In July of 2022, the legacy magazine Esquire published an article by Elle Griffin called ‘The Crypto Revolution wants to Reimagine Books.‘ It put forth a novel idea: “What if a book series
functioned like a publicly traded company where individuals could “buy stock” in it, and as
the franchise grows, those “stocks” become more valuable?” This idea, which would see
literary works become unique digital assets, is being explored by a group of Web3 startups.
These startups believe that NFT technology can create true ownership of digital books and
new modes of storytelling while facilitating IP licensing and creating a secondary market for
Companies like Soltype, hope that combining NFTs and publishing will make storytelling
more collaborative, lucrative, and engaging for writers and readers alike. By and large, these
companies want to shake up an industry that has seen little innovation since Amazon
publishing cornered the market for self-publishing. But not everyone sees it this way.
The response from writers to the Esquire article was loud – and hostile. Soon after
publication, a Twitter thread criticizing the Esquire article from author Margaret Owen’s
Twitter garnered over 650 retweets and almost 3,000 likes. Likewise, comments below the
article on Esquire’s website were largely negative, and Publisher Weekly’s tweet of the article led to a slew of disparaging responses.
Across the board, writers took issue with what appeared to be a forced coupling of NFTs and publishing, with one user tweeting that it was an idea concocted by “late stage capitalist brainworms.” Critiques cornered in on the IP licensing promises made by some of the companies, emphasizing that contract law – not smart contracts – dictates the enforceability of copyright. And that, try as they might, these companies are simply trying to solve problems that don’t exist. From their side, writers have more than enough options to monetize their work, share it, and build communities. Publishing simply has nothing to gain from NFTs.
But despite the criticisms that “no writer would ever use this,” a growing number of writers are looking to Web3 and NFTs for their storytelling. What value could this group possibly find?
The writers of Web3
Writer Greg Fishbone believes that the true potential of blockchain technology lies in the storytelling and creativity advances that it enables – not in the investment opportunity it provides.
“I don’t want books to be seen primarily as investment opportunities rather than for their artistic or entertainment value. I want to see authors using these new technologies to innovate, spark joy among readers, and create new reading experiences. I want to see traditionally marginalized voices given a platform for bypassing the gatekeepers of the publishing industry. I want to see stories that take risks without regard for corporate profitability. I want to see books that can also serve as tickets, keys, and membership cards. Books that are valuable, maybe to investors, but more specifically to genuine fans because they have a real impact on their lives.”
Like many others, Greg believes literary NFTs will allow writers to create exclusive communities around their written works. To access these communities, a reader must own the corresponding literary NFT. In these communities, writers can provide unique benefits to members and freely decide what those benefits are. They can engage directly with their readers, allow readers to vote on the outcome of their story, and provide extra perks like live reading sessions and early access to new chapters. For writers that want to explore collaborative publishing, NFTs can automate royalty sharing and incorporate their writing community’s guidelines in the NFTs’ smart contracts.
The possibility of returning storytelling to creativity and community is enormous.
For writer E.R. Donaldson, the monetization provided by NFTs is an opportunity and is not inherently bad.
“ There is nothing wrong with making money, and there is nothing wrong with investing and speculating. If an artist wants to create an NFT on a crypto platform, good for them. They’re reaching a different audience. [So long as the platform] avoids exclusivity agreements, you enable those artists to share their work in different channels and reach even more readers.”
For writers like E.R., NFT platforms are a tool to reach new audiences and expand the opportunities to monetize their work. The ability to create limited digital editions of literary works, of which there are only a few owners, is attractive to many writers – and buyers. In 2022, Mark Manson minted copies of his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. 769 NFTs of his book were sold at an average price of 0.1378 ETH each, for a total value equivalent to USD 200k at the current ETH price. The owners of these NFTs have the option to re-sell them, potentially for a profit. Or they can keep them as digital collectibles.
A new digital collectible
Creating limited editions of literary works as NFTs creates a new type of collectible – a digital, literary collectible. One might own a literary NFT not because they want to re-sell it for a profit but simply because they have an emotional connection to that piece and want to collect it – in the same way that we collect physical books.
Hedonistic ownership, that is, deriving pleasure from the mere fact that you own the thing, is something we do all the time. How often have you purchased something simply because it brought you joy? Simply because knowing that it was yours made you happy? With NFTs, joyful ownership of digital written works is possible. And when companies such as Soltype offer the whole text as an NFT, collectors truly own the written work they love. (This is worth noting as it is common practice with NFT ownership to own a URL pointing to the digital thing rather than the digital thing itself).
What the critics get right
It is important to note that many critics of Web3’s entrance into publishing take issue with the rampant theft and overblown promises made by some companies. The Web3 space has a lot of work to do to protect artists. That said, the Internet is rampant with theft – Web3 has only made it easier to monetize this theft. But like a double-edged sword, it also makes it possible to unequivocally prove a digital asset’s provenance and creator. Putting more protections and provenance checks at the creation stage will be necessary for the NFT space going forward.
Meanwhile, the overblown promises made by companies in Web3 toe between the massive potential that NFTs hold with the reality of where the technology is today. Using NFTs to license IP has a long way to go – and a lot to prove. Certain literary NFT companies are choosing to stay away from IP licensing until the legal sector catches up.
Balancing vision and reality is something that all Web3 companies should improve, with the added recognition that NFTs are tools that unlock new possibilities rather than the main selling point.
Like it or not, NFTs are here to stay
Literary NFTs have a function, an emotional value as a collective and can be carriers of value depending on their latest trading value. As the technology improves, writers are seeing increasing potential in NFTs and are using them to create and grow their communities.
Companies like Soltype have a cohort of 50+ writers ready to publish when their platform goes live in early August. One of the world’s largest textbook publishers, Pearson Plc, is looking to NFTs to facilitate royalties on secondary sales of their books. Publishers and writers should not ignore this movement. The community behind an NFT, and their decision to embrace it, quite literally gives NFTs their meaning and establishes their initial value – because people value them, they are valuable. And a growing number of writers moving into Web3 means an increasing value for literary NFTs.
Something is missing in writers’ current publishing and storytelling options – true ownership being one of them. And despite the novelty and sometimes foreign onboarding process, many writers are overcoming the friction and finding a space to create and connect in Web3. We should take notice, not turn away, and acknowledge that maybe – just maybe – Web3 and NFTs have something to offer to writers and publishing after all.