History was made at the 2018 London Book Fair—at a Tuesday afternoon session, Josef Marc, CEO of upstart blockchain publisher Publica, announced that the company had just gone live in the Google Play Store with author Sukhi Jutla’s Escape The Cubicle: Quit The Job You Hate—in effect, Marc said, creating the world’s first #1 title on the “blockchain bestseller” list.

Of course, there isn’t really a blockchain bestseller list—at least not yet. But the burgeoning technology—best known in the finance industry for powering cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin—holds promise for publishing, supporters say. And at a panel packed with curious authors and publishers at the 2018 London Book Fair, The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) handed out its just-released white paper "Authors and the Blockchain: Towards a Creator Centered Business Model," and heard from a panel of experts and early adopters.

For many in the audience, the most obvious questions was: what exactly is blockchain? Essentially, as the ALLi white paper explains, the blockchain is a public ledger system that enables people to transfer "unique pieces of digital property,” known as blocks, in a way that is totally secure, transparent, time-stamped, decentralized and irreversible. Essentially, all necessary details are coded into the blocks, and once accepted, the blocks become an unalterable part of the blockchain.

So how would blockchain work for books? Basically, a digital book created in the blockchain holds both the text, and also all the terms of a book’s contract—referred to as a “smart contract”—including but not limited to commercial terms of sale (and even resale), author credit and other information.

When a user purchases a blockchain book, the transaction is direct between author and reader—no middleman, like Amazon. The reader gets the text within an app. The text cannot be tampered with or transferred outside of the contract terms coded therein. And the author is paid immediately, with payments divvied up according to the smart contract—for example, the contract might call for 10% of the book's price to go the author’s publisher.

And yes, payments are made in cryptocurrency directly to the authors “digital wallet.” In the case of Publica, that cryptocurrency is known as a “pebble.” Cryptocurrency can then be traded on a coin exchange—Jutla says a pebble currently trades for about $2.50.

If that all sounds bit complicated—well, it is. At Tuesday’s panel, author and ALLi news editor Dan Holloway conceded that blockchain is not quite ready for prime time, both in terms of consumer adoption, and the technology, which still faces questions of stability and scalability. “It’s too early to have definitive answers when it comes to blockchain for writers,” Holloway cautioned. “But questions at this stage are more important than feeling like you’ve got answers.”

Still, as the ALLi white paper points out, blockchain holds significant promise, especially for indie and self-published authors.

Blockchain could potentially deliver an author-centered financial model for the first time in publishing history.

“The way that blockchain reconfigures digital text, books and media, legal agreements, monetization of content, and payment pathways makes it a technological breakthrough for publishing,” the ALLi white paper concludes, adding that blockchain could potentially deliver “an author-centered financial model for the first time in publishing history.”

Blockchain is definitely on the radar of publishers and service providers at this year’s London Book Fair—and interest is expected to ramp up quickly.

Ashok Giri, chief technology officer at PageMajik, told PW that blockchain could potentially solve many problems currently plaguing publishers, from rights management to piracy. Giri says his company is already implementing blockchain into the next version of its workflow product suite, PageMajik, noting that the technology has wide-ranging applications—from enabling researchers, editors, writers and publishers to work securely and transparently on the same project at the same time, to embedding rights for easy sharing, licensing, and usage.

“As demand for more granular rights and rights of any sort increase, this type of technology will be even more vital for its proficiency with sales transactions, tracking and reporting,” Giri predicts.

Brian O'Leary, Executive Director of the Book Industry Study Group told PW that BISG will have blockchain on the agenda at a "business of rights" program this fall.

"To make a distributed ledger work, we need to make a lot of implicit knowledge explicit," he says of the challenge facing blockchain for publishing, "codifying terms, documenting business models, and creating agreements about what can be sold, and how. Those kind of agreements are useful even without blockchain, and BISG's rights committee is working to start that conversation."

Sukhi Jutla, meanwhile, says for that for all the talk of blockchain's promise, her blockchain debut makes an important point.

“To be # 1 on the blockchain—it’s history,” she says. “What I think it might do is wake up the publishing industry a little bit and make them aware that blockchain is happening right now."