Web3 is Coming For Authors

A ‘crypto revolution’ re-imagining books? Count me out.

Thu, 21 Jul 2022

TL;DR: Why would I want readers to ‘own’ a share of my work? Selling shares in a book looks like a great way to dilute or lose creative control.

I came across an article on esquire.com about how the “crypto revolution” wants to reimagine books this morning.

What if you could own a stake in Harry Potter?

What if the 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? If this were the case, someone who purchased just three percent of Harry Potter back when there was only one book would be a billionaire now.

Apparently cryptocurrency, web3, blockchain, and NFTs can make this happen. There are already a bunch of startups working on making this a reality, and even Wattpad is looking into this so that they can disrupt themselves before somebody else does.

While Elle Griffin acknowledges that this is a hard sell, I think she only scratches the surface of how hard a sell this could be for authors. All she says is this about the downsides.

It might not work—finding readers (and investors) will be a challenge—but if they succeed, their vision could bode very well for the author who, in this scenario, could retain a percentage ownership of these “stocks” and earn value alongside their investors—just like Jeff Bezos retains a percentage of Amazon stock and grows richer as his company’s shares gain value.

And this:

In theory, this could be very exciting for authors. In practice, outside of runaway success stories like Harry Potter, very few books earn enough revenue for an investor to want to get involved. Whether traditionally published or self-published, right now, the industry is dependent on book sales. This means that authors and publishing houses hope to make their money selling thousands of book copies at a relatively modest price. Here’s the problem: books typically don’t sell well. According to Bookstat, there were 2.6 million books added to the market in 2020, and 96 percent of them sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Worse still, only 268 sold more than 100,000 copies. With that kind of economics, very few authors earn a living solely through writing and publishing books. The author Emily Segal wants to change that.

The rest is mostly success stories from authors who managed to do well by this method and quotes from people touting startups that operate in this space. I honestly don’t see any upside to participating in this new approach to publishing. Even if crypto, blockchain, NFTs, and web3 weren’t one expensive, environmentally destructive grift after another, having investors in a book sounds like a great way to lose creative control – which cuts into the very reason I write fiction in the first place.

I don’t write fiction for money. I have a day job for that. It pays me almost a hundred grand a year to work without creative control or authorial credit. It also pays me to tolerate absurdities like having eight different bosses that don’t talk to each other but all come to talk to you every time you make a minor mistake like forgetting to put a cover sheet on your TPS report.

preview image for YouTube video ID 3wqQXu13tLA
from Office Space (1999) (click image to view)

When I was a published author, I still had bosses. My agent was my boss. My editor was my boss. My publisher was my boss. My beta readers were my bosses. Book bloggers were my bosses. Every rando with a social media presence who got my books as freebies or bought them for a dollar during a promotion were my bosses. At least, they seemed to think they were. They all had opinions on what I should write and how I should go about writing it. Admittedly, some of these opinions were perfectly reasonable, and incorporating these suggestions made my writing better than it might otherwise have been. Nevertheless, once I started publishing, my work ceased to be wholly my own. Even if I had gone full indie instead of publishing through a small press, I’d still have to work with an editor and still have to deal with reviewers, bloggers, etc.

Though it was a harsh blow to have my second novel bomb and then see my publisher go out of business while ghosting every author they had under contract, it was also a liberating experience. My work was almost1 entirely my own again, and I could do it my way.

Let’s suppose, strictly as an intellectual exercise, that I bought into this new web3 publishing thing and sought investors for my next fiction project. The best case scenario is that I retain majority ownership (55-70%) and my investors are content to buy, hold, and keep their opinions to themselves.

What’s the worst case scenario? I have to sell so many shares to quit my day job and focus full-time on writing that I’m left with at most a 25% stake in my own creation. This might not be a problem when none of the investors own more than 5% and remain uncoordinated, but if they do coordinate or if one investor with buys up the other shares I’m left as a minority stakeholder in the fiction I’m writing.

Even being a minority shareholder might be tolerable if the investors are content to buy, hold, and keep their opinions to themselves – as long as I can quit my day job and focus on writing. However, this ignores the possibility of activist investors – people who aren’t content to merely own a stake in the business but want a say in its operations. They might want a say in the plot, characterization, or how I go about writing the story so that it’s more “family-friendly” or less likely to get challenged if some uptight parent’s precious little snowflake brings it home from school.

If these criticisms came only from reviewers and readers, I can ignore them with impunity. What are they going to do, not buy any more of my books? Remember, I have a day job that pays just short of $100,000 a year before taxes, so my salary is a limited form of fuck you money.

That’s right. Writers with day jobs are writing from a position of “fuck you”, especially if they use a pseudonym.

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from The Gambler (2014) (click image to view)

It’s not nearly as good as owning your house outright and having a couple million parked in index funds paying interest to cover the property taxes, but it beats the shit out of being dependent on your readership to pay the bills2.

Are there trade-offs involved in being a writer with a day job? You might as well ask if the Pope is Catholic. I only have so many fucks to give, so I’ve got to husband them carefully so that I can do solid work at my day job while still having fucks to spare for my writing. I don’t always manage that, and sometimes I devote so many of my fucks to my writing that I end up half-assing my day job.

However, I don’t think I ever want to do commercial publishing again, and I certainly don’t want any part of this “get people to invest in your writing through crypto, blockchain, web3, and NFTs” bullshit. The fiction I write is basically kitchen-sink science fantasy fanfic. It’s a great big meat pie and the filling is made up of bits and pieces of novels, movies, comics, anime, JRPGs, and heavy metal lyrics that I love thrown into an industrial-size blender set to puree and baked low and slow. It’s Elric on a Harley versus a Silicon Valley Saruman with a soundtrack featuring Blue Öyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Queensrÿche, Cynic, and Hiromi Uehara.

But it only really needs two cooks at most: me and Catherine. I don’t want anybody else having a say in what I write or how I write it. If that means I go unread, so be it.

Sometimes the price of somebody else’s idea of success just isn’t worth paying, and succeeding in a web3 book marketplace is a game that just isn’t worth the candle. As far as I’m concerned, I’m already a successful writer. I’ve finished several novels and short pieces. My writing keeps me sane, and helps me tolerate the bullshit I deal with at my day job. It lets me play God without hurting anybody or violating their rights. My writing helped me meet my wife, and we’ve been together over twenty years.

You can’t put a dollar value on any of that. Sure, it would be nice to have other people read my stuff, but that’s what personal websites are for. If you want to read my old stuff, just download the archive and unzip it. It’s all there in plain text. If you want to see what I’m up to next, I can manage that with a web zero site just like this one.

Sure, I’m self-publishing on the internet at my own expense and not getting anything in return, but I’m paying the cost to be the boss. If I try to monetize my joy I’m just killing myself to live. Fuck that noise. One bullshit job is one too many, and web3 can’t give me what I want:

I like to receive money for my work. But I can pass that up this time. I like to have people know my work is done by me. But I can pass that up. I like to have tenants made happy by my work. But that doesn’t matter too much. The only thing that matters, my goal, my reward, my beginning, my end is the work itself. My work done my way. Peter, there’s nothing in the world that you can offer me, except this. Offer me this and you can have anything I’ve got to give. My work done my way. A private, personal, selfish, egotistical motivation. That’s the only way I function. That’s all I am.

~Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

You don’t have to like Ayn Rand. But for all her flaws (which are legion), this is one thing she gets right: the importance of worker autonomy. I can’t get enough of that at my day job. I get it as a hobbyist writer, and accept that I probably won’t ever make enough money off my writing to make the additional tax prep headaches3 worthwhile.

  1. I say “almost” because my wife Catherine reads my drafts, or I at least read them to her. I accept her suggestions 99.999% of the time. I don’t think of her as a “boss” because sharing our writing with each other was how we first became friends and then lovers. ♥↩︎

  2. Most authors don’t even make minimum wage from their fiction once you factor in the time spent developing one’s craft. Being able to write fiction is a privilege, and having a day job is the price of admission if you didn’t have the sense to marry into money or the luck to be born rich. I don’t like it any more than you do, but this is how I deal with it.↩︎

  3. Income from writing fiction is generally reported under Form 1099 in the US instead of Form W2. It’s considered “self-employment” income, so you’ve got to pay double the usual payroll tax on that income. It’s also easy to fuck up, so DIY tax prep with mixed W2 and 1099 income is probably a good way to get audited by the IRS.↩︎