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May 4, 2022

NFTs and The Rebirth of the Reader

With blockchain poetry capturing the imagination of the NFT community, Yehudit Mam makes the case for a new paradigm of digital publishing
Credit: Yehudit Mam, Quién te manda (detail), 2022. Art and cover design by Moxarra González. NFT design by Álvaro Recuenco and Ismael Gómez García. Courtesy of Editorial Ferragosto
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NFTs and The Rebirth of the Reader

My first novel, Quién te manda (2022), was issued recently by Ferragosto, a Spanish publishing house. Their contract consisted of several pages outlining details of a sales spreadsheet I would receive every three months to calculate my royalties, followed by a check at some point in the future. 

Naturally, I viewed it as an opportunity to create an NFT version of my book, given the automated benefits of the smart contract — no more waiting for the money to arrive via horse-drawn carriage, like handwritten letters in the seventeenth century.

Yehudit Mam, Quién te manda, 2022. Art and cover design by Moxarra González. NFT design by Álvaro Recuenco and Ismael Gómez García. Courtesy of Editorial Ferragosto

As with visual art, NFTs offer numerous applications for literary purposes: Automatic and immediate distributions between artists, collectors, and platforms; digital immutability; licenses coded into small contracts; and, given the shrunken economics of book publishing, a potentially more lucrative environment for publishers, authors, as well as readers. 

NFTs offer a promising new model for an industry that is ripe for disruption. Literature can now be liberated from the strictures of an antiquated production and distribution model while exploring new paradigms for reader engagement. The underlying potential of the technology to break down barriers curtailing aspiring writers, independent publishers, and readers is enormous, and even at this early stage it is already showing promise in a number of different ways.

While national geographies do dictate the limits of digital experience, in principle there are no boundaries in digital media, which means that publishing formats can be more elastic. Poets or short story writers don’t need substantial back catalogues to warrant publication. Indeed, the NFT’s embrace of discrete digital objects means that NFT novels may help to replace the attention deficit of Web2 with new forms of serialization and “slow” reading. Web3 is borderless, so publishing can be multilingual while serving up a global cast of new voices. Literary works — whether essays, novels, poems, plays, or short stories — can be valued and collected in the same way as crypto art, for their uniqueness even with multiple editions, for their scarcity, and for their conceptual merit both as content and how that content is presented digitally.

The interest in minting literature on the blockchain is not new, however. In 2018, a platform called Cellarius was one of the first to experiment with the collective creation and publication of transmedia sci-fi storytelling. The more recent “Etherpoems” are minted fully on-chain through a “collective deployed” smart contract. All of the proceeds and secondary sale royalties are divided trustlessly amongst all of its contributors. Artists have also been experimenting with delivery formats, with excerpts from Simon De la Rouviere’s sci-fi novel Hope Runners of Gridlock (2020) also available as NFTs. 

Etherpoems: Breanna Faye, Swim it; Aurèce Vettier, As A Last Preparation Each Of Us, Before Going To Bed, Made A Little Sack For Future Peradams; Aurèce Vettier, Eleven Thousand Days, All works 2021. Courtesy of the artists

In the physical world, books are worthless objects. Just try to prize some monetary value out of your own library of unwanted books. Unlike art, which is an asset class, music or literature do not appreciate with time unless they are instantiated as collectors’ objects in the form of rare first editions or obscure LPs. Yet under their covers, books contain priceless treasure. They also have an aura and potency, their contents permeating our inner worlds well beyond their yellowing pages. 

NFTs offer the prospect of sublimating literary works into special objects with new layers of value. They also allow creators to experiment with different delivery models beyond their sheer utility as digital assets. For instance, unlockable content, the flexibility of publishing formats in which single works like poems or essays or short stories can be purchased, and ways for the authors to add value and depth to their relationship with their readers/collectors. 

No doubt there are those who view the non-physical, if not senseless, ubiquity of digital media as diminishing the uniqueness of visual art. But in the case of literature, digital objects allow a more diverse range of formats while preserving works in perfect condition for longer than many physical objects. A literary NFT therefore holds an enhanced talismanic power, including that of the written word, encapsulated in a way that amplifies value to the reader in new ways. The most obvious is that, in digital form, NFT literature can incorporate creative layers beyond the written word, including sound and images, if not other kinds of utility

If artists rank on a spectrum of human incomprehension, poets exist on the rung above street mimes. Today, they are seen as anachronistic entities, out of touch with the modern world, their utterances falling on deaf ears. Of all literary genres, poetry is the most forgotten and the least valued. But what if poems were reconsidered as visual and aural objects of wonder? The poet Ana María Caballero, founder of theVERSEverse, “always felt that the traditional world of writing was too quiet and subdued, it lacked vitality and joy and fun.” She also wanted people to acknowledge that poems have value. She believes NFTs are the key to infusing life into a field that often feels fusty and lonely. 

For Caballero, NFTs were a way to bring poetry out of the shadows, to make it a sustainable occupation. Alongside fellow poets Sasha Stiles and Kalen Iwamoto, theVERSEverse is breathing new life into literature through an elegant union of digital design and blockchain technology that preserves the craft of poetry while remunerating its practitioners. 

Sasha Stiles, Cursive Binary: Legacy, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Conceived as a curated gallery, theVERSEverse fosters collaborations between poets and visual artists, featuring conceptual works by crypto artist-poets like Aurèce Vettier, Pierre Gervois, and Merchant Coppola. Generative works are created with the help of Sudowrite, an AI app that aims to fill in the blanks for writers, and claims to help inspire them by offering prompts for narrative possibilities. 

Sasha Stiles’s recent book, Technelegy (2022), bridges the physical and the virtual in hardcover form while publishing some of the work’s constituent poems as NFTs. But more than that, by experimenting with AI collaboration to generate new poems, Stiles engages with our anxieties about transhumanism in the digital age. Indeed, the digital durability of NFTs aligns with the inalienability of poetry as a lasting art form that preserves moments in time. 

According to Stiles, “Poetry is a technology, a durable, adaptive data storage system for preserving humanity’s most valuable information — poetry as the original blockchain.” 

Paradoxically, decentralized technology can help people to experience poetry and literature in ancient fashion: As a shared, direct experience, with barriers removed between poet and audience. Web3 encourages peer-to-peer interactions between writers and readers — now reincarnated as reader-collectors. Caballero is openly grateful for the direct messages that she has exchanged with her own inquisitive audience. 

Artist Barbara Tosti is creating a DAO-based model that bridges traditional publishing and NFTs through an organization, Cosmia, which onboards female writers and creators into the cryptosphere. It exists as “a cultural association created by women for women, which aims to develop literature and the arts, and to promote women writers and artists in all creative fields. Cosmia is interested in the study and research of art as therapy and therapy as art, of esoteric knowledge related to the feminine and the healing of relationships between women. Cosmia experiments with digital tools and in the crypto environment, embracing the blockchain and open source philosophy.” 

Barbara Tosti, From Cicatrici e Baci, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

By collaborating with artists, Cosmia plans to publish works in both physical and NFT form. It also offers its members conventional publishing advisory services, such as editing and proofreading — a holistic approach based on what Tosti calls “flow,” opening up a more intuitive dynamic for creation. Its project, Narrandomnia, is an open narrative experiment whereby readers can co-create the story with writing, images, music, and videos while writers can give words to sounds and images. Narrandomnia’s first project is Francesca Fretti’s novel, Ossimoro sorridente (“The Smiling Oxymoron”), due for release later this year. While Tosti’s own Scars and Kisses project is an experimental collaboration which asks people to “donate their scars” by sharing stories from their lives that are subsequently turned into art. 

The experimental collaborations of these artists are defined by the digital framework on which they rely — the decentralized web and, principally, NFTs. These works are original and successful because their digital substrate administers them seamlessly. However, they demand a different mindset from their audience, one which accepts the blurring of lines between different artistic disciplines and the collapse of traditional hierarchies that have framed historical literature. 

Most NFT platforms were built to prove the hypothesis that crypto art could be owned and transacted. They were designed to market the art efficiently, not to provide background about artists and their process. This is why the context surrounding the art and artists is virtually absent on NFT marketplaces. The NFT hypothesis has been proven with flying colors, spawning a market all of its own. But as the crypto art world matures and expands, so are we seeing a growing trend toward the study, curation, preservation, and contextualization of crypto art. 

Sparrow Read, the founder of The Platform, a forthcoming marketplace and DAO, has sought to address this lack of context and fill in the imaginative deficit. For Read, it is strange for crypto art platforms to incorporate blogs discussing Web3 art in a Web2 format. The Platform looks to correct this deficiency by publishing content that is directly related to the art, allowing artists to publish and mint their own NFTs with context as a package. This establishes a framework for crypto art to be better understood and appreciated as more than the object of a transaction. 

The Platform, says Read “will look like a magazine or a book but overlaid with marketplace functionalities that will allow people to purchase.” 

Anyone will be able to read the content, but collectors will also be able to acquire the works as NFTs. This obviates any dependency on ad revenue or sell data that have become fundamental to Web2 platforms, instead sustaining The Platform by selling via the Palm protocol, which features low gas fees. Anyone will be able to purchase NFTs but a subscription will entitle collectors to a membership of The Platform’s DAO. 

This DAO comprises four groups of stakeholder: Builders, funders, the publications creating the content, and the collectors reading it. Collectors receive tokens which they can redeem for NFTs in any publication on the platform. The DAO is established under the cooperative principles of one member, one vote, regardless of how many tokens they hold. Each group of stakeholders elects three members to the board of trustees for operational and legal decisions. For Read, this framework can serve as a model for a richer collecting experience. 

Full disclosure: The Platform has selected my novel in Spanish to be the inaugural work for its launch. After surveying all the possible platforms where we could “drop” this NFT,  my publisher and I decided on The Platform on the basis of its richer framework, in which Ferragosto can have a storefront and become a stakeholder in the community. 

As for the book’s NFT, we opted to design the digital equivalent of a book rather than simply attaching a PDF to a token, which is how novels have so far been turned into NFTs. The NFT of Quién te manda is an edition of 100 with an animated cover by Mexican crypto artist Moxarra González and an interactive index that leads to a more contemplative digital reading experience. 

Yehudit Mam, Quién te manda, 2022. Art and cover design by Moxarra González. Photography by Lenara Verle. Courtesy of Editorial Ferragosto

Already, the creation of the NFT has spawned a much more equal collaboration between my publisher, Ismael Gómez García, and me — true to the decentralized and democratized principles of Web3. We are splitting the revenues 50-50 after sharing a cut (including royalties) with the artist and UX designer. And we will now partner in publishing literary works by different authors with art by Dada artists that I will curate, with all receiving automatic distributions upon each sale.

It is still early for literary NFTs. As in the crypto art space, I foresee more authors and publishers realizing the creative and financial possibilities of issuing books as NFTs. The age of NFTs by bestselling authors — engineered by large publishing houses — is nearly upon us. The only question is when. Now is therefore the time for independent writers and publishers to experiment with new aesthetic, organizational, and delivery formats before the corporate monopolies transform vital creativity into mainstream mush. 

The NFT offers a chance to preserve independent publishing for the next generation while offering hope to aspiring writers. This is not its final word. 

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Yehudit Mam is the co-founder of and the writer of Quién te manda (2022), the first book designed as an NFT.