Everybody has a book in them: that's the best place for it

It's always been a worry to publishers, the idea that everyone has a book in them. God forbid they should all let it out.

Not all of us can write Max Walker's How to Hypnotise Chooks, you know - for many years the biggest-selling title in Australian literary history. Walker wasn't just an underrated, tangle-footed, first-change medium-pace bowler. He was a hard-bitten professional of amusing drolleries about 1970s Test cricketers. And chooks.

It doesn't bear thinking what might have happened if his early drafts had found their way to The Writer's Coffee Shop and been launched upon an unsuspecting world as a bestselling e-rotic e-book. One of the classics of Australian literature might never have been.

The sporting and reading public might never have heard of how Ian Chappell once squeezed Rod Marsh's old fella when they were forced to share a bed on tour, just to put Marsh on edge all night. Literally. He clung to the edge of the bed, too horrified to sleep, while the crafty captain stacked up the zzzzs beside him. (On the other hand, perhaps we might have heard way too much about it.)

On the other other hand, it's possible that story came from Chappell's collection of funny and/or hilarious cricket touring and matey penis-squeezing anecdotes. Or from Doug Walters. Or maybe even from Marsh himself. I forget.

That's the problem when everyone gets the writing bug. There's only so many yarns to go around. The e-book sensation of the moment, Fifty Shades of Grey, has already been called out by some Twilight fans as being nothing more than a repackaged version of a fan fiction story called Master of the Universe. There's no question of plagiarism, or copyright. The now very successful author E.L. James penned Master as a gushy tribute to Edward and Bella's love in the Twilight series. Or, more specifically, to their imagined love of sado-masochistic bondage sex, which Twilight's actual author, Stephenie Meyer, neglected to include in her canonical work.

In some ways the runaway success of Fifty Shades - which was published here, topped The New York Times e-book bestseller list and has now been bought by Random House for what we in publishing technically refer to as ''heaps'' - is reassuring. It implies there is still money to be made in this gig, and evinces a touching fondness among readers for old-time verities such as reading about your favourite characters' previously unwritten and dangerous sexual adventures.

I for one am thrilled to think that publishing has a bright future repackaging Jane Austen's heroines, not just as zombie fighters, but as MILFs superspies and B&D mistresses, possibly all at once.

There are traps of course. Random House (full disclosure time - it is my publisher in the US) will want to carefully handle the information that rather than buying Fifty Shades of Grey, you can just read it for free online, with the names Christian and Ana reverting to Edward and Bella. And by ''handle carefully'', I mean bury at a crossroads with a stake through the heart and garlic sown into the mouth of this inconvenient truth. After all, this is a book that's already pirated itself.

The other trap, one lying further out, is probably unavoidable. Publishing as we know it is dying, to be reborn as something very different. You can see it in the ''best seller'' lists at Amazon, where the top ''selling'' titles are freebies and 99¢ shockers hammered out by the sort of amateurs the entire publishing industry was set up to stop ever getting into print. They are eating the business model of the old, established houses which now seem to be turning to them as saviours.

Who knows? Maybe they will be. There's some great fan fiction floating around the net. And hundreds of new, unknown authors forcing their way through the white noise to find an audience. (Tip of the day: Wool, by Hugh Howey.)

But the more that come through, the louder and denser that white noise will grow. Is it an issue? Ask an app developer who can't get on to the front page at iTunes. When there is no barrier to entry, everyone can enter. How, then, to deal with Sturgeon's Law, that says 90 per cent of everything is crap? With no quality control at all, you can jack that up to 99.9 per cent.

Once upon a time we relied on publishers and booksellers to do the sorting for for us. Publishers once chose what was worth the effort of putting out to market, or even just preserving for posterity in the grand old days when big, dumb best sellers still cross subsidized worthy but widely unread little literary gems. And of course book shops, especially but not exclusively the indies, hand sold a lot of titles that their staff had taken the time and care to read and think about.

The future of choice, it seems, is in the crowd. Specifically, in this case, a very large crowd of Twilight fans with a thing for a B&D.

John Birmingham, author of 12 real books and six e-books, blogs at National Times

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