What if you could invest in your favorite book?
Several startups believe that web3 technologies will upend how authors make a living—and how we define who owns a story.
What if you could own a stake in Harry Potter?
What if the book series functioned like a publicly traded company where individuals could “buy stock” in it, and as the franchise grows, those “stocks” become more valuable? If this were the case, someone who purchased just three percent of Harry Potter back when there was only one book would be a billionaire now.
Just imagine how that would affect the reading experience. Suddenly a trip to Barnes & Noble becomes an investment opportunity. Early readers could spot “the next big thing” and make a $100 contribution that becomes $10,000 or even $100,000 if the book’s popularity grows. If readers could own a percentage of the franchise, they might then be incentivized to help that book succeed. They could start a TikTok account to promote the book via BookTok, or use their talents as filmmakers to adapt it to the screen. All of this stands to increase the value of their original investment.
“Imagine when all of an author’s readers can suddenly make money as well,” says Margarita Guerrero, head of partner and publishing relations at the publishing startup Readl. “How much more would they be engaged?”
This is the future an emerging number of publishing startups are after—aiming to change the value of a book from a $10 Amazon purchase to a $100 investment opportunity, while creating a market of readers excited to see the books they love succeed. It might not work—finding readers (and investors) will be a challenge—but if they succeed, their vision could bode very well for the author who, in this scenario, could retain a percentage ownership of these “stocks” and earn value alongside their investors—just like Jeff Bezos retains a percentage of Amazon stock and grows richer as his company’s shares gain value.
This is a middleground compared to how it works today. Typically a book’s rights are owned by a publishing house (if traditionally published) or by the author (if self-published), but these startups imagine a third option—where authors and investors jointly own the copyright—that could be made possible by technology known as the blockchain.
Hailed by many as “the future of the internet,” the blockchain is a digital ledger where “blocks” of information are added to a “chain” of them, but never removed. This creates a ledger of information that is publically stored on a distributed network and accessible by anyone. Imagine, for example, if I could see a ledger of every single person who owned my home—when I bought it, a new block was added verifying that I am the current owner.
Describing it this way is a bit like describing the internet as “a bunch of servers in air conditioned rooms where information can be stored and accessed with a computer.” What’s more important than how it’s achieved technically is what can be done with it. If the internet gives us unfettered access to information, then the blockchain allows us to own it.
I hope you enjoy my first ever article for Esquire! When you’ve finished reading, come back and meet me in the comments section 👇🏻
Thanks for reading,
P.S. This is my first ever article for Esquire and I am so proud of it. Working on a piece this ambitious, with an editor who encouraged me to take it this in-depth, and alongside fact checkers who could help me make it this iron clad, and getting to do it all for ✨👑Esquire👑✨ was a complete dream come true!
How I landed this story was something of a ruse. I haven’t had any luck pitching recently, so I got creative. I downloaded a list of my newsletter subscribers into an excel spreadsheet, then sorted it to remove everyone with an @gmail.com email address. What was left was a bunch of people with businesses addresses—ones that ended with @nytimes.com and the like.
I googled all of those people, pitched stories to the ones who were journalists, and the one that stuck had an @hearst.com at the end of her email address! Pitching someone who already knew who I was and who already subscribed to my newsletter was so much more effective than reaching out cold. And it’s the first time I’ve had a pitch for a major media outlet accepted!!
If this isn’t a lesson in the power of creating a platform for your work, I don’t know what is. I hope you enjoyed the story as much as I enjoyed writing it!
The Novelleist is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Congrats on the article, Elle. And a clever way to pitch, too (though I can't quite get my head around if there woould be any awkward GDPR implications here in the UK).
I'm in the camp of finding this proposed future rather dystopian. It doesn't help that NFTs and crypto have such terrible reputations at the moment, of course, and that's something that could certainly shift over time as the early adopter get-rich-quick schemes and scams fall away and the blockchain can return to being a useful bit of invisible tech. For now, though, I don't see many benefits for the author, or for most readers.
I'd expect this sort of investment opportunity to attract people interested in money and investment, rather than anyone interested in books/art. But the catch-22 is that books are a terrible way to make money and a terrible investment generally. :) This has been the case for a long time (always?), so I struggle to see how it would be appealing to investors (especially once that "FIRST!" novelty bubble pops).
The notion of giving away partial ownership of ideas and stories feels very strange to me. Won't investors demand sequels, and control, and ROI in general? There's a version of this where creativity and innovation is entirely crushed, as authors all fall into a template of trying to create the most investment-friendly 'stories', while investors then pressure those authors to make more of the same.
There are some basic practical benefits you mention, though, like enabling royalties through the 2nd-hand market. That's an interesting use case that could run silently in the background and doesn't really require the additional layers of financial complication. Blockchain is often presented as an exciting opportunity to Make Loadsa Money $$$, but its in the more mundane-but-useful instances that I think it is most likely to take off.
Ultimately, for me, the assumption that everything will and should be monetised is where I take issue with a lot of NFT, crypto and blockchain concepts. Fanfiction is done out of love for the source material, and I'm not convinced that it needs to be shoehorned into an official monetisation model.
I think what surprises me so far about blockchain tech is that there are so few useful applications of it - or even ideas. Perhaps I'm thinking too small, but it seems its promise should be more evident and more interesting (beyond the early investor Loadsa Money $$$ crowd, that is). Ed Zitron had some interesting thoughts on this point: https://ez.substack.com/p/its-like-the-early-days-of-the-internet
Anyway, I'll shut up now. Always fascinated to see what you're poking at, Elle!
This was awesome!! 👏
Really looking forward to reading more of your work.