Is there anything the American consumer isnít allowed to decide?
The vote-mad public picks the American Idol and the most popular YouTube videos, and this year it will pick a Super Bowl commercial for Doritos.
Now the struggling book industry, eager to tap into mainstream tastes, has come up with its own populist gimmick. Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, has promised to publish a book by a first-time author who wins a contest on Gather.com, a social-networking site that might be described as MySpace for grown-ups.
The contest, called First Chapters, will be officially announced today. Unpublished writers can enter free by submitting a manuscript for a full-length work of fiction. Each entryís first chapter will be posted on Gather.com and voted on by members of the site. In the next round, the second chapters of the top 20 manuscripts will be posted, followed by a vote; a subsequent round will post the third chapters of the top 10, followed by a vote. In the fourth and final round, the entire manuscripts of five finalists will go before a ìGrand Prize Judging Panel,î to include Carolyn K. Reidy, the president of the adult publishing group at Simon & Schuster, and George Jones, the chief executive of Borders. The winner will receive a book contract from Touchstone and $5,000 from Gather.com.
ìIt is akin to an ëAmerican Idolí for thinking people,î snarked Tom Gerace, the chief executive of Gather.com.
Back to you, Simon Cowell.
First Chapters also reflects an industry laboring to recruit new authors who come with a built-in audience, a sort of guarantee that even if the books donít leap off the shelves, thereís a slightly greater chance that they will. The First Chapters winner will be a first-time author potentially bringing thousands of fans to Simon & Schuster. ìIt will have a seal of approval by the time it gets to the fourth round,î said Mark Gompertz, the executive vice president and publisher of the Touchstone Fireside division of Simon & Schuster.
Finding quality first-time authors the traditional way ìalways has been and always will be a needle-in-the-haystack situation,î Mr. Gompertz said, citing the process of agents reading manuscripts to discover talented unknown writers. ìWe just felt like we wanted to find newer ways to do it,î he said. ìThereís something intriguing about a community of readers out there preselecting it by voting for it. You know that many more eyes have read the thing than if it had been seen by a single agent.î
Earlier this week, another attempt by Touchstone to use a contest to recruit unpublished talent fell apart. The widely publicized Sobol Award, which promised its winning unpublished novelist a cash prize and book contact with Touchstone, was canceled Monday. Sobol Literary Enterprises, the organization that conceived the award, said it hadnít received enough submissions (probably, some critics suggested, thanks to the $85 entry fee per manuscript).
Some agents had bristled at the Sobol Awardís requirement that the winning author be represented by Sobol Literary Enterprises. But Laurence J. Kirshbaum, a literary agent and the former head of the Time Warner Book Group, said he did not see contests as threats to agents, often bypassed in deals between authors and publishers. ìWhen you consider how difficult it is to find and market new stars, anything that tries to lubricate this process should be encouraged,î he said. ìBut in the long run, I would hope the authors would be represented by either an agent or a lawyer.î
Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon & Schuster, said the First Chapters winner must agree in advance to sign Simon & Schusterís standard publishing contract. ìI donít know that they will need agenting,î he said.
Simon & Schuster would not disclose how much it would pay to publish the book.
Once the trade paperback arm of Simon & Schuster, the Touchstone Fireside division now publishes a mix of hardcover and paperback commercial fiction, self-help books and popular biography, including ìConfessions of an Heiressî by Paris Hilton. It also produces serious historical novels that land on best-seller lists, like ìThe Other Boleyn Girlî by Philippa Gregory, about Anne Boleynís older sister, Mary.
The idea for the contest was hatched on a Gather.com literary cruise in October, when Simon & Schuster marketing executives casually brainstormed with Gather.com employees on how the companies might combine their efforts. Simon & Schuster was looking for new ways to recruit literary talent, and Gather.com executives were trying to supplement their popular short-story contests with a contest for a full-length work of fiction.
Founded in 2005, Gather.com now has 175,000 registered users, 73 percent of whom are between the ages of 30 and 59, Mr. Gerace said. Many Gather.com members cite reading as a primary interest, and the site has responded with literary contests and book discussion boards.
The contest fulfills another goal of publishers: to use social-networking Web sites to pitch books. Many publishers have tried to use MySpace to promote authors, even creating MySpace pages for fictional characters.
Social-networking sites, Mr. Gerace said, are sometimes filling in for independent bookstores, which have generally decreased the frequency of in-store events in the last few years. ìIncreasingly, as book readings are becoming more rare,î he said, ìpeople are turning to social media to make those introductions.î