Wherever it is located, there seems to be no middle ground in the metaverse, which is generally defined as a network of virtual worlds geared toward user interaction and immersion. On one side there is author Matthew Ball, who claims in his excellent new book The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything that it will “forever alter our daily lives.” On the other side, there are multitudes of Twitter digerati who call the very idea of metaverse publishing ventures “wacko.”
Now, author Neal Stevenson, who coined the term in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, has announced that instead of writing a new book this year, he’ll be working on Lamina1, a blockchain company focused on creating the infrastructure for an open metaverse. Publishers are taking note, and wondering what creative storytelling opportunities exist in this imagined immersive and decentralized internet.
Many of the principles with which future metaverses are associated (decentralized ownership, cryptocurrencies, the blockchain—collectively known as Web3) have been getting battered in the popular press, along with NFTs, the Beanie Babies of this new playground. But a metaverse filled with virtual spaces where people can create and explore along with other people who aren’t present in the same physical space, using any interface they like, could be exciting—and disruptive—even for storytellers who don’t specialize in science fiction.
Immensely popular proto-metaverses already exist, such as Animal Crossing, Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft—all games that are described by Ball as “social platforms that offer non-game experiences”—and they provide opportunities for publishers to reach new audiences and create tight-knit and engaged communities around story worlds. For example, in Minecraft, hundreds of fans built Westeroscraft, an epically detailed version of the world from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels. According to Wired magazine, the builders are currently working with fan fiction writers to imagine new story lines that could take advantage of the sprawling and intricate environment they’ve designed.
The Sandbox and other games contain virtual land where players (and brands) can stake claim and control environments and transactions. Partnering with The Sandbox, Warner Music says that it has acquired “property in the metaverse to develop persistent immersive social music experiences that defy real-world limitations.” Could book publishing harness the possibilities of virtual worlds where readers could become cocreators and co-owners of stories? This summer, Elle Griffin expertly outlined how new sharing and creator economies—and specifically NFTs—may affect writers, readers, and publishers in an Esquire article focused on the promises of Web3, titled “The Crypto Revolution Wants to Reimagine Books” (which is well worth looking up online).
Some metaverses could offer unique marketing and promotional spaces for publishers. Imagine capturing a holographic image of Margaret Atwood reading during her book tour. In the metaverse, she could appear simultaneously at countless venues—and be accessible indefinitely for readers newly discovering her. We can picture future environments where, just as people show off designer clothes, watches, or cars in the real world, they will want their avatars to signal status and fandom in the metaverse—perhaps with “skins” from their favorite manga, or a collection of books with augmented reality covers they collect in a digital library.
All this comes at a price of course. Building immersive persistent virtual worlds that can simultaneously accommodate billions of users and transactions on a massive scale will be a huge undertaking, requiring exponentially more computing power than even the richest companies can currently harness. One hopes that there will be innovative entrants who can solve the technological challenges that stand in the way of the metaverse manifesting, and be able to disrupt the hegemony of the gigantic tech companies that dominate the web at present.
Whether audiences want to spend their time immersed in these worlds will partially depend on who eventually controls the metaverse(s). If we just replicate the walled gardens that our technology partners have built around digital books, the promise of reimagining and evolving transactions between publishers, authors, and readers will be illusory. If a metaverse does evolve that welcomes readers and writers, I’ll be eager to explore its new heights. You can find me out on the moors around Thrushcross Grange. See you there.
Maja Thomas is chief innovation officer at Hachette Livre.