PageDAO: Salve for Authors In A Struggling Industry
T. Dylan Daniel and the PageDAO wax poetic about the need for Web3 in publishing.
PageDAO is an organization founded to address the inequities of the publishing industry. To the publishing executives, at least according to their recent testimony, the whole industry is just a crapshoot. Sometimes the thing works, sometimes it doesn’t, and nobody really knows why. The hardest-working, most-committed authors are quite often not the ones who get the publishing contracts. Recipients are selected by a process which often involves dozens of rejections with no feedback and no outreach efforts to facilitate new voices entering the space, creating a situation where a few lucky ones who don’t have all that much talent slip in alongside the literary greats of their time. The need to financially succeed to perpetuate the industry routinely comes into direct conflict with its ostensible purpose; i.e., to support and promote the works of authors.
With Web3, PageDAO argues, the market can be opened up to reduce the amount of rejection faced by authors and provide community benefits such as training and even opportunities to earn by writing. Rather than monetizing solely via exclusivity — i.e., excluding readers who can’t pay or authors who aren’t exactly what an editor is looking for — publishing can be improved by a more direct focus upon inclusion. Let’s take a step back, before we get into the details of how this works, and explore the difficulties facing authors in the contemporary publishing industry.
Publishing is at the top of the news, as a result of the M&A moves by two of the five largest publishing houses in the United States. If successful, the merger will create a gigantic publishing company that will initially control roughly half of the American book market. The US Government argues that this will create a monopsony (the inverse of a monopoly, rather than driving prices up for goods & services, monopsonies drive down the wages earned by laborers), limiting competition for future bestsellers and creating an environment where top authors will earn less. The publishers aim to create an organization capable of effectively representing the industry in the competitive landscape dominated by Amazon.
It is important to note that both claims are effectively right, to some extent. A massive publisher could potentially push back against the industry dominance by Amazon on behalf of authors, opening up a new stream of revenue by creating an entity that could hold its own against the Web2 literature giant’s outsize influence, but at what cost to authors? When there is a rough quarter, if layoffs are forced, how many more authors and editors will be unable to find secure financial footing in their own industry?
As literary Americans await the judge’s decision, many reflect on the state of publishing. At PageDAO, we are glad to see the industry under scrutiny; it faces deep challenges on a variety of levels. Publishing isn’t just struggling with industry consolidation and an existential threat in the form of its partner industry of booksellers continually struggling to keep up with Amazon in a high-tech world. It also faces unprecedented challenges to books, especially those from marginalized voices and featuring marginalized characters and issues. As if increasing numbers of banned books wasn’t enough, Barnes and Noble announced a big cutback in orders of books that aren’t expected to be bestsellers, cutting off a major venue to the vast majority of authors.
Publishing is struggling and it needs to change to survive. Fortunately, inclusive, low-cost and censorship-resistant Web3 publishing technology is under development at PageDAO. With Web3, the publishers can achieve greater throughput and support more authors and titles with less potential for catastrophic financial downside than they face today in print media. Web3’s unique set of properties include a base money layer that enables financial transactions between users at low cost, digital ownership that can include any element of an author’s copyright that that author chooses, collaboration between groups of writers to promote and market books at low cost, and decentralized assets that are always online and available. This essay will argue that these properties of Web3 technology make it an ideal candidate for use in addressing the overwhelming challenges faced by today’s beleaguered publishers and by authors everywhere.
What is the Publishing Industry?
At a glance, this question might seem ludicrous. The publishing industry is the industry responsible for selling books, of course! Authors write, then publishers edit, bind, and ship the books. However, in light of the ongoing antitrust litigation around the merger between Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House, it’s time to rethink our assumptions about what publishing is and how it works.
We cannot forget, as we investigate the landscape of the current day publishing industry, the shadow cast by one of the world’s largest technology companies, Amazon. After purchasing CreateSpace in 2013 and merging it with their Kindle business, despite their initially positive role in the rise of the eBook industry, Amazon has done little to innovate around eBooks. The Amazon algorithms are powerful enough to have a significant impact upon what authors write and what readers buy, but as we can see from the difficulties faced by self-published authors whose market is almost completely dominated by Amazon, the technology giant has little inclination to attempt to facilitate the creation of quality literature that does not immediately appeal on a superficial level. This state of affairs poses a bleak dilemma to self-published authors everywhere: write to the formula and take the financial risk to pay for marketing, or don’t sell copies. This is the backdrop upon which Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House argue they must merge to compete.
The broader publishing industry, Vox notes, is both unpredictable and frequently manipulated. Constance Grady sums it up best: “The book market really is notoriously unpredictable, and book publishers really are fairly savvy about manipulating that market in order to insure their own profits.” Unpredictable? What a strange term to use for an industry that prides itself on paying some authors and not others. It is difficult to imagine a major publisher taking comfort in rejecting the vast majority of authors and books randomly. Surely there must be some sort of selection criteria to justify the gatekeeping that most authors face upon submission of their work!
Authors are an underserved market, as evidenced by the difficulty in getting a book to press experienced by the vast majority of writers. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an exception that proves the rule, here. After being rejected by dozens of publishers, ZMM went on to become a bestseller. If it had that potential all along, why did so many publishers reject it? And yet if we investigate, we discover that this is a commonplace occurrence. Frank Herbert’s Dune was rejected by everybody, until Chilton, the auto repair manual company, took a chance on it. Harry Potter was rejected by publishers at first, too; it still went on to become one of the best selling titles in the history of publishing. Great books that people love get rejected all the time.
The problem is that the majority of authors are poorly represented in the industry, while a select few enjoy massive over-representation. Yet there is not an alternative way to break in. The issue here is not one of quality on the authorship side; it is one of bandwidth on the publisher side. Even assuming that editors could love exponentially more books and represent them all effectively, in the present publishing market there are not as many different interests at work in representation as there are in authorship. Frequently, rejection is predicated upon the personal tastes of editors and unfortunately for those who do not fit the bill here, even great books frequently slip through the cracks. The publishing industry does not have enough variation and differentiation on the representation side of the equation to represent all of the books that are worth reading. The costs associated with publishing a book have, for too long, been too high to provide equal opportunity for everyone. Fortunately for authors everywhere, Web3 provides the tools to directly intervene and change this aspect of the market.
PageDAO seeks to eliminate the paywall between author and reader with projects such as the permissionless ReadMe Books NFTBook Minter (which is free to use for PageDAO members, aside from a 5% royalty paid to the DAO’s official multisignature wallet by a smart contract) in order to minimize the negative impact had by paywalls on reader access and the costs associated with going to market in a print-dominated industry. In addition to the low cost associated with ReadMe Books, the assets created by this decentralized application are themselves decentralized applications. The content is stored on IPFS and indexed by the Polygon blockchain, instead of a centralized web server controlled by Amazon (who thus have the ability to censor or remove books at will). The result of this state of affairs is that the content is both immutable (IPFS redundancy prevents corruption of files over time) and censorship-resistant — these are books that cannot be blocked, destroyed, or taken down by external parties.
In the context of the greater market, it is cheaper than ever before for the boutique publisher to succeed — provided it does so on-chain and perhaps with integrated print on demand service — but the prospects for authors of major bestsellers to improve their standing and financial outcomes via NFTBooks are equally relevant, as PageDAO only takes a scant 5% royalty on ReadMe Books. Custom NFTBooks can involve token gating, a Web3 paywall that requires users to own the NFT before access can be granted to the content, and experiments in this direction will continue. See an early example by the PageDAO called The Mask of Ganymede. For this project, the owners of the NFTBook have permission from the publishing team to distribute the printed work however they like. While the concept is still in beta, it features an audiobook and a print-on-demand hardcover edition as well as the browser-based reader dAPP.
For too long, authors have had to face outrageous odds to see their work enter the market. Most books never sell despite being accepted, paid for, marketed. 98% of books published in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies, according to the New York Times. Self-published authors can expect to sell 5 copies, on average. One wonders how many valuable insights are lost, just exactly how much libricide is being committed by the publishing industry as it stands today. Paywalls, even a $.99 Amazon Kindle eBook’s paywall, cut down on readership and in general do not earn appreciable amounts of money for the vast majority of authors who use them. In a nutshell, the desire to earn income by writing is coming directly into conflict with the desire authors have to be read.
PageDAO exists to offer another way forward to authors everywhere. In permissionless Web3 technology, there is no editor to turn down new content. There are no gatekeepers to prevent market entry by the uninitiated. Authors are able to put their content out and let it speak for itself because the costs are lower in Web3 than they are in Web2 — the paywalls can be completely eliminated, yet collectibility can still yield effective monetization. We know this model can work because it is effective in the NFT art market already, where anyone (as the right-click-savers note) can view or copy the art in question, but only the owner of the NFT holds rights to it or the ability to sell it.
Web3, by eliminating the need of a publisher to know that X number of copies of a given book will sell to offset the costs of printing paperbacks and shipping them all over the place, allows editors and publishers to focus more upon curation than the inefficient gambling routine they are currently forced to participate in. The stakes are lower, so less manipulation must be conjured and more focus can be given to curating and supporting excellent content and building a more dependable audience for the new works that come into the pipeline.
Web3 also enables authors to take up instead an open, iterative process. Publish frequently. Learn each time. Join the PageDAO community to meet authors, editors, publishers, curators. Experiment with new technologies, new storytelling techniques, new group writing activities. Work with developers to build features from ideas into technologies everyone can use. PageDAO even has its own cryptocurrency, the $PAGE token, designed to facilitate transactions by authors, for authors — a literary economic microcosm, where every rule of the game is engineered in the authors’ favor.
New monetization opportunities abound in Web3, from token-gating (a more secure paywall that uses NFTs to determine who has access) to the collectible-oriented free-to-read ReadMe Books model — and everything anyone can think of in between the two. From tip-based micropayments (as seen on the HIVE blockchain) to free collectibles with royalties attached that pay the authors if they’re ever traded on the market (as seen at Cent.co), a bevy of experimental new monetization techniques awaits authors in Web3. PageDAO was founded by authors, for authors, as a public utility designed to support as much of this activity as possible. PageDAO seeks to be as inclusive as possible, and is working on the Page Network, an L1 blockchain for all of the books, to ensure that readers and writers the world over have access to low-cost transactions and reliable, decentralized asset management from now on.