The State of the Publishing Industry Report
by Greg R. Fishbone
This article was originally published in Issue 6 of Vagobond Magazine.
In a word, the state of the Web3 publishing industry is “early.”
A handful of publishing platforms have launched, but all are still on the early end of their development cycles. Formats have yet to be standardized. Expectations have yet to be established. Traditional publishers are still watching from the sidelines. Readers, for the most part, have yet to arrive.
But some authors are here already, conducting early publishing experiments and starting authorship communities that value innovation, creativity, and mutual support. And the nascent Web3 publishing industry is developing at a pace that renders any comprehensive report outdated in a matter of weeks or days.
There are two ways to gauge the state of Web3 publishing. One is to view it from within the ecosystem of NFTs and cryptoculture. The other is to view it from within the context of physical and ebook publishing. Both views are informative, but the latter best allows us to address existing deficiencies in legacy publishing and to spotlight the promise that Web3 publishing represents to authors and readers.
The State of Legacy Publishing
The impending merger that seeks to create a “Penguin Random House Simon & Schuster” continues a decades-long trend in which a decreasing number of publishing conglomerates have consolidated power over the author community. Their publishing decisions are driven by profit and loss statements, trendspotting, and the pigeonholing of authors, books, and readers. With fewer outlets available, newcomers face greater barriers to breaking in, midlist authors are increasingly left to languish, and an ever-larger share of marketing resources is dedicated to a handful of blockbuster releases.
Self-publishing has become a viable alternative to the traditional publishing model for authors with sufficiently broad skill-sets. But the distribution of these books is increasingly governed by a tech company whose algorithm can make or break a book, regardless of its quality. Authors are incentivized to game the system with misleading ads, metadata tricks, and formulaic output. To further improve their algorithmic appeal, many authors give their books away for pocket-change or even for free, driving down the perceived value of all books in a vicious cycle that requires authors to work harder each year for diminishing returns. That the algorithm must be continuously nourished by intrusive forrays into private user data is of no small matter of concern.
On the technology front, although readers are using faster, smarter, and more capable mobile devices every year, ebook innovation has stagnated over the past dozen years. We’ve also seen the rise of unlimited access packages designed to maximize distributor profits at the expense of creators. Authors typically receive micropayments for page turns from a periodic pool that may decrease at the distributor’s sole discretion, providing no guarantee of ongoing viability.
Ebook piracy is rampant, due to titles being leased on a per-device basis rather than purchased outright. Readers have no legitimate market to resell the books they’ve read or to obtain used copies. On
shady piracy hubs, there is no way to distinguish genuine ebooks from potentially malicious bootlegs. The only guarantee is that authors will not be compensated on redistributed books or illicit copies.
Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, censorship is on the rise in schools, libraries, legislatures, and social media platforms. To further the rhetorical aims of a so-called culture war, increasing deference is being given to self-appointed censors hell-bent on keeping books they haven’t personally read out of the hands of other people’s children. Books by, for, and about members of traditionally marginalized groups are being challenged, cancelled, and banned at alarming rates. As a result, the political control of ideas and identities is being normalized, to society’s detriment.
Addressing these problems will require nothing less than a paradigm shift.
The State of Literary Tokens
Traditional publishing and self-publishing options aren’t going away, but Web3 promises an additional choice for new modes of storytelling and community building.
The Web3 space leverages decentralization, blockchain technology, and smart contracts. Decentralized file networks can give ebooks unprecedented durability and censorship resistance. Immutable blockchain ledgers can verify the provenance and ownership chain of each individual copy. And smart contracts can provide gated access to fan communities, secondary royalties for authors, opportunities for collaboration, and a host of other potential features.
These new tools offer authors, perhaps, our last best hope to reset the balance between creators and corporations, between fair use and piracy, and between free speech and censorship.
I recently assessed the current state of Web3 publishing by releasing short story tokens through as many outlets as we could. In the end, I was able to mint “NIGHTvision” through six platforms, onto five blockchains, in three formats, using two decentralized file networks.
The platforms I used were Cent Pages, PageDAO, Mirror, Readl, Soltype, and Ecency, one of several front-ends available for the Hive blockchain. I will continue to experiment with new platforms and blockchains as they come online, starting with Published NFT, which is pending at the time of writing. In addition to these, Creatokia, BookCoin, $LIT, and BOOK Token have produced select titles or curated collections but have not yet made their tools available to independent authors.
None of these platforms has yet matured to the level where I would recommend them for full-scale Web3 book production. However, all are continuing to develop at a rapid pace while integrating marketplace services, improved e-reader, and other useful features.
Choosing among Web3 publishing platforms also requires choosing among the various blockchain ecosystems these platforms mint into. Each of these media are also evolving, have their own strengths and weaknesses, and may or may not develop into viable long-term homes for literary tokens.
Celebrating the fifth anniversary since its founding as a social network, the Cent platform predates the modern NFT era and is the longest established company I’ve published through. Their Cent Pages offering is currently invite-only. It allows artwork, text-based stories, sound files, and blog posts to be minted to the Polygon blockchain as free mints or for a listing price denominated in dollars and payable by credit card, providing the perfect onramp for readers who aren’t yet Web3 proficient. Collected NFTs can be kept in a custodial wallet or transferred by their holders to a non-custodial wallet of choice.
PageDAO is a Web3 Writers’ Guild with its own publishing platform. Authors who hold a PageDAO membership token, affectionately called a Wippy, gain access to a PageDAO minter that turns PDF files into Polygon-based NFTs with an integrated e-reader. Currently, these tokens mint into PageDAO’s Readme collection on the OpenSea marketplace. Future versions of the PageDAO minter are expected to include options to use ePUB files, to mint to custom collections, to mint on additional blockchains, to use a PageDAO-specific metadata chain, to use PageDAO’s native $PAGE tokens, and to import books into literary marketplaces including Cryptoversal’s NFT Bookstore.
Readl is a Web3 publishing platform, marketplace, and integrated reader that turns ePUB files into NFTs on the MoonRiver blockchain, which is part of the Polkadot ecosystem. The focus of Polkadot is cross-chain compatibility and development, which provides the potential for tokens in the Polkadot ecosystem to be more portable and versatile than ones minted on the Ethereum ecosystem.
Soltype is a Web3 publishing platform that accepts PDF, ePUB, and text inputs, giving it the greatest range of formats in currently available platforms. Soltype mints its tokens to the Solana blockchain, which has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Soltype has developed a strong community of authors in its Soltype Writers Club collection.
Mirror is a Web3 publishing platform that resembles an upscale blog or news article site like Medium, where items can either be collected for free or offered for sale. Mirror mints to the Optimism blockchain which, like Polygon, is one of Ethereum’s L2 scaling solutions.
Hive is a social media blockchain. Posts, including text-formatted stories or book chapters, can be minted and accessed by numerous front ends, such as PeakD, Ecency, and many others. Each post may be rewarded with tokens from interactions analogous to likes and tips, and while tokens can’t be bought and sold, they can be grouped into communities or curated collections. The Scholar & Scribe community on Hive is focused on creative writing. Although not a publishing platform per se, Hive is a blockchain option available for those seeking engagement and community.
Published NFT is a Web3 publishing platform, currently in beta, on the Flow blockchain. They have a partnership with Dapper Labs and a marketplace, e-reader app, and metaverse museum in development. Among their innovative features will be a book rental program and a metadata standard, PSIM, that functions as an ISBN number in the Web3 space.
Web3 publishing has come a long way in a very short amount of time. It shows promise in addressing some of the problems and shortfalls of legacy publishing, addressing censorship and shifting power back into the hands of creators, but there’s still a long way to go before Web3 books have the features and reader acceptance to be ready for mainstream uses.
What we’re seeing in the meantime are early experiments that push the boundaries of innovation and creativity, and that in itself is reason to celebrate.