I like many Americans was a big fan earlier this decade of HBO's Project Greenlight; to remind you, that was a project that started with an open invitation for unpublished screenwriters to post their script at a central website for others to check out, but only if they would first read and rate three other scripts that had already been posted. It essentially turned all the competitors into the judges of the other competitors; the top-rated scripts at the end, then, actually came to the attention of the show's producers, at which point began the actual filmed part of the series, of the producers eventually picking one of those scripts and hiring that writer, giving them a million dollars and letting them actually make the movie, even if they were a complete beginner and knew nothing about what they were doing. The finished movie each year would then eventually get released in theatres; HBO would show the behind-the-scenes reality series each week in the summer leading up to the release.
There were a lot of us, in fact, who while watching that kept thinking, "Gee, why doesn't some smart major publishing company do something like that for unpublished novelists?"; and what do you know, behold Authonomy, a newly public project by major press HarperCollins that does exactly that. In fact, you don't even need to rate three other manuscripts first if you don't want; simply sign up for a free account and post your unsigned book at any time, then start using the social-network aspects of the site to promote it, find new readers, and get its ranking increased. At the end of each month, then, the top five books of the system are supposedly "kicked upstairs" to actual employees within HarperCollins, at which point they are supposedly looked at in a serious way as far as whether or not they should actually be signed and published.
Now granted, there's a lot of "if"s in that situation, I agree with you; we don't know who within HarperCollins is actually running all this and checking out the top-five manuscripts each month, and we don't know just how seriously they're taking those five manuscripts to begin with, and we know barely anything about the math behind the obtuse ranking system there, and HarperCollins certainly isn't giving out many answers over there either. Plus, a controversy has broken out over there recently as well; ever since coming out of private beta last week, a series of authors with existing online fan bases have become new members and brought all their fans with them at once, shooting their manuscripts automatically into the top-five sometimes not even 24 hours after posting them. All that stuff, though, will regulate itself out over the coming months, as the system becomes a larger, more stable one and a more wide variety of books there get read and rated. If the network ends up working the way HarperCollins promises there, it will become a sincere way for unpublished authors to get their work noticed by editors within a major press (so, so difficult in these endless-slush-pile days), and without needing an agent either, but simply through the meritocratic process of posting a great novel. I encourage all you unsigned writers out there to check it out when you have a chance.
P.S. And I should mention, I'm a new member of Authonomy myself, and am currently reviewing around a manuscript a day there, both to keep my own critiquing skills up to shape and to hopefully find some great unpublished writers for CCLaP's own publishing program, hopefully starting next summer. You did know about CCLaP's own upcoming publishing program, right? Be warned, I'm a much harsher critic over there than I am here! In fact, I'm known here for many times cutting beginning writers a break, but that's only because they're finished books already printed and for sale, so I figure there's nothing to be gained by ragging on little stuff that can no longer be changed; in the case of a place like Authonomy, though, where not only can things still be changed, but the authors are there specifically to get their manuscripts in better shape, I think it's actually a disservice to those authors not to be as brutally honest as you can, and to help them get those stories into as good a shape as possible before the printing rollers actually start up.