Book NFT: A Proposal to Unify the Entity and Utility of Digital Books

The word “utility” is often used in the context of assessing the value of an NFT. “Utility” can be interpreted as “usefulness” or “benefit,” or in a broader sense, as “what is good” about a product. The trend of simply releasing NFTs of images is on a decline, while NFTs that have “utility” or the ability to demonstrate what is good about the product are gaining popularity.

My attempt to imagine why this word may have come to be used brought me to the notions of “entity” and “utility.” The value of a real product, not an NFT, is strongly tied with its “entity” and “utility” and does not require any explanation. However, NFTs need an explanation because their “entity” is vague and “utility” unclear. Let’s take the example of bread. If we have real bread, we can eat it to satisfy our appetite. This value is clear to everyone. Now, if we suppose that there is an NFT of bread, we would not know whether it gives us access only to an image or to a service that lets us enjoy free freshly baked bread at a bakery unless we check.

Once we are accustomed to separating “entity” and “utility” in the context of NFTs, we tend to start looking at real things from the same perspective as well. In the case of books, a simplistic analysis brings us to the following correlation between “entity” and “utility.”

  1. When we consider a book’s semantic content such as text or illustrations as its “entity,” its “utility” lies in its ability to be read or seen or to convey meaning.
  2. When we consider a book as a physical media (entity) in terms of binding, print, and design, its “utility” lies in its ability to be stacked, displayed, appreciated, lent, borrowed, sold, and owned.  

This analysis indicates that the “utilities'' of “stacking,” “displaying,” “appreciating,” “lending,” “borrowing,” “selling” and “owning” arise from a book’s “entity” as “physical media.” This also implies that when we buy the digital version of a book and read it on an app, the values we perceive are reduced only to the ability of the book to be read, to be seen and to convey meaning, which arise from its “entity” of “semantic content.” Of course, it also generates another powerful “utility” of enabling us to carry a large number of books without feeling their weight because there is no physical media. However, “utilities” such as “borrowing” or “owning” are lost, resulting in a loss of the book’s aura.

In a world where the physical and non-physical are rapidly separating, I often wondered while authoring my novel “A Wizard of Tono (2018, NUMABOOKS)” in 2016-2017 whether my work would drop out of this trend, accelerate it, or dream of a revival of its own aura.

Incidentally, I came across Vitalik Buterin’s idea of “Ethereum'' while writing my book. His idea is the inspiration behind a prop in my work, a digital data certificate with a cap on the number of issues. Its concept is similar to today’s NFTs, and the characters in the book fight and agonize over it. Rereading my book now, I feel that it anticipated the current debate on the value of NFTs at an early stage.

When we decided to publish the book, Shintaro Uchinuma of NUMABOOKS came up with the idea of a book design that maximizes the power of a physical book. The cover is made of acrylic, after all. By publishing only a physical book, with no digital version, we were able to create a product that combined “entity” and “utility” at a level where they could not be separated. Our efforts were appreciated. We received the Grand Prix at the Japan Book Design Awards in 2019 and the bronze medal at the Best Book Design from all over the World Contest in 2020. I remember being as elated with the appreciation we received for the cover and binding as we would have been with an appreciation of the content because we were proud of creating a work that unifies semantic content and physical media.

Later, in 2021, when NFTs started becoming popular worldwide, we began to think about a digital version of “A Wizard of Tono.” This was based on the idea of being able to create a digital version with the “utilities” of “stacking,” “displaying,” “appreciating,” “lending,” “borrowing,” “selling” and “owning.” I believe that we have successfully realized our idea.

We worked on this digital version, something we refrained from publishing (could not publish) four years ago due to the novel’s concept of keeping semantic content and physical media together, with the thought that there is value in reconsidering it if an NFT can bind together the “entity” and “utility” of this book and keep its aura intact. I hope you will watch this experiment to see how it turns out.

However, the greatest joy for me as an author would be to find new readers through this new version and have more people enjoy the work, even if they may not be interested in this long narrative.

Daisuke Sasaki


A Wizard of Tono
A Wizard of Tono
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