Neil Gaiman gave the keynote speech at the Digital Minds Conference for the 2013 London Book Fair on April 14, 2013. London Book Fair shared the entire approximately 30-minute speech through its YouTube channel. It is worth watching and listening to the whole 30 minutes to hear a great author talk about the effect of books, the changing world of books, how it has changed him, and his thoughts on the future. Some of what he said stirred up some controversy. But in an effort to continue the discussion of how the worlds of books, publishing, and reading are evolving, I wanted to include it here. Edit: I’ve now posted a full transcription of Gaiman’s speech here: https://fallsintowriting.com/2013/04/23/neil-gaiman-speech-full-transcription/


I also took the time to transcribe Gaiman’s conclusion because the points he brings up are important. It’s the last 6-7 minutes of the video. There are a few references that will need to be put into context by listening to the whole. (Disclaimer: All added punctuation and paragraphing was interpreted by me in listening to the presentation and Gaiman’s inflections.)

“I worry that too many of us, like the man in my calendar anecdote at the beginning, are certain that if only we can get 1993 to come back again, we’ll clean up. If we hold our breath and close our eyes and guard the gates with bigger and more dangerous weapons, that time will turn backwards, and it will be yesterday once again, and we all knew what the rules were yesterday. The rules of publishing were simple. Authors, agents, books, incredibly long lunches – that was publishing. It’s not anymore.

“These days the gates being guarded, the gates where there are fewer and fewer actual walls. In music, the walls have long since fallen along with the sale of physical objects. Home taping didn’t really kill music. Music’s out there doing just fine. More of it’s actually being made than ever, but the trick is becoming to find the good stuff. And for people who make the music to figure out how to monetize what they’re doing. Things change. It used to take monks between five and twenty years, according to links sent to me on Twitter when I asked, to produce a complete, illuminated Bible. Whole lot of monk hours and fully employed scriptoria. That work and that world vanished with the arrival of the printing press, and nothing was ever going to bring it back.

“People ask me what my predictions are for publishing and how digital is changing things, and I tell them my only real prediction which is it’s all changing. I don’t know what publishing’s going to look like five years from now. Anyone who says they do is probably lying to you. I don’t know, neither does anyone else. Amazon, Google, all of those things – probably aren’t the enemy. Big publishing – probably isn’t the enemy. The enemy right now is simply refusing to understand that the world is changing.

“People ask me if I think we should be, they should be guarding the gates more carefully, and I say, ‘Sure, why not?’ Makes as much sense as anything else. I don’t think it’s a long-term solution to the problems and challenges that face publishers. I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge the possibility that novelists – we may have been a blip. There may have been a small amount of time in which people who were good at making up stories could actually trade their abilities for more than perhaps an evening’s meal and some admiration.

“I suspect that one of the things that we should definitely be doing in digital in the world of publishing is making books – physical books – that are prettier, finer, and better. That we should be fetishizing objects. We should be giving people a reason to buy objects, not just content if we want to sell them objects. Or we can just as easily return to the idea that one does not judge a book by its cover.

“In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury wrote a book about burning books. And at the end, he tells us that if people are books, if books are remembered by people, then content is all. You don’t judge a book by its cover, and sometimes that cover can be a person. Reading that when I was very young was probably where I got the idea originally that covers and printing do not ultimately matter. We could walk away from physical books entirely, perhaps. We could decide that what we thought were sharks were actually passenger pigeons. We could imagine a world where novelists no longer make money from selling books, but we clean up by charging for readings. A world in which buying a physical book automatically gives you e-books and audiobooks.

“I think it’s time for us to be dandelions willing to launch a thousand seeds and lose 900 of them if a hundred or even a dozen survive and grow and make a new world. And I think that’s a lot wiser than waiting for 1993 to come back around again.”

“The truth is, whatever we make up is likely to be right. It’s time for dandelions. Embrace the old as we embrace the new because we’re on the frontier, and there are no rules on the frontier. We can actually break rules that nobody’s thought to make yet. We can enter through doors that still say, ‘Exit only.’ We can climb in through windows.

“The model for tomorrow, and this is the model that I’ve been using with enormous enthusiasm since I started blogging back in 2001 – probably since I started using CompuServe end of 1988, the model is try everything. Make mistakes. Surprise ourselves. Try anything else. Fail. Fail better. Succeed in ways we would never have imagined a year ago or a week ago. I think it’s time for us to be dandelions willing to launch a thousand seeds and lose 900 of them if a hundred or even a dozen survive and grow and make a new world. And I think that’s a lot wiser than waiting for 1993 to come back around again.” – Neil Gaiman, Keynote Speech, Digital Minds Conference, 2013 London Book Fair

I want to give some time to consider Gaiman’s thoughts and how it adds or pushes against the Patterson ad from the New York Times Review. Any thoughts or comments about Gaiman’s speech would be welcome to add to the discussion.

Advertisements