Clovis asked, "If you are seeking a market for a particular idea, how do you study the market? What steps are critical in matching the work to the right publisher? How much do you rely on the guidelines, samples, catalogs, etc.? And what other sources are helpful?"
My answer: If you want to take steps like this , get to know the industry. I can think of a number of things that would help a writer do that...
1. Read frequently.
2. Read outside your genre (for example, if you’re a CBA person, read books outside of CBA).
3. Study the bestseller lists (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, your local newspaper -- all have them). Spend time on Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com to see what's selling.
4. Note who publishes the books you read and the books on the bestseller lists. (In case you haven't figured it out, not all publishing houses were created equal.)
5. Take a look at trade journals to find what's hot/what's not/what's happening. These journals would include Publishers Weekly, the email version of Publishers Daily, maybe Library Journal, or Christian Retailing, or Writers Digest, possibly Bookstore Journal. You may also glean some good information in some entertainment journals.
6. Keeps tabs on the economic climate of publishing and bookselling. Right now everybody is talking about what bad shape the industry is in... but this year there will probably be more book pages published and sold than ever before in history.
7. It's important that you study a publisher before sending anything to them. Harvest House may be the right place for your gift book, but it's the wrong place for your commentary on Habakkuk. So go to web sites and read catalogues to figure out who publishes what. If you research the house and its list, you'll be better able to target the right publisher.
8. Check out market resources like the Writer's Guild stuff, Writer's Digest publications, Sally Stuart's CBA Market Guide, etc. Go online and check out some good blogs (Sandra referenced a couple yesterday. I happen to be a fan of Rachelle Gardner's excellent CBA Ramblings, as well as Mike Hyatt's blog on the industry. There are plenty of others.) Anybody with internet access can do some basic research -- anybody who can get to Barnes & Noble can do some more. Walk around with a pen and a notepad for an hour or two at a store and see what you can glean.
9. Ask around. If you're part of a critique group or writers organization, you ought to have some connections with fellow writers, editors, publishers, and agents to bounce your ideas around. If you're attending a writer's conference, by all means ask in the sessions or the panel discussions -- or even in a face to face meeting.
10. Many publishers will print a style guide. Ask for one, and if they share it with you, follow it. Nothing makes an acquistions editor unhappy faster than having to wade through a wad o' manuscripts that only tangentially relate to the house's publishing focus.