If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve probably heard a bit about NFTs. The news outlets and crypto bros are all incredibly eager to tell us about just how much money this or that JPEG was recently sold for. The only thing more popular than gawking at these huge sales is writing blog posts trying to explain in layman’s terms what the heck an NFT is, or why the heck anyone would want to buy one.
As authors, it feels like we’ve been living in a technological revolution for a while now. We’ve seen a huge transformation of the publishing industry in the past decade or so. Traditional publishing and distribution channels shrank while self-publishing and online distribution became viable options. Could the recent rise of NFTs represent yet another way for authors to sell their work?
For as much talk as there has been around NFT visual art and the (ugh) “metaverse,” there is comparatively little discussion of monetizing the written word. Although the latest NFT craze has been around visual digital art, there’s no technical limitation stopping other types of art from being “NFT-ified.” An NFT itself is able to hold only a tiny amount of data, but the way NFTs are typically used is more as a glorified digital certificate of authenticity, and it can point to almost anything. So let’s take a look at what fiction NFTs might look like, and whether they seem likely to be a viable way for authors to sell their work.
Publishing fiction and building an audience is already a challenge. Most of us aren’t looking to make it even harder, so it’s important to look at the downsides of using NFTs.
Minting Ain’t Free
NFTs use cryptocurrencies and blockchains as their bedrock (usually the Ethereum chain and its native currency, Ether). You’ll need a cryptocurrency wallet, and you’ll need some cryptocurrency in it. That means you’ll need to buy crypto with real money. You’ll need to pay gas fees. You’ll probably also need a browser extension or a wallet with built-in browser to interface with the exchange and set up your listing.
If that last paragraph sounded like technobabble to you, then you see the other cost: complexity. If you haven’t been involved with cryptocurrency and/or you’re not very computer savvy, getting all of this set up can feel like a pretty big undertaking. Plus, the world of crypto is full of hacks and scams (try looking up “rug pull” or “stolen NFT”), so jumping into it without a good understanding of what’s going on can be risky.
No Silver Bullet
Huge sales of NFTs have drawn big headlines because they make for exciting news, but anecdotes should not be confused with statistics. Like cryptocurrency, the NFT marketplace seems to be pretty volatile. It’s fueled by speculation, sentiment and hype.
A few people have tried to fight the hype with research, and what they’ve found is that most NFTs don’t sell for more than a hundred dollars (and that’s before fees). Most artists who jump in aren’t getting rich. It’s not even clear if the average artist breaks even. There are a few people selling for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, but is that really any different from Stephen King or E. L. James in the traditional publishing world?
Simply minting an NFT is no guarantee you’ll make money, and it’s certainly possible to lose some.
An Ideological Minefield
Cryptocurrency and NFTs aren’t exactly mainstream yet, but they’re getting more attention and press. And there are plenty of institutions and investors hyping them (often with holdings that stand to benefit from that hype). But there are plenty of others who are just as loudly pointing out the dangers: energy consumption, unstable and insecure technology, lack of regulation or oversight, and more.
In a world that is increasingly polarized, this is a natural ideological battleground—a tangled web of political beliefs, complicated technology, and economics. Having money at stake rarely makes people more objective.
It’s fair to say that announcing a venture into this arena will be met with excitement by the true believers, and scorn by the skeptics. Be ready to deal with that, and hope that the audience who gets excited is big enough to make it worthwhile.
So far, NFTs don’t seem like a great deal. They’re certainly fraught with challenges. But there are some possible advantages too.
NFTs have name recognition. They’re relatively new technology that’s attracting a lot of attention. And for those who are interested, they feel a bit like being involved in a sci-fi future.
If you’re the sort of person who likes experimenting with new, technology-infused forms of storytelling (like interactive fiction), then NFTs may be an exciting new playground. And the readers who are interested in new forms of storytelling may be more likely to jump the technical hurdles and be willing to support an NFT project.
This article from Lit Hub suggests that at least a few authors are making money by using NFTs to experiment with form and function, or at least provide a novel (heh heh) marketing twist for their writing projects.
Another Potential Income Stream
One of the oddities of NFTs, at least where digital art is concerned, is that they don’t actually provide legal or physical ownership of the thing they represent. They’re a digital note that can’t be easily forged, and point to the digital item of your choosing.
An NFT could be used as a way to sell the rights to a story or a novel, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be used more like autographed promotional materials or Patreon rewards: a bonus or collectable for invested fans. Minting an NFT of a story doesn’t mean the buyer owns any legal rights to that story, and you could still go on to publish it yourself.
Be aware, however, that blockchain information is inherently public. A typical NFT points to the item it represents at a URL that anyone can access. Since many publishers want “first” rights, minting an NFT of a piece of fiction may severely limit the rights that you can subsequently sell.
I’m personally pretty skeptical of NFTs and their cryptocurrency underpinnings, but it is a fact that it is now possible to mint NFTs for our art (or at least tangentially related to it). If nothing else, I think it’s always good to know what options are out there.
What do you think? Would you ever consider making NFTs of your fiction? Do you think there’s a market for it today? What about in five or ten years?