Q&A with Professor Sandberg, Part Two

Wikimedia. (Image: Davidstankiewicz)

Kirsten Sandberg is an adjunct professor of academic publishing, a member of the M.S. in Publishing advisory board, a writer, an editor, and a publishing consultant. We spoke with her about her career, her current role as editor-in-chief of the Blockchain Research Institute, and what publishing students can do to prepare for the future. This is Part II of her interview. Miss Part I? No problem. You can find it here

 How will blockchain disrupt publishing?

 To imagine how blockchain could transform publishing, I think about the technology in three ways that are useful to me as a publisher. First, it is software that runs on a peer-to-peer network, just as Napster did, but instead of sharing free copies of digital files and violating copyright law, it enables users – let’s say authors and readers – to exchange money for specific rights (represented digitally) to those files or to any other thing of value (e.g., physical books) without going through a trusted third party like a William Morris Endeavor, a Copyright Clearing Center, or a Penguin Random House. Blockchain also requires users to avail themselves of asymmetric encryption techniques to keep these peer-to-peer transactions private and secure.

Second, it is a massive distributed spreadsheet that records all these transactions in sequence, block by block, on every computer running the software, and so it is transparent: every device has the same information about the state of the network – the “same version of the truth,” as people in the space sometimes say. Also, it’s not as if bitcoin users are accumulating and trading a bunch of digital coin files; their holdings are indicated by an account balance like a checking or royalty account but without a bank, a PayPal, or a proprietary royalty system.

Third, it is a digital database of value, be it in the form of a cryptocurrency balance, exclusive usage rights to a specific e-book file, or a simplified Chinese language rights to, say, the latest guide to Solidity, a new contract-oriented programming language. As I understand it, neither the e-book files nor the copyrighted works would exist on the blockchain; rather, information about their file location, their initial publication (in the form of a hash or digital digest of the whole work, which could someday be recognized as copyright registration), and any sale or license of rights would be recorded on the blockchain.

Kodak is exploring this type of blockchain solution for images and Po.et is already providing publishers with a means of timestamping their work on the blockchain. Mediachain, acquired by Spotify, is working on a content licensing platform. DECENT is creating what it calls “publishing as a platform” for distribution. Distant Shores Media is using blockchain for coordinating and managing translations of its books. Authors could store unique e-book files on a peer network such as the Interplanetary File System—seriously, students should check it out—and give readers access to those files (in exchange for some value) without an Amazon, a DropBox, or an Ingram.

To use a blockchain for these transactions, participants would need to own (or have access to, via a digital currency exchange like Coinbase, Gemini, or Kraken) the cryptocoin or token associated with it. To get the next Harry Potter book or to license Harry Potter rights, readers or licensees would need Pottermore tokens. To my mind, that gives all users incentive to preserve the integrity of the particular blockchain: it is holding both the rights and the rewards.

Those sound like three ways to put literary agents, publishers, and booksellers out of work.

They’ll close only if they’re close-minded to innovation. If they start asking themselves, “How do we combine the tools of digital scarcity and digital abundance?” they’ll see that they can expand their publishing playbook exponentially in terms of strategy and business models. Anyone in publishing now can download the software for free and use it to reimagine all roles in the publishing business. That’s what members of the creative industries are already doing. The Alliance of Independent Authors in London, for example, is looking to create a truly author-centric model of publishing rather than the current model, where many authors are the first to work on a book project and the last to receive their cut of any revenue after their royalty advance earns out, if they got an advance.

Screenshot courtesy of The Blockchain Research Institute.

The AIA’s members understand how the blockchain, unlike the Internet, could enable authors to manage their own rights and revenues through smart contracts, distributed software applications that, by codifying contractual relationships, facilitating negotiations, and incentivizing performance of all the parties, would function as a virtual literary agent online. In PUB 618, “Legal Aspects of Publishing,” we spend only a week on smart contracts – that’s not enough time to grasp such a big and important concept in terms of all the agreements a publisher deploys across sales, production, manufacturing, distribution, and even employee healthcare insurance. After all, a publishing house is essentially a bundle of contracts, talent, and leadership.

The Internet has definitely helped in identifying new authors, promoting books, increasing their discoverability, facilitating impulse buys, and engaging readers around the world. But, from the standpoint of publishers and the free press, the Internet has exacerbated a few challenges.

Challenges besides piracy? Like what?

In PUB 618, “Legal Aspects of Publishing,” we look at a number of these in the context of the First Amendment and its equivalents in the other big publishing markets around the world. We also consider privacy, consumer protection, and employment laws; students dig through contracts and publishing lawsuits in all these areas. What they find is eye-opening.

Paradox of copyright infringement – People can easily and quickly cut and paste another person’s material into their own documents, sometimes without attributing that person or getting permission to use the material. After all, the mindset of the Internet is one of repurposing content. Sometimes, it’s accidental or sloppy – a quotation mark goes missing, a citation gets cut. By comparison, finding the person with authority to grant usage permission is sometimes really difficult, as is getting a speedy response to a permission request. Smart contracts could automate the process: through a book’s or an article’s unique ID, a person would be able to query the availability of a passage, its cost, and the desired attribution, all specified in the contract. If the terms of permission were acceptable, then the person could send the amount and receive permission instantaneously.

Censorship through centralization – Content on the Internet is difficult to preserve as originally published; authoritarian regimes can take down or alter what they deem offensive speech, socialize their own version of reality, or simply label the truth “fake news.” It’s 1984, post-pneumatic tubes. Censorship is possible in part because the information is often hosted in a single centralized (and sometimes state-owned) repository such as Sina Blog in China or Vkontakte in Russia. In contrast, blockchain is not simply decentralized; it’s distributed across all the computers running the software, and so its data exist “everywhere and nowhere.” To take down a story would require taking down the global network. The blockchain start-up Civil is attempting to launch a censor-proof journalism marketplace accessible via virtual private networks, where necessary. It also plans to maintain news archives.

Paying with privacy – Cookies and global position systems enable us to track each other’s whereabouts and movement online. Surveillance is great for catching criminals and recovering stolen property and lost children, pets, and devices. It’s not for watching authors’ and readers’ habits online, stalking them offline, preventing them from assembling, or harassing them because of their gender, politics, country of origin, or any other point of difference. Parents need to have serious conversations about cyberbullying with their children. Unfortunately, as we learn in PUB 618, many Internet users give away more personal data than they realize because they haven’t carefully read the terms of use and service of the sites they frequent and the apps they use. (Really, why does my flashlight app need access to my address book?) Worse – after Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program – people don’t care enough to do anything about systematic invasion of privacy. Now LexisNexis Risk Solutions (part of the world’s second largest publishing firm, RELX Group) has launched a special investigative unit and partnered with the start-up Elliptic to help governments surveil blockchain transactions and identify the transactors. This is a deeply troubling matter.

Computer Password

PA$$W0RD, my password! – Identity theft continues to rise. Anyone with skills and tools can hack a person’s computer or a company’s website and get into systems, steal content, and impersonate other people. Publishers no doubt learned some important lessons from the Sony hack. Of course, users who choose password as their password or don’t take TOU/TOS seriously may not understand their risk exposure and the data, privacy, and intellectual property rights they’ve forfeited. With digital IDs and smart contracts, authors and readers can—and I hope they do—set the terms of the relationships they want to have with each other and with publishers and online retailers, including how they want to manage their rights, their personal information, and the data they throw off as they move about the physical and virtual worlds. Don Tapscott expects this to disrupt the business of big data and is writing more about how users will be able to control their own ID and even monetize their data on the blockchain. Stay tuned.

▪Only as secure as the weakest link – Publishers manage value chains between authors and readers. Links include retailer, wholesaler, bulk shipping company, printer, literary agency, and all their banks and mail carriers. The more links, the greater the potential security risk. David Smith of the UK’s Institution of Engineering and Technology pointed out some of the digital vulnerabilities in an excellent post on The Scholarly Kitchen. It’s not just digital: remember that large shipment of Harry Potter books that went missing? Block Verify could address this risk by assigning each book a unique code and tag it with an RFID that publishers could monitor on the blockchain as supply moved through distribution and identify points of shipment diversion or disappearance. Similarly, Provenance could track the sourcing of raw materials and energy used in book production and distribution and then attest to the environmental impact of a print run.

Flying data blind – A lot of publishing data exists in data silos. Publishers and advertisers may not have a complete picture of their own markets and supply chains. They have general data about copies sold through various retail and wholesale channels; and the larger the publishing conglomerate, the more data it has. Analyzing data on social media and NPD BookScan provides additional insight into who’s reading and talking about their books, but how many publishers know what Amazon, Facebook, and Google know about their markets for content? To address this asymmetry, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has formed a blockchain working group that’s studying the technology. Working with MetaX, the IAB Tech Lab has already put its Ads.txt Plus authorization utility on the adChain. Brave Software has taken a different approach: it launched a free web browser that blocks ads and trackers; instead, publishers ask consumers for their attention to content—be it an ad, a sample chapter, or a marketing survey—in exchange for cryptocurrency. The producer gets the attention paid for, and the consumer maintains privacy.

▪Greater transparency with greater privacy – This is a goal as well as a challenge. If publishers managed their entire value chain – not just production and marketing – on this new platform, then they would have a greater view of data without jeopardizing anyone’s personal information. They could decide whether to set up direct-to-reader sales channels or pay authors royalty revenue nearly in real time. Imagine that! Blockchain could level the data playing field for publishers and enable them to measure all elements of strategy and operations as the digital native firms do right now. We shall see!

What should students do to prepare for a blockchain publishing world?

Publishing isn’t about books; it’s about relationships. I didn’t understand that for a long time. Focus on the quality and not just the quantity of connections. Also, consider taking coding courses and adding coding as a skill. The publishing industry, if it is to survive as a cluster of expertise in cultivating author talent, will need lots of coders and professionals who understand what code and smart contracts can do. Attend blockchain-focused meetups. Look for internships at the publishers, media, and advertising companies involved in blockchain; or offer to explore blockchain as part of an internship and build some expertise within the organization.

Also, read more science fiction. The science tends not to remain fiction for long, and sci-fi authors help us to anticipate the possible social and economic consequences of our inventions. I’ve already referred to George Orwell as prescient. Whoever read Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson to name a few, got previews of Wikipedia, 3D printing, artificial intelligence (Siri, Alexa), autonomous vehicles, virtual reality/augmented reality, and the Internet of Things. The BRI and others have reported on the rise of robots as the new consumer class. Stanislav Hristov Ivanov and Craig Webster have provided a useful set of questions that publishers could be asking themselves about robots as consumers of content. I might ask students in PUB 632, “Academic publishing,” to explore that concept this summer.

Finally, remain open-minded, eager to learn, and willing to change. As more of the global economy shifts to knowledge-based enterprise, the demand for the publishing function within organizations will grow. When asked, “Which… areas of activity offer the greatest potential for productivity gains over the next 15 years?” 43 per cent of the executives surveyed identified knowledge management as the activity with the most promise. Dr. Zhao Shuming of Nanjing University concurred: “How to apply existing knowledge to create sustainable competitive advantages is the new challenge faced by corporations.….[They] will need to provide value-added service for more diversified customers, which requires them to have stronger capabilities in communication, knowledge acquisition, knowledge creation, and knowledge transmission” – the very skills of the best editors, content marketers, journalists, and authors. All that to say, the best jobs in publishing may not be in what we think of as the publishing industry today.

Want more? This’ll help you understand blockchain in 2 minutes.