Taking the time to transcribe Neil Gaiman‘s keynote speech at the 2013 London Book Fair (both just the conclusion and the whole speech) gave me a more intimate perspective on his overall message. I did the responsible thing in looking up other perspectives on what Gaiman meant in some of his soundbites, and was surprised to find that people heard the downfall of independent bookstores, the end to traditional publishing itself, too much apathy towards the digital monsters killing those latter two entities, and many more sentences of doom and gloom.


I find that Gaiman’s message contains all of those sentiments – and none of them. The key to getting the bigger picture of the message comes from looking at how he organizes his speech. I attempted to show important key moments of organization with the time markers in the full transcript. He begins with a comparison to the evolution of the music industry. He’s right – “they” did think that music would die with the ability to copy a work. But it didn’t die. It changed and evolved. Digital downloads were supposed to also kill music. It didn’t. It changed how music is presented, and how people find music. Think of those music stars found on YouTube that wouldn’t have been stars decades ago. So the message to be gleaned in the analogy is that change happens. It can be painful for some (specifically those with a hand in the business-end of things). But evolution happens, and it’s not always a detriment to the whole.

I love that Gaiman connected Douglas Adams to the emergence of the e-book and the future of the physical book. How many of us realized that when Adams created the actual Hitchihiker’s  Guide that it was THE first popular rendition of an e-book? But Gaiman quotes Adams to say that the idea of books won’t die. Books will always exist, but how they exist, where, and for whom may change.

He does talk of things that die off or become extinct through evolution. His great example of encyclopedias fits well in this age of Wikipedia. But if encyclopedias that were once revered can become relics, then what type of book is next? Of course, the fear that emanates from the traditional publishing world is that they too are dinosaurs with their feet already stuck in the tar pit.

Gaiman talks about how change over time has created wild and wonderful new exchanges of art and ideas. Just hearing and reading his experience with left-behind doodles and Twitter proves that more people can be exposed to things, share their experiences and interactions with what’s put out there, and spread ideas farther than we could ever imagine.

If someone could draw a virtual picture of how one idea can get spread so quickly through the internet, I’m sure it would be a fascinating web. Consider Gaiman’s astonishment at the similar take on his Blackberry project. Thousands of people interacting to share new ideas, new art, and new world views. Times are changing constantly, and what we learn from Gaiman is that he finds success and education in evolving through the changes.

So about those dandelions… In a search on the internet, you can find a post written by Cory Doctorow for Locus where he first outlines the idea of spreading ideas and creative output like dandelion seeds to get the most growth. Gaiman also talks of dandelions throughout his speech from the fact that “…they don’t care. They just have thousands of seeds, and they throw them to the wind,” to the fact that success, “…is a dandelion thing. The seeds go off and float, and some of them land places where they grow.” He calls on the collective “us” to be dandelions in his conclusion and launch thousands of seeds to make a new world.

There are both positive and negative ways to think about the dandelion concept. If we’re putting our stuff out there in the wild “frontier” as he calls it, then we can be at great risk. The frontier was not a fun place for newcomers. In fact, it could be pretty scary and full of dangers. For those of us without established names, careers, or products, can we truly let our seeds blow away from us without a thought just to see if something survives and grows? Not all of us have the support that Gaiman does. If he blows a seed in the wind and tweets about it, somebody will come and snatch that seed up. If I let a seed blow away, who will be there to find it?

Then again, nothing grows if we don’t put the seeds out there and try. If we hold onto the seeds, they will eventually wither and die. So Gaiman is right in encouraging us to put ourselves out there in as many ways possible. That’s the only way to find success. And that message isn’t limited to the lonely artist out there trying to survive (or the writer writing this blog trying to get her stuff published). The great thing about the spreading of ideas is that the “seeds” are different for each person. Whatever lens of world experience and life they bring to the “seed” is what they will take away from Gaiman’s message.

So for me, I see the message through a writer’s eye who investigates the publishing world. I can see how some might think Gaiman condemns traditional publishing. I can see where there might be hurt feelings that he doesn’t bash Amazon enough for being the harbinger of doom. It’s a more existential, Matrix-y take on his speech to realize that everyone is going to take something different away from what he says. I can also see Gaiman trying to encourage the traditional publishing world to make its own changes to keep up. And for those who self-publish, Amazon is winning because they changed and continue to evolve. The only constant in the speech is that change happens, and that anyone who has a stake in things like books, since that was the focus of the conference, better learn to adapt or be left behind.

But since I’ve been hooked in to the retweets of my original retweet from Gaiman, I’ve been fascinated to see that others interpret his speech as encouraging them to do something completely different from myself. Someone talked about how it affected their business. Someone else wanted to apply it to creating videos to share online. So again, it’s a new way of interacting with the original words and their meaning.

As a final note, I have to say that I appreciate Neil Gaiman‘s willingness to allow me to post my transcription of his speech. It helped me get to the core of his message to find my own connection. My seeds will be the books I’m writing and the choices I’m making in terms of getting them out into the world. Whether I’m going to crowdfund their publication, self-publish, find an agent, post for free, use a pay-what-you-will model, or tweet them out, the point comes down to Gaiman’s last message. I’ll just be the dandelion and let the seeds of my work blow in the wind and hope that I find success and satisfaction from wherever they find a place to grow.