What is Writing Talent?

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 If it weren’t for Marcher Lord, several very fine books would likely remain unpublished.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.”

6 replies
  1. Richard Mabry says:

    Good post, Nick. Follow-up question: Given that there’s an unavoidable lag time between accepting a manuscript/signing an author and seeing the book hit the shelves, isn’t the publisher taking something of a chance in moving out of the “comfort zone” (Amish fiction, etc.) for their house to publish something that is popular now (but may not be in a year)? Care to address that?

  2. Nick says:

    To clarify, Richard, are you saying that it’s a risk to stay in a genre that’s currently selling well because it might not be a year from now when a presently contracted title is released? I think that’s what you’re asking. And sure it’s a risk, but less of a risk than guessing what will be happening a year from now. That’s especially true of Amish fiction. I don’t know that any of us would have predicted it would be popular this long–and with no signs of letting up.

    I should also add that not all authors can write to the market. Some very fine authors may take a stab at it and fail miserably and produce a manuscript that feels contrived.

    Although vampire fiction is hot now, will it be a year from now? Two years?

    What about end times fiction? Did the Left Behind series so saturate that market that no new books on that topic will sell?

    Is biblical fiction back?

    All interesting questions. If you CAN write to the market, you have an advantage. But if you can’t, then just stick with what you like to write and pray for an editor who “gets” what you want to do or pray for a change in the market.

  3. Jan Cline says:

    I personally hope that vampire fiction is on the way out 🙂 You mentioned keeping up with what’s going on the publishing world. Besides conferences how can we do that? Follow blogs? Subscribe to writing magazines? What is the best source? Do you have a prediction for any of the genres?

  4. Nick says:

    No predictions, Jan. As for keeping up, I’d say visiting your local Christian bookstore weekly is a must. See what’s new. Look on the CBA and ECPA sites for the list of current bestsellers. And, yes, subscribe to a good writing magazine. I like The Writer, but it is totally secular. There are some good Christian ones too. Also, it goes without saying that READING what’s popular is also helpful. Ask yourself why is this genre popular right now? Read blogs and publisher’s websites. Our site at Harvest House has a monthly update of our bestsellers in fiction, non-fiction, and gift books.

  5. Richard Mabry says:

    Nick, You interpreted my question correctly, and your answer was what I thought it would be. Guess I’ll keep working on that Amish vampire medical thriller.
    As always, thanks for this inside glimpse into publishing.

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