My regular readers will have noticed that I'm finding it difficult to write new posts lately. It's less a question of ideas at this point than time. I'm getting ready to move for the first time in eight years, plus I'll be traveling all winter, so my posting frequency is likely to be very limited until spring. My last post about buying a publishing company has brought about a very interesting correspondence with another small publisher who's interested in working with me. I'm not going to rush into anything because my dance card is already full this winter, but that won't stop me from thinking and talking about it.
The main challenge for any publisher is marketing books and selling them at a profit, but that doesn't mean that you can find new authors in the gutter and turn them into gold. Success in publishing starts with the manuscript, and authors who have proven their marketability are usually too expensive for small presses, or unwilling to work with them for fear that the small press won't have the marketing muscle of a large trade. It's a legitimate concern in the sense that a large trade will be able send a book they believe in on a honeymoon on bookstore shelves, even if they have to pay co-op advertising to get it.
The same options are available to small presses publishing unknown authors, but for very plain economic reasons, it rarely makes sense. Keep in mind that large trade presses can play a numbers game. With hundreds, or even thousands of new titles a year, they can be confident that a number will do well enough to offset some bad bets. A small press with limited resources who puts all their eggs in one basket is likely to end up with an omelet.
This makes finding new authors more of a challenge for small presses than for large trades. Don't get me wrong here, all a publisher has to do to get swamped in manuscripts from unknowns is to whisper it into the wind in an empty parking lot, and the next day they'll be deluged in e-mails and fat envelopes. The challenge is that the small press will be the last stop for most undiscovered authors, meaning the manuscripts or queries have already been rejected by every large trade in NYC.
Authoring is like any other profession in that few of us burst from college fully developed. Very few authors have bothered doing any market research before writing their first book, much less studying up on the publishing business. They see all of that as the job of the publisher they choose to honor with their genius. However, if you surveyed publishers both great and small and asked them what was the one quality they would most like to see in a new author, it wouldn't be genius, sanity, or even willingness to work for peanuts. Publishers want authors who can promote their own books. Effective book marketing doesn't start with showmanship, it starts with the author writing a book that matches their marketing strengths.
All of this makes the job of publishing unknown authors a leap of faith - faith in your ability not just to identify a winning manuscript but to recognize whether an author with unproven book marketing skills will be an asset or a liability. Until this point, my experience in discovering unknown authors has been limited to putting a few new authors together with acquisitions editors I knew at the large trades. Now that I'm thinking again of doing it myself, with partners, I'm beginning to wonder if I should be developing some checklist that I can use to narrow the field before evaluating authors and manuscripts turns into a full time job.