Neil Gaiman Speech London Book Fair Full Transcription
Posted on April 23, 2013
After researching reactions to ‘s keynote speech at the Digital Minds Conference for the 2013 London Book Fair with the transcript of its conclusion that I posted yesterday, I felt like most critics of what Gaiman states are taking things out of context. In one commentary, it even asked why there wasn’t a full transcription of the speech available. In the process of trying to deconstruct it for myself, I found myself transcribing the whole in order to apply context to Gaiman’s overall message.
Disclaimer: The organization of paragraphs and addition of punctuation are based on my own judgments and interpretation of the intent and inflections of Gaiman. I’ve added in time markers at points that organize the poignant elements of the speech.
“Hello. So, in 1976, I was a punk rocker, and I had a band because that was what you did. And we were talked by the man we bought our instruments from into joining the musician’s union. And all I really remember about joining the musician’s union was they gave you these yellow stickers to put on your instrument cases, and they said, ‘Home taping is killing music.’ What they meant was that the ability of the public to reproduce on cassettes, the same music that had been previously only sold as objects, as vinyl, was going to put musicians out of business and stop them from making money. And of course home taping did kill music, or a kind of music, and it was an incredibly long and healthy death.
“People who used home taping in cassettes to make mixed tapes to spread music around or people who found music through mixed tapes would be very surprised to know they were killing music, especially when the arrival of the compact disc meant that we all had to go out buy all the music we already owned all over again making everybody very rich. Money was being made. Lots and lots of money. But it was a blip.
(1:55) “Changing the subject – I’m completely fascinated by calendars. There’s a story about a man who spent a ridiculous amount of money on a job lot of old calendars and had nowhere to put them, and filled his house with them – calendars in the kitchen, stacks of them – and his wife told him he was an idiot. Said, ‘They’re old calendars, nobody wants them.’
“And he said, ‘You may think that if you like. But if 1993 ever comes back, I’m going to clean up.’
(2:36) “So, long before he died, I remember talking to Douglas Adams about e-books. Long before they were e-books. But Douglas had predicted and warned and described e-books in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, and it was obvious that they would be along one day. And I asked him if he thought that the inevitable of e-books would mean the end of the book, the end of the physical object? And Douglas said, he said, ‘Well you will remember that sharks were around at the same time as the dinosaurs. Some sharks predate the dinosaurs. But they’re still around. And that’s because there’s never, nothing has ever come along that was quite as good at being a shark as a shark is. So they last.’
“He said, ‘A book is really good at being a book. They’re [solar or solo] operated. It’s brilliant. They don’t die if you drop them in the bathtub. And they swell, but they’re still readable. They keep going. They’re incredibly portable.’ And of course, he was right – up to a point.
(3:58) “But digital meant the end of several dinosaurs. Encyclopedias – I actually remember encyclopedia salesmen knocking on my door. Well, just one, but he was an encyclopedia salesman. And I still have encyclopedias at home. Ancient Encyclopedia Britannica’s, a set of World Books that was bought for me by my dad in the ‘60’s. They were heavy. They were huge. They took up room. They were rarely consulted. They were out of date when you got them. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as predicted by Douglas, was an encyclopedia that could be updated on the fly. And encyclopedias ended.
(4:44) “Books may be sharks, some books, but home libraries definitely won’t. When I was writing American Gods, I actually wound up buying a car just in order transport the books that I needed for research to Florida where I was going to be writing the book. Home libraries are heavy. They’re not portable.
(5:08) “I was given a Kindle before Kindles were commercially available just to try out, and I looked at it. And I thought, ‘You’re ugly. You’re kinda clunky. You look stupid.’ And then, a couple of days later, I got onto a plane to Hungary where I was going to be for two weeks with my 12-year-old daughter, and we realized that she had nothing to read, and probably in Budapest, there wouldn’t be anything that we could buy for her to read. And between realizing this, sitting down on the plane, and the plane door being closed and taking off, I downloaded a dozen books – enough to entertain her for two weeks. Watching how she took to the Kindle, I realized content was going to triumph over packaging. And that digital was definitely happening.
“But I wasn’t completely certain. I wasn’t certain that this was the way of the future until I noticed that I could make fonts larger and more readable in dim light. I thought, ‘That’s the killer app.’ Because normally technology gets driven by the young. But here, it’s going to be driven by the luddites because as we get older, our eyes are not what they were. And the idea of a book where you can actually make a font readable is going to change everything.
“But it wasn’t until I went to Manila, very, very shortly after the Kindle had come out, and started talking to a bookstore where they were, as far as they were concerned, the physical book that they were selling was done because in the Philippines, everybody was buying books based on price and digital books were going to be cheaper, that I realized that the future was stranger and more different from anything that I’d imagined.
(7:09) “In 1997, I was at a dinner held by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a newspaper, and there was me and a couple of New York Times best selling authors, and I wasn’t a New York Times best selling author at that point. I was the weird one. I was the entertaining one that they got in to be weird. One guy was a New York Times best selling author, not particularly famous but his books were in the New York Times. The other was a huge, powerful, important crime writer with a reserved parking place at the top best seller list. And the signings started after the Cleveland Plain Dealer dinner, and I had a line of awkward looking people who had never been to a Cleveland Plain Dealer dinner in their lives. Goth kids and geeky people and just people clutching comics, and they were there and they were excited, and then for the other authors there were nice looking ladies with twin sets and pearls and they were respectable looking people. And I thought, ‘That’s so interesting. I will never get any of those twin set and pearl ladies. They are not my people.’
“And then the incredibly famous author looked down at a book that was put in front of him by a very nice lady, twin set and pearls, and he stood up and he said, ‘I am not signing this. Look at this.’ And he held it up so that everybody could see it. And he said, ‘This book was a former library book. Why would I sign this? I get nothing for this.’ And he sat down, refused to sign it, and started on the person behind him who had a nice, brand new book.
“And I watched as several of the ladies, the nice twin set and pearl ladies from further back in his line, went over to the bookstore, bought copies of Stardust, and came and joined my line. Because I sign anything. I will happily sign anything. I figure that they like my stuff, they like me. If they can’t afford a new book, maybe one day they will. And in the meantime, I’ll give them something to love. And in the meantime, I want them to go out and tell their friends that there’s a book that they love, and, ‘Here you go,’ and, ‘Look.’ It doesn’t matter to me that they’ll give me copies of Good Omen’s that’ve been around the world with them, and at some point dropped in soup and are held together with Sellotape and love. It doesn’t matter. What matters to me is that they have the books and they love them, and they’ll tell people about it.
(10:21) “When people ask me about, as obviously they have over the years, about stopping piracy, about stopping people reading things, about stopping people finding things for free – what I’ve normally done in the past is ask a room full of people just to give me a show of hands on who has a favorite author. And a lot of hands will go up.
“And then I’ll ask, ‘Okay, who found that favorite author by going, you know, favorite author – the kind of person where if they buy something, if they bring something out, you will go and buy it? You will get this book? Anything they do?’ And, hands down.
“And I say, ‘Okay. Who found that author by going into a bookshop and buying a book?’ There may be a couple of hands still up.
“And I’ll say, ‘Who found that author because somebody said, “Here you go”? Somebody gave it to you for free? You found them in a library? You picked it up somewhere? You liked the look of the cover? More often just somebody handed it to you and said, “Take a look at this. You’ll like this”? And that’s when the hands go up.
“We don’t normally find the people we love most by buying them. We encounter them. We discover that we love them. Which is why I decided early on, I was never going to go to war. I was just going to encourage. I was going to go for word of mouth.
(12:05) “Home taping is killing music. Home taping is killing books. Or at least in music, it became easier to copy music, and easier and easier to copy music, and you could do it with a click. And slowly, in music, what started to become valuable was what was unique – what couldn’t be reproduced with a click. Attending a concert, buying a t-shirt that was only available at a concert. People would pay, there’s nowhere else people will pay 30 quid for a 10 pound t-shirt. They’ll do it at a concert because it shows they were there. It’s an experience. It’s something unique.
(12:53) “Publishing is an industry that exists to create a lot of things that are exactly the same. Copyright is who has the right to copy. It’s why, and it’s how. And the challenge that we’re facing is one of change. For most of human history, the question that came with books was the question of how do we obtain them? These things are scarce. Information is scarce. The physical object is scarce. It’s all scarce. Again, 1976, punk-rock Neil with his yellow ‘Home taping is killing music’ stickers. There were authors I loved. The only way that I could find those authors was spending long bus trips going into the wilds of West Croyden, possibly even as far as Streatham to places you could buy books from with a stamp on the cover that said if you brought them back, you could exchange them for half price. It was hard to find things. Interlibrary loans.
(14:22) And suddenly the world has changed. Now the question is everything is out there. How do we find it? How do we find the good stuff? How do we make ourselves heard in a world of too much information? We’ve moved from problems of scarcity to problems equally as real – of abundance. The trick becomes finding signal in the noise, and the trick becomes making yourself heard. A world in which anyone can publish anything, in which there’s too much information is one in which we no longer rely on gatekeepers as we once did, but we rely on guides and on recommenders to point to what’s good. We rely on word of mouth. And we rely on luck. We rely on becoming dandelions.
(15:20) Mammals, which all of us are, I hope, put a tremendous amount of effort into raising our children, into what we do. Child – it’s, you know, a solid 15, 16, 17, 18 years. They go onto higher education. It could be 22, 23 years, and you’re still raising these things. And you put effort and you put life into it. Dandelions don’t care. They just have thousands of seeds, and they throw them to the wind. And there’s a level in which, as time goes on, I’m enjoying throwing things to the wind.
(16:09) Two days ago, I was in New York, bored over lunch, and I started drawing on the paper tablecloth. And I just did a drawing on the paper tablecloth. And at the end of the meal, I was getting up, and my wife looked down, and she said, ‘Are you doing anything with that?’
“And I said, ‘No, just leaving it behind for them to throw away.’
“And she said, ‘We should do something with it. It’s a great drawing.’ So she stole it, folded it up, walked outside, put it under a rock by the restaurant, and twitted a photograph of herself putting it under the rock and the location. And she said, ‘You can retweet that. Some of your fans, somebody’ll find it. It’ll make them happy.’
“And I said, ‘Okay.’ And we walked the 70 seconds to our hotel. Went up to our room.
“And she said, ‘Oh. No point in you retweeting it. Somebody’s already found it.’
“I said, ‘Fair enough.’
“And she said, ‘Oh. The people who found it work for the Guardian (US).’
“And I said, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’
“She said, ‘They’re just over the road.’
“Which is why, the following morning, I found myself taking over the Guardian (U.S.) Twitter account. I went in to say hello to the people who found the drawings, and they said, ‘Would you like our Twitter account?’
“And I said, ‘Sure.’
“So I thought, ‘Is it too soon to start poking – I can make up news. I have the Guardian (U.S.). I have the power. Shall I tell them that Margaret Thatcher has risen from the dead? It is too soon! Is it too soon? It’s too soon.’ But I had a wonderful time taking over the Guardian (U.S.) Twitter account. I noticed by the end of that day that the place that is selling, one of the places that is selling my upcoming novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane was actually twittering about the huge day’s uptick in people buying copies of the book, which they attributed to me taking over the U.S. Guardian feed. I thought, ‘That’s [a] strange, unexpected result.’
(18:29) “And the following day, we were at lunch. We were at lunch with Art Spiegelman who did Maus, and we told him about this. And he said, ‘What a great idea.’ And he drew all over a napkin. It was an Art Spiegelman napkin. Not a napkin, a menu. An Art Spiegelman menu. And it was fantastic! Covered in drawings! And again, we hid it. And Amanda tweeted it, and people went off to find it. Somebody had already found it, and thrown it away.
(19:03) “Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not even sure what it is. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’ll tweet a Kickstarter sometimes, and it will catch the attention of the world, and it will go huge. Everyone will go, ‘Aha! Of course it went huge. Neil Gaiman tweeted it.’
“But for every one of those, I’ll tweet a Kickstarter, and people will look at it, find themselves absolutely, utterly unmoved. And it will sit there, and nothing will happen. But we still embrace it. We have to become dandelions.
(19:37) “Earlier this year, I was approached by the Humble Bundle people. It was pay-what-you-like package of digital stuff, and they said, ‘We’re going to put some books up. We’ll put some novels. We’d love a graphic novel of some kind. Do you have anything?’
“And I looked, and I had the rights to a book called Signal To Noise, which I’d done years ago with a face. It was old. Digital rights were completely free and clear. And I said, ‘Sure. You can have this.’ And we put it up online, and I plugged it. The various other people like John Scalzi had, Cory Doctorow who had stories in there, had books in the Humble Bundle and plugged it. It made significantly over $1 million dollars, large chunks of it going to charity. Dave McKean, the artist of the graphic novel, and I took about $78,000 from something that had just been sitting there that we hadn’t even known that we had. It was enormously educational, and I tell people this.
“And they go, ‘Does that mean that I will make $78,000 if I put something up on a pay-what-you-want basis?’
“And I say, ‘No. Almost definitely not.’ It doesn’t even mean the next time I decide to do that, I’ll make that kind of money. It just means that it happened this time. It’s a dandelion thing. The seeds go off and float, and some of them land places where they grow.
(21:04) “I mentioned that I love calendars. Blackberry approached me recently, and just asked if I would like to, if there was anything I’d like to do using social media. And they said I could have all of their resources. And I said, ‘Well, let me try out your new phone first. And I did, and I liked it. And I liked them. And I said, ‘Okay. I want to do something. I want to try something. I want to try something that hasn’t been done before. Just getting people together on social media.’
“So I tweeted. And I tweeted 12 prompts into the world, and they were questions like, ‘Why is January dangerous? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen in July? Who would you like to meet again in December?’
“And I didn’t expect the kind of results that we got. All of these things became trending hash tags. It almost felt, even just in that first thing, like huge, beautiful things were happening. There was a kind of art movement happening just on Twitter that’d never happened before as people replied and I retweeted their replies into the world. And then I took 12 replies, almost at random, from the hundreds of thousands that came in. And I took them, and I wrote a short story for each month in a mad sort of three days. How fast can I write 12 short stories? The answer was – three days. Some of them weren’t terribly long. And then I threw them back out into the world.
(22:43) “We put them up on the website, this Blackberry Keep Moving website, and I said, ‘Okay. Now make art. Go make any kind of art you want. Photograph things, paint things, draw things, costume play, make videos.’ And I recorded audio recordings of all of them. And I said, ‘If you want these as soundtracks for videos, go use them. Make art.’ And I watched thousands and thousands of people getting involved, and I sat there when it was done and looked at over 5,000 individual pieces of art trying to pick ones to just go up on a website and be presented. I felt like the best thing about this was using the internet, using Twitter, making art in a way that was literally unimaginable a decade earlier.
(23:45) “I’ve just started working recently on a project called ‘These Pages Fall Like Ash’, which hasn’t happened yet, which is going to be a story that’s told across two books – one of which is going to be a beautiful little handmade wooden book with information and where you can also write stuff yourself, and the other is going to be a digital text hidden on hard drives all across the city, in this case Bristol, and read on a mobile device, the idea being to create two books together in a single reading experience. Created a story about a moment in which two cities overlap, existing in the same space and time, but unaware of each other until now. And people finding this stuff on their mobile devices. I’m going to become part of the story. And again, it’s that thing where you’re creating something that would literally have been unimaginable. We didn’t have the tools or the technology to imagine.
(24:56 Conclusion) “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.
“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.”