April 17, 2013

Neil Gaiman urges publishers to “fail better” at the London Bookfair


Neil Gaiman looks to the future of book publishing at the London Book Fair.

Neil Gaiman has been on a roll with popular speeches lately. His commencement speech at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia last year inspired designer Gavin Aung Than to create a web comi and the text will soon become a book designed by Chip Kidd. That speech gave advice to aspiring artists. When times get rough, Gaiman told his audience, “make good art.”

When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician—make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor—make good art. IRS on your trail—make good art. Cat exploded—make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before—make good art.

Gaiman, who has 1.8 million Twitter followers and was one of the first authors to blog regularly, turned  his attention to the subject of the future of book publishing this week at the London Book Fair, delivering the keynote address for the Digital Minds Conference. In that speech, Gaiman offered his thoughts on the growth of digital books and the changing role of legacy publishers, disagreeing with British Booksellers Association chief executive Tim Godfray who wrote that Amazon has “the ability to destroy the book trade as we know it.”

People ask me what my predictions are for publishing and how digital is changing things and I tell them my only real prediction is that is it’s all changing. Amazon, Google and all of those things probably aren’t the enemy. The enemy right now is simply refusing to understand that the world is changing… The model for tomorrow, and this is the model I’ve been using with enormous enthusiasm since I started blogging back in 2001, is to try everything. Make mistakes. Surprise ourselves. Try anything else. Fail. Fail better. And succeed in ways we never would have imagined a year or a week ago…The truth is that whatever we make up is likely to be right  . . . we are on the frontier, we can make up the rules, or break rules that no one has thought of yet.

Robert Levine, author of Free Ride, who spoke at the conference next, started his speech by saying that disagreed with Gaiman’s assessment that the music industry model of quick and easy access with accessible downloads has its benefits (Gaiman said later on Twitter that he didn’t directly address the music industry in his speech). According to Publisher’s Weekly, Levine said “many of the companies profiting from music today, are companies that are not ‘investing’ in the creation of music. He urged publishers not to succumb to a similar fate.”


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.