ALLi Director Orna Ross discusses the opportunities and challenges of blockchain technology for authors.
At ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors, we believe that blockchain, the technology that underlies cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, warrants the attention of authors and publishers. It is likely to underwrite the next disruption in publishing, due to the way it registers and distributes information, and eliminates the need for a third party to facilitate digital relationships.
At ALLi, we have established a committee to further investigate this potential and produce a short publication on the topic, to help raise author awareness of the opportunities and challenges.
For further information, check it out: Authors and Blockchain: A Quick and Easy Guide
What Is Blockchain?
Blockchain is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured.
The blockchain allows one person to transfer a unique piece of digital property to another in a way that 1) is guaranteed safe and secure; 2) open, visible and agreed by all; and 3) cannot be subsequently modified.
From where we’re standing, this latest digital development looks likely to be even more disruptive than the last. Here is our vision of how it could change everything for authors.
Blockchain and other hypertext (software systems that allow extensive cross-referencing between related sections of text and associated graphics) supercede the copyright protection that has been key in authors being able to establish value in their work in the first digital revolution.
The piracy of digital files becomes much more difficult, as the blockchain cryptographically time- and person-stamps the act of publication (and, indeed, of creation through earlier stages of the process, if we want). Ownership becomes indisputable.
In the same way as blockchain records where a bitcoin is at any given moment, and who owns it, it can enable us to record the ownership of any asset, physical or intellectual, and trade ownership of that asset.
– Smart Contracts
Following on from clear ownership are contract rights and property rights. Automated digital “smart” contracts will be able to simultaneously represent ownership of an intellectual property and the conditions that come with that ownership.
Such contracts will be able to automate rules, checking conditions and taking actions with minimal human involvement and cost. Goodbye to lawyers who are too expensive for, and don’t speak the language of, individual creatives.
Smart contracts have the potential to seriously disrupt the legal system and make legal enforcement of copyright affordable for all.
– Smart Wallets
In our vision, all retailers (from Amazon KDP to the local bookstore), wholesalers and trade publishers will continue to pay into this author-owned smart wallet but what will be revolutionary is how blockchain and cryptocurrency together will make it super-easy for readers to make micropayments, for books, yes, but also for a single article, small video or podcast episode.
The wallet can also be more than a payment method. It will also serve as a connective hub for all the people who feed into the making of a book: service providers, like editors and designers, but also the coffee shop where much of the book was written, the retreat centre that provided a getaway, the foundation that provided a grant, the rights buyer who turned it into a film, or print edition; the author’s mentors, writing coach, role models, their local bookshop… and so on.
The blockchain allows authors to become the first calling point and information hub for the work they have created and to credit all who have contributed and collaborated.
In the same way that we can now send cash to somebody through the internet without an intermediary (bank or financial institution) using bitcoin, so the blockchain will enable us to send messages to each other, without trading our data or large tech corporations “owning” or having access to what we say.
The blockchain allows us to forward a book, directly from author to reader, without any middle-man, freely or for bitcoin exchange
Authors and Blockchain: The Potential
It is these last two — take out the middle-man and putting authors first in the value chain — that are most exciting for authors. Blockchain not only to seamlessly allows direct payments from reader to author but allows income from sales to be effortlessly split at the point of transaction between the author and anyone else involved in the making of the book, including services and booksellers.
Blockchain could allow, therefore, for the evolution of an author-centric business model where creative and commercial value is automatically recognized, registered and compensated and where the author's smart wallet become the first point of payment for everyone, and the financial and informational node for their work.
Authors and Blockchain: The Challenges
Some years ago, Clay Shirky wrote an important article about why micropayments are problematic: the “cognitive cost” of deciding whether to make such a payment is worth it or not is too high for consumers and donors. Most would rather make one-off decisions to buy subscriptions or make larger donations than make micro-decisions about micro-payments.
Blockchain technology doesn't address this but authors and publishers may well find a way around it. The challenge is to make buying a book from an individual creative as easy as downloading a song from iTunes, or an ebook from the Amazon store.
There are also concerns about the security of blockchain platforms, as well as the environmental consequences of ‘mining’ blocks, which consumes gigantic sums of energy.
Authors and Blockchain: Recommendations
Authors need to understand what's coming if we are to have a say in how blockchain, and self-publishing 3.0, develop over the coming years, and ensure that we optimize all opportunities for ourselves, for our readers, for the strengthening of the intellectual property (IP) laws that our income rests on, and for the fair and equitable management of data and information by society as a whole.
1 Educate Yourself
Learn all you can about blockchain, author tech tools and direct selling to readers. Understand how the technology works, its potential applications within an author business, and how it interacts with existing financial and legal frameworks. Check out ALLi's Self-Publishing 3.0 campaign for background.
Bridging gaps in your knowledge will make the world of blockchain, distributed ledgers and direct sales to readers seem much less daunting.
2 Consider Your Goals
What problem are you are trying to solve? How might blockchain/direct sales assist in solving problems in your author business? e.g. piracy, payment, reaching readers? What aspect of the technology provides the necessary edge or benefit?
Get guidance on cryptocurrency and publishing options before making any decisions. Everybody's heard about bitcoin, for example, but there are a lot of different cryptocurrencies and new publishing companies are opening all the time on various blockchains. Without knowledge of the many ways blockchain business can work, you are at the mercy of a company pushing its own interests.
Do you have enough information to decide? What might you need to do now in order to set yourself up to be ready when the time comes to get involved?
4 Assess risks and benefits long-term as well as short-term
Investment of your time, money or attention in blockchain technology may not yield immediate, or even medium-term gains, but may have (as yet somewhat unknown) benefits stretching out into the future. Consider risks and benefits to assess whether distributed ledgers are the most appropriate vehicle for your goals.
5 Educate your readers
Engage with readers and help to educate them also about the benefits of buying directly from you and other authors. If appropriate, talk to them about blockchain and cryptocurrency. Invite their thoughts about what they’d need to do in order to plug into your offering.
6 Writer Beware
Don't invest your money or IP in an ICO that doesn't have a product or service. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission recommends that if a company decides to make an ICO (initial coin offering, a way to raise funds for a cryptocurrency venture), they should first have an actual product. Know the difference between pseudo-anonymous and fully anonymous. Bitcoin is pseudo-anonymous. Users don't know exactly your name attached to the IP address, but law enforcement agencies could figure it out if they needed to.
7 Check resources such as the Blockchain Alliance
The organization a broad coalition of companies and organizations who have come together with the goal of making the blockchain ecosystem more secure and promoting “further development of this transformative technology”. It also helps law enforcement and regulatory agencies all over the world understand the blockchain ecosystem, essential to de-risking blockchain for authors and readers.
8 Talk to Other Authors
We are stronger together. To fully realize the potential of blockchain for books and maximize the value that can be realized by individual authors, business processes will need to be adjusted and consensus achieved across the self-publishing and publishing industries. The more authors we can get behind this campaign, the better our chances for success in harmonizing publishing payment processes and correcting the long-institutionalized separation of authors from the business of books.
None of this should diminish our appetite for exploring the possibilities and helping to shape the future. Depending on how it develops, blockchain could go the way of so many technologies now consigned to the dustheap.
It could be used to reinforce the status quo or further embed existing privilege. For now, this is an open moment.
We could just sit back and observe the blockchain and see but by actually advocating for it, we can shape it and we can perhaps help mold how it develops in a way that is advantageous for authors.
Authors and Blockchain: A Quick and Easy Guide
ALLi's guide to Authors and Blockchain aims to educate authors about the potential of this new technology for author-publishing and to encourage the independent and empowered mindset needed to avail of its potential. You can buy the book here or it is free to members of the Alliance of Independent Authors.