Ah, there is never a dull moment in publishing. I actually had a buffet of topics I could have tackled this week, from presses behaving badly to the somewhat baffling choice of romance novel adaptation news this week, but I think it would be a greater service if I stopped and talked about the very hot topic of NFTs.
In case you missed the excitement, last week a group of very well established YA authors released the news of their upcoming community think tank style project titled Realms of Ruin. When I say well established, these authors were New York Times Best Sellers, some had movie adaptations of their work, all were known and established and had enough clout to sell this idea. An idea to build a community around a fantasy world, invite outside authors to contribute and, if the work was good enough, have their stories become cannon parts of the world. However, right from go, there were two massive red flags surrounding this project: the target teen audience and payment in the form of NFTs.
The first issue, honestly might have been enough to do it in. No one in the Realm of Ruin discord could concisely answer issues surrounding exploitation of minors and copyright protections. Never mind the base target audience could not purchase NFTs themselves since you must be over 18 to do so. Tip of the iceberg but there was just as much outcry against the use of NFTs themselves.
Coming into this with a very vague understanding of what NFTs or 'Non-Fungible Tokens' actually are, I like many others were scratching our heads at the clap back. That is until I started to dig and what I found out about NFTs is equal parts intriguing and horrifying.
What the What is an NFT?
A Non Fungible Token means a unique, one of kind form of currency that cannot be interchanged with another. To try to put a physical comparison, think of it as a rare, one of a kind collector's edition trading card. Unlike Bitcoins which are fungible and can be interchanged, Non Fungible Tokens are effectively the Mona Lisa's of crypto currency.
Most NFTs are part of the Ethereum Blockchain. Ethereum is another form of crypto currency like bitcoin and a blockchain is a specific type of database that is different than regular databases as it stores information in blocks which are then chained together. Here is a much clearer break down of blockchains from an article on Investopedia:
Blockchain is a specific type of database.
It differs from a typical database in the way it stores information; blockchains store data in blocks that are then chained together.
As new data comes in it is entered into a fresh block. Once the block is filled with data it is chained onto the previous block, which makes the data chained together in chronological order.
Different types of information can be stored on a blockchain but the most common use so far has been as a ledger for transactions.
In Bitcoin’s case, blockchain is used in a decentralized way so that no single person or group has control—rather, all users collectively retain control.
Decentralized blockchains are immutable, which means that the data entered is irreversible. For Bitcoin, this means that transactions are permanently recorded and viewable to anyone.
Still with me? Good. Okay, so why are NFTs so hot in the art community right now? Well NFTs give artists another way to sell their work that otherwise not have much of a market. And there is a royalty system built into NFTs so that every time they change hands, a percentage of the profits also goes to the original artist. And they are selling, for ridiculous amounts of money. Such as the 50 second video by Grimes that sold for nearly $390,000 or a piece of digital art from Beeple that sold at auction for $69 MILLION. An insane amount of money when these pieces can also literally be copied and downloaded right off the web, but its not the same as owning the collector's token. Right?
NFTs are complicated, even to a full grown adult like myself. Even after reading several articles on the subject I am sitting here, whispering under my breath 'who would pay that much money for a Gucci Ghost' which is a sentence I never though I would utter in my life. How could we even ask teens to buy into such a system that has anything from concrete rules to play by. These were the biggest faults surrounding the Realms of Ruin and why the project ended up being pulled.
In the discussion surrounding NFTs, many authors, agents, and industry professionals pointed out they are an absolute disaster for the environment. And this is mostly true. NFTs and Crypto Currency in general take monumental amounts of energy to create and 'mine', Ethereum included.
Ethereum alone is responsible for 96,200,000 tons of CO2 since its inception. -Shanti Escalante de Mattei, Art News
It is debatable how tied in those numbers are to the production of NFTs. In an Art News article by the author above, she explores the actual environmental impact of art NFTs against the production of Ethereum which the news article surprisingly concludes is negligible. Shanti goes on to point to the practice of harmful infrastructures trying to pinpoint accountability on the individual, which is something we often see when it comes to corporations vs environmental harm. That being said, I cannot downplay the fact NFTs are still extremely wasteful and they do do their own level of harm. Their creation often burns through CPUs to create them because the current technology and power grid most countries exist on is not adaptive or able to handle that sort of power output. And they still burn through a huge chunk of energy. Is it comparable to what crypto currency does? Possibly not, but it is difficult to slice out NFTs by themselves when the other exists. Yet, the financial appeal of NFTs can't be denied, and it is easy to see why authors would be drawn to it. Authors and artists are in a similar boat: trying to wade through a market that often doesn't value the time, effort, and energy used to create a product. Selling art, selling books, is a financial minefield, and most take years, if they are lucky, to start breaking even in the field. Of course another form of currency would appeal. And until publishing pays authors enough to live on, this will not be the last time we see NFTs creep back into the conversation.