Most people associate non-fungible tokens (NFTs) with digital art and collectibles, but a growing number of writers and poets are also carving out a space for literary NFTs on the blockchain.
It’s fitting, really: Writers were the ones who conceptualized what the metaverse could look like in the early 20th century. The first descriptions of virtual reality in literature are often attributed to the science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum, who wrote the 1935 short story, "Pygmalion's Spectacles." The term “metaverse” was first coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel "Snow Crash" (he’s now working on his own metaverse-first blockchain, Lamina1), and Ernest Cline pushed the concept forward in his book "Ready Player One."
It is writers who create new realities – first with their ideas and then through precise articulation. Today, the blockchain serves as an advanced publishing medium that has inspired emerging authors and poets to connect with niche audiences of internet collectors and futurists.
Unlike in traditional publishing, the author is involved in every step of the Web3 publishing process, from production to mint. This allows the writer to set his own prices, embed royalty structures and combine his words with digital imagery. The result is often an immersive, interactive piece of work that cultivates community and connections far beyond what has traditionally been available to writers and publishers.
If you are interested in getting started with literary NFTs, several pathways already exist thanks to the enterprising and experimental writers who have made waves over the past year. Here are several platforms and communities – including a few decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) – that are experimenting with writing on the blockchain.
One of the first Web3 publishing platforms writers often hear about is Mirror. Similar to a decentralized version of blogging platform Medium, Mirror lets anyone with an Ethereum wallet (via MetaMask, Rainbow or Coinbase Wallet) create an account and start publishing their thoughts. Authors can also turn their posts into collectibles, meaning readers will be able to buy them as NFTs. Companies and organizations can also create Mirror pages and assign multiple contributors.
According to Levy, the benefit of using Mirror is that it signifies a certain amount of authority for thought leaders who want to discuss crypto and Web3: “When you post on Mirror, it gives a signal that you're already crypto native and you automatically get an audience in that community,” he told CoinDesk.
In addition, Levy uses Bello, a no-code blockchain analytics tool, to "token-gate" some of his Mirror content and link the wallet addresses of his readers to their email addresses. This allows him to cross-reference his Substack readers with his Mirror readers and discover more about their Web3 identities from the NFTs in their wallets. (He explains in detail how this process works in a recent Mirror post.)
Kendall Warson, co-founder of the NFT art discovery platform Cohart, appreciates Mirror because of its smooth user experience. “The general design is really strong,” Warson said. “You can add a lot of visuals, and it feels very intuitive.”
Warson also added that Twitter users – who are typically more Web3 native than users of other major social platforms – are getting used to seeing and re-sharing Mirror posts. This encourages readers to collect the content as NFTs and take pride in “owning” pieces of widely circulated content.
“It just feels friendly to those networks,” she said. “Getting information to community members so that we can maintain touch points with them and drive them towards community ownership is really powerful. And I don't think that that exists on a lot of other thought leadership platforms.”
Some thought leaders are even experimenting with Mirror for academic purposes. Privacy researcher Anastasia Uglova chose to publish her graduate thesis on Mirror so that readers could easily engage with it, unlike most academic papers siloed away in traditionally paywalled databases like JSTOR.
If you are an author with an idea for a full-length e-book, you will want to consider a platform that enables long-form Web3 publishing. Soltype is a new company with a mission to do just that. The Solana blockchain-based platform is experimenting with book drops by well-known authors, and it has released its first title, "Riglan," by Marvel writer B. Earl.
“There will be 1,001 copies of the same book,” said co-founder Juan Briceno. The cover art will vary in rarity, aimed at creating more demand for the collectibles. The books will also be "NFT-gated," meaning only collectors holding the corresponding NFT in their crypto wallets will be able to access the text.
Soltype also provides a secondary marketplace where readers may resell the book: “Once you sell that book, you are no longer able to read it anymore, but the new buyer will,” Briceno explained.
According to Briceno, the Soltype team is also observing the traditional publishing industry to find potential opportunities to one day bring blockchain to the mainstream.
Similar to the Solana blockchain-based Soltype is Alexandria, an Ethereum and Optimism-based rare book publishing platform. Notably, Alexandria stores books on the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), a decentralized cloud storage network that helps ensure an author’s book can never be banned, censored or de-platformed.
Authors can choose to token-gate their book or make it viewable to the public. Both options are viewable on Alexandria’s e-reader.
“Different authors have different goals,” Alexandria Labs co-founder Amelie Lasker told CoinDesk. “Some authors just want anyone to read a book … and make it totally open-source, free to read and people can collect it. But other authors really want to protect their intellectual property. That's why our e-reader allows [authors] to decrypt and encrypt.”
Because Alexandria specializes in preserving the rarity of digital books, all first editions of Alexandria books have a maximum of 100 copies, but authors can release as many subsequent editions as they would like.
Alexandria released its two first books: Rahul Rana’s deep tech playbook, "Making Moonshots" and Ana María Caballero’s short story collection, "Tryst." The company is working on a self-publishing tool for interested authors and taking on selective partnerships with writers who have a project in the works (you can fill out a form to be considered for the beta list).
Beyond publishing platforms, Web3 needs galleries, community and curation for literary creations. The poetry NFT gallery, theVERSEverse, addresses these needs and more by enlisting new poets and gathering poem NFTs from across blockchains and platforms into its reading room.
Co-founded by Sasha Stiles, Caballero and Kalen Iwamoto, theVERSEverse hosts regular Twitter Spaces and shows at both digital and IRL (in real life) showrooms worldwide and the metaverse.
What if there could be a currency specifically for books? The writer-founded decentralized autonomous organization, PageDAO, was founded with that very premise in mind. The governance and utility token, PAGE, allows authors and writing communities to create unique markets around their NFTBooks using DeFi (decentralized-finance) principles. Owning PAGE tokens grants members governance, access to perks and the ability to buy curated content. Member writers are also experimenting with NFT books on OpenSea and PageDAO’s own Readme Books NFTBook Minter.
Everyone loves a good fan fiction spinoff, and StoryDAO takes the idea of community world building to a new level. Membership is granted by minting a producer token. Once you’re in, you congregate with other storytellers to collectively govern a shared treasury that funds the community’s expansion of a particular story universe.
While things are still experimental, StoryDAO is mobilizing new members with fun, interactive storytelling experiences. At NFT.NYC in June 2022, the community led a collaborative Story Quest adventure, which guided participants via text message through an interactive storytelling experience.
The ultimate goal of StoryDAO is to use Web3 technology to change the way intellectual property is created and owned and bridge the gap between Hollywood and the metaverse.
Newsletters can serve an important purpose in an author’s career, letting them build a loyal audience and speak directly to a fanbase of engaged readers. Paragraph is a newsletter tool for Web3, where readers can subscribe via their crypto wallets or email addresses and authors can issue airdrops to provide an incentive for reader engagement. Authors can also send token-gated newsletters that require NFT purchases to access.
The platform is highly customizable and even allows writers to build out decentralized contributor teams and split earnings among all writers.
The growing popularity of literary NFTs
Thanks to the effort of blockchain-based authors, increasingly prominent buyers are beginning to vouch for literary NFTs as valuable collectibles. According to Soltype, as of December 2022, at least $25 million worth of literary NFTs had been traded since November 2021. While data on literary NFTs is still limited, first movers are enthusiastic.
Former Time magazine president Keith Grossman, who will soon join MoonPay, a crypto payments platform, purchased an NFT of author Caballero’s sold-out short story collection, "Tryst," on the secondary marketplace – a strong vote of confidence for Web3 literary publishing.