Blockchain for Creatives: Accessible or Affected?
People’s understanding of blockchain is still not where it should be. But is content distribution on the blockchain the best way to bridge the gap to the general public?
Creativity and technology have always been inextricably linked. Any tech company, no matter how great their product or their team of developers, need that creative spark to make sure their brand is good quality. Recently, at a Meetup event run by London’s AnitaB.org community and Women in Data Science London, I had the pleasure of hearing from the one and only Sukhi Jutla, who is one of the first authors to release a book on the blockchain.
Sukhi is the co-founder and COO of Market Orders, an online platform who supply and distribute gold, jewellery and diamonds to the trade industry. They cater to small, independent retailers who are too small to buy their products directly from the manufactures, by aggregating multiple small orders from various retailers across the UK through their smart meter system, and sending the bulk order to the manufacturers. The manufacturer is then able to give them the bulk discount savings, which are passed on to the small independent retailers.
Sukhi spent ten years in the corporate sector, which, like many entrepreneurs, she described as ‘causing her soul to die’. On the surface, Sukhi’s story seems to be one shared by other individuals of her generation, many of whom worked in the corporate sector for around a decade before moving on to start their own businesses, or to work for tech startups, utilising their hard won skillset and experience. She went to university to study an academic subject (Economics) which was then followed by entering a prolific investment bank as a product control analyst. She worked in finance and consultancy for the first five to ten years of her career, before realising that the lifestyle was not for her.
Her epiphany was when she was on the trading floor, sitting near a colleague who had turned 40 years old that day. He was hunched over his desk, and someone had put a balloon on his chair, saying ‘happy 40th’. As she recalled how he resembled ‘the most miserable guy’ celebrating his birthday, I was struck by the transparency in her tone. She resolved to leave the corporate lifestyle by the age of 40, and was able to keep that promise to herself — allegedly, with the help of blockchain.
She dipped into the startup scene while in the corporate world, describing herself as a ‘weekend entrepreneur’. She confessed that she invested all of her savings into all of her ventures, comparing herself unfavourably to those who prefer to invest their savings into mortgages rather than use them to start up businesses.
Like many successful entrepreneurs do, she emphasised her original passion in life, which was to be a writer. Her book is titled ‘Escape the Cubicle: Quit the Job You hate, Create the Life You Love’, and charts her journey of leaving the corporate world and starting her own business. This became the first book in the world to be published on the blockchain.
Sukhi is part of the Alliance of Independent Authors, a professional group of self-published authors. The director of the organisation had asked her to put together a whitepaper on blockchain and how it can be used in the publishing industry, and luckily I was present on the evening of July 3rd to benefit from her hard work in compiling this, despite not entirely agreeing with her summation of the technology.
Sukhi describes blockchain as relatively new, having been around for the past 9 years, but only becoming mainstream over the last year or so. According to her, a typical knee-jerk response to any mention of blockchain one year ago was ‘oh, Bitcoin, right?’. Now, people cover their lack of knowledge about it by stating: ‘oh, there’s no regulation in that space’. Earlier, at the same event, I expressed the opinion to another young woman that blockchain and a select few cryptocurrencies will one day replace our current financial system, and was met with the ‘no regulation’ dismissal — so this analysis certainly holds weight.
As Sukhi researched the technology further, she began to see ways that authors, creatives and writers could make use of the blockchain, incorporating it into the creative economy. As Author Advisor at Publica, she then spoke about their work in enabling this.
Publica is, according to Sukhi, one of the first companies in the world allowing authors to take advantage of blockchain technology. Publica, an app available on Android and iOS, is fundamentally a book ICO platform, allowing authors to pre-sell copies of their upcoming works as readable tokens. Publica aims to create a new type of business model for authors, by creating an author centred financial model. Readers can purchase tokens that will adjust daily to match the retail price of the book.
What is the point of putting a book on the blockchain?
The majority of people will protest this development by stating that most Kindle users purchase their books directly from Amazon, so surely Amazon is the best platform to market your work? However, Sukhi counters that 96% of the world’s population don’t have an Amazon account, and have never logged into it, as it isn’t available in all countries, presenting logistical issues. People are therefore trying to push their books into a narrow market, as the Amazon Kindle is hugely popular in Canada, the US, and the UK — all heavily oversaturated markets.
As Sukhi points out, when purchasing a book from Amazon, you only purchase the licence to read the book; you do not own your digital copy, it is hosted on your Kindle library. To quote:
‘If you upset Jeff Bezos, he can wipe your account clean.’
I’m not sure where this would stand in terms of GDPR, but there’s no doubt as to the differentiation here. On the blockchain, once the book is bought it is yours forever. It’s a digital copy that now belongs to you, and this is recorded on a ledger. You can gift that digital copy to someone else, as it is now your property. Consequently, this is the first time digital books have value and can be sold to someone else after their initial purchase.
To protect their rights and ensure that they gain proceeds from resales, the author can program in the first time their book is sold to another, using a smart contract. After the author has released the book token to their customer in exchange for cryptocurrency, the customer can resell the book, as they own that digital copy. But the author can program into the smart contract that they will receive 15% of the book’s proceeds going forward. Sukhi draws a comparison with charity shops to emphasise the revolutionary nature of this. In charity shops, secondhand books are sold over and over again by the thousands, with the author of the work not making a penny going forward from the original sale of the book.
Publica aims to create an exchange for the resale of secondhand digital books. Each time the book changes hands, the author is aware of the transaction and receives a cut. As many of us are aware, in the creative world, ownership can make or break your career, particularly if you are a musician. There is currently no clear transparent record of where books and records are being sold, and money from royalties does not always return to the person who created the value.
Sukhi used another personal example to illustrate her point: a recent email she had received from Amazon. She had a cheque coming in for £9.98, and she had had no live notification that she had sold any books on Amazon. She had sold the books in question 3 months prior. She only received 70% of the sale price when selling on Amazon.
Clearly, there are any advantages for any content creator to use blockchain to further their sales; at present, Publica charge a flat rate of 10% for their services, allowing the author to keep 90% of the proceeds. It therefore seems as if the future integrity of an author-centric financial model rests on the shoulders of this company, as the pioneer of a blockchain-powered content distribution system for authors. If authors wish to edit their work, they could simply upload a new title, which will change the token for their customers.
Publica allows authors to release their own ICOs. ‘NomadicMatt’, an author, Publica user, and traveller, recently released 1000 book tokens for his upcoming travel guide, selling every book token for $10. He was able to raise 10,000 dollars from his readers, who were excited for his book’s release. The funds came to him quickly, enabling him to begin the marketing process, and support himself while working on the book. This system is therefore similar to a pre-order — without the 30% cut imposed by Amazon.
Does this method of pre-funding books beat platforms such as Kickstarter, Patreon and Unbound, all of which involve a system of sponsoring a form of art that doesn’t quite exist yet? According to Sukhi, within these companies there is still a third party acting as an intermediary regarding financial transactions, and they still retain ownership of the data. It should, however, be acknowledged that Publica’s model does not necessarily have higher integrity by virtue of using blockchain…
How will we retain the freedom that ICOs offer us?
As Sukhi justifiably pointed out, on the blockchain the author is paid directly, almost instantly. They have the freedom of how to structure their entire sales system. On platforms like Kickstarter and Unbound, creatives need to adhere to terms and conditions. With ICOs, authors can raise money depending on their preference. However, are ICOs only capable of providing this freedom to creatives whilst they remain unregulated? We may all bypass Apple’s lengthy T&Cs , but there’s no doubt that they are there to protect someone.
Blockchain provides ultimate power to the creative mind, and this is a positive step forward to compensate for all the years where this was not the case. However, like any technological development in this day and age, the onus of responsibility is placed on the user.