Books on the Blockchain - A Quick Look at Publica
Taking book publishing onto the Blockchain is the idea of the Publica project. However, since the ICO in November 2017, and like many blockchain oriented projects attempting to shake up traditional spaces and come out of the late 2017 crypto crash, it’s a project that launched well, is backed by knowledgeable and capable staff - but that hasn’t been as successful as a more traditional approach might have been. That said, the ‘traditional’ nature of book publishing has been in the process of a complete shakeup for many years, so adding in a blockchain solution was a natural and logical next step.
In the indie book publishing space there are now many alternatives to getting your book into brick-and-mortar shops, usually filled by publishers who were once the only pathway to authorial success. Today, tens of thousands of books are self-published by their authors every year, without ever coming near the traditional publishing houses. Books that cover a multitude of genres from fantasy, spy, thriller, adult, young adult, teen, cooking, car mechanics, computing and business to name a few. While high street shops like Barnes & Noble or Waterstones might be suffering, the market for books, particularly eBooks, has never been bigger. Whether readers are buying from the likes of Amazon or direct from an indie author - book sales are buoyant, despite the doom and gloom around book sales we often read about. In 2017, when Publica launched, the global publishing industry was estimated to be worth $261bn USD. Of this, books accounted for 46% or $121bn USD(1). Not an insignificant market to chase even single digits percentage share of.
Enter Publica – ‘Blockchain for Publishing’, as the site tells us. Publica offers two routes to publishing; a book ICO for funding new publications or direct publishing of already completed manuscripts. There’s a page on Medium that Publica keep up to date with the current Book ICOs(2) so they can be learned about and contributed to. There’s an online store(3) and a mobile app(4) where users can access the store of available books, the reader’s own library of owned works and the wallet in which the Pebble tokens are held. Imagine the Kindle or Apple Books store, with an appropriate reader with built in shop that also shows your balance of funds. That’s what Publica have – same idea, just using crypto and blockchain.
At the time of the ICO, which ran from November 1st to 15th in 2017, Publica raised $1.04m USD(5) and have regularly stated in their various Telegram channels that the project’s success is not predicated on funding, which is good to hear. So, what’s preventing the project from seeing the success that was hoped for? Two things: it’s a cutting-edge solution that takes time to achieve adoption and secondly, it’s not in any way as straightforward to get started as buying a physical book or firing up your Kindle or other eReader. That said, eReaders were a strange phenomenon at one point but we all got used to them too, so there’s hope for Publica.
Publica is for the author who wants to regain control of their work, business and writing career. They will control exactly how their audience enjoys their content. There are no rules from Publica. The rules are just between you and your readers. - Josef Marc, CEO
Ethereum Blockchain, ETH, Pebble, BOOK tokens and Book ICO Contracts
The Publica solution is deployed on the Ethereum blockchain, which makes issuing the Pebble (PBL) ERC20 compliant token and the BOOK non-fungible token (NFT) the easy part. It also means authors and readers can interact with the underlying smart contracts using convenient tools such as a browser and MetaMask.
PBL’s are the fungible token that act as the internal currency for Publica. All books are priced in PBL and the tokens can be bought and sold on various exchanges and swap services for ETH or using a credit card.
BOOK tokens are the interesting one; every book that you buy is actually acquired by purchasing a BOOK token. This represents the tokenisation of the book. You pay PBL for the BOOK tokenised asset and get that in your Publica library. Think of it as an access key to a copy of the book you own that’s stored on the blockchain.
For each Book ICO, Publica deploy a smart contract that has the unique details of your book ICO. That includes obvious things such as the title, but also details of hard and soft cap, the number of PBLs you want to sell each BOOK token for and so on. This is interesting as it’s a potential bottleneck to growth due to it being a manual process.
Running a Book ICO
The entry point that Publica seem to promote most actively via their website(6) is the funding of book writing and creation by running a Book ICO. This is a novel idea, akin to running a Kickstarter project to get funding in advance of working on whatever the project is about. Authors are required to provide details for a book ICO page and then get promoting it in order for potential readers to find the page, buy some PBL to buy a BOOK token, then await the ICO ending and the book being written.
Buying a Published Book
When a published book is added to the Publica library, a reader simply has to view the library via the mobile app or online store, find a book they like and purchase it using PBL tokens stored in their connected wallet or due to a recent change, they can now pay with their credit card.
Benefits over Traditional Publishing
Two major benefits that are gained by using Publica are that authors acquire Borderless Publishing and Censorship Resistance. Never again can a book be banned from a given country and the contents of that book cannot be altered once published. Not even by Publica - this is a paradigm shift. Let's get this clear - never in human history has this been the case and could fundamentally shift the way publishing works.
There is a caveat to the process of getting a completed book published – it’s entirely manual. You fill in a form, send it to an admin (the amazing, hardworking Alex!), they create a contract and deploy it. All manual. If Publica ever had hundreds of authors hit them, they’d be backlogged overnight. Though I suspect they'd love the challenge. The Book ICO is also a manually created campaign and manually written and deployed contract. Neither have been an issue so far, the team are pretty efficient and accurate, but growth could see this needing to be addressed.
Benefits over Typical eBook Publishing
Once often overlooked issue with buying eBooks on say the Kindle, is you don’t actually own them. What you are granted is the right to host a copy of the book on your device and retain it in a library you can access. Amazon can, and have, deleted access to the books from people’s devices. Not so with Publica. No one can delete the data on the blockchain. Once you buy it, you own it.
What’s slowing the Publica project?
In short, adoption by new users. In both cases, the work on deciphering the path-way to buying books, via an ICO or straight from the Shop, is definitely pushed to the buyer – and that work required to get going with Publica, besides the relative newness of blockchain that also needs to be understood, is above all else slowing the project’s growth. Sure they have good FAQs, but it’s a big hurdle the likes of Amazon didn’t put in front of their own Kindle device and store.
Before they even get to Publica, the potential readers have to learn about the blockchain first. They need to understand what Ethereum and Pebble are, how to use crypto exchanges to get the PBL tokens into a wallet, how to use that wallet and what buying a BOOK, as an NFT version of the eBook they want entails, the pros and the cons. Once that’s out of the way the App or online shop is no more complex than hitting the Google Play store, Kindle eBook Store or Apple’s Book store on an appropriate device. Still, imagining a flood of new customers that would joyously surmount that first part was a bit optimistic by the project team, to say the least.
The move to accepting card payments was both a needed change, to ease adoption by the general public, but also a great way to just get people buying books and become familiar with Publica. Grab the app, search the store, buy your books. Done. However, that raises the question of what the point of the internal PBL token is now?
The Trials and Future Purpose of PBL
Pebbles or PBLs, have been through a rocky time. They were intended as the internal currency for making BOOK token purchases, rewarding authors and something that the investors in Publica, via buying of the PBL, could be rewarded through as Publica became more successful.
Since 2017, PBL have gone down from an ICO price of $0.10 to a current average price of $0.0188. Trading volumes have hit the floor as current holders HODL, potential investors look for something more active to invest in and Publica readers switch to using their credit cards. Being able to buy BOOK tokens directly via fiat is great news for readers and authors, but bad news for PBL holders already stung by the decline in value since the ICO.
To add to this, finding a place to trade PBL has also proven difficult, since PBLs were delisted off KuCoin, the main exchange used since PBLs became available. Currently, the best place to find PBLs appears to be ForkDelta or Bilaxy(7) where there is low trading volume but a high amount of tokens that can be bought quite cheaply. Why they are needed now still remains a question. Investment? Perhaps. Funding the project? Possibly. Central to making the project work technically? Apparently, not anymore. PBL is still used to calculate the internal price for BOOKS and the total cost of purchase, i.e. including gas, transaction fees, etc., and if you sell a BOOK token on the Publica secondary market you’ll get PBL back, so you want it to be worth something.
Only one possible idea comes to mind for investment; HODL a large enough amount of PBL that when Publica is bought out by someone like Amazon, then PBL shoots up in value and you can cash in. That’s not trading advice though so DYOH. Right now, it looks like PBL could be dropped altogether, but we’ll see. Not reassuring for those HODLing since 2017, but as the saying roughly goes; the pioneers get the arrows, the settlers the spoils.
The Publica project is a great example of a meaningful use case being applied to the use of blockchain. It’s meaningful because resolving issues such as censorship, borderless publishing and permanent ownership are serious issues that need addressing. A database of books controlled from the centre, by a company beholden to worldwide legal systems isn’t the answer. Could Publica rise to the challenge?
Publica has it's strengths, but also some significant weaknesses that thankfully are being addressed. More books need to be published directly, ideally by known authors. Landing a deal with a known publishing house or a store such as Barnes & Noble or Waterstones would be an incredible boost. As for Book ICOs – they should be left on the backburner for now, they are rarely successful, so not the way to build the Publica Store of books in the short term. Holding PBL seems an uncertain prospect at this time as, beyond being a means for fundraising at the ICO stage and as a means for internal accounting, there’s no real need for them. That said, they could also be the one that 'moons' once he project really gets going.
Overall, it’s early days for this exciting project, but there’s uncertainty as to when it will see the growth many feel it deserves and when the traditional model of self-publishing can be replaced with the help of the blockchain. Could Publica be the next Amazon or arm of Google. It's a possibility, better still they might just become the Publica they want to be, now that would be something to be part of.
Book Shop: https://shop.publica.com/
Publica Website: https://publica.com/
Disclosure: I published my debut novel, The Hannover Game, on Publica and hold a small amount of PBL on 0x8756dE484c0eEF4E46E6EE55a50206b89120a938