This week! Books!
Publishing Twitter was aflame this week about two new ideas for publishing.
The first to set tongues wagging was an interview in Forbes with author and entrepreneur Allison Twobridge, who started an app called Copper that she pitches as the LinkedIn of the book world. It allows authors to connect with readers, host events, and recommend books. I didn’t totally grasp from the interview or website what differentiates it from what already exists, and the interview was full of typical lofty tech sloganeering, particularly around the name Copper. But I wish her luck!
Next was an innovative idea from a collection of bestselling YA authors, who created a fictional world called Realm of Ruin. Here was the essential idea: The creators would create the origin stories and core characters, who would be available for purchase as NFT tokens. Fans would be able to make their own contributions to the world, which they would own as NFTs. The creating authors would engage with the community and select their favorite contributions to become canon. (If you need an explainer on NFTs, here’s a good one).
Because of intense backlash on social media, the authors pulled the plug after a few hours.
I found myself mystified by the reaction and didn’t understand why this was such a horrifying idea that it prompted a social media meltdown. (Full disclosure: I am friends with some of the authors, but I wasn’t involved and don’t have any more info on the project than what’s publicly available)
There weren’t many details released (or at least that I saw before things were taken down and have been able to piece together after), so it’s tricky to weigh in with too much specificity. Take my opinions with a resulting grain of salt, but here’s where I was confused by the backlash:
First, the blockchain powering the NFTs, Solana, is a “proof of stake” blockchain, which, to my understanding, is far better for the environment than blockchains that rely on “proof of work.” I saw a lot of “all NFTs are bad because even the good NFTs encourage the bad NFTs” arguments, but I struggled to wrap my head around that. Like… should we not drive electric cars because they encourage gas-guzzling cars? (And it’s not like an industry based on chopping down trees, making ink from hazardous chemicals, and shipping books halfway around the world is exemplary from an environmental perspective).
Second, some people are generally skeptical of NFTs and crypto and think they’re Ponzi schemes that have no real value and they’re a huge scam and etc. etc. etc. so therefore this is bad because it’s participating in the Bad Thing. I’d encourage you to listen to this epic Planet Money episode that talks about what money really is. Spoiler: It’s all mass psychology. If enough people believe something has value, it has value. The blockchain/crytpo world is new and there are plenty of kinks to be worked out, but it’s here to stay.
Third, there are already wildly profitable platforms that encourage writers to pen fan fiction that the writers don’t own, receive no compensation for, and which may get shut down at any time. Realm of Ruin seemed like an interesting way for authors to write within a pre-existing world, have confidence that their work wouldn’t be wiped out because of a copyright claim, and actually be able to profit from their creations (and in this case my understanding is that the intent was for the fan fiction writers to own copyright in their own work). Some writers like the community aspect of writing within an existing world and tons already do it for free. So why not formalize it in a way where the fan fiction writers have the potential to derive some personal benefit?
And if the authors who created the world profit from the resulting fan fiction as the universe gets built out… so what? Should we just ban all fan fiction then, or should the profits keep going to the third party platforms that encourage fan fiction rather than to the creators themselves?
I don’t know. Maybe I’m missing something (let me know in the comments!), but I found myself quite confused. One of my enduring frustrations with the publishing industry is its congenital lack of openness to even trying new ideas.
Now then, more links this week!
Sad news as the children’s publishing world as two immensely influential talents passed away: Gary Paulsen and Jerry Pinkney. RIP.
The NY Times has a bit of a meandering update/summary of the succession drama at Scholastic which, as Publishers Lunch pointed out, seems more timed to the launch of the new season of the HBO show Succession than driven by news.
Don’t know where to put a comma? Jeanette the Writer is here to help.
Esquire had an interesting interview with Mark McGurl, who has a new book about how Amazon is changing fiction. McGurl argues, among other things, that Amazon is bringing back the publishing world of Charles Dickens.
And I really loved this post (and the accompany chart) by Austin Kleon about the work of the late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied creativity and flow.
This week in bestsellers
Here are the top five NY Times bestsellers in a few key categories. (All links are affiliate links):
Adult print and e-book fiction:
- State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny
- The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
- The Wish by Nicholas Sparks
- Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty
- Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Adult print and e-book nonfiction:
- Midnight in Washington by Adam Schiff
- To Rescue the Republic by Bret Baier with Catherine Whitney
- The Storyteller by Dave Grohl
- The Boys by Ron Howard and Clint Howard
- Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
Young adult hardcover:
- Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Saenz
- One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus
- Kingdom of the Cursed by Kerri Maniscalco
- The Hawthorne Legacy by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
- Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber
Middle grade hardcover:
- The Christmas Pig by J.K. Rowling. Illustrated by Jim Field
- Wonder by R.J. Palacio
- Pony by R.J. Palacio
- Refugee by Alan Gratz
- The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo
This week on the blog
In case you missed them, here are this week’s posts:
- How to raise the stakes in a novel
- Writing in the library is wonderful
- Memoirs still need a “quest” (query critique)
Don’t forget that you can nominate your first page and query for a free critique on the blog:
And keep up with the discussion in all the places!
And finally, Tad Friend at The New Yorker has a very very deep dive into Masterclass and tackles the idea of whether expertise can really be conveyed in brief classes.
Have a great weekend!
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Peter Dudley says
Hadn’t heard of Realm of Ruin, but I love the spirit of innovation behind it and the attempt at a new thing.
How do you feel about the fact that Realm of Ruin was specifically targeted at YA readers with a pay-to-participate scheme (using the “shiny new thing” NFT as part of the draw), versus traditional fan-fiction (which is both egalitarian and ostensibly free as in both speech and beer)?
“Pay to play” doesn’t even really bother me — which would be no different than paying a subscription fee for a service, let’s say. The “….also, maybe cash in” part raises my hackles, especially when we’re aiming a product at teens and preteens.
This very blog has, in the past, cautioned that money flows to the author, and you shouldn’t need to PAY for the chance to make money. SO why is it okay when NFTs are involved and the writers are teens?
Why not make THIS site free and monetize it like other fanfiction sites do? Why do we have to include NFTs? Is that the only way this project works?
I’m not against new ideas inherently. I work *in tech* as a developer (and am also slightly biased against NFTs, I’ll admit). Even so, there seemed to be some glimmers of good ideas here.
I wish we’d gotten more than vague details about how it all works instead of a countdown timer and some paragraphs of hype. More information might have helped turn the tide; at this point it’s hard to know for sure.
Nathan Bransford says
My understanding is that the “pay” part of creating an NFT is/was negligible and they were going to subsidize the creation of stories. But even if, let’s say, there was a necessity, yeah, I agree, ultimately not much different than paying a subscription fee, as is the case with some platforms. And there were concerns that kids under-18 have trouble creating NFTs on their own because crypto platforms don’t allow them, but needing a parent to create one doesn’t strike me as a bad thing either.
I do think money should flow to the creator, but that’s what I was seeing here that seemed interesting. Money made from fan fiction doesn’t flow directly to world creators like Stephenie Meyer and others. And people who write TWILIGHT fan fiction typically just do it for free. This seemed like an interesting way of sharing in the creation of the worldbuilding and in the financial rewards.
But yes, I agree, I would like to have seen more details.
Neil Larkins says
NFTs: crazy, screwy….don’t-you-and-I-wish-we’d-thought-of-it-first insanity. I agree: Sounds Ponzi. Or tax dodge? Or money laundering?
All the rest: Plenty to keep me reading this weekend!
Michelle Schusterman says
I don’t think it’s fair to summarize the backlash to Realms of Ruin as simply fearing something new. Money is mass psychology, yes, but it’s also heavily regulated, and crypto regulation is still in progress, which is why scams run rampant – that’s reason enough to slow down and ask questions.
I’m all for experimenting and breaking away from traditional publishing models. But as a teacher as well as an author, none of my ideas for collaboration with my readers/students involve me profiting off of their words.
This project, which sounded enormous in scale, went from idea to launch in a matter of weeks. I would think this would take months to get off the ground. The authors claim to have answers, yet none were ever given, including to questions of how copyright would work.
Solana was in beta as of a month ago. This announcement with these big names attached no doubt drove the price and awareness up, which really makes me wonder about the timing of this launch and who involved might have been invested in SOL. Otherwise, why the rush? And instead of making a public cancellation announcement, why did everyone involved suddenly delete all traces of RoR from social media? The only reason anyone outside of the private discord saw the official cancellation announcement was because people in the discord screenshot it and shared it. The six authors are, at least as of right now, seemingly pretending the entire endeavor never existed.
People definitely have reason to find all of this highly suspect, and to say otherwise is gaslighting them, in my opinion.
Nathan Bransford says
I mean, a difference of opinion isn’t “gaslighting.” You’re welcome to your opinion and hopefully I am mine without accusing the other of creating some kind of false reality or intentionally causing harm.
Personally, I thought I’d anything things were handled pretty transparently. There were FAQs up, questions answered in the Discord, the authors posted statements when they took down the posts (not sure what else you want people to do there to avoid confusion), and I don’t know what you mean about “hiding.”
To each their own, but I think there are some leaps being made here about nefarious intents coming and going.
Michelle Schusterman says
I’m absolutely speculating on the intention, yes, because the answers provided in the discord were not real answers so it’s hard for me to take it all in good faith.
To the question about how copyright would work in RoR, admin said “I can’t speak to global laws, but in the US the creator of a work automatically has copyright over that work.” That’s word for word the complete answer. And it’s not at all an answer – just a general statement of how copyright works in the US. Meanwhile, the website clearly stated that the copyright of RoR was held by the six authors. So again…how would copyright have worked in RoR? Why couldn’t they answer, weeks before this thing was supposed to go live?
Much of the conversation from the discord can be found here, and so many answers are equally vague with promises of “more to come” or “we will work out a more in-depth road map as 11/8 approaches”: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1NBLy8E9cUgvGbhbZDiKH9f66JWWJdGxMKL7Kl3w9GKA/edit#slide=id.gf9ae1b7e28_0_14
I didn’t say anything about hiding (I think?). I agree it doesn’t make sense to leave the RoR accounts up. But the statement of official cancellation was only made in the discord (available only to members), and was shared publicly only by those not officially involved in the project.
And for what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re gaslighting anyone! I really appreciate you opening this discussion on your blog. I do see a lot of social media complaining about how this potentially cool thing was cancelled because people don’t understand NFTs or are scared of new things etc, when the issues raised were absolutely valid and most questions still haven’t been answered. The hallmark of an effective scam is that it appears to be an exciting opportunity. But this entire endeavor has the exact structure of an MLM. Add crypto and teens to the mix and I think it’s more than fair to have concerns.
It’s hard for me to let this go because RoR might be cancelled, but sooner or later someone else will launch something similar and I think it’s really important we get definite answers to the copyright/crypto questions.
Nathan Bransford says
I interpreted the answer on copyright as their intent was for the writers to have copyright in their work (something that is often disputed when it comes to fan fiction), but that because copyright law varies from country to country, they weren’t yet able to speak precisely to how copyright laws apply in other countries. It’s also very common to have a copyright notice on your site (like on my site—or at least I used to), but that doesn’t mean I like own your comments or something. It’s a reminder that my posts are mine. (Or maybe I’m misunderstanding what you saw?)
I don’t see anything here that struck me as an MLM? You don’t have to pay to enter and any buying/selling seemed like an optional part of the process, except that inasmuch as your contribution becomes popular you share in the rewards if your NFT rises in value. What do you see here that’s MLM-ish let alone “exact” or like a scam?
I agree they didn’t have all the answers, but the launch hadn’t happened yet so I’m not sure why there wasn’t more benefit of the doubt given. They were welcoming potential users into the process of refining details before launch and were transparent about what they did or didn’t have answers on at that time. Not sure what’s bad about that.
Michelle Schusterman says
I agree with everything you said about the copyright! And that’s why a definitive answer might have assuaged my concerns – but there was none. Given the popularity of the six authors, the interest and participation in this project likely would have been quite large. The wording in the announcement about how the authors would choose which stories and characters would “become canon” begs the question – if the participants do indeed hold their copyright on their work, what does ‘become canon’ mean? If Realms of Ruin were to get a book or film deal, how would that play out in terms of royalties and advances? If the intention was truly to split profits among participants, this project would have an extremely complex legal contract. That’s why the vagueness in the response was a red flag. The idea of authors profiting off of fanfiction and claiming it legally as their own work didn’t sit right with a lot of people, and no clarity was provided.
As for the structure, it’s admittedly unclear but the announcement implies participants would have to purchase characters to create stories. Lots of MLMs have a low or even no payment to officially enter, but once you’re in, you realize you can’t get ahead until you put down (“invest”) significantly more money. The general wording of “pay, play, make more money the more readers you recruit” is the exact structure of an MLM – which are totally legal, but also incredibly deceptive. The money flows to the top. I absolutely take your point that this might have played out completely differently! Again, another instance where far more detail is needed. I mean, some elements of this are also comparable to Kindle Vella – another new idea that’s getting mixed reaction from authors and readers.
Honestly, I think if this hadn’t been aimed at teens, the response would have been slightly different and perhaps more positive. The environmental concerns would have still been there for sure due to the NFTs, but the exploitation, not so much – I know personally I would be much more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and wait for launch to get a solid answer on copyright and all that if it had been made clear this was for an 18+ audience.
Although again, the rush would give me pause no matter what. I just don’t see how proper legal contracts regarding the copyright for participants in something like this could be drawn up so quickly – and why that, specifically, wasn’t done before this announcement. Refining details on game play with participants is great, but not for something as complicated as how copyright would work for a massive collaborative writing effort. A business should have the basics in place before launch. I can’t imagine they actually intended to ask potentially thousands of young fans for their input on copyright (the idea of moderating that forum makes me light-headed!).
Nathan Bransford says
I definitely agree the messaging could have been clearer, especially with the overall principles, even if many of the details were yet to be fine-tuned. I think that would have helped people wrap their heads around what was being attempted. (I don’t know if something like that was up and I just didn’t see it). I think you raise good questions, though I still haven’t seen something that would lead me to believe that this was some sort of slippery slope luring kids into an MLM or something like that.
I may be more primed to be receptive to the idea both because I’ve been interested in the potential of NFTs in the book world for a while now and because I know some of the people involved, but from everything I’ve seen, the intent seems good and interesting. I really like the idea of collaborative storytelling, finding a way to reward fan fiction writers, and drawing upon the potential of new technology to do so in innovative ways. And of course as an author, I’d rather it be a group of authors who lead this rather than some faceless company swooping in from Silicon Valley.
If the substance is there and there were just some misconceptions about the way it would be executed (and there certainly seem to be some misconceptions about NFTs, in my opinion), I hope they’re able to revive the idea. As you say, someone is going to do this and I like the idea that it would be author-led.