Major publishers don't accept unagented manuscripts. That's why you need a literary agent, to walk in a door that's locked to you.
Agents negotiate the contract and take their cut. It's in their best interest to get the biggest contract possible.
Wouldn't it be a more perfect world if the publishers could deal direct with the author? No middleman getting his slice of the pie. Easier to reach a cheaper deal with a new writer whose work might not pan out. A smaller advance, or no advance at all, means the publisher incurs less risk.
So it's not so good for the author. The publishers are going to look out for themselves when they can.
Bowker, the firm that sells ISBNs, is starting up a new service for publishers who are in search of manuscripts.
Someone will have to pay for the service. Either the author will be charged to download their manuscript into the database, or the publisher will pay for each manuscript they purchase. Still cheaper than an agent's 15%, most likely.
Submissions will be categorized based on subject, allowing the publisher to plug holes in their lists with the appropriate manuscript. Need a romance set on a horse farm in Texas? There it is, and if the author can claim that it's edited professionally, the publisher is half-way there.
Who's to sift through the slush, however? Authors will post a chapter as a writing sample, but that would mean someone at the publishing house doing the work that an agent does. Of course, the publisher can hire a cheap summer intern at a discount, so the Bowker system could make financial sense.
Will it help authors get published who are otherwise ignored in a market-driven industry?
Not likely. The publishers are risk averse and aren't in the market for literary art.
If anything, books could become even more cookie-cutter-like, without a literary agent pushing a piece of fiction that might be well worth the effort of bringing it to market, even in the face of a conservative industry that wants only blockbusters.
In the end, it's all about making money.