The market for non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is down pretty bad. In fact, a friend who you could describe as a ‘prime NFT degen’ (meaning he’s damn good at trading NFTs) went from making thousands of dollars each trade to pocketing $100 or $200 if he gets lucky.
Smallest violin, I know. But say what you want about market bubbles, or even compare NFTs to cocaine as academic John Hawkins did in his January article for The Conversation, where he called NFTs “an overblown speculative bubble inflated by pop culture and crypto mania”, the technology is here to stay.
NFTs solve an important problem, namely, the internet’s penchant for infinite fungibility, which has made it impossible for creatives to make a living. I have personal experience of this as I was (am still?) a struggling writer, hustling for a dollar here and there. First, I taught poetry, then I got into actual serious journalism until the click-driven business model made that impossible, too.
An NFT token makes it possible to digitally represent a unique or rare object in the digital world. It has a unique signature that lives on an immutable blockchain, and this means artists can be paid fairly for their work.
Visual artists, galleries and collectors have jumped on the NFT bandwagon and created a vibrant market for digital art. While it remains to be seen whether the craze for overpriced profile pictures like Bored Ape Yacht Club et al will survive the current bear market, when you have people like Damien Hirst, and Beeple focused on NFTs, the digital art use case will remain.
NFTs have also made inroads into the music industry, as I have written about previously. And there are those who speculate that one day items like cars, fancy watches and real estate will be bought and sold using NFTs as proof of ownership.
But what about the books?
Where are all the NFT authors making millions selling their tokenised work on OpenSea?
Well, there are one or two instances of mild success. Blake Butler wrote Decade in 2008 but “its complicated structure and dense language rendered it virtually unpublishable by both commercial and avant-garde standards”, according to a write-up in Lithub.
Hmm, if only there was some medium that connects artists with the internet equivalent of monocle-wearing millionaires desperate to splash out on anything weird and obtuse. Well, lucky for Butler, he found NFT trading platform OpenSea.
Butler created a visual representation of the work: a GIF that flashed through every page of the book and minted it as an NFT. In February 2021, he listed it for sale on OpenSea for 2.22 ETH, worth about $3,774 at the time, and soon accepted an offer for 1.22 ETH, about $2,074.
NFT Magazine publishes print in another way. Each month they release a limited number of NFTs on OpenSea and only NFT holders can access the magazine. Prices for NFT Magazine spiked in June this year at 0.2 ETH (about $340 at the time) and are currently going for the equivalent of about $70.
It’s fair to say that NFT books and magazines haven’t had the same impact as those that focus on visual art, and perhaps that’s why the publishing industry has been generally nonplussed by the new market. However, academic publisher Pearson, after decades of selling overpriced textbooks to skint students, is looking into an NFT business model to profit from second-hand sales of their books, Bloomberg reported.
“In the analogue world, a Pearson textbook was resold up to seven times, and we would only participate in the first sale,” CEO Andy Bird said. “Technology like blockchain and NFTs allows us to participate in every sale of that particular item as it goes through its life.”
From a business perspective, it makes sense that academic books that are resold as students complete their courses would benefit from NFT tech, which automatically distributes royalties to the original publisher. But for mainstream publishers, the use for NFTs is less clear because, unlike art, people find more value in having read a book rather than owning the item itself.
While NFTs can provide interesting use cases for writers and publishers, it’s clear there is no serious investment from the book publishing industry yet. And why should there be? Good old paperbacks are still rampantly popular, outselling ebooks 4-1, according to Tonerbuzz.
Are NFTs best suited to visual mediums, then? Perhaps. And it would seem that, while visual artists are enjoying the NFT gravy train, we poor writers are once again left at the station, waving our spotted handkerchiefs, hoping our time will come soon.