As authors we like to think of writing as a craft, an art, a noble vocation. We talk about out muse, discuss plots, conflicts, characters. Writing is, of course, all that and more, but publishing – putting that written word out there for the reading public to view – is a business. Without that business, no one outside our circle of friends and family would ever see the wonderful prose we bleed onto the page.
From a publisher's POV, a manuscript is an investment, and a very risky one. Unless they are working with someone who can guarantee a market – a celebrity, a best selling author, or someone with a known following – they must weigh the risk-to-profit ratio very carefully. It's a gamble.
When a publisher buys rights to a manuscript, the advance paid to the writer is only the first of many expenses incurred before a single book can be sold. By the time the first copies of a book reach the store shelves the publisher has invested thousands of dollars and hours in the publication. There are no guarantees that even a single copy will be sold, much less that enough will sell for the publisher to see a return on investment.
Advertising and promotion increase sales, but also add to the initial expense of production. One of the biggest complaints by authors and publishers is the level of promotion any given title receives. Authors blame lack of promotion for poor sales, but publishers are reluctant to invest even more money when they may not gain a return on their investment.
For perfectly valid economic reasons many large publishers will not even consider a manuscript, no matter how compelling the prose, if the writer doesn't have a clearly defined market base. That's a hard reality for unpublished writers to face, though sensible from a business POV. Large publishers also rely more and more on literary agents to find and cultivate marketable writers. But again, agents have bills to pay as well.
Many large agencies, and well know agents, set the bar as high as the big publishers. They can not afford to take on clients who have little or no market base. For their business model they need writers who can consistently produce marketable works. They are reluctant to spend time cultivating a writer's skills and potential market base without active income from sales.
As distasteful as it may be, as writers we must look at what we produce as a marketable commodity. If we would be serious about our craft, and want to be taken seriously as writers, we must look at writing as a business and our prose as a product to sell. We must seek and find our readers, our market base. After all, we write to be read. What are we without our readers?