Publishing Ebooks With Crypto & Blockchain — Part 1

MY OBJECTIVE:

I want to publish a book onto the blockchain using “crypto” technologies. I don’t really even know what that means, but it sounds exciting and I intend to figure it out, and share it to you, the reader, at no cost, because “that’s how I roll” (for now).

I am pretty new to this field, so rather than tell anyone else what they should do, I thought I would take a “decentralized” approach and simply share the bits and pieces of my research, and various “musings,” and let the reader come to their own “conclusion.” If you have better information, and good sources and citations, please “add it in the comments.” I offer my sincere and enduring crypto-apologies if this is all a bit disorganized, and by the time you read this, these ephemeral technologies will have vanished into the, ahem, ethers.

CALL TO ACTION:

If you find some value in the information presented below, and would like to help provide “proof of concept” for the concepts discussed in this series, I would sincerely appreciate it if you donated BTC to incentivize the free and open publication of more articles like this one.

If this article helps deepen your research into independent publishing using crypto & blockchain technologies, please show your appreciation with some BTC.

Please don’t try to “steal my password.”

Bitcoin address: 3DaQk4TBq1y2rfzbdXyXneHmewN1gu85Di

You might also want to check out this related piece on essential tools for indie publishers:

DISCLAIMER:

Though you could say I’m something of an expert on crypto-civilizations, I’m still learning about blockchain technologies, such as those described and screen-captured herein. The information proposed represents the best of my “current understanding” and I make no claims, cryptographically or otherwise, about its ultimate accuracy. Please always do your own research, then share it with the world!

On to the “good stuff…”

INTRODUCTION: EBOOK MARKET DISRUPTION

This is a good read to get oriented:

“These new e-book platforms are consumer-facing systems that include online stores for purchasing e-books, apps for reading them… and features for reselling them, lending them and giving them away. They use blockchains to track users’ ownership of e-books. When you buy an e-book on one of these services, it puts a record of your purchase on a blockchain that establishes your ownership of the file. You get a token — a small digital file — signifying ownership. Then you can alienate — a legalese term meaning to sell, lend, rent, or give away — the file to someone else. When that happens, a record of the new ownership is put on the blockchain, and the token moves to the new owner. […]

As these systems roll out, we’ll see whether the advantages offered by blockchain technology will translate to features that book authors and readers care about.”

The article mentions specifically two services, Bookchain and Publica, which we will drill down on in more detail later. It also rightly proposes the question as to whether or not these are features most average ebook buyers will even care about.

Note: I believe Publica also now accepts credit cards, but it seems like Metamask may still be required.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR SELF-PUBLISHING:

Publishing an ebook on blockchain seems super complicated, to say the least. When we talk about selling ebooks (on or off the blockchain) what we’re really talking about is logistics and provisioning. As I see it, for ebooks, we’re most likely talking about two or three main facets:

1) Storing the file.

2) Paying for the file.

3) Receiving the file.

Though I guess we would do well to add a fourth consideration:

4) Reading the file.

And, of course, crypto-flavored ebooks seem to have a fifth possibility:

5) Resale/transfer of the file.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really care about resale/transfer for the present purposes, so I won’t go too much more into that.

PUBLICA.COM INTRODUCTION

So let’s examine the two systems briefly that are mentioned above, starting with Publica.com (Publica.com). For me, the name sounds too similar to the investigative journalist outfit, ProPublica, but they seem to be unrelated.

I offer the following videos to get an overview of publishing via Publica:

This video claims you as an author get 90% royalties via Publica.

This article, written by a third party, also offers some useful if perhaps dated information on Publica’s product offering:

It is not the ebook itself that is in the blockchain, but a token that is linked to the book. A token is like a key to open the book.”

We will work through the specifics of buying in the next section:

METAMASK REQUIRED TO BUY BOOKS ON PUBLICA (ON DESKTOP/WEB)

Let’s look at a sample book on Publica really quick:

If you don’t already have the browser extension installed, the first thing you’ll notice is you need something called Metamask:

Publica offers this fairly complex tutorial to get up and running with Metamask:

Here is the Metamask website, Firefox extension, and some other resources to help get you acquainted with this tool.

This is not a great security warning for new book buyers…

Foof! Are you tired yet?

Here’s a comment pulled from that last video, which shows that perhaps Metamask might not be the most straightforward thing to use for crypto-newbies:

Anyway, here is what I see when I go to the same URL with Metamask installed (I didn’t fund it yet, though I did create a Coinbase account).

Hm, that broken image link could be concerning?

We can see mentioned there that Metamask has connected to the “Main Ethereum Network,” whatever that means. If I click “Connect” and proceed to load the book page, I can now see the following for payment on the Publica site:

Price is listed in something called PBL (Publica’s proprietary token) and, presumably, USD. When you click “Buy” you see:

And this is what happens if you pick “Bank Card,” though I didn’t set one up to fully test it, so don’t know what happens after:

And this is what you see if you choose “PBL” as payment method:

Of course, first you will need to purchase PBL, which adds yet another step of complexity to this already extremely complicated buying process. Here is a walk-through from Publica about buying PBL:

And:

So, I might have this wrong (as this is just preliminary research), but it seems that to buy a book on Publica requires something like the following:

1) A Metamask account

2) A Coinbase or equivalent account to fund your wallet

3) A Cryptopia account (to buy PBL)

4) Your local currency to buy crypto

5) BTC and ETH (must have some ETH to pay for transaction, “gas”)

6) PBL

7) Proprietary e-reader/wallet app from Publica

Presumably, if you’re paying in USD (“fiat” currency), you can skip several — but perhaps not all — of the above steps. As I didn’t complete a purchase, I’m not sure where I would enter my credit card information. Is it going to be Publica, or Metamask, or Coinbase who will hold that credit card payment info? Unclear. But what is clear is that this seems like a hugely complicated set-up just to buy an ebook. Is this going to bring down Amazon? Definitely not, especially since I can buy an ebook on Amazon with one click.

PUBLICA BOOK ICO’S

That said, Publica is at least an interesting try. They also seem to have something they’re calling “Book ICO’s” (initial coin offering), which is like doing crowdfunding for your book, where people buy “tokens” (coins?) representing a given value associated with your work. Unfortunately, their on-going book ICO listing page looks like it’s from 2018.

And when I checked four of the listed items, I found consistently (four out of four) that authors had failed to raise sufficient funds for their ICO. 😦

PUBLICA EASE-OF-USE RATING: 👎

Sadly, due to the complexity of all the above, I would probably not at this time recommend Publica for people looking to break into crypto/blockchain publishing.

In my experience, the primary problem indie authors face is that people don’t know who they are, and don’t know why they should buy their book. This service seems to elevate the difficulty for a new reader to purchase and read the given ebook, which is likely to result in even fewer sales than more conventional gateways that have less technical requirements, and with which people are already more familiar. In other words, if you’re already having a hard time selling on Amazon, why would this be better? Short answer: it wouldn’t. (And I say that as someone who intensely dislikes Amazon’s present stranglehold of online publishing.)

BOOKCHAIN BY SCENAREX, INTRODUCTION:

Now that we have an idea of some of the issues involved, let’s look at the only alternative I’ve seen so far for publishing ebooks on the blockchain, something called Bookchain by a Montreal startup called Scenarex (also discussed in the Forbes article linked at top).

From that site:

An important difference to note here is that, unlike Publica, Bookchain appears to ONLY support sales in “fiat” currency. It looks like they’re concentrating on USD at present, though I emailed them and they told me they’re working on supporting other non-crypto currencies. Whether this will be adequate for die-hard crypto fans, I think this is a net win for both buyers and authors, as it means views are more likely to end in sales, without a lot of technical issues setting up wallets, buying crypto-currencies, etc.

Like Publica, it appears that Bookchain is not fully interoperable with other e-readers. Whereas Publica uses a combined wallet/reader app, Bookchain apparently works through any device with a web browser. I’m not sure what that means for offline reading (such as on a subway), and would be something to resolve before publishing with them.

I asked a rep at the company whether Bookchain stores books on-chain or off-chain with a pointer. They told me part is on (probably the pointer) and part is off (probably the book file), but that specific details were their proprietary intellectual property. I don’t find this a great answer for prospective authors. I’m not a competitor looking to build a better system off yours. I am simply a book author who wants to use crypto and blockchain to get my book into peoples’ hands.

To be fair, I didn’t fully resolve this question for Publica either. The one third-party article about them said only pointers are stored on-chain. But I didn’t see mention of how and where actual book files are stored. Are they stored centrally, or are they distributed? If they’re distributed, what system do they use? My guess is both Publica and Bookchain are using some flavor of centralized storage for ebook files. What would a fully distributed ebook storage and retrieval and payment system even look like? Would it be possible to make it simple enough that anyone could use it?

EXAMPLE EBOOK ON BOOKCHAIN

Here’s an example title on Bookchain:

The preview and buy button look pretty average. When you click “Buy,” you’re required to sign up.

I *think* that Publica, interestingly, does not require you to create an account, though you must create a wallet on Android & iOS (and I *think* that this is handled via Metamask on web browser?). From what I understood of their introductory video above, your wallet lives independently on the blockchain, and Publica can’t access it. This seems to be an important difference with Bookchain, but it may prove to be a difference that the casual ebook buyer doesn’t care that much about. For now, most people are certainly more accustomed to purchasing via a normal website login and shopping cart.

BOOKCHAIN INTRO VIDEO (FRENCH ONLY)

Here’s a brief French-only intro video about Bookchain by the parent organization, Scenarex. If you turn on closed captions, then click ⚙️, you can choose Subtitles > Auto-translate.

It doesn’t quite answer all my questions, but gives a bit of an overview.

One other random drawback I found out in my email exchange with them is that presently in order to issue a revised version of an ebook, there would have to be manual intervention by the company. It’s something they’re supposedly working to improve, but I always find that shipped features are better than theoretical promises.

BOOKCHAIN EASE-OF-USE RATING: 👍

So, from the reader’s perspective, it seems like Bookchain is overall likely to be easier to use than Publica.

That said, outside the “chain-y” aspects mentioned in the French video above, I can’t say as I’m really sure why this product NEEDS to be on the blockchain. I guess it might have to do with the ability to create smart contracts for resale later on? I think Publica offers this too, but again, my issue is getting people to buy the book in the first place. I’m not at all concerned presently with people re-selling. Maybe that will change later.

For sure, Publica seems way more “crypto” overall (in both good and bad ways), since they have their own coin or token (frankly, I’m not sure of the difference between those two terms), and can help you with book ICO’s to tokenize your book in the first place. I guess this partly boils down to personal preference on how hardcore crypto you want to be.

That said, since these appear to be really the only two options of any size that I’ve found (if you know of others, please add them to comments below), perhaps I will do a trial ebook on both platforms and “see what happens.”

SOME ODDS & ENDS: BREAKER

Here are some bits I came across while researching the above that might help flesh out conversations on this topic of crypto ebook publishing.

An article from something called SingularDTV ( SingularDTV) about decentralized publishing:

Their linked Twitter points to something called Breaker, which appears to be a sub-brand of theirs. Here’s a Breaker promo video, which — full warning — doesn’t tell me much of anything:

I could be wrong, but it looks like Breaker is a DApp (distributed app) for content delivery. Here’s an FAQ page with a bit more info. Going back to the article, here’s a quote of relevance to our conversation presently:

They’re talking about a variation of the crowdfunding/tokenization model mentioned above under Publica’s Book ICO platform. Instant (or near instant) payments seems to be one major benefit touted by many of these platforms, due to payments happening on the blockchain. Of course, this still doesn’t solve my primary author problem: of getting people to buy my content in the first place. If I can’t sell my book after it’s published, it seems unlikely I’ll be able to sell it via crowdfunding ahead of time either…

The above quote refers to another service called Tokit (which I’m uncertain of its affiliation with Breaker/SingularDTV):

Oh, they mention Breaker in that screenshot, so probably affiliated.

I haven’t explored the Breaker ecosystem as a content buyer, so I can’t really speak to whether or not it is without “friction” as they indicate here. Every one of these systems seems to have many significant trade-offs in the end.

ODDS & ENDS: PO.ET

Another system I found mentioned quite heavily is something called Po.et.

Though Po.et got a lot of early press, it’s difficult to tell whether there’s been any recent developments, or if the project is dead in the water. This issue is a major drawback of all of these crypto systems: how long will they continue to be supported? Will they go belly-up? What happens then?

In the case of Po.et, despite the hype, the core utility is pretty narrow. You can make a claim about a piece of content, and its saved to the blockchain with some timestamp and identity information.

Here’s a bit about their blockchain explorer where you can see sample claims:

And, annoyingly, you have to again use Metamask, and get some proprietary tokens (POE) to use the system:

The claims themselves are… pretty boring looking, as it seems their primary goal is just an API to store data about claims.

Under “This claim references” you can see an outbound link to their own IPFS gateway, where raw text seems to be stored with the claim:

From what I can tell, Po.et doesn’t actually do much of anything else except for storing claims about content (or storing claims about claims). Now, this type of feature appears to be much touted in crypto/blockchain based online publishing, but I’m not sure how core it really is to an author’s need. If I publish my work on any online system (WordPress, Medium, etc.), I can get a timestamp without problem. And from what I understand, technically copyright applies as soon as you put a work into fixed format. You can formally register copyrights, but you don’t necessarily have to either.

Given that virtually anyone could create any claim about any content, without (from what I can tell) true verification they are the author or copyright holder, it seems highly likely that this system could be gamed to file erroneous copyright claims. And, for now, there’s no function in the system that would allow me to automatically enforce against alleged violations of my copyright, but perhaps that is something which is further down the way in their core roadmap, or which they’re hoping to incentivize with their ecosystem.

I filed Po.et under “odds & ends” as it doesn’t seem to offer me as a writer much of any utility either hosting, selling, or provisioning my ebooks. Perhaps there would be some use down the road of registering a work on Po.et blockchain, and then provisioning through one of these other services. But right now, it seems all like a extra complexity for only marginal wins. That said, I’ll keep exploring and sharing my results here.

ODDS & ENDS: DISTRIBUTED PRINTING

This last one appears to be only a theoretical system which perhaps never left the “whitepaper” stage of crypto. It’s called Audens, and is written by Joel Hovell.

This in particular is the part that interests me the most here, though it applies to physical and not ebooks:

In this article, they mention a tool called the Espresso Book Machine, which according to my research seems to be what most print on demand (POD) publishers are probably using.

I’ve seen price quotes from $125K USD to $200K, but can’t verify exact details. As Audens network seems to only have been an idea, it’s not clear to me what book printing technology they were hoping to employ to enable fully distributed & decentralized printing. I would be super curious to find out if there’s a much cheaper book printing machine out there which could be used in this way.

If you know of other viable tools to help independent authors and publishers host and sell their ebooks, please add them to comments below. Thanks for reading.

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