Flimflam Fantasy Crypto Chronicles
Chips Off the Old Blockchain
This topic will require a lot of explaining, and I have pregrets. Pregrets is a word my partner made up to mean regretting you are going to do something before you actually do it. You could just not do the thing, I mean I could; I could write about something else. But this topic has been sitting in the folder since November, another thing that will require explaining, and then somebody on Twitter went and said something ridiculous and the subject was topical again.
But first: Welcome to the year 2022. This is the year Soylent Green (1973) took place. We’re now only ten years away from the events of Demolition Man (1993). I don’t want to sound alarmist but if we act decisively and soon we might be able to avert the coming tragedy that is super-skinny 2030s eyebrow styling. It takes years to come back from that level of overplucking. Some people’s brows never fully recover.
I have not been looking forward to writing this. I find the whole subject of crypto not even a little bit interesting. I am more into cryptids. A neat thing about cryptids is when somebody substantiates their existence to a widely accepted degree, they cease to become cryptids and thenceforth are just regular animals. There was a time, for instance, when the okapi and Bigfoot were both cryptids. But now only Bigfoot is a cryptid and okapi are just regular animals. I watched a guy climb a fence to pet one at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, it was apparently sweet and friendly. An okapi I mean, not Bigfoot.
Unfortunately, crypto is real whether society validates its existence or not. The end result—or at least I hope this is the end result and that it does not get worse than this—is that some guy spent a fortune on digital drawing of ugly apes, and then the digital receipt proving his ownership of those digital drawings of very ugly apes was hacked, and now his kid can’t go to Harvard or something. This may be for the best in the long run because higher education is literally just an NFT farm itself, one wherein you mortgage your future to Sallie Mae for ownership of a piece of paper that proves you paid for the piece of paper. The piece of paper is required to land a job that will not pay enough to make a dent in the loans you took out to get the piece of paper. Anyway it’s NFTs all the way down.
I’m not making fun of other people. I have the expensive piece of paper. I’m making fun of me.
I’m thinking about NFTs and crypto and the blockchain tonight, even though I would rather be thinking about anything else, because Crypto Bros keep coming up with neat new uses for it like “minting an NFT of a manuscript,” which is kind of like publishing, where one person writes a book and then everyone who wants to read it buys that book. If you make an NFT of that book, all the above remains true except one sorry sucker paid a premium to be the owner of the original manuscript. No, not the copyright holder (that’s still the author). No, not the person with the right to reproduce and distribute it (that’s also still the author, or their publisher). But the person who has ownership of the official Word document file or a PDF thereof. Is this file in every way identical to the one that was sent to the editor, and the publisher, and the printer? Yes. But the one that sucker bought is the original and all the others are just copies.
It’s supposed to be the difference between, for example, buying a high-quality print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night versus owning the original painting: Many people can own the print but only one person can own the original painting, because only one was made. The concept of NFTs relies on the premise that any idiot can see the difference between the original painting and a print and therefore you’d be a complete moron if you couldn’t distinguish between two copies of a digital file that are identical in every way. A number of people are standing strong on the belief that the first Word document, the one that the author typed into, is more valuable than any save-as copies the author may have made of that file, even if they are otherwise identical.
In principle, I like the concept of crypto currency and NFTs. If we take any random thing, like a digital token or a drawing of an ugly ape, and as a society entire we agree that this thing has value that can be exchanged for goods and services, then it does have value. That’s how money works. “Green piece of paper with drawing of George Washington on it” is not inherently any more valuable than “ugly ape drawing.” Somewhere along the line we had to agree on representative currency otherwise we would not be able to order $1.99 of garbage from Amazon dot com and have it arrive on our doorstep the next day.
This is not the future Sandra Bullock’s eyebrows died for.
With regular currency, we have the illusion that our little pieces of paper could theoretically be turned in for their equivalent value in precious metal and our government guarantees this exchange rate. Nevermind our government can’t even guarantee availability of COVID tests or lead-free drinking water for kids. But that’s a whole other thing. In principle, I don’t disagree that a bitcoin or a dogecoin or whatever is any more real or less real than a US dollar. The value in real material that backs up the currency in both cases is mythological. It’s just with bitcoin you’re supposed to know it’s mythological I guess whereas with cash we really believe there’s gold to stake it.
I removed a really snarky joke here, just so you know.
I don’t have the tech chops to talk about the blockchain and how it works but I understand fungibility. If you understand cryptocurrency in general then all you need to know to make the leap to understanding NFTs is this: Each bitcoin is the same as any other bitcoin. They are fungible. If you trade one bitcoin for a different bitcoin you still have exactly what you started with. They are mutually interchangeable.
NFTs are nonfungible tokens. Like a bitcoin, they are minted using the blockchain and some technological wizardry but one is, for instance, a drawing of an ugly ape and another one is, for instance, a short video recorded by Elon Musk’s ex-girlfriend. Not the same. Not mutually interchangeable.
That’s what you need to know about NFTs to follow the “what does all this have to do with writing” part.
In late October, the Realm of Ruins project was announced as a collaboration of six best-selling authors in the YA space (Marie Lu most prominently). The concept behind Realm of Ruins was that the six authors had created a shared literary fantasy universe, stocked it with “5 realms, 42 characters, and 12 initial stories,” and then opened it up to their fans to create fanfiction in that universe—which the fans could then mint into NFTs on the (environmentally friendly?) Solana blockchain to sell and trade. The authors were committed to keeping “a close eye” on the fan-generated content to decide which stories were “good enough” to become part of the Realms of Ruin cannon.
Riddle me this: If six NYT best-selling authors participated and created “5 realms” to start the universe off, who didn’t do their fair share of the group project?
The announcement raised a lot of hackles and too much of the criticism centered around whether the Solana blockchain was indeed “environmentally friendly” as the project promised. I can’t really speak to this. The consensus seems to be that a proof-of-stake blockchain (like Solana) is very energy efficient compared to a proof-of-work blockchain (like Bitcoin or Ethereum). In hindsight I feel like attacking the project over the perceived environmental harm created a smokescreen effect and many of the articles that reported on the controversy chose to focus on how Solana isn’t actually environmentally harmful.
What I found appalling about it is the idea that six NYT best-selling authors, adults themselves, of YA fantasy came together with a plan to use NFTs to incentivize their fans (presumably . . . young adults? Minors?) to generate content for their project, which they would then screen to find “the good stuff” and add it to the “official” body of their work.
There is a long and ugly history of popular authors fighting fans for writing fanfiction, sending them cease-and-desist letters, threatening them with copyright infringement, and so on. Many of those arguments have centered around two things:
First, that the original author retains copyright over all characters, fictional places, fictional objects, and so on, and that using any of them in fan works violates copyright. Fan writers have always come out on top in this case because their fan works do not make money. They are not commercialized. You can write all the Harry Potter fanfic you want and post it on the internet but the second you slap a cover on it and upload it to KDP you broke the law.
Second, authors have argued, if they should ever accidentally use a storyline or create a character or object or place that is too similar to something that appeared in a fan work, then they (the author) could be sued or at least shamed for plagiarizing the fan writer and that’s so unfair for the author (who, in this example, definitely for sure would have done this innocently and only by coincidence). In short, they argue, fan fiction should be prohibited because a fan might have the same idea that the author themself wants to use before the author has the idea for themself and then that would not be fair to the author of the original work because they would not, in faith, be able to use this good idea.
Given that ugly history, the Realm of Ruins project just stinks of incentivizing young people to write fiction in a fictional universe owned by the six original authors and then monetize it (which existing guidance indicates would violate copyright) by minting NFTs of their fan works, but the authors generously don’t mind, and in fact will add the best of the best to “the cannon” (which remains the property of the original six authors).
Long story short, the Realm of Ruins project was scrapped the same day the announcements about it were made after hearty backlash.
On New Year’s Eve, Matt Medved (a guy who runs a website about NFTs) tweeted, “Literature NFTs will change the world." This started the yikes machine up all over again. Crypto proponents were quick to jump on all the amazing uses of this like “reading a book on your phone” (a thing you certainly cannot do already, to be sure); “making books available and publicly accessible for all” (like a library?); and even having “texts with embedded images, video, or music” (sir this is a MySpace).
The idea of a “literature NFT” is that you, the author, would mint this NFT and sell it to one entity (an individual or a consortium, I mean you might need a whole consortium to buy your literature NFT, because I’m sure it’s very valuable), but then you would remain free to distribute copies of it as you see fit. Sort of like when an author signs a contract with a publisher and receives money in exchange for the rights to distribute and profit from the book, except in this case the publisher got no rights and paid for nothing.
I can see why this is appealing to authors. People want their work to be appreciated and the most concrete proof that your creative work is appreciated is when someone pays money in order to possess it. I would just caution authors who are sizing up the market and thinking about minting a literature NFT to consider:
Self publishing is self publishing, whether you publish on a blockchain or on KDP. There’s nothing wrong with self publishing, but using the blockchain instead of other preexisting methods of self publishing is unlikely to affect volume of readership. If you already have dedicated, paying readers, then there’s likely a way to leverage NFTs to your advantage. If you’re hoping to build a readership, minting an NFT is not going to help you do that in an appreciably different way than any other platform.
Agents and trad publishers, along with other outlets like pro literary mags, typically solicit unpublished and already-published work (reprint) separately. Many don’t consider previously published work at all, and those that do pay different rates and have different contracts for reprints than for unpublished work. Minting and selling an NFT could have implications for the future salability of your work.
But next time you get an unfavorable review on Goodreads or Amazon, just remind yourself that, whatever the quality of your work, at least it’s not a drawing of an ugly ape smoking a doobie—and somebody bought $2 million worth of those.
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