Consider this book.
This is Babylon Blues, a science fiction novel that's a cross between cyperpunk and Cthulhu, set in post-apocalyptic dystopia where humanity struggles to survive in a war between false gods. My friend Benjamin Cheah wrote it, and this copy is my own.
Now consider this book.
It's the same book. It's still about a post-apocalyptic dystopia where false gods war and humanity struggles to survive. It's also my own copy, albeit an ebook.
Now with both of them, I could sit down and read them at my leisure. But there is a major difference. With the physical book, I own the physical object, but cannot make identical copies without a ton of time and hassle, and yes, money. Having manually printed several of my own book-length manuscripts, I can tell you that while paper is made from trees, it doesn't grow on them. Print-on-demand services will also tell you that, as they charge you through the nose in printing costs, leaving only a tiny fraction for royalties.
The ebook, on the other hand, is a DRM-free series of zeroes and ones, which I could copy with CTRL-C then CTRL-V. In fact, I believe Amazon automatically copied it off my Kindle to send to all my other devices, to say nothing of the endless times it was copied on the way to the original Kindle. And not one of those copies cost my friend anything.
I legally may not copy either one of them. But while it would be difficult and impracticable to copy the physical book, I sure can copy the digital book. And if I do, it doesn't cost anyone anything.
When I became a creator instead of a passive consumer of content, my opinions on piracy and "free" changed dramatically. It's one thing when pirating something harms only an invisible, faceless, author. It's another when you see that author's face in the mirror.
So, no, I am a firm believer in copyright. Copyright is what allows the very existence of the art we so love. Copyright means that I can write a story without some vast publisher taking it all for themselves. But copyright on the scale of individuals is more of an honor system than anything else. Enough people pay to watch the movie, to play the game, to read the book that the creators can afford to make it and, get this, make a living at it.
In short, copyright is a kind of Tragedy of the Commons, except one that generally does not end tragically. People are generally law-abiding, and enough of them care enough about the faceless creator that they cannot look themselves in the mirror if they pirated everything. The pirates generally do not cost the Commons anything. It's more like a road that needs built: once it's built, anyone can benefit from it, but who will pay to build it?
The present approach is essentially a toll road with a faulty tollbooth: you pay, and then you may drive through. Or you can just drive through, and no one can stop you. Some people do, some people don't, but the road gets paved.
Let us not mock this approach, which for its faults, works. We live in an age where there is more entertainment than even the most hedonistic consumer can consume in a lifetime. The subgenre I've found the most success in, LitRPG (think Ready Player One or Sword Art Online), alone produces so much content that there are easily ten or twenty major releases a month. It's hard to say that copyright law, as it exists now, has failed.
Yet it's also hard to say it's succeeded. The system exists by telling the consumer: "no." No copying. No sharing. No downloading just because you think it looks cool unless it's up for download in your market, at a price you can afford. Is it really the best system that prevents law-abiding citizens from enjoying all but a tiny fraction of the world of art? Is not the same true of the reverse--would artists really want to only show their art to paying customers?
Surely there is a better system?
One night in 2015 I had an incredibly vivid dream, which became the basis for a novel series I call The World of Wishes.
The World of Wishes started out as a YA dystopia novel, until it got really dark and simultaneously satirical of YA dystopia tropes. It is perhaps alone in its genre of what I call Finpunk, depicting a world were money quite literally is power, and you can buy anything--anything--you wish. I mixed what knowledge I had of the financial system, which fascinates me, and cryptocurrency, which also fascinates me, to create something that is pretty dang unique. For those not interested in money, there are also giant robots and explosions.
But how to sell it? I knew from the beginning that I could not simply put a novel about greed in Amazon's exclusivity program. I would go wide at least (publish it on all ebook retailers I could), but I wanted to do more.
So I began exploring alternate models.
Why not make the road free and put up billboards? This has been tried and is slowly failing. I'm almost certain you have an adblocker. If you don't, I'm even more certain you're sick of increasingly intrusive ads. Ads are why Big Tech became Big Spy, after all.
What about a freemium road, where the lanes for paying customers are nicer? For its success, it really only works for services. I've seen serial authors attempt this with a Patreon--paying customers get to see the latest chapters first.
How about just a tip jar? Some writers have had success at this, but one key is providing social status for payment--get your shiny discord role, a special thank you, or again, bonus content as above.
A crowdfund is another model, but you need significant reach to pull off a Kickstarter, and when I was musing on these subjects Brandon Sanderson had not yet had his massive success at it.
But there was one model that interested me most: liberation. (I name it thus because it was originally called the ransom model, but that's been unfortunately taken by ransomware.) The creator originally hides the work behind a paywall, but raises money in a kind of crowdfund. When the crowdfund succeeds, he releases the book for free. Thus, he both gets the money and it's available freely for everyone.
My twitter bio describes me as "Papist, writer, and blockchain nerd." I've been involved with crypto since 2012, though I was too skeptical to stock up on Bitcoin when it was less than $5. I've been writing for even longer, and professionally since 2014.
I've always tried to mix these portions of my identity, but "crypto" and "writer" always seemed the hardest to connect. I was on Steemit (now more or less Hive) a long time ago, which ran on the fancy tip jar model, except with a system-controlled tipper that tipped the most upvoted content. It heralded itself as the new model for writing, and while it had some success, it fell from grace as the #3 crypto to almost obscurity.
As I've thought about this, I wrote this Medium post on my thoughts so far. The ideas still hold merit, but I thought about them more long afterwards.
I came up with two models that seemed plausible. The first was the infinite edition: the novel was free, but you could buy a numbered NFT. The first buyer would have the ultra-rare #1, the next eight would be in the single digits, and so on. Thus the ultrafans would get something valuable and even resalable, and I would have money.
The other was the liberation model with a twist. I would sell NFTs for each chapter, and when the NFT was bought, it would be released to the world for free.
But herein lay a problem: I was burning out on publishing WoW1, and I didn't want to stake my fortune on untested technology. The code for a 1/N NFT existed in Mirror--but this was just before Mirror went free! So I decided on the other model.
I thought about it some more, and realized a second problem: who wants to pay for a book that's completely obscure? Why not release the book for free to begin with, and make an NFT to pay for it afterwards? This was the simplest model of all, and I wasn't the only one who thought of it. I stumbled on Cryptomedia. I don't suggest you actually read that site if you're not a crypto user, because it is in crypto-speak.
Seeing that it was not a completely untreaded path, I made my decision.
I turned the original manuscript for the The World of Wishes into a cryptomedia NFT. And you can click on the above embedded link to see it.
And download it.
To avoid any confusion over copyright, I released the manuscript under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0 Creative Commons license. So yes, download, share, copy to your hearts' content!
You can download the book from the NFT's page on Zora, but I would recommend you don't try to open a 0.1 MB text file and just use the convenient link to EPUB and .mobi editions instead.
Of course, if really do want to support the arts at a smaller scale, you can buy a copy at a number of retailers here. Print editions are coming!
The NFT is made. But I hear objections from the crowd:
There's a lot of misconceptions around NFT energy usage, but let me use an analogy:
Imagine a giant, diesel-fueled bus. Smoke is being practically vomited out the oversized exhaust pipes. You wonder if the thing is allowed within a hundred miles of California. In fact, the bus driver cheerfully tells you that like most vehicles 70% of the energy is wasted.
If you got on, you could say your share of the carbon footprint is equal to the total footprint, divided by the number of seats on the bus. Except that whether or not you're on the bus, or whether there's only one person on the bus, the carbon footprint is the same. After all, 70% of the energy will be wasted in any case.
A similar process exists with Ethereum. The wasteful part is called Proof of Work, a giant computational potlatch designed to be too flagrant to be replicated by an attacker. The actual transaction processing is almost negligible. Whether I made a transaction or not, the potlatch would have continued unabated in the slightest.
But perhaps I am responsible for part of the footprint, since I did pay the fare of the metaphorical bus. But flying, driving (buses or not), concrete (5% of the world's carbon), and semiconductor manufacturing all have footprints, most could be avoided, and yet society accepts their cost without question. Accuse anyone of wasting Earth's resources is unreasonable unless you are also not wasting Earth's resources in some other way. Otherwise, it's simply an internet argument of "Your waste is more ridiculous than mine" while Earth wastes away.
Remember Babylon Blues? The original, unedited version is available as a serial on Benjamin Cheah's Hive. Or how about Ra, a heavy inspiration for The World of Wishes, available as a serial or an ebook if you want to support the author. Read Brandon Sanderson's CC-licensed Warbreaker online or buy a real copy? It's up to you.
Truth is, we live in a world where content is expected to be free, if not via a subscription by the ever-present option of piracy. I'm just following it to the logical conclusion.
I'm sure some people would be into it for speculation. But here's a book I own, and made:
This is one of the original ten C&D1 paperbacks that I ordered printed. When I signed them, part of it was indeed, the thought that they would one day be super valuable. But part of it was also fun.
More particularly, why is speculation bad? Is it some great evil to reward the earlier adopters of a technology? If not, then there is no reason to adopt the earlier version with all its rough edges.
But what about financial speculation? After all, someone might just buy the NFT because he thinks it will go up in value. If this is a great evil, then never buy a book published by anyone but the author, because publishers also speculate by buying the rights to a book for a large sum and trying to exploit them for a larger sum. Nor should you buy a book by an author who spent any money on publishing it, speculating that the book will sell more than he put in.
The truth is, nearly every business transaction involves a speculative belief that it will be profitable in the future. By this token, buying an Early Access game on Steam is also speculation, because you are speculating that it will not suck when finished, and thus be worth putting up with its beta issues for a cheaper price.
Fans are unequal. There are some people for whom my books will just be passing entertainment. There are some for whom they are amazing.
And there's a few that will be deeply touched.
But believe me, I thought about this deeply. I do not want any fan to feel like a second-class citizen. I feared that if I made a finite number of NFTs, those who could afford one would be part of a small, inaccessible elite. By limiting the count to one--well, you can't form a special club with just yourself. The wealthy patron would simply be the Lord of the Fanclub, as it were.
The story doesn't end there. Through systems like PartyBid and fractional.art, a group of people can own a single NFT, in unequal portions, down to a billionth of a billionth. I decided there was a reasonable chance that such a club (or in crypto-speak, a DAO) would form, and then a fan who was interested could just purchase as tiny a sliver as desired. I considered even starting such a PartyBid myself, but decided it was kinda lame TBH for an author to bid on his own work. Besides, what happens if the "official" PartyBid loses?
So while I'm not perfectly happy with a 1/1 NFT, I think it's the best option available. Had there been the option for an infinite edition, I would have strongly considered that, instead.
This has happened to other novel NFT projects, including what may have been the first NFT novel, Mermaid Reef. I chose Zora, the NFT auction house, because auctions don't start until the first bid is met. So it's never quite "not sold", just "no sold yet."
Then I've released a book for free like all those other products I've mentioned above. It's only slightly weirder than a permafree book--it's permanently permafree.
As of this writing on 2022-05-17, the NFT has not sold. But I am not giving up. Perhaps the perfect customer hasn't come by yet. But until then, enjoy! Here are the download and purchase links again, just in case I haven't talked all over your ears enough about the book.