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Books Column: Chapter and metaverse: how publishers should respond to web 3.0


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

The future is coming at publishing fast. Ben Williams shares his thoughts on how the industry must respond.

When Facebook announced that it was changing its name to “Meta”, one of the most damning responses came from the speculative fiction writer Lauren Beukes, who is no stranger to apparitions of the unreal. Decrying technocrats’ penchant for the trite and derivative, she tweeted, “Hire better writers, reality engineers! … Seriously, I couldn’t get away with this in fiction.”

Meta is so literal, isn’t it? And there are a thousand questions as to the ways that the unimaginative people who run the company will warp virtual reality for the banal end of their self-enrichment. 

That the metaverse will descend upon us, however — in one form or another — may now be taken as read. This leads to other questions, which those who want a stake in the brave new world to come should be confronting sooner rather than later. Things are moving fast.

One such question that has been exercising my mind of late is: what will books look like in the metaverse?

The very term comes from a book, of course: Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk epic Snow Crash. (This makes “Meta” the second time Mark Zuckerberg has stolen a name for his business.) The premise of the 21st-century metaverse, which is rather different from Stephenson’s, is that you’ll be able to explore an endless virtual tableau in new and thrilling ways from the comfort of your home. What place, then, does the original device for delivering this experience, magically embedded inside paper and ink, have amongst the pixels?

Writers have toyed with the idea of virtual reality through the ages, from Plato’s Cave (375 BCE) to EM Forster’s prescient short story “The Machine Stops” (1909), to Stephenson and beyond. But I have yet to encounter a fictional scene in which a person enters a fully immersive virtual experience only to navigate to a library, choose a book, open it, and enter a second fully immersive virtual experience that obliterates the original portal. What would be the point of a first-person shooter experience of reading? The question will remain absurd right up until an avatar pulls a title down from a digital shelf for the first time and goes spelunking into other worlds through — well, digital words.

It will happen. 

The thing about virtual reality is that it aims to mimic actual reality: thus, meta books will furnish meta rooms, as it were. And this is where publishers come in. Books are, among other things, prestige objects. Showing them off to others is half the fun of owning them. Two opportunities for publishers thus immediately present themselves in the metaverse: books as digital collectibles; and imprints as tokens. To have a shot at these opportunities, publishers must enter the world of web 3.0.

Not to get too technical, but briefly, “web3” is the term for the network of virtual objects created, or minted, on various blockchains, which is the same technology that brought us Bitcoin. Instead of www addresses, web3 items have blockchain addresses that make the objects definitively “possessable” and trackable, which in turn, allows them to accrue value, like real-world objects. 

The shorthand for a web3 collectible is “NFT” and, though the technology for minting NFTs from texts is more rudimentary than for images, it will catch up. When this happens, the market for digital-first editions, for example, will quickly grow. 

Publishers, do you have a plan to mint limited edition copies of your books as NFTs? What special features are you including in the NFTs to make them extra desirable?

As for publishing imprints, just as they have websites today, so they will need to have a tokenised presence in the future — tokens being the fundamental assets of web3, the things that allow you to plug into the network (just as a website allows you to plug into the current, web 2.0 network).

Publishers, have you started investigating the type of smart contract required to build a token for your imprint? 

We all know the person who collects the classic Penguin editions with the orange bindings, arranging them together on a single shelf. Now imagine this person in the metaverse, looking to add orange binding NFTs to a virtual shelf in the salon they’ve created to host their book club. The virtual books must match the real ones, of course, and the true collector will hunt every last one of them down. Penguin would be missing a trick if it didn’t cater to this replication of book culture online.

Publishers, are you missing a trick? Have you reserved your .eth address yet?

I see my column has minted more questions than answers. If you’re interested in hearing more of my thoughts on books, literature and the new web, let me know. I can speculate endlessly on how publishers, bookshops, writers and others in the literary value chain will participate in web3.

Meantime, get back to reading that book. DM/ ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.


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