Textbook publisher Pearson plans to cash in on second-hand sales by turning its titles into non-fungible tokens (NFTs), its chief executive has said.
Educational books are often sold more than once, as students sell study resources they no longer need. Publishers have previously been unable to make money from second-hand sales, but the rise of digital textbooks has created an opportunity for companies to take advantage of it.
NFTs provide ownership of a unique digital item by recording it in a decentralized digital registry known as a blockchain. Usually these items are photos or videos, but technology allows just about anything to be sold and owned this way.
Following the release of Pearson’s preliminary results, CEO Andy Bird explained its plan to sell digital textbooks as NFTs, allowing the publisher to track ownership of a book even when it changes hands, Bloomberg reported. “In the analog world, a Pearson textbook was resold up to seven times, and we would only participate in the first sale,” he said, explaining that “technology like blockchain and NFTs allow us to participate in every sale of that particular item that it goes through life”.
Bird, former chairman of Walt Disney International, joined Pearson in 2020, before which the company had struggled with the rising costs of producing university textbooks, and the fact that many students choose to buy such books second-hand. This new plan is the latest development in his efforts to move the publishing house in a digital direction. It follows the launch of the subscription app Pearson+ last year, which gives students access to 1,500 titles for $14.99 a month.
Selling books as NFTs is not an entirely new concept, although it has yet to take off in the same way that the visual art NFT market has. NFT technology is widely used in books as a way for authors to self-publish. And while digital distributors like Germany’s Bookwire have launched NFT marketplaces, as author and performer Walker Caplan noted in LitHub last year, much of the publishing world doesn’t yet feel the need to engage with this new technology. This is because readers tend to value having read a book more than owning it. Even if traditional publishers enter this space, “they may not be greeted with open arms,” Caplan wrote, “as decentralization is the central ethos of NFT writing.”
If Pearson’s use of NFTs proves successful, however, this method of selling digital copies of books may become more common among mainstream publishers. And Bird is already exploring how other new technologies could be used by the company: he has a “whole team” working on “the implications of the metaverse and what it could mean for us”, he said.