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Kit McKeown

PUB 802: Technology and Evolving Forms of Publishing

John Maxwell

February 27, 2022


Literature NFTs are not a fleeting fancy, but a possible future of publishing.

If you peruse the Internet, you may have heard of an innovation in blockchain technologies called non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. In 2021, NFTs exploded onto the scene in the form of arguably ugly illustrations of various apes and news articles about outrageous sales, including the first tweet by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for 2.9 million USD or the latest Kings of Leon album release, which amassed to 2 million dollars in sales. NFTs, in their various and nebulous forms, are proving a lucrative and fast-growing phenomenon, particularly among those who fancy themselves investors or collectors. NFT marketplaces such as OpenSea are platforms on which digital artists can sell their works in the same manner of artists of physical works, such as paintings or sculptures. Regardless of you see the phenomenon as inflated and superficial or an innovative technology, non-fungible tokens are here, like them or not. Although there is not much scholarly material on NFTs, I, as a writer and publishing student, have seen whispers of non-fungible tokens in literature formats, and even NFT books. While I do not believe that NFT books or literature formats would replace the physical book or even traditional eBook, I would caution publishing houses not to rule out NFTs from future phases of publishing. By exploring the technology behind NFTs and investigating what is possible in the realm of blockchain and cryptocurrency, I propose that literature NFTs present a possible future of publishing.       

What are NFTs?

If you are like me, you may have a tenuous understanding of the definition of NFTs and why people care about them. An NFT “is a token stored on a blockchain that is used to represent ownership of digital assets like artworks, recordings, virtual real estate, and pets” (Pinto-Gutiérrez). They represent ownership of digital art and other unique digital items, and they are sold on “specialized marketplaces” such as OpenSea (Pinto-Gutiérrez). My favourite definition comes from Forbes:


            An NFT is simply a record of who owns a unique piece of digital content. That content can be anything from art, music, graphics, tweets, memes, games — you name it. If it’s digital and it was created, it can be an NFT. It’s ‘non-fungible” because it can’t be readily exchanged for a similar good at a similar price (Owsinski).


Much of the hype around NFTs is related to the concept of ownership: “if you buy an NFT, an entry is created on a blockchain that represents your ‘ownership.’ You can resell the NFT, in which case a new entry goes on the blockchain indicating the user who bought the NFT from you.” (Rosenblatt). Rosenblatt places the terms “ownership” and “own” in quotations when describing NFTs, because of an inherent flaw in the structure of the NFT market: it is impossible to ‘own’ a digital object. NFTs simulate ownership; your purchase does not “restrict anyone else from viewing or making copies of that image” (Rosenblatt).


Since NFTs are a new phenomenon, there is not yet much academic sources on their value. Some claim that NFTs flourish on the idea of “digital scarcity” (Frost). This means that “demand forces determining NFT prices are fundamentally dependent upon inherent scarcity and a buyer’s readiness to purchase a one-of-a-kind item” (Pinto-Gutiérrez). However, others claim that scarcity is not relevant in all NFTs, especially when there is not much interest in a particular section of the NFT market. With many NFTs, such as the bored apes and, uh, beans, it is hard to determine what makes a particular NFT sell. Is it their collectability? Their visual uniqueness? The bragging rights? The opportunity to flaunt one’s wealth? It is hard to definitively say. However, NFTs are certainly worth something. Why else would one spend 69 million USD on a digital collage?                 


How could literature NFTs work?


With an understanding of NFTs in general, one may ask what possibilities do NFTs present for books? Can they even work?

Most might say it is “too early to tell” whether literature NFTs will be a successful venture or not (Rosenblatt). However, NFT books have already creeping their way into the market. Since an NFT is a kind of “crypto-generated digital receipt,” this makes an NFT book “a receipt for a digital book […] packaged with the actual book’s file, and exclusive content to ‘sweeten the deal’” (Hoffman). For instance, the author and former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas auctioned off several of his literary works on OpenSea. The most expensive product was a collection of his work-in-progress essays, the highest bid for which was “3.3 ETH,” almost six thousand USD as of March 2021. He also posted an unpublished concept for a cover, and the highest bid was 3 ETH, or approximately five thousand USD) (Frost).

In another instance, the author Blake Butler wrote a novel called Decade in 2008, which was “virtually unpublishable” due to the density of the language and complex structure. He created a GIF of scrolling through the Word document, then minted it as an NFT along with a PDF of the novel. “Overnight, a stranger bought the NFT for 5 ethereum—a $7,569.50 value at the time, now the equivalent of $12,377.30, much more than Butler had made off several of his published books” (Caplan). The buyer did not purchase it to read – no, no. He has “no plans to resell. Now, Decade sits in [the user’s] digital wallet next to a picture of a forest and a pair of digital socks” (Caplan). As I said above, the collectability of NFTs is what is so enticing. People do not necessarily collect them for functionality.

Publishing an NFT novel allows writers to “customize the way selling their writing NFTs represents their art,” but Caplan says that new crops of “crypto writers” are selling their NFT novels differently. The flexibility of digital platforms allows novels to be marketed in unique and compelling ways, such as “visually striking GIFs,” or releasing a novel one page at a time. The ability to play with form and take ownership of decentralization is proving more and more enticing to NFT writers. The Internet has become the platform for self-publishing, and authors are continuing to move “toward new, digitally minded ways of organizing information and creating narrative” (Caplan).

What are the issues with literature NFTs?


One main issue with literature NFTs is that “ebooks are inherently fungible,” meaning ebooks and ePub files can be duplicated over and over. This means that selling a literature NFT will require “artificial scarcity” (Hoffman). Buyers can be swept up in the hype and lose money due to unkept promises, and the creation of artificial scarcity can lead to buyers feeling duped.  Additionally, NFTs are currently unprotected under copyright law, which again draws the concept of “ownership” into question. NFT works of art “gain no protection against copying through their existence” (Frazer). A system of protection, beyond the current system of an NFT’s unique embedded receipt format, will need to be implemented to protect authors.

Additionally, the environmental impact of blockchain mining is significant. For instance, “Space Cat,” which is a GIF of a cat in a rocket ship, has a carbon footprint “equivalent to an EU resident’s electricity usage for two months” (Calma). Other NFTs have reduced carbon footprints, and it is currently unclear how literature NFTs compare. However, there are environmentally friendly cryptocurrencies being developed, with artist-led efforts to make NFTs more sustainable. It seems, at this moment, that these efforts have not yet gotten very far.


The Internet is a strange place.


Hoffman is determined to prove that “the promise of NFTs will most likely not upturn the whole publishing industry, and will not decentralize the power of the richest publishing giants” and I agree with him. When Hoffman asks if “readers [are] supposed to sit down with their morning coffee and scroll through their digital library while sighing with pleasure,” I would answer, no. But I don’t think literature NFTs are for traditional readers. They may not even be for folks who are found inside Indigo. What I see here is a way to break through that white, middle-aged, college-educated woman audience and find other avenues to market literature. If one were to ask, “why get an NFT when you can buy an ebook?” I would say, that’s a fair question! But NFT collectors are just not like regular people. Us normies don’t “get” NFTs, at least not right away. NFTs books are for collectors, not readers. However, they post a new revenue stream for authors who do not wish or who are unable to publish traditionally. Like them or not, NFTs are here. As for how long they will last, no one can say for sure. However, literature NFTs have potential to upend sections of the book industry, posing new and entirely unexpected futures for publishing. We might as well enjoy the ride.


Works Cited

Caplan, Walker. “The Rise of the Crypto Writer? on What Literary Nfts Might Mean for The Book World.” Literary Hub, 22 Dec. 2021,

Frazer, Brad. “The (Copyright) Trouble with Nfts.” Jane Friedman, 24 June 2021,

Frost, Liam. “Literary World Is Latest to Embrace NFTs.” Decrypt, Decrypt, 19 Mar. 2021,

Hoffman, P. S. “NFTs for Authors: Is This a Rush for Fool's Gold?” Jane Friedman, 20 Nov. 2021.

Nawotka, Ed. “Bookwire Launches in the U.S.”, 4 June 2021,

Owsinski, Bobby. “Will NFTS Finally Fulfill the Blockchain Promise to Music?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 6 Mar. 2021,

Pinto-Gutiérrez, Christian, et al. "The NFT Hype: What Draws Attention to Non-Fungible Tokens?" Mathematics 10.3 (2022): 335. ProQuest. Web. 27 Feb. 2022.


Reichental, Jonathan, and Introduction to NFTs: Non-Fungible Tokens / with Jonathan Reichental., 2021.

Rosenblatt, Bill. “Could Nfts Work in Publishing?”, 16 Apr. 2021,

Wenstrom, Emily. “NFTs for Books: How This Emerging Tech Can Reward Authors & Readers.” BOOK RIOT, 14 May 2021,

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