give it a try. First, let me stipulate that the operative words in the question are “from an editor’s perspective.”
Good editors acquire books based on what they believe will sell to their market. Publishers (even within CBA) are different. Some publishers do very well with contemporary suspense (Zondervan, B&H). Others do well with historical romance (Harvest House, Bethany House). Some specialize in a very limited genre—such as Jeff Gerke’s Marcher Lord Press. Jeff publishes speculative fiction—and thank God he does. If it weren’t for Marcher Lord, several very fine books would likely remain unpublished. The extent to which any publisher is successful is largely dependent on offering books in the marketplace by authors to which readers will repeatedly return. Unfortunately this can mean that if and when a publisher ventures out into a new and untested genre (for their market) or with a new and unknown author, it doesn’t always work out the way the publisher would like, no matter how well-written the book is. I often reject a manuscript with the words, “this is well-written, but does not reach our market.”
The challenge for any good publisher—in my opinion—is to continue to successfully publish to their core market of readers, while gently reaching out with quality fiction into new areas. To take an example, let’s look at the current (and longlasting) fascination with Amish fiction. We, along with several other fine publishers, have found some very talented authors who can write well in this popular genre. But ten years ago, Amish fiction wasn’t the phenomenon it is today. And ten years from now, it will likely have waned. So the trick—for both editors and authors—is to publish what readers currently want, but always keep our editorial antenna up in an effort to gauge what readers will want next.
I would define talent then as the ability to
1) discern the current reading tastes of fiction buyers
2) as accurately as possible predict the reading tastes of fiction buyers three years from now
3) write compelling stories in those genres
Earlier I said the key words were “from an editor’s perspective.” All I’ve written above is relevant to that. But from a personal standpoint—as an editor who is also a reader—I think talent is the ability to create a world that I , Nick Harrison, would enjoy living in for several hours. Part of that is, of course, introducing me to characters I’m willing to follow through 200+ pages of their lives.
Happily, sometimes the two worlds (my life as and editor and my life as a reader) overlap. I do personally enjoy the books I edit. I take it very hard when a book I’ve acquired and edited does not find its place on bestseller lists and, instead, sells poorly. (Thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often). Often, I’m sorry to say, these are the books that are very well written, but are not specific to a popular genre. So in that respect, talent in writing is not enough. Sometimes the best-written books do not sell well. That’s just the way it is. It makes me mad, but what can I do about it?
In my workshops I often mention that success for a writer is only about 60% writing ability. The other 40% is knowing the market, meeting editors and agents at conferences, and generally keeping up with what’s going on in the publishing world. Writers who do that will have an advantage over more talented writers who don’t or won’t do that.
I hope that helps. If not, ask away.
Next blog I’ll tackle Susy’s suggestion about “a day in the life of an editor.”