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The Dawn of Self-Publishing 4.0: AI, Micropayments and the Blockchain

Digital text, books and media are currently being re-imagined in ways that are likely to have a big impact on authors and author earnings, says Orna Ross, Director of the Alliance of Independent Authors. In the final part of this series about Self-Publishing 3.0, she looks forward to the next phase and argues that we need to understand what's coming in Self-Publishing 4.0 if we are to have a say in how it develops and ensure authors don't lose out.

Orna Ross What is an authorpreneur

Orna Ross, Director of ALLi. “the only authors who can benefit from SelfPub3.0  opportunities are those who have developed an independent, creative and empowered mindset”

See: Self-Publishing 3.0 campaign, part 1 and Self-Publishing 3.0 campaign, part 2

In the tech world, Ted Nelson is a living legend. Beginning his work in the 1960s, his ideas around the links between technology, text and social change were mind-blowing. He invented hypertext, the software system that allowed extensive cross-referencing between related sections of text and graphics. He seems to have been the first person to describe digital media and how we might interlink, collaborate and share in a network and his Xanadu project was the forerunner of the World Wide Web.

For years Nelson's work, superseded by Tim Berners-Lee's design for HTML, has been sidelined and ignored. Now an increasing number of people are suggesting that if we are to reclaim the potential of the Internet to democratize information and ensure creators get paid for their contributions, we need to return to how Nelson was thinking back in the day.

One of the loudest voices in this debate is Nelson devotee, and an outspoken critic of Silicon Valley values, the philosopher and computer scientist, Jaron Lanier. Lanier's influential book Who Owns The Future is full of compelling ideas about the connections between society, technology and what the tech world calls “information” (all the data, text and images we circulate online, the products of our minds, hearts and souls).

Yep, that does include your books.

Big Tech and the Value of Information (Data and Content)

Lanier is critical of Silicon Valley Big Tech positing an ideal of free information for its own financial benefit while ignoring a simple reality: behind every piece of web information and “artificial” intelligence lies a living, breathing, human person.

The free information ideal has been used by corporations to extract data from people, without any recompense, which has given us the tech giants Facebook, Google and Amazon.

Lanier calls them “Siren Servers”. In Greek mythology, The Sirens were dangerous creatures, who lured sailors to shipwreck with their seductive music, bodies and voices. Lured like the mythical sailors by surface seductions like an ego-boost or bit of fun, users all over the world have cheerfully hand over our data, our IP, gratis.

Facebook, Google, YouTube, Amazon are giant media companies, but their value lies in the media they're using and by law, that media–text, audio and video–belongs to the person who created it.

Ted Nelson's vision of linked data couldn't have created a few super-players. His vision and execution was a single, universal store in which everyone is both buyer and seller. Key to this vision was a value system, linked to intellectual property and copyright: that every individual owns his or her own information (content and data) and that this information has a value.

As Nelson envisaged his network, two-way links (instead of the one-way linking favored by HTML) would facilitate micro-payments from multiple sources, which would see that value acknowledged by one and all. Instead, Big Tech one-way links and commercial practices have established dangerous precedents over the past two decades that will be further aggravated as the use of artificial intelligence expands.

Lanier's work eloquently explains how in a world of 3D printing and the Internet of Things, millions more people will be squeezed out of the value chain, if we don't understand that “free” information is actually human-generated words, images and ideas–and put an appropriate value on creation and information.

In the past, it was utilities like oil, coal and steel that created “robber barons”. In our era, those who have the most data and the most powerful computers to crunch it accrue the most influence and money. For him, Big Tech is as bad as Big Oil and his book explains how these have much more in common than we commonly realize. Confused by youth, the flip-flopped, surfer-dude surface of tech culture, and by rhetoric about free information, we might fail to see the common thread: that these gigantic information corporates are working for their own benefit, to make themselves super-rich and super-powerful at other people's expense.

As a result, “we're impoverished compared to the world that could have been and should have been when the Internet was initially conceived,” says Lanier. He argues for a principle that we pay people [micropayments] for their information and contributions and warns that this “is critical if we want people to live with dignity as machines get better”.

So the issues we face daily as self-publishing 3.0 authors have relevance for everyone in our societies.

No Such Thing As Free Information

Big Tech companies are the brainchildren of what my great-aunt used to call “whippersnappers”, young men who have all made great fortunes from this business model. Good for them, you might say, and at one level, yes indeed. But if you are an advocate for authors (and indeed for democracy), you also notice that their fame and fortune is built on something that belongs to other people: intellectual property.

Intellectual property (IP) freely given to them — but nonetheless, not theirs to use in this way. Not if we as a society buy into a value system that values human expression and creation.

Organizations owning super-servers can be national or international intelligence agencies, stealthy high finance schemes, or the Web 2.0 winners like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. What all of these have in common is that their model is based on either surreptitiously eliciting data, or getting people to freely give it up.

If we look behind the free information rhetoric, we can see that it's all very deliberate. The Web 2.0 business model is to suck up as much of this data as possible and use their powerful computers to crunch their way to massive profits (and information banks), while pushing all the risk away from the company, back into what they call the “system”

Code-word for other people.


And that's where Nelson's ideas and the new tech structure of the blockchain come in.

“Anyone in a Nelsonian system can reuse material to make playlists, mash-ups, or other new structures, with even more fluidity than in today's ‘open' system,” Lanier says. “At the same time, people are paid. Information isn't free but [it] is affordable [for all].… This is the half-century-old idea on which I build.”

And on which we authors will build our income, influence, and impact in the future that is hurtling towards us.

Legally, the building block of intellectual property is copyright and trademarks. Though it is seldom actively used by anyone in publishing, the existence of this passive legislation protects authors and artists. We'd find it hard to make a living without it.

It's thanks to the agreed legal framework of copyright and intellectual property protection — hard-won rights by activists of the past — that authors were able to find dignity and livelihood within Self-publishing 1.0 (POD and digital “desktop publishing”) and 2.0 (digital books, online bookstores, and the social web).  Self-publishing technology gave a critical mass of authors the ability, for the first time in centuries, to say, “Thank you, but no” to third-party publishers offering exclusively binding contracts–an utterly revolutionary and liberating shift.

Today a large group of mid-list authors now earn decent monies from publishing their own writing and charging for it.

The more indie authors who do well, who build successful businesses, who move from trade-publishing to self-publishing and back again for different projects, the more impact this revolution is having on readers and writers.

And — ours being is a highly influential community — on society and its values.

Self-Publishing 3.0 Campaign BookSelf-Publishing 3.0: The Value of Information

Authors have largely done a better job of maintaining the value of their creativity in the digital era than artists and musicians. That is largely down to two things: our community and the Siren Server that so far dominates our sector: Amazon.

Amazon's payments to authors are up to 70% while YouTube's to musicians are zilch. Nada. Zip. For that all authors should give thanks.

Other factors are that the community of readers — many of whom are also writers — value words deeply and are prepared to pay. They tend to be older and wiser than the young music downloaders, who are now growing up into a world where they want to make creative careers. They thought their downloads were free but now they're paying a heavy price for them.

It's not just young music lovers, though. We've all, even authors, been fooled into thinking that we shouldn't expect to pay, or receive, any money for what we do with our brains and hearts online.

And many authors are still caught in Self-Publishing 2.0 systems, which leave them highly vulnerable. We see that naked vulnerability in the panic waves that break across the online author community whenever Amazon, and to a lesser extent other platforms like Nook or Ingram, make changes to their terms and conditions.

Being a Self-Publishing 3.0 author means acknowledging the power authors have with readers, and putting the proper price on that, and on the intellectual property that creates that core relationship. It means creating a business with a wide variety of outlets, a diverse product ecosystem, and a transactional website to sell books and other products directly to readers.

This not only optimizes our chances of creating a sustainable and scalable business today, it prepares us for what is coming. Technology is turning again, providing new systems that could make Nelson's original vision of gadzillions of micro-payments between millions of individuals a reality.

Authors have an important role to play in these emerging systems, a role that extends beyond our own self-interest.

In our new world, the value of IP extends beyond the writers, artists, and innovators who have traded in it to date. “IP is a crucial thread in designing a humane future with dignity,” says Jaron Lanier. “Not everybody can be a Zuckerberg or run a tech company, but everybody could – or at least a critically large number of people could – benefit from IP”

If we value our own data and information, IP offers a path to the future that could bring dignity and livelihood to large numbers of people. For this to happen, IP “needs to be made much more sophisticated and granular. It needs to be something that benefits everybody – as commonplace as having pennies in your pocket.”

Authors can lead the way here in ensuring that the Internet business model based on big tech extracting big data for free is replaced by a system that is more democratic and evenly distributed.

The coming technological changes have the potential to be even more democratizing than Publishing 3.0, especially if this time round, authors — a smart bunch of people — understand what's happening before it breaks upon us. Big Tech is already working hard on trying to keep the tech contained withing their mega, profitable corporations.

But perhaps the day of the small creative entrepreneur might be dawning?

As authors, we now have a decade of empowering activity behind us as a community. We have practical experience, first-hand, of how the key concepts of copyright and intellectual property and the new technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence might connect.

From here we can envisage a world where it is agreed morally that each of us owns our own information, our own story, as the laws of copyright already acknowledge, and that this principle is given financial expression through two-way links and distributed micropayments, easily facilitated by blockchain technology.

Self-Publishing 4.0: AI and the Blockchain

You read it here first! Self-publishing 4.0 will be authors incorporating AI and distributed micro-payments in their author businesses through blockchain technology or similar.

Publishing, both trade-publishing and self-publishing, provide business models that have already found ways to make micropayments work. The payment to an author from the average book, whether it's a royalty from a trade publisher, or a sales commission from a self-publishing platform, is tiny — but when you get a global readership, as you do when corporate publishing puts its weight behind a title, or when authors distribute directly using global, digital platforms, those tiny payments add up.

Authors have been paid the former way for centuries and the latter for more than a decade now. Some have even managed to get rich through these micropayments.

Upholding and augmenting the value of words means in the era of Self-Publishing 4.0 means finding our way back to where Ted Nelson was when, as he and Lanier see it, things started to go wrong.

It means understanding how blockchain technology and distributed networks can easily handle millions of tiny transactions, without intermediaries like retailers or lawyers, through smart wallets and smart contracts.

Blockchain looks set not only to seamlessly allow direct payments but to allow 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.

Micropayments are not problem-free, not least in what Clay Shirky has called the cognitive cost of micropayments. And blockchain technology and artificial intelligence in publishing also present challenges. But the world has moved on since Shirky wrote his treatise. Consumers are now much more used to paying online. And authors very much underestimate their own power with their readers, who do not care who published the book or where they buy it half as much as they care about getting their hands on the work they love to read. And–for some of them–supporting the author whose work they love.

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.

Whatever happens with the blockchain or other technology, it's clear that the only authors who can benefit from the opportunities today, and those that are coming, have developed an independent, creative, and empowered mindset and a sense of the size of the opportunity here.

Might we actually develop a creator-led financial model for the first time in recorded history? As our news editor, Dan Holloway, put it in his inimitable, poetic fashion in a recent discussion of the topic on ALLi's Member Forum, if authors want an author-centric publishing ecosystem

 we need to … be first on that boat rather than desperately siloing ourselves in the hull of the old ship with a bucket.

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 get involved, the better our chances for success in harmonizing publishing payment processes and correcting the long-institutionalized separation of authors from the business of books, a separation that allows our business partners unhealthy dominance over creators.

As authors, we have a huge collective task if we want to unfold the best possible future for our books, our readers, other writers, and society at large. Independent authors now have a crucial role to play in establishing how Self-Publishing 4.0 might turn out.

Whether it will be a move towards the democratization and valuing of data and content, as creative expression.

Or the opposite.

Over to us.

Self-Publishing 3.0 and Self-Publishing 4.0: Recommendations

1 EDUCATE YOURSELF: Learn All You Can About Copyright and IP, Direct Selling, Wide Distribution, AI and Blockchain

Understand how publishing technology works, its potential applications within an author business, and how it interacts with existing financial and legal frameworks. Follow other authors who are meeting these challenges. 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 a particular technology (e.g. the blockchain) or process (e.g. direct sales) assist in solving problems in your author business (e.g. managing payments, reaching readers)?
  • What aspect of the technology provides the necessary edge or benefit?

3 RESEARCH: Research relevant authors, services, and opportunities

Get guidance on financial and publishing options. 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.

4 RISKS AND BENEFITS: 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 short to medium term gains, but may have (as yet somewhat unknown) benefits stretching out into the future. Consider risks and benefits and assess whether distributed ledgers are the most appropriate vehicle for your goals.

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?

5 READERS:  Help to educate readers about direct sales

Engage with readers and help to educate them about the benefits of buying directly from you and other authors and creators. If it fits your author brand, invite conversations about how AI and new technologies like blockchain might work for them in their own lives. Invite their thoughts about how they'd like to support you and your offering.

6 PRODUCTS AND SERVICES: Don't invest your money or IP in an ICO that doesn't have a product or service

The world of blockchain, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is, as yet, unstable.  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.

7 RESOURCES: 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.

Blockchain for Books White Paper

As a non-profit authors' association, our work is to advocate for financial models that maximize the value of the authors' moral and monetary rights and intellectual property. We offer our support to any individual, organization, technology or movement who shares that vision.

Every business, from the smallest startup to multinational giants with centuries of transactions behind them, will have to engage with blockchain technology, including publishing.

Blockchain allows 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.

We have been analyzing the potential of new blockchain technology for almost a year, and in January started our Blockchain For Books Awareness Campaign, aiming to educate authors about the potential of this new technology for author-publishing and encourage the independent and empowered mindset needed to avail of its potential.

On the service side, ALLi's campaign aims to persuade services to adjust payment processes to account for fair transaction splits at the point of payment. We contend that this is the logical application of copyright law, in a blockchain environment. If the creator is the owner of the IP, as copyright law insists, author smart wallets are the economic expression of the creator’s copyright.

ALLi aims to provide direction, governance, guidance and support. Contact us any time at [email protected]

At the London Book Fair 2018, ALLi will present a White Paper: Blockchain For Books: Towards an Author-Centered Payment Model The launch of the Blockchain For Books white paper and Are You Ready for Self-Publishing 3.0 seminar will be recorded and made available online as part of SelfPubCon on April 14th 2018. If you would like more information, or to be involved in the Self-Publishing 3.0 Campaign, please contact us here.


Self-Publishing 3.0 campaign, part 1

Self-Publishing 3.0 campaign, part 2


Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


This Post Has 17 Comments
  1. Hello and Good day,
    ¿ Was wondering ?
    been doin’ REsearch and have not Found >
    ¿ What is the OLDest SELF publishing Firm/COmpany?
    Thank yoU
    – Richard
    Tucson AriZona US of A…
    = = =

  2. Brilliant, Orna. As an ex-tech writer, Silicon Valley/Multimedia Gulch geek and an author, I have been watching cryptocurrency and publishing with great interest and not a little confusion. You have explained it beautifully. Thank you.

  3. Excellent, highly insightful article. Thank you Orna for keeping an eye for us indie authors. I kept saying I need to join teh Alliance, and I know why today!

  4. The concepts are certainly intriguing. My only concern would be that someone, somewhere in the chain would get greedy and work around the chain to gain more than their fair share. We’ve seen this modelled since the robber-barons of the Industrial Age as well… Unless you can change the hearts of men, I fear this will be a brilliant concept, without practical solution.

  5. Orna, totally right on all counts. The problem is gaining traction for any new model. But laying the groundwork for an alternative is a good thing. Almost a hundred years before the Russian revolution the Decemberist revolution wanted to bring down the Tsar. Many were executed, but their ideas lingered, especially through the poetry of Pushkin. It may not take that long, but Amazon is likely to become the Tsar of all the indie authors with the power to exile you and cut of your income, though without the torture chambers.

  6. I am sooooo glad this is being discussed. Back int he late 1990’s I wrote several textbooks around online learning. At that time, big publishers were beginning to look at the concept of “micro-content.” I remember being in discussion with Pearson, where my first book was published, about ways for them to get their authors to agree to this micro-content sharing with some compensation and tracking it.

    Ultimately, it didn’t go anywhere because their contract asked you to agree to it but gave no structure around it. I didn’t agree to it. Later, the way they solved the problem was for future contracts to automatically include that they could reuse any textbook content the author created in part of another textbook, within a certain percentage, and only provide an acknowledgement. I didn’t sign that one either and left for Routledge / Taylor and Francis. However, I do think it was a missed opportunity–especially in terms of educational content–for publishers and authors to work together on creating more content that could be reused.

    Dan, you have hit it on the head regarding the steps. IMO, that first one–an established and TRUSTED structure of intermediation–is the most difficult. The oxygenation part I think can happen as long as there is interest and people see profit. The other difficult part to over come is the currency part. With all that has happened with Bitcoin, the first blockchain currency example I’m familiar with, it is really hard to trust something outside of our well-established banking systems, payment and settling systems and currency exchanges now. Those institutions, however much you love or hate them, are highly regulated and there is redress built into law. Bitcoin has proven to be a system with scalability problems and, with it’s major tenet of decentralization, has seen some bad actors and a system that ultimately is not cost effective.

    All that said, I think this is an interesting future and an option. Looking forward to the next article.

  7. i love this. For me this model of Publishing 3.0 is necessarily seen as a transitional phase to a landscape where the connection between creativity and payment is broken altogether through the implementation of a truly universal basic income that will allow creativity to be truly open source. But that is a long way off, and steps like this are essential.

    Blockchain’s killer USP is to be found in environments where 1. There is an established structure of intermediation, 2. That structure provides essential oxygenation to the ecosystem built upon it and 3. The ecosystem “pays” the structure for that oxygenation to its own cost (in other words the relationship is parasitic, unlike the symbiotic relations between plant life, animal life, and atmosphere that provide our actual oxygen), and 4. Blockchain can provide an alternative system of oxygenation without the cost.

    When it comes to currency, it is clear that theoretically this oxygenation (liquidity) *can* be provided using blockchain (through mining, the process by which currency is created which could, theoretically, pass the means of liquidity direct to those who need to use it). With publishing, conditions 1, 2 (discoverability), and 3 are clearly met. Just as how to release units was the big theoretical issue that cryptocurrencies had to address, the big issue for the use of blockchain as a disintermediated way of connecting reader and writer will be discoverability. In the world of cryptocurrency, the problem is solved by having the nodes within the ecosystem (standing for the people who need money in order to spend it) do “work” (being available to maintain the blockchain’s integrity) in return for increased liquidity. The question it feels we need to answer in relation to publishing is what useful and incentivising form that “work” could take.

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