It was probably only a matter of time before this happened. According to The New York Times, Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, has agreed to publish a work by whichever new writer takes first prize in a contest sponsored by the social-networking site, Gather.com. A la American Idol, everyday people and panel of experts will read and vote on the first chapter of books submitted by everyday people. And although the winner will need to sign the "standard Simon & Schuster contract," he/she will get their work fast tracked to publication and forgo the hassle of shopping a book. Also, there's a $5,000 cash prize and the promise of promotion at local Borders' book stores.
The underlying logic behind the contest, called "First Chapters," comes down to this: It's ultimately people who buy books, so why not let a good sample demographic (Gather.com's 175,000 older and more mature users) preview the submissions, decide what they like, and save the editor the effort of guessing what will fly. That makes a certain amount of sense if you're a publisher, working in a sluggish industry with narrow margins, who is always looking to maximize the odds of putting out winners. However, whether it will further the publisher's mission of bringing quality books to our culture is an altogether different question, and the jury remains out on this one. You can get more information about the contest by clicking here.