Tokenizing Books: A Series of Five Thought Experiments.

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

I may be a blockchain nerd, but my day job is an author.

The majority of books are sold on Amazon, and majority of those are ebooks. Amazon has absolute power over KDP, its self-publishing arm, and all you need to start an argument among authors is to bring up their practices. Amazon has been known to arbitrarily ban books, publishers, and authors, usually without appeal. The Kindle Unlimited program, which a large number of authors make most of their money from, requires total exclusivity in ebooks to Amazon, is as transparent as a brick wall and causes perhaps 20% of all authorial rage on the Internet.

Needless to say, I would not shed a single tear if it was replaced with some decentralized solution.

But what would that look like? Here are five thought experiments.

This article is about the consumer side

Before I dig in, I’ll note that this isn’t going to be about the process of making books in a cryptic age, for example, a DAO as publisher or Harberger tax on copyrights. There is much to say on that subject, but unless real world law changes many such ideas are likely to stay hypothetical.

The following ideas would probably be possible now, if it wasn’t for gas fees. I am interested in at least some of them, but I’m waiting at least until there’s some sort of L2 ‘verse that they are possible it. If you’re interested in taking one of these up and running with it, go for it!

Thought #1: Uniswap for Books

Peradventure you did just do the obvious thing and create a token-based Amazon clone. You go to — I don’t know what you’d call it. Scythian? — You go to Scythian and send them $5 in stablecoins and they send you back a token that gives you a right to one book. By signing a message with the address holding a token, you can prove to the server you own a given book, and it then sends you that very book.

This is essentially blockchain-based DRM, and while necessary for an Amazon-clone, it would not be particularly interesting.

But one of the issues with Amazon is that Amazon does not actually sell you a book. Rather, you sign an inscrutably long contract that is attached to another inscrutably long contract with the author, both of which favor Amazon, and then Amazon puts some row in some database that says you can download that book. Legally, you do not own an ebook in the same way that you own a paperback. You can sell a paperback, but you can’t sell the right to read that shiny new ebook.

But what if you could?

After all, there’s nothing stopping that token from being transferable. Sure, the publisher won’t get money from resales of the initial book, but they can also charge a lot more for the first sale, on the basis that you could resell it. (Or, alternately, if DeFi really takes off and this becomes standard practice, what the publisher wants is a moot choice.) Your ebook collection becomes very much like a physical book collection, where you may buy, sell, and trade to your heart’s desire.

But why stop there?

If there’s a bunch of these tokens floating around, someone’s going to put them on Uniswap. Why not let that someone be the publisher, providing the initial liquidity? Instead of printing copies, he mints new book tokens on a fixed schedule and either provides them as liquidity or sells them directly into Uniswap. Customers buy tokens off Uniswap, and if they like it, they might keep it. Otherwise, they sell it back, but either way the publisher makes money from transaction fees.

There are lots, and lots, of weird consequences to this. First is that ebooks would no longer be unlimited — for the tokens to have value, there has to be a limited supply, although an inflationary one. (An alternate system would be to have an unlimited amount available offered by a contract at a high price, acting as a fixed cap on the price) This is a significantly different revenue model. What if your book is popular, but the circulating supply is enough to satisfy readers? Or perhaps new fans will refuse to sell their books, acting as a drain on the supply.

Books would become speculative instruments, which would give many authors and readers outside of the cryptospace pause. But perhaps in the cryptic brightness of the future, everyone will be some kind of trader.

Amazon’s best seller lists — and to be perfectly frank, the “respectable” ones as well — are a source of another 20% of all authorial rage on the internet. It’s not that difficult to engineer sales such that your book flies up the rankings, which Amazon, to its credit, has struggled against for years. A decentralized system could not detect fraudulent purchases at all. But what you could do is consider the market cap, or liquidity, or volume, or some other metric to make a best seller list. Of course, all of those are gameable as well, but at least it would all be in the open.

Tokens are subdivisible. What does half a book entitle you to? Nothing? Half the words? What if you made a lengthy manuscript like one of those thousand-chapters long Chinese webnovels and sold them by the chapter? X tokens, all fungible with each other, gives you X chapters.

I’ve been thinking about all this for a long time, and I don’t think this has even scratched the surface of all the weirdness this would unleash, especially considering…

Thought #2: Build your own Kindle Unlimited.

Kindle Unlimited is perhaps the only good reason to go Amazon-exclusive. For a low monthly fee, users subscribe to a Netflix-esque all-you-can-read buffet. Authors are paid by the page read, which is implied, but notably never actually stated, to be based on the KU subscriber base.

Of course Kindle Unlimited is its source of black-hattery, and I’m not going to go into that. But what’s quite amazing about Ethereum is not that you, or your publisher, could set up your own Kindle Unlimited, but that anyone else could, too.

If you can transfer tokens, you can lend them. People could put up collateral to get books on loan, and the interest paid on the collateral (either from crazy DeFi yield farming or a deliberately high artificial interest rate) would go to the book-lenders. In fact, you could create such a system that the borrowers could not run off with the books, as the right to read is merely delegated to them. The simpler solution is just to straight-out rent books for a fixed fee.

What would this mean for the authors? Well, as noted above, they wouldn’t have much choice in the matter. Anyone could buy these tokens and set up their own Book-Compound (perhaps a “library?”) and the author would not receive anything beyond the initial purchase. Of course, there’s nothing stopping the author from buying a bunch from himself and loaning out copies.

This would benefit public libraries! Your library card would entitle you to access so many digital copies, and you just don’t pay for the “rent.”

Thought #3: Digitally signed editions

Basically, NFTs. The usual argument is that an NFT has only a tenuous connection to the work of art, but that’s true of all signed books. A signed book usually has identical text, leading to people generally keeping the rare, signed editions away from actual use. And in some cases they may actually be inferior copies, otherwise. I made ten signed and numbered editions of my second, but most popular book, and though they were low-quality paperback (and full of typos) they’re the only signed-and-numbers of that kind of paperback that will ever exist.

But this is all pretty standard stuff. Let’s talk about wackier things.

Thought #4: Longstarter

Publishing is expensive. Technically, you can whip up a hideously ugly cover in MS Paint, slap it on an unedited manuscript, and shove it onto KDP. It, like literally millions of books before it, will probably flop, regardless of how good it is.

But what makes that look cheap is physical book publishing. It’s possible to get cheap print editions by going through a Print on Demand service like IngramSpark or KDP Paperback. But they are usually not high quality, and the producer’s cut is steep.

To get a quality one, profitable one, a publisher would have to make a genuine order from a press, with a minimum of about 250 copies. Then he has to sell them, one way or another.

But with cryptocurrency, you can do the reverse! Begin accepting preorders through a smart contract that accepts stablecoins, but does not allow you, the publisher, to withdraw until you’ve hit your 250 sale target. Once you pull the trigger, you immediately buy and ship out the physical books. Meanwhile, the smart contract can offer refunds to anyone who changes his mind.

What is the benefit of this over the standard kickstarter? Quite simply, you don’t need the funding all at once. People can slowly push the number up over months or however long until you’ve reached your destination. (The board game publisher GMT offers a similar system, called P500, but I think this is very suited to crypto.)

Now, with a little more thought, rather than having a table of encrypted addresses, you could issue tokens. Or issue different kinds of tokens. You could run a whole kickstarter campaign where people can buy and sell their preorders.

That is called an ICO. I hope we’ve all learned our lesson about those by now.

Thought #5: Variant Editions

Why stick with just one manuscript, though? Through these systems, you can easily sell multiple versions of the same story, or even procedurally generated unique versions. You could create NFT-based stories, like a CYOA story whose path is unique to the NFT.

But why stop there? After all, people are going to clamor for the road not taken. You can set yourself up as an NFT story commissions writer. Someone wants a story where the butler turned out to be a ninja assassin, slaps down a fat payment, and you write that alternate universe, turn it into an NFT, then send it back. It would be kinda like the relationship of a GM to a player, except the GM pays the rent this way.

There are gazillions of ways to do this. I’ve thought of many more, too many to write them all here. I’m sure even then, I’ve just scratched the surface.

In conclusion, it’s not about books.

Most of the ideas here would work just as well for games or movies. Books are low-hanging fruit, which is why Amazon started with them, way back at the dawn of the internet. Who knows, maybe in a few years something like Scythian will be all the rage.

In fact, I hope so, because the ebook industry needs disruption, badly, and I’m happy to see Ethereum do it.



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