Before publishing houses were part of huge conglomerates, before Sept. 11 and the anthrax scare made all mail suspect, writers would often send their unsolicited manuscripts off to publishers, hoping against hope that they'd be discovered.
Those manuscripts would end up in what the industry called the "slush pile." And every now and then, a group of editorial assistants might assemble in a boardroom, order some pizza and read their way through the pile — on the off chance that greatness lurked within.
But those days are gone.
"They're no longer eating pizza," says Mark Gompertz, vice president and publisher at Touchstone books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. "They're sitting at their desks eating salads. And they're most likely working on a marketing tip sheet for the sales department, to promote books that are coming in in the more traditional ways. So really the slush pile is no longer there."
Still, Gompertz says, Touchstone is always looking for new ways to find books. So together with the social-networking site Gather.com, the publisher came up with the idea for a writing competition. They called it "First Chapters."
Gather.com founder and CEO Tom Gerace says his site had long been attracting would-be writers.
"They began to publish short stories and poems for comment and critique," Gerace says. "And so we began to encourage a writers' forum ... a special space for writers to get together on Gather."
One of those writers was Geoffrey Edwards, who says he had been turned down by 300 book agents when he heard about the contest. He figured he had nothing to lose by entering.
"I needed a little validation at that point," Edwards says. His wife and his mother have praised his writing, he jokes, but "after 300 rejection letters, I needed someone who didn't love me to tell me the book was OK."
So Edwards sent his manuscript, a historical novel called Fire Bell in the Night, to Gather.com for the First Chapters competition. In all, Gerace says, more than 2,600 writers did the same.
And not all of them were good.
"There were some exceptionally talented people," Gerace says. "And there were some people that looked like the folks American Idol calls out ... in their early episodes, when they're showing the more comical performances they get."
And like American Idol, the First Chapters competition was structured as a popularity contest — at least in its early stages. Gather.com posted one chapter at a time, encouraging site visitors to read, comment on and vote for them.
Terry Shaw, who at the last minute submitted a novel called The Way Life Should Be, says the competition was not for the faint-hearted.
"Anyone can say anything they want," Shaw points out. "And of course you're following it closely, and watching the votes. That was a strain. If you send something off to an agent, thousands of people don't get to look at it and praise you or mock you."
In the final stage of the competition, five finalists had their work judged by a panel of experts, including Gompertz and Gerace. At that stage, the two men say, the quality of the writing was very good, and the final decision difficult.
In the end, the panel chose two winners: Shaw won the grand prize, and Edwards was the runner-up. He was thrilled with his second-place finish.
"I was dancing in the parking lot of my office, hugging people I didn't know," Edwards says. "It was absolutely the best moment of my life."
He and Shaw will have another reason to be happy when their books are released Sept. 18: Borders Books, which was also a partner in the contest, has guaranteed that the titles will get prominent placement in its stores.
The competition was so successful that Gather.com has already launched another — this one for romance writers — and it's making plans for more.
Touchstone's Gompertz says the competitions not only offer writers another venue for their work, it also gives publishers a new out.
"We're laughing in the industry, because you always have somebody's cousin's wife's best friend who's written a book — and they always want to get it to you," Gompertz says. "And now you can say, 'OK, why don't you send it to Gather?'"