FIVE years ago Louis D. Rubin started a small literary press in his backyard. He had no backlist and limited funding, but the 60-year-old fledgling publisher says he thought he could recognize a good book. A noted Southern literary critic, the author of some 30 books of fiction and criticism, and a professor of English and creative writing, Rubin has dedicated himself to writers and good writing for four decades.
Today Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, the publishing company he founded, has gained recognition and success for the most unlikely of reasons: publishing fiction by young and unknown writers.
``They've made a name for themselves in the literary and publishing community in three or four years. It usually takes 10,'' says David Godine, publisher of the literary press David R. Godine in Boston. ``Louis Rubin seems to know what he wants to do and how to do it.''
The young writers Algonquin nurtured and backed a few years ago are becoming known. Last fall Jill McCorkle's third novel, ``Tending to Virginia,'' was praised on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.
This fall Algonquin is publishing a third novel by Clyde Edgerton, whose first novel, ``Raney'' (1985), is Algonquin's best seller, with 20,000 hard-cover and more than 150,000 paperback copies in print.
Of the 60 titles on the company's backlist today, about one-third are by authors who published their first books with Algonquin. Eighteen have sold paperback rights, 10 have been book club selections, and in 1987 the company did nearly $1 million in gross sales.
For a press with only four full-time employees, this is the taste of success.
Algonquin is succeeding in part the way other small, quality presses do, by putting time, attention, and skill behind each of the 20 titles it publishes a year.
``I find that every single book that comes from them, they have labored long and put a great deal of care into how they bring it to us,'' says Sybil Steinberg, fiction reviewer of the trade journal Publishers Weekly.
Algonquin authors credit creative and sensitive editing - the old-fashioned kind, sometimes involving total rewrites - for much of their success.
``One reason the books have done so well is because they've been edited well,'' says Edgerton, who rewrote ``Raney'' five times for Algonquin fiction editor Shannon Ravenel, a former editor with Houghton Mifflin who helped Rubin found the press.
In the best tradition of a small press, the company publishes a few good books - but it is no longer small financially. Two years ago, at a time of financial desperation, Algonquin contracted its entire operation to Taylor Publishing Company of Dallas.
Algonquin maintains complete editorial independence, but Taylor pays Algonquin staff on a contract basis and handles printing, warehousing, distributing, and billing.
This enables the North Carolina company not only to publish new writers, but also to launch them, a feat beyond the capability of most small presses. This fall Algonquin is printing 75,000 copies of Edgerton's ``Floatplane Notebooks'' and backing it with a $70,000 advertising budget. Edgerton got an advance ``quite competitive with what he'd get elsewhere,'' says Rubin.
The publisher, who has long-standing friendships with writers, editors, and reviewers throughout the South, uses his personal prestige and connections to promote the company's books. Indeed, Algonquin is a network of his associates.
All the editors are former Rubin students.
Jill McCorkle studied with him at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So did Edgerton's wife, Susan Ketchin, now a nonfiction editor at Algonquin.
Kaye Gibbons, whose first novel, ``Ellen Foster,'' was a Doubleday Book Club alternate this year, was an undergraduate in Rubin's creative writing class at UNC when she first showed him her manuscript.
``I was a little disappointed that we weren't able to secure a large investment from our part of the country, to keep this thing completely in the South,'' Rubin admits.
But ``the important thing after all was to be able to publish good books and particularly young writers. The arrangement with Taylor guaranteed that.''
He says his motivation as much as anything else in starting the company was to help young writers get published. ``I've worked with writers all my life. I've taught them. A lot of my friends are writers and I write myself.''
In some ways the old professor seems an unlikely mentor for the young. Rumpled and preoccupied, he stalks wordlessly past his editors each morning and immerses himself in his work. After a while he'll yell out for something he needs.
``I say, `Louis, don't you yell at me,''' publicist Mimi Fountain says firmly. ``He's a very intense person,'' she adds with delicate tact. ``Some of the social amenities that we all perform day to day Louis doesn't really have time for.''
``I was always sort of scared of him,'' admits the publicist, who called him Mr. Rubin for the first six months she worked for Algonquin.
But from the moment she learned he was starting a publishing company, Fountain, who had studied with Rubin at Hollins College in Virginia, wanted to be part of it. ``I knew what would go on around him,'' she recalls. ``I knew if he did this company, there would be excitement and wonderful writers and great books.''
Despite his gruffness, Rubin has unexpected patience with writers and even their most confused and awkward rough drafts.
``Writers need encouragement,'' says the publisher, who reads or has a staff person read and respond in detail to every manuscript that comes in the mail. ``A great deal of the fun of it comes from helping writers learn.''
Algonquin is not a regional press in the sense that its books are marketed nationwide, and writers come from throughout the country. The fall list includes a memoir by an 87-year-old farm woman from Ohio, a collection of short stories by a fireman in Mississippi, and an autobiography by poet Karl Shapiro, who now lives in California.
Ms. Ravenel, Houghton Mifflin's free-lance editor for the last 10 years for ``Best American Short Stories,'' edits Algonquin's annual ``New Stories From the South'' from her home in St. Louis. She discovers many of the company's authors through her extensive reading of literary journals.
But the fiction for which Algonquin is best known is Southern to the roots, written by Southerners and set in the South, peopled with extended families, small churches, and rural landscapes.
Edgerton's ``Floatplane Notebooks'' is narrated in part by a wisteria vine that grows over a family cemetery in North Carolina. ``Tending to Virginia,'' the story of a young woman's marriage and first pregnancy, is written in the rambling, idiomatic voice of small-town storytellers.
``Our strongest authors have been people we've known,'' says Fountain, noting that the company is formed around a core of editors and associates who know intimately the writers and writing traditions of the Southeast.
Most Algonquin books are designed by Molly Renda of Durham, N.C., giving them a different look from New York books.
The company is headquartered in a comfortable but modest four-room house on a quiet street. Even today, says Fountain, all the furniture is bought used. ``There are no big expense account lunches.''
The staff has a comfortable camaraderie. Last year, at the South Eastern Booksellers Association, the Algonquin delegation performed informally as the Algonquin Bluegrass Band: Rubin on the harmonica, Edgerton on banjo, Ketchin on guitar, and author Robert Taylor on the fiddle.
They are bound together by common interests and traditions and a dedication to writers and good writing.
``I'm not saying that money isn't important to us, because it is,'' says Rubin. ``But as far as I'm concerned, it's a literary adventure, publishing good books.''