I’m still trying to get my head round this NY Times article about Simon & Schuster posting author book proposals online at Media Predict, a virtual market. In this market, “fantasy traders” will receive $5,ooo in “fantasy cash” to purchase shares of the book proposal they think is going to get a book deal, or whether Touchstone Books (the S&S imprint) will find it the winner of cannibalized contest called–three guesses?–Project Publish. If either of those things happens within a 4-month period, the trader’s shares either fall to zero or rise to $100/share.

It’s unclear from the article what “fantasy cash” is good for outside of voting privileges. The Media Predict site explains that “It has no real-world value, and cannot be used for exchange, barter, or any transaction of value whatsoever. Our currency is used strictly for game purposes on our site.” So you can only use your cash to buy shares of more books, not even to get a copy of the Project Publish award-winner–except, the site says, perhaps in the future if “you perform well on Media Project.”

Apparently this isn’t the first time Simon and Schuster has experimented with market research, a tactic that is scant in the industry:

“For Simon & Schuster, the partnership is yet another attempt to gauge popular tastes. Earlier this year, the publisher teamed up with Gather.com, a social networking site, to run an “American Idol”-style contest in which voters pick a manuscript for Simon & Schuster to publish.”

Media Predict says they are a “last-mile evaluation tool that fits in with other available methods of filtering and discovering media content.” Thus, we trust that agents and publishers have read the entire manuscript before posting portions to Media Predict, where voters, it would seem, make choices that help determine S&S publishing decisions, having read just a fraction of the manuscript or merely a proposal.

There’s something interesting about S&S’s expansion of market research and utilizing other venues to promote awareness of and interest in books. Yet, who are these readers who will play with fantasy cash on the web to choose the best book? It’s ironic that publishers trust there are readers out there to do so, just for fun, when it seems every newspaper across the country is cutting book editor positions and book pages as if readers have disappeared.

Any thoughts? I’m interested in your comments.