A Notebook for the Future: NFTs
Poets reflect on the value of NFTs to writers
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
Right after “AI,” “NFT” wins second place for the most polarizing and misunderstood acronym today. The name itself sounds dehumanizing and distanced from creativity—as though they’re the next generation of cords when we eventually move on from USB-Cs; the kind of word that issues an electric shock to the mouth. It’s no wonder they’re so maligned. But taking a simplistic view of NFTs ignores the immense potential that many people in the literary world are already plugging into as we all work to help literature thrive.
NFTs are non-fungible tokens, coded with blockchain technology. It sounds complicated, but a blockchain is simply a ledger, like a bank would use, but networked and decentralized. To visualize a ledger, simply imagine the perfect shared notebook—where everyone can read its irrefutable contents or add entries. It’s designed so that anyone can access the chain but no one has the computing power to alter it on their own, creating a lasting, public log of information visible at any moment. In other words, no one could rip a page out of the notebook or scribble over the words. An NFT is a contract written in that notebook, and that creates a wide variety of practical uses. For example, ticket sales, vacation rentals, and even voting will likely utilize the technology’s unique combination of security and transparency in the future.
Another one of those valuable uses is to allow copyable art to function like original art. This makes a tremendous difference to the economics of an artform. For its entire history, dating back to the days of scribes writing books by hand on parchment, literature has been forced inside a copy-based economy. The entire point of books and poetry as technologies is that they can be copied relatively easily. For any author to make a living, they have to reach a wide audience, selling as many low-value copies as possible. This has been the state of affairs for so long that it’s hard for writers to imagine an alternative.
That alternative, though, is easy to see when thinking about visual art. A painting or sculpture can’t be copied—the piece is a unique original that only the artist could have created. While the artist might make prints as an additional means of income, the original retains value and becomes collectable, creating an entirely different economy, with collectors and art lovers buying and selling the works, injecting revenue into the industry. This is why art museums have elaborate galas while libraries resort to used book sales.
Collectability offers more than just money—it’s fun! From baseball cards to Beanie Babies, collecting things that we enjoy, participating in a community, and treasure-hunting as we build our collections, is something human beings like to do. Everything from model trains to postage stamps have trade shows, where people love to swap their wares and brag about their latest finds. With a copy-only economy, literature has never been able to fully participate in the world of collectables. A rare book market exists, but it takes so long for a book to become rare, and the artistry is so far removed from the physical product, that a wider interest never develops. Published as NFTs with provenance linked directly to the author, collecting literary artifacts suddenly becomes an accessible and fulfilling hobby.
Which brings us to the most common criticism of NFTs: “Why would anyone buy something they can copy without paying for it?” This is the “Right-Click Save” argument, and every person that harnesses the potential of this technology has eventually pushed beyond it. Just as technology is constantly shifting, what it means to truly own something has evolved as well. To illustrate this, if you print a copy of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, do you feel that you own that painting? Of course not. Your printed copy has none of the value of the original. And yet the ubiquity of those prints only increases the value of the original painting, keeping it in the public’s consciousness, which is part of why there tends to be a crowd of selfie-takers surrounding famous impressionist paintings. Speaking of which, MOMA, where Starry Night lives, has incorporated NFTs into their collection.
Making the leap back to the literary world, the ability to collect and display an original piece of writing, connected directly to the author’s digital wallet, completely reverses the economic incentives of publishing. Rather than hide our work from each other, hoping to create a scarcity that will force readers to buy books, we can share our poems and stories widely—the more people who read and appreciate the piece, the more potential value that digital, collectable original, accrues. This technology encourages writers to share their work more freely without the drawbacks we’re used to, creating an environment where all the incentives align, and literature can truly flourish.
The ability to collect and display an original piece of writing, connected directly to the author’s digital wallet, completely reverses the economic incentives of publishing.
And that isn’t the only benefit. If Van Gogh had the ability to add his work to our shared notebook, future sales of his paintings would still benefit those he willed his wallet to instead of only his collectors. This is possible thanks to smart contracts that allow the original artist an adjustable percentage of any resales in the future. In this way, NFTs solve the used book problem. When we buy copies of a book used, the artist doesn’t see a penny of that sale and doesn’t even know it happened. The cheaper price of the used book not only cuts the author out of that sale—it reduces the number of people that buy the book new, where the writer would receive a return. But with an NFT, that object is forever tied to the artists’ wallet, and we can write into that smart contract a royalty on secondary sales that even outlive the author.
Imagine your favorite poem. Maybe it’s Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” or Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Wouldn’t you want to own the original version of that? Anytime we read a great piece of art, it becomes a part of us, a part of our psyche. Collecting the art as a digital asset allows us to become connected to the author directly, to show our appreciation, and to add tangible value to what is already immensely valuable to us personally. We could display it in our own digital gallery, and know that when others read the poem on the blockchain, we will be listed as the person that collected, and therefore patronized this particular piece.
Since the NFT lists the wallet addresses of the owners, this also allows for an unprecedented level of connection among collectors. On the PFP (profile picture) side of NFTs—probably the realm you’re heard much more about, where the tokens have spurred headlines about million-dollar drawings of potatoes—that connection fuels the creation of entire communities, such as the Bored Ape Yacht Club. For writers, this connection looks a little different, but it means that, unless someone is actively trying to remain anonymous, you have the ability to interact with them. In the event that your collectors have decided not to add their info to their wallet, even their address allows for further connection—such as the ability to air-drop them another NFT as a gift. For example, a children’s book author might air-drop a coloring book version to anyone who purchased the ebook within a promotional window. A poet might include a bonus poem with purchase or send collectors an occasional poem on a holiday.
The task of minting a file on a blockchain can seem intimidating, but it’s more simple than one might think, and getting easier all the time as the technology finds its way into more and more mainstream spaces. The first step is to create a cryptocurrency wallet, such as Metamask or Kukai. The wallet is free to create, but you will need to fund it with a small amount of cryptocurrency in order to mint an NFT—not to mention the fact that you will probably want the ability to collect others’ art too. Even though many platforms have added the ability to collect via a credit card, odds are you’ll prefer purchasing in the dominant cryptocurrency of the marketplace.
Requiring cryptocurrency in order to create NFTs is one of the most controversial aspects of this topic, so it bears repeating that this amount can be mere pennies on the cheaper “proof of stake” blockchains (more on that later). Just as it costs money to buy the ink to write in the perfect notebook, adding art to a permanent, irrefutable ledger is not completely free. The good news is that competition among chains and platforms helps to keep these fees to a minimum, and “gas fees” (the transactional fee on the industry-leading Ethereum chain) are particularly variable. This incentivizes people that can wait a bit to mint to do so until a time of lower demand. As time goes on, the ways to fund a wallet continually become easier, even for the technophobes among us.
Hard as it may be to believe, at this point you’ve completed the most arduous step of the whole process: funding your cryptocurrency wallet with the relevant currency. Next, simply follow the steps to sync that wallet to a marketplace like Objkt or OpenSea, where you intend to mint your work. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of minting an NFT for newcomers is how easy the process of actually adding the artifact to the blockchain is—barely more than uploading a photo and description to Facebook and pressing “post.” For example, to mint an NFT on Objkt, the single page merely requires filling out these fields: a file upload of your NFT, title, description, tag, the license type from a dropdown menu, the number of editions, the royalties (the percentage of the sale you will receive if it is later resold), and lastly another drop down menu to select a server location. You can find a simple step-by-step guide on Katie’s website, thenftpoetrygallery.com.
Of course, the fun part of the process is the creation of the NFT itself. Most artists start out slowly; Katie’s first mint was a collection of photography with unlockable short poems that mimic the seed phrase one receives in the creation of their cryptocurrency wallet, “Seed Poems.” Writers can simply take a screenshot image of the text, add their narration to their words, or utilize user-friendly software such as Procreate to combine text with an image. There are scores of groundbreaking poets working right now in NFTs as the vehicle for sharing their work, a dozen of which were featured in issue #80 of Rattle, and entire ebooks can be published on-chain, making them collectable. Katie recently minted a collectible chapbook of poems, Watering Can, with Alexandria Labs, in a limited edition where each ebook is unique. Other poets are making haiga and static styles of mixed media poems, and minting those rather than publishing them by traditional means. Any digital file can be made collectable, and the only limits are those of our imaginations.
None of these potential file types are limited to traditional poetry. As with any new medium, there are a tremendous number of ways to innovate. For example, Timothy’s collection, “Poesis” shifts the once-personal process of writing a poem into a new genre of performance art; the “Distillation” collection turns one of his poems into a form of video erasure that transforms into a haiku. Elsewhere on the blockchain, Sasha Stiles is in dialogue with AI; M.S. Bourland has minted a novel with her own smart contract; and theVERSEverse is now working with the Allen Ginsberg estate.
Minting a piece of writing is an exhilarating process, perhaps only eclipsed by the fun of collecting another person’s art. It’s diametrically opposed to the often arduous process of traditional publishing; one can immediately mint their writing if they so choose. In fact, the timeliness of the process is one of the biggest draws for writers to the world of NFTs. And once an NFT is on chain, one can simply leave it there for display, without so much as adding a price if they so choose. Conversely, many platforms offer the ability to auction a piece, jump-started by an opening bid. Either way, the NFTs are discoverable as part of an active marketplace where collectors can browse categories and keywords to discover new artists.
Minting a piece of writing is an exhilarating process, perhaps only eclipsed by the fun of collecting another person’s art.
While many NFTs are one-of-a-kind, artists can also create any given number of editions of digital art, in the same way a photographer might release limited-edition prints. As one would expect, given the basic law of supply and demand, creating multiple editions of the same piece reduces the individual value of each but offers the benefit of increasing the reach, essentially crowdfunding the piece rather than having it supported by a single patron.
In general, the predominant method of sales is setting a price on the NFT, which is easily accomplished in a few clicks, and by signing transactions in the crypto wallet used to mint. The most common mistake made for those that reach this stage is showing up expecting everyone to buy their brilliant work without jumping into the larger NFT literary community as a whole or already having a following. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme. The good news is that, if you are a writer, odds are money is not your primary drive to create—but NFTs still offer an unprecedented level of financial potential. Just how much this potential materializes depends not only on the quality of your work, but on your engagement with social networks and the NFT community at large.
As writers mint their work as NFTs, multiple new collectability economies are emerging. The first is a tip economy, with NFTs becoming a way to show appreciation to the authors we admire. When we come across a piece that moves us, we can collect a low-cost edition and add it to our personal gallery, an act that supports the author directly, connects us to them in a personal way, and helps promote the work. There is immense excitement in building a public gallery of poems we patronize, and most are inexpensive, costing the cryptocurrency equivalent of just a few dollars. It is far more affordable these days to collect art and tip the artist thanks to the blockchain.
The second economy, which, undoubtedly, takes longer to build, is a store of wealth economy, with investors recognizing the potential growth in a writer’s career and using the NFTs as part of their portfolios. This is in much the same way as art investors collect—through the long-term vision of investing in writers themselves. This economy could solve one of the biggest hurdles in the current literary marketplace. As a niche culture, most readers of contemporary literature are also aspiring writers themselves, creating a zero-sum industry in which most consumers are also producers. It’s just a fact: most authors spend more money buying books than they make selling their own. We’re perpetually “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” When literature becomes collectable, it becomes a store of value for people who aren’t also writers, letting the entire marketplace expand. NFT poetry has been sold by Christie’s—an illustration of how this second economy, like the tip economy, is already being built today.
Currently on-chain, in addition to poems, there are short stories, entire novels, single articles, anthologies, and even NFT magazines. Much like with more-traditional self publishing, authors can choose whether to offer their work for sale on their own website or utilize the many advantages offered by minting on an existing platform. Either way, the fees charged by the platform are dramatically less than self-publishing on Amazon. As a rough comparison, Opensea is the largest NFT platform, and their cut maxes out at around 10% versus the 30% from Amazon that comes with many other conditions, such as limiting your book’s sale price. Many NFT platforms, particularly those favored by writers, charge far less.
One example of a successful NFT magazine is The Tickle, which has been regularly published for over two years. It features two NFT artists alongside a poet each month, and has even spurred a spin-off quarterly magazine, The Tickle Lit. The magazine is free to read online, yet has grown to have hundreds of subscribers—further proof of the idea that there is still a demand to own what one can enjoy for free. Additionally, a secondary market for the issues (particularly the older ones) has developed. Subscriptions themselves have been turned into collectible art, through the minting of “Tickle Tokens,” in which the magazine pairs with an artist in the creation of an NFT that includes a yearly subscription.
There are many different blockchains to choose from and which one to use is an important decision. It’s also another common point of confusion for NFTs—headlines about the latest cryptocurrency scandal have a way of becoming a “kick me” sticky note on the back of digital art as a whole. Particularly in a bear market, there can be a lot of alarming headlines to sift through. Ethereum, as we mentioned earlier, is the most well-known option for NFTs, but transaction fees are relatively high. Tezos, on the other hand, which links to the Objkt marketplace, uses a system that’s much less energy-intensive, and much more aligned with a poet’s budget and sensitivities.
Energy consumption is a common criticism of blockchains, but has been wildly overgeneralized. There are different ways of verifying transactions, and the “proof of stake” chains like Tezos use a tiny fraction of the energy used by the more familiar “proof of work” chains. Ethereum switched to “proof of stake” verification in 2022 and now uses less energy than Netflix or PayPal, let alone the massive telecommunications networks delivering this article to you right now. Because of the high price of using “proof of work” chains, very few literary NFTs are minted on the energy-intensive chains everyone hears about.
In reality, there is very little downside to turning literature into NFTs. Writers gain more control over their work, a new potential way to earn income, and expand their ability to connect with readers. The jargon surrounding it is often ill-named and off-putting, and we have to swim through their connotations in order to reach the island full of potential for lovers of words. If we can excuse the ugliness of the acronym, it may be time to pull the shrink-wrap off our new notebook.
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