When a Novel is an NFT: Elle Griffin and the Author's Challenge
While everybody argues about whether NFTs are really just JPEGs, creators are using them for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with graphic art.
One writer, Elle Griffin, used NFTs to fund the first chapters of one of her novels. I had a chance to catch up with her as part of my research into the creator economy and my own possible migration to NFTs.
Can you introduce yourself?
How'd you get the idea to publish your book as an NFT?
After I finished my first novel, I spent an inordinate amount of time researching how to publish it. What I found is that traditional publishing isn't really working for authors. Of the 2.6 million books published in 2020, only 268 sold more than 100,000 copies and the vast majority (96 percent) sold less than 1,000 copies.
But if most books have only 1,000 fans, then charging $10 every three years when a new book comes out isn't the right way to monetize them. A better way might be to charge those fans $10/month to subscribe to an author, earning readers behind-the-scenes access to their favorite writers, while earning authors a $100,000/year salary in the process.
I tested that hypothesis first by debuting my gothic novel via Substack, funding it with monthly and annual subscriptions from my readers—and netted about $3,000 from 50 subscribers. Then I decided to see if there was a play in web3, so I crowdfunded a novel using cryptocurrency—and I netted $2,000 (or about 0.5 ETH) from my first three investors.
Can you walk us through the process?
I launched The Totally True Story of Scott Paul—a fictional biography that takes place at the intersection of Mormonism and the Metaverse—using the platform Mirror. I launched it as a crowdfund, publishing the prologue for a taste of what the book would be about, and saying that I would write one new chapter for every 0.25 ETH raised.
The first day, someone contributed 0.25 ETH and purchased the first chapter as an NFT. I wrote Chapter One, published it the next week, and minted it as an NFT, airdropping that NFT to the backer who purchased it. After reading the first chapter, a second backer purchased Chapter Two so I wrote that, published it the next week, minted it as an NFT, and airdropped it to that backer.
Since then, I have received two smaller investments of 0.01 ETH, but I haven't yet reached the 0.75 threshold needed to write the third chapter. I'll keep writing chapters as they get funded, and if the entire book gets funded, I will mint the finished manuscript as an NFT via Mirror and sell it at auction, with each backer earning proceeds relative to their proportional share.
How's the experience been so far?
The process has been really enlightening. My intention was to try to understand whether there might be an opportunity for writers to fund their work using cryptocurrency, but I didn't really understand how NFTs or tokens would work until I was creating them.
Now I get that the tokens function kind of like a stock share in that the number you have compared with the total number that exists dictates what percentage of something you own. Right now I have four backers, two with 250 $COTT, one with nine $COTT, and one with five. That means two people own 48 percent of the book and two people own 1 percent. If another person buys an NFT for 0.25 ETH and 250 $COTT, then each person will own a smaller percentage of the book, and those numbers will change.
For example, you can see the shares of ownership in this picture.
Because backers own a percentage of the project, it's in their best interest for it to be successful, because then the value of their tokens go up. So far my backers have promoted the project, shared it on social media, and tried to entice new backers—unfortunately right as we were starting to drum up interest for Chapter Three, gas prices (which are just transaction fees) sky rocketed, making it much more expensive to invest in my project. Suddenly people were having to pay a $100 fee to invest $200, which doesn't really makes sense. Still, gas prices vary day-by-day and even minute-by-minute, so we'll see what happens!
What was it like to set up a crypto wallet for the first time?
Setting up a wallet wasn't difficult. I just went to the Coinbase website and followed the instructions, then downloaded the Coinbase app to my phone and did the same thing. The more tricky thing was connecting my wallet to my Mirror account—I was getting some kind of error message at first—but I just cleared my cache and eventually I was able to complete the process.
How does publishing your book as NFTs compare with publishing it the normal way?
If I publish a novel the traditional way, a publishing house owns the rights to my book and they can do whatever they like with it (including turn it into a movie or let it go out of print). They get to keep 60% of the earnings, my agent keeps 15% of the earnings, and I get to keep the remaining 15% of the earnings. The publishing house takes care of distribution so the hope is that they do a good job and my book makes enough money to make up for all that.
In the web3 world, instead of a publishing house owning my book, individual people do, and I get to retain a percentage of that ownership (I chose to retain 20% ownership in my book). I would be responsible for distribution, or my backers could help me, but ultimately we are responsible for the book's success—whether that's as a physical book, an ebook, or just a book published serially on Mirror (as mine is).
As far as finding readers—both options are a gamble. As I mentioned, publishing with a Big Five publishing house is no guarantee that a book will sell more than 1,000 copies. Similarly, publishing an NFT novel is no guarantee people will read it on the internet. At the end of the day, it's still up to the author to market themselves and find readers. Personally, I share all my work with my newsletter subscribers!
Do you ever worry about the value of your crypto going down a lot?
No, but that's because I am only investing in crypto what I am prepared to lose! The bulk of my savings are still in index funds and my crypto accounts are just for fun (and to explore what's possible for artists!). But I do want to have enough to earn upside—though cryptocurrencies are volatile right now, I think they will stabilize once they become so mainstream that we're using them to shop at Whole Foods. Until then, it's a good time to get in on it all!
I sometimes get questions from readers wanting to create their own NFTs. What advice could you give them?
I'm not sure how it works in the art world, but in the writing world, Mirror is pretty much the only platform that does it—and Mirror makes the whole thing very easy. When I was about to publish my first chapter, all I did was click the “mint as NFT” button and enter the wallet address of my backer. It was as easy as sending someone money via Venmo!
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