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Blockchain in Publishing: 8 Possible Use Cases

  • 6 November 2018
  • Sam Mire

Estimated revenues for the publishing industry in 2017 exceeded $26 billion, and traditional publishers continue to experience strong 2–3% growth on a year-over-year basis. But the publishing landscape has forced the successful to embrace adaptation in a major way, as the landscape has become increasingly more digital. Self-publishing and online publications have become the norm rather than the exception, and most publishers have had to embrace a steep learning curve in order to survive, let alone thrive.

There’s also been a consolidation of book sales into online markets, with one marketplace bounding miles ahead of its competitors. Amazon, the lion of the publishing-distribution jungle, was responsible for over 45% of hardcover book sales last year. And though millennials are putting a reported 80% of their book-buying budgets into physical — as opposed to digital — versions of literature, it’s no secret that e-books have been widely accepted as a more convenient, cost-effective way to inconspicuously take in the latest Fifty Shades of Grey.

Straddling these challenges and structural changes in the publishing sector is not optional. The blockchain is a prospective measure to allow authors and small-time publishers a chance at once again competing with industry giants, such as Amazon, for a greater share of the profits. Blockchain can even potentially reorient the marketplace through new sales, rights distribution, and consumption platforms.

Blockchain in Publishing - Practical use cases


Facilitating Better Paywalls / Subscription Models

Blockchain use cases in the lending industry - Paywalls and Subscription Models

The decline of the written word has been exaggerated, at least in the case of books. In 2017, 2.7 billion books were moved off of store shelves, to the tune of $26.23 billion in net revenue. The rise of ebooks is noteworthy, as 27% of sales came in a digital format, as opposed to 43.2% print, 16.3% instructional material, and 10.5% downloadable audio. Yet even with revenue in the tens of billions of dollars, the same report notes that a “mild, five-year decline” in revenues is to be expected. And in the first quarter of 2018, publishers saw a 3.2% decline in ebook revenues compared with the same quarter in 2017. This falls in line with a trend in overall sales, as paperback sales dropped 1.7% in the first 11 months of 2017. While magazine sales vary by the sort of publication, a 16%+ decline in magazine ad sales is a large reason why most agree that the future of magazine sales is not particularly bright. A new system of purchase for both books and magazines would help provide some spice that could reignite interest and reverse declining trends.

The blockchain could present an alternative. By limiting the supply of articles or entire publications — à la cryptocurrencies, who derive their value from scarcity — an author or publishing outlet could charge for individual pieces of content, free of advertising. A customer wouldn’t need to purchase an annual subscription to something just to view a single article, and they wouldn’t have to endure countless ads to get to what they’re trying to read. It is a middle ground that could wreck the current binary subscription versus advertising revenue model. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Narrative  Content community designed to reward creators more fairly.
  • Unlock  Writer controlled protocol for subscription and payment. 

Use-Based Payment Systems

Blockchain use cases in the lending industry - Use-Based Payment Systems

British writer Mark Dawson may reportedly make $450,000 a year from his spy series, but most self-published authors don’t make anything close to that from their ebooks. One can argue that under the current payment structure, users benefit from a use-based system; they keep roughly 70% of every purchase of their work. However, for non-traditional writers and authors, such a specific cut of each work they produce — and the related views or shares of that work — is typically not factored into their pay.

Some mediums have sought to change that paradigm in an attempt to attract more popular, qualified writers. Medium, for example, is seeking to incorporate more paywalled articles onto their platform, which will benefit both the site and the authors monetarily. By tying payments to the amount of readers who “clap” for an article — the equivalent of a heart, share, or recommend button on other sites — Medium hopes to create a meritocratic payment system that allows the most view-worthy works to rise to the top, while rewarding authors for creating such works.

With the blockchain, authors could be paid even more immediately by tying digital wallets to Medium-like platforms, which could pass along revenues as soon as an article is liked, shared, etc. This would be an extremely appealing model for authors, for whom it can be notoriously difficult to secure timely, reliable payment. Plus, blockchain technology’s ability to identify individuals could help prevent self-promotion and click fraud. 


Better Content Distribution Platforms

Blockchain use cases in the lending industry - Content Distribution Platforms

In July 2011, one of the most well-known brick and mortar book retailers, Borders, rung the death knell. They announced that the company would be liquidated, resulting in 11,000 remaining employees being terminated and 400 stores closing their doors for good. It was a sign of a growing trend toward online and digital book sales that has not turned around.

Earlier this year, Barnes & Noble, the most profitable, well run, and well regarded of all the physical book outlets, announced widespread job cuts after its shares continued a steady decline. Though the company expects that the cuts will create savings of $40 million annually, its stock currently sits at $4.80, a decline of roughly 55% from last year. While Amazon has more than filled any void that people see from fewer brick and mortar book retailers, a bit of healthy competition in the marketplace could allow greater leverage to self-publishers, as well as a break from the traditional systems of consensus about what is good — New York Times bestseller lists, etc.

Blockchain-linked distribution platforms carry benefits in terms of detecting and preventing piracy and unauthorized sharing through unique cryptographic identifiers. Beyond this perk, the automation of blockchain technology may allow self-publishers to keep a greater cut of their sales figures, and may open some minds to new rating systems while allowing authors a network outside of Amazon and traditional publishing in which to make their mark. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Narrative  Content community designed to reward creators more fairly. 

Book ICOs

Blockchain use cases in the lending industry - Book ICOs

The U.S. book publishing industry generated an estimated $26.23 billion in net revenue for 2017, with approximately 2.72 billion units sold. But authors don’t see all of that revenue — not even close. The typical revenue models allot authors approximately 8–15% of the list price. But Amazon’s 2007 launch of their e-book self-publishing platform helped give more power back to indie authors, and Apple’s agency pricing model, introduced as part of its iBooks platform in 2010, allows self-publishers to earn as much as 70% of the list price for each copy sold. Amazon followed, doubling its author-publisher royalties from 35% to 70%. But how about an author keeping an even greater share of the revenue?

That is the idea of book ICOs conducted using blockchain platforms. Essentially a crowdfunding event for the writing and launch of a literary work, readers can buy tokens issued by the prospective author and then redeem those coins to acquire a copy of the work once it’s complete. Such a system represents a start toward excising costly middlemen, and even potentially the publishing platforms, while connecting the reader directly to the author, to the benefit of both parties. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem 

  • Publica – Platform for conducting book ICOs. 

Decentralized Publishing and Usage Rights (for Self-Published Authors)

Blockchain use cases in the lending industry - Decentralized Publishing

In early 2014, authors published by the industry’s “Big Five” were earning 2.5 times what small and medium publisher-authors were earning. By 2015, self-publishing authors were reaping nearly 50% of all U.S. Kindle author earnings. The messages are clear: the publishing industry is moving toward the digital, and also toward self-publishing as a more viable revenue stream.

While these shifts are liberating, they also leave many vulnerable to illegal replication and dissemination of works that authors slaved long and hard to produce. Without publishers’ legal teams and the more difficult-to-replicate nature of physical books, management of publishing and usage rights are more important than ever for would-be successful authors. That’s why blockchain platforms have been created to make the establishment, issuance, and licensing of rights to a work clear and immutable through customizable licenses completely under the author-publisher’s control. These platforms allow integration of plugins from traditional publishing platforms, such as WordPress, to assign specific rights to virtually any form of written work, and ultimately see the author compensated for those works if readers are willing to show their financial support.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem 

  • Po.etDecentralized network that provides monetization for content creators.
  • Scenarex – Company using blockchain for digital publishing solutions.
  • Authorship Decentralized, author-driven publishing solutions. 

Decentralized Publishing and Usage Rights (for Publishers)

The rise in self-published authors as a sustainable model, coupled with the move toward e-book formats, means that traditional publishers must adapt, utilizing new technologies to retain as great a share of revenues as they possibly can. Retailers already retain well over 50% of a book’s cover price, so it’s not as if publishers are the thieves in the night they are sometimes portrayed to be. Though a typical publisher takes 25% of the cover sales, give or take, many books do not ultimately “earn out” their expected sales, with the typical book selling approximately 3,000 copies in its entire lifetime.

Again, this highlights the importance of maintaining rights shares that are advantageous to the publisher, particularly in the increasingly popular digital landscape. The blockchain will ultimately help publishers retain a particular set of rights, and adjust those rights specifically to maximize the potential revenues from their existing deals. By embracing greater flexibility on an author-by-author basis and embracing a more dynamic sales model in which rights are stored and sold using a blockchain platform, publishers may be able to woo a more attractive segment of self-publishers and reduce the illegal resale of their works.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem 

  • Bookchain  Smart contracts to define usage rights.
  • Po.et – Established a network protocol for content ownership on the blockchain. 
  • PageMajik Blockchain based content management system. 

Better Collaboration / Rights Assignment for Scholarly Journals / Articles

Blockchain use cases in the lending industry - Scholarly Journals Collaboration

When former Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz was caught illegally downloading countless files from scholarly journals stored on the JSTOR platform, he was hit with a 13-count indictment and eventually took his own life amidst a potential decades-long prison sentence. The saga sparked an interesting, if not polarizing, debate over “open access,” but that debate ultimately led to a conclusion shared by many: scholarly articles, regardless of how you see the ideal of free information, cost money to produce, and will generally always cost money to acquire.

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant improvements that can be made to lower the cost of producing the articles, and hopefully in turn the cost of viewing those articles. After all, a JSTOR membership is not cheap, coming in at $19.50 per month or $199 per year. While this is not completely unreasonable, the idea of paying $200 is not exactly appealing to the aspiring journalist or young professional. But, as JSTOR’s site explains, those fees go toward making the content available, from covering licensing fees to compensating content owners (who deserve to be paid), to hosting the site, etc.

One way that the blockchain may help lower the cost for all parties is by providing a Google Docs-like means for authors of scholarly content to securely collaborate and oversee their work in real time. This system would provide immediate attribution for each contributor, and would also streamline the peer review process, which can currently take months or even a year or more. Blockchain-inscribed metadata could also provide built-in rights attribution and licensing information that currently represents an extra time-consuming step in an already bogged-down, ultimately costly process. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Pluto Network  Reinventing the sharing of scholarly research with decentralized platforms.

Improved Digital Advertising for Publishers

Blockchain use cases in the lending industry - Digital Advertising for Publishers

Certain studies suggest that print advertisements, and especially those in magazines, have a greater impact on the reader than ads run on television, radio, and other platforms. The relationship between publishers of the written word and advertisers has always been critical, especially when it comes to ensuring that magazines, newspapers, and digital sites remain financially viable. While certain publications have been forced to cut back editions, go all-digital, or shut down operations completely, new forms of publications are fashioning a proven formula to an increasingly digital audience.

For example, digital magazines have gained 6 million readers over a recent three-year span. And considering that readers spend an average of about an hour with a given issue of a magazine they choose to read, the advertising space in print — whether digital or physical — has proven perhaps more valuable than any other medium. However, the nature of digital advertising for publications has some room for improvement, and as advertising continues to saturate all media, embracing change is important.

Blockchain publishing platforms offer the added advantage of being able to compensate consumers directly for interacting with advertisements. By providing incentive for interaction, publishers are more likely to see greater attention from advertisers as they come to understand that a willing audience is a more captive, actionable consumer audience.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • AminoPay More transparent blockchain powered digital advertising for publishers. 
About Sam Mire

Data journalist and market research analyst focused on emerging technology, trends, and ideas.

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