From cryptocurrency’s spectacular boom and crash of 2017-2018 to ads in the New York subway system for a regulated cryptocurrency exchange, cryptocurrency and blockchain are still overwhelming to most people. They seem to be somewhere between futurist Internet fantasies and the newest technological solutions for streamlining business and communication across many different sectors of our lives.
Blockchain is the underlying structure upon which cryptocurrency (like Bitcoin) is built. Publishing has had its eye on blockchain for several years already. But, nevertheless, it is still more than a little mysterious or confusing for the industry.
So, we’ve put together a handy primer about what blockchain is and how it might affect the publishing industry, plus some resources for more further reading.
What is blockchain?
At its most basic, blockchain refers to a way of storing information or value without relying on a centralized authority. So for cryptocurrency, information about who has what amount of a given currency (like Bitcoin) is not stored at a central authority like a bank, but is available on a ledger that is accessible to anyone on the network. Transactions are bundled together into a block and then blocks are chained together in a way that cannot be broken or altered. In systems that rely on a central authority, that central authority could cook the books. But, because the information is decentralized and accessible to anyone on the network, it’s impossible for an individual or group to conceal or alter transactions. Blockchains can then tell anyone where an item or piece of information is and where it has been before. It’s a way of decentralizing data and authority, while making transactions more transparent.
Instead of checking in with a central authority, like a publishing house or a bank to arrange a transaction, the end parties can complete the transaction themselves. So, for example, I can pay my share of rent to my roommate directly using cryptocurrency instead of talking to the bank to take money out of my account and then having my bank talk to my roommate’s bank to deposit that money into their account. Once I tell the blockchain that I have given money to my roommate, that transaction enters the blockchain ledger so that it can never be changed.
Station F has a great introduction to blockchain on Medium.
What does blockchain have to do with publishing?
Blockchain can open new possibilities for the exchange of resources, goods, and data between individuals and companies. The whole publishing industry depends on many teams working in different departments and companies working together and speaking to one another, all of which could be made much easier by using blockchain. It represents a new model for storing data across multiple parties — From authors and agents, to publishers, to warehouses and distributors, all the way to retailers and end-audiences/readers.
Which parts of the publishing industry could be affected by blockchain?
Smart contracts & the supply chain
It comes as no surprise to anybody in the publishing industry that many moving parts working at many different companies have to work together to bring a book into the world. Authors, agents, publishers, production teams, distributors, warehouses, and more. Smart contracts, which use blockchain, could make this process more seamless. Smart contracts are pieces of code that are stored on a blockchain network. The code of the contract defines the terms of the contract that all parties have agreed to. If required conditions are met, actions are automatically executed in an “if, then” structure. For example, a smart contract might program a car to drive along a certain path, automatically stop at every stop light, pause at every stop sign, and go past green lights. Traditional contracts are more similar to having a physical person driving the car, making the decisions. Or, having a person driving the car on the phone with someone confirming that they should, in fact, stop at a red light. So, if a publisher and a printer have a smart contract, printing could be automatically triggered once the printer receives final proofs, instead of someone from the publisher emailing someone from the printer who will then get the ball rolling. This video and this article provide great intros to smart contracts.
Reselling digital titles
Blockchains allow an item (whether a bitcoin or an ebook) to be tracked wherever it goes because of the decentralized ledger that holds the record of where an item went and when. Blockchain could make it easier to resell ebooks while keeping a record of whose hands the title passed through and for how long. Scenarex is already experimenting with this through Bookchain.
For academic publishers, clear peer review process is crucial to the publishing process. In 2018, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis Group, and Cambridge University Press teamed up with the pilot project, Blockchain for Peer Review. With this project, they are experimenting with using blockchains to make the peer review process more transparent, which they hope will ultimately lead to increased trust in the produced research.
Blockchains could allow publishers to keep tabs on all individual copies of a title, physical and digital. Blockchains keep track of all transactions, including buying, selling, and reselling. So, that means that it could be much easier to see when a copy has slipped into the wrong hands or is being distributed illegally if a publisher is keeping track of its titles using blockchain.
How much is hype?
As with any new and trendy technology, some of the interest is bound to be hype. And after the cryptocurrency crash in 2018, it might have seemed like the end of a trend.
But, rather than thinking that the blockchain fad is over, we think that we’re just past the Peak of Inflated Expectations on the hype cycle.
Heavy hitters are putting resources into developing long-term strategies for cryptocurrency and blockchain (see the Blockchain Center from the NYC Economic Development Corp.). Publishing industry groups are incorporating blockchain into scope of interest. For example, BISG has hosted multiple events about blockchain and Digital Book World has an award for Best Use of Blockchain in Publishing Technology.
So while it remains to be seen exactly how blockchain will change the publishing industry, it seems clear that enough corners of the market – publishing and beyond – are investing time and energy into thinking about how blockchain could solve some of their recurring problems.
Who is already using blockchain?
- Publica: Publishing platform using blockchain and cryptocurrency technology to innovate in how books are funded, distributed, bought, and read. Announced partnership with Morgan James in Aug. 2018.
- po.et: Open, universal ledger that records immutable and timestamped information about your creative content and uses open protocols designed for interoperability with current industry standards in media and publishing.
- Authorship: Platform to provide readers, writers, translators and publishers with a single platform to offer and avail each other’s services. Uses site-specific tokens to conduct transactions, which can then be converted to Ethereum (a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin).
- Scenarex: Bookchain project allows authors and publishers to publish and distribute ebooks using blockchain.
- wespr: Ethereum-based platform that helps distribution of content between artists and their audience.
- Blockchain for Peer Review: Collaboration between Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis Group, and Cambridge University Press to investigate using blockchain to make peer review more transparent and secure.
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