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leah mclaren

It's first thing in the morning on the opening day of the London Book Fair, but the steps of the Earls Court Conference Centre could be the entrance to a Macau casino. The place is crowded with smokers, almost all of them Asian, cheerily puffing away and trading gossip under a cloud of nicotine fumes. It's no surprise: China, the world's largest producer and consumer of tobacco (and basically everything else), also happens to be the "market focus" of this year's fair, with 180 publishers and a couple dozen writers having made the trip from the Far East to west London.

That focus on China has provided the fair's biggest controversy this year – there's the notable exclusion of well-known dissident writers such as Gao Xingjian, China's only Nobel laureate in literature; and a morally questionable collaboration between fair organizers and the Chinese government agency that regulates and censors print media. English PEN held a recent conference on the subject and many anti-censorship activists are calling foul. But as publishing markets go, China is the future and everyone here knows it.

It seems oddly fitting, then, that the businessman being touted as the future of Western publishing also happens to be of Chinese descent, even if he is a Canadian entrepreneur through and through. Toronto-based Allen Lau is the co-founder of Wattpad, a site that bills itself as "YouTube for e-books" and is doing its best to live up to the boast.

Growing numbers of digital publishers have in recent years established themselves in the traditional e-book pay model – Byliner, Kindle Singles and boutique house The Atavist come to mind. But Wattpad is the fastest-growing repository of user-uploaded electronic texts: In other words, it's completely free, both for writers and readers.

Because of this, Wattpad is growing at an astonishing rate. Since 2009, it has doubled its users every six months. It currently boasts eight million monthly visitors and three million newly uploaded stories. Late last year, the site received a $3.5-million (U.S.) cash injection from New York-based venture-capital firm Union Square Ventures, which has made similar early bets on Etsy and Twitter.

On the fair's opening day, Lau teamed up with another Canadian digital-publishing pioneer, Bob Young, owner of the online self-publishing company (and owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats), to convince the publishing world that Canada holds the key to the future of books.

Lau and Young also constituted the "upstart" team in the fair's second annual Oxford-style great debate. On the old-guard side were Fionnuala Duggan, from the textbook publisher CourseSmart; and Evan Schnittman, an executive at publisher Bloomsbury.

An animated crowd of more than 200 came out, drawn by the following proposition: "In the fight for survival, outsiders and start-ups are taking on today's heavyweight publishers and will ultimately deliver a knock-out punch."

In the predebate vote, 88 spectators voted in favour of the upstarts, with 82 undecided and the remainder against. That showing prompted Young, the first debater to take the podium, to thank the audience and joke, "You can all go home now."

But, in fact, the fight was far from over.

Young began his argument by evoking the most famous slogan of another Canadian innovator, Marshall McLuhan. "Every time humanity develops a new medium, everything changes," he said, occasionally pausing to tweak his bright orange ball cap. "It takes a new generation of humans to understand it."

In Young's view, the war between digital upstarts and traditional publishers has already been won. Just last week, he pointed out, Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it was no longer producing a print edition. As for readers, and Amazon and Google are outdoing venerable publishing houses everywhere. "Now it's a matter of the next generation taking over," he said.

Lau took that argument further. "The new reality is that everyone is a writer," he said. And by the same token, social networking has made everyone a critic.

While you may not like much of what's published on sites such as Wattpad or Lulu, you will undoubtedly find something to read, since their output is so vast. Lulu alone publishes 5,000 books every five days. As a parting shot, Lau compared traditional publishers to the human appendix: essentially useless, ripe for removal.

There is a hole in that argument of course, and the competition jumped on it. Taking the podium, Schnittman summed up his position thus: "User-generated content is crap." As his teammate Duggan observed, "One cannot underestimate the importance of editing, selecting and preparing the books for publication. There will always be a market for editorial value."

Perusing Wattpad this week, I couldn't help but agree with him on one level: There are truckloads of dreadful writing on the site. But here's a question: Is a bad poem still irrelevant to the culture after 25,000 people have read it? What if that number hits 25 million? At what point does amateur dreck become pop culture?

The same question, of course, could be asked of YouTube. Still, as Lau pointed out, the next James Cameron is never going to post a blockbuster movie on YouTube – he needs $300-million to pay for overhead. J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, had her first manuscript rejected by 12 publishers before accepting a tiny advance from Bloomsbury. "It's quite possible the next J.K. Rowling will end up publishing on Wattpad first," Lau told me after the debate.

And indeed, there's precedent. Brittany Geragotelis, an American young-adult author, recently attracted over 13 million reads with her Wattpad story Life's a Witch, after which Simon & Schuster signed her up to a six-figure, multibook deal. In this sense, Wattpad has replaced the publishing-house "slush pile" with a kind of open test market for future bestsellers.

Fine, but largely irrelevant, argues Wattpad, employing a golf analogy: "I'm not looking for the next Tiger Woods here – I'm just trying to provide a nice open course where amateurs can play for free."

As for the debate? It was, in the end, a resounding upset for the upstarts: 147 against, 41 for, 30 undecided.

Lau, for one, was unfazed. "What do you expect?" he shrugged, watching the rumpled crowd of publishers filing out the door. "Most of these people work in traditional publishing, after all." He did not look defeated, just somewhat misunderstood. "What people don't get is that it's not about the highest quality, it's about the most entertained."

I may not be reading it, but my vote's with Wattpad.

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