Gaiman on the future of publishing: be dandelions!

The audience for Neil Gaiman's talk on the future of publishing at the London Book Fair apparently greeted his talk with stony hostility. But the Twitters liked it, and I like it too:

Going against a column yesterday in which Booksellers Association chief executive Tim Godfray argued that Amazon was the "foe", and has "the ability to destroy the book trade as we know it", Gaiman believes that "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 novelist went on to urge the assembled publishers to be more like dandelions – an analogy he stole, he said, from Cory Doctorow.

"Mammals spend an awful lot of energy on infants, on children, they spend nine months of our lives gestating, and then they get two decades of attention from us, because we're putting all of our attention into this one thing we want to grow. Dandelions on the other hand will have thousands of seeds and they let them go where they like, they don't really care. They will let go of 1,000 seeds, and 100 of them will sprout," Gaiman told the Guardian.

"And I was really using that analogy for today, saying the whole point of a digital frontier right now is that it's a frontier, all the old rules are falling apart. Anyone who tells you they know what's coming, what things will be like in 10 years' time, is simply lying to you. None of the experts know - nobody knows, which is great.

"When the rules are gone you can make up your own rules. You can fail, you can fail more interestingly, you can try things, and you can succeed in ways nobody would have thought of, because you're pushing through a door marked no entrance, you're walking in through it. You can do all of that stuff but you just have to become a dandelion, be wiling for things to fail, throw things out there, try things, and see what sticks. That was the thrust of my speech," said the author.

Here's that dandelion article he's talking about.

Neil Gaiman urges publishers to 'make mistakes' in uncertain new era [Alison Flood/Guardian]

(Thanks, Neil)


  1. Great talk but I don’t know about “stony hostility”. That sounded like enthusiastic applause to me.

        1. They were respectfully listening to what he had to say, and there was laughter when he made good jokes. People were listening quietly, what kind of reaction did the article author want?

          1. Gaiman himself mentions at the end of the article that he thought he didn’t go well and only changed his mind once he checked the reactions on twitter. Neil gives a lot of talks to all sorts of audiences, has a number of funny routines not unlike stand-up comedians, he’s clearly one of those authors who do enjoy the limelight (he married a rockstar!). If he thought the audience was a bit cold then perhaps it really was a bit cold, or maybe just distracted, who knows.

  2. I find it hard to empathize with Gaiman’s optimism, particularly when his established fan base was really garnered before the unraveling of the publishing industry.

    What I think people are always willing to romanticize over is that the “wild frontier” of the internet hasn’t just removed barriers for individuals with go-get-em spirit. The barriers are also removed for transnational corporations with far more muscle and capital.

    So while the degradation of a middleman industry may not be something worth mourning by itself, it’s certainly more worrisome to see the rot that has caused its degradation in the first place and what it threatens to engulf.

    To flip Gaiman’s analogy, where there were once a multitude of florists handing out the seeds of beautiful flowers sparingly, we now instead have 2-3 dudes that just give you a bag of whatever and collude to jack up prices 10 times their actual worth.

    1. Gaiman established his fan base in a specific medium (comics) and even more specifically, in a niche (“alternative” comics) that is benefitting tremendously from the rise of the web. Where it was once very expensive to publish anything outside mainstream superhero lines (except for a few short years in late ’80s/early ’90s, which is exactly when Gaiman rose to fame, not coincidentally) it’s now banal for anyone with talent to reach audiences, get noticed and even get paid. Go ask independent comic authors how much money they were making in the bad old days! If anything, it’s easier to become Neil Gaiman now than it ever was.

      On the subject of price, I don’t agree. Amazon has its problems, but it’s been an incredible benefit for consumers by putting incredible pressure on prices. Yes, this is killing traditional middlemen, whose profits are now going to Amazon or disappearing entirely; but it’s because these middlemen were extracting profit from production and distribution lines, not from content, and Amazon basically replaced these lines. The printing press put hundreds of amanuensis monks out of work, in the same way. They should retool and build new distribution lines, new portals to bypass Amazon. In the digital world this is technically trivial, but you have to add what I call human-provided quality: good reviews, good suggestion engines, good categorisation, good interfaces, good filters to navigate the mare magnum of publishing, good relationships with your customers. You need less executives and more editors, less salesmen and more forum moderators, less typesetters (although the production line in most cases has already been entirely replaced by invisible Chinese subcontractors) and more web designers.

      To keep working on that analogy, where once you could only grow dandelions, you can now grow any sort of flower or even invent your own.

  3. I’m OK with the end of the book selling industry as they  knew it. It’s just evolution, as inevitable as the end of the trade of scribes. There is plenty of money to be made selling ebooks, industry folks, so why not just do us all a favor and lead the way instead of moaning about a sea-change that can be helped?

  4. In the bio end of science I believe the strategy the dandelion uses is called “broadcasting.” (there must be joke here somewhere. Any takers?)

    1.  I think you may be doing what is called “stretching the metaphor.” It is a common rooky error, but we will overlook it this once.

      1. I prefer to think of it as exploring the metaphor ;). As we’re talking about creativity, I thought it a worthwhile point to make. A high-r productive strategy can lead to a formula-led production process. 

  5. I wouldn’t have called the publishers in the audience hostile. I was at the Digital Minds Conference at LBF2013 to pitch to publishers a new eBook sales model that my startup ( is working on. We’re working on enabling publishers to give (or sell heavily discounted) ebook to people who can show that they own a print copy. I was surprised at how receptive publishers at LBF were to our new model.

    1.  This! I want this!

      And thinking about it, it’s not all that different from LPs containing a code to get the same songs as mp3s (often free, sometimes with a discount, either way appreciated!).

      I’m not even a big fan of ebooks, but those books I love enough to want to bring with me on vacation can fit on an usb, but not in a backpack. At the same time, I will rather not bring any books than pay twice for a book I already own.

      1. No, since November, when our receiver died again. 

        That said, I see that there are some good shows around.  The majority is still utter dreck and most of it is still of the Lets-Throw-It-Against-The-Wall-And-See-What-Will-Stick kind.

        1. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, Mad Men, Adventure Time, Sherlock Holmes, Orphan Black, Parks and Recreation, Louie, Doctor Who, Downton Abbey…

          Sounds to me like you’re just being a bit of a contrarian troll.

          1. I think you have to differentiate between fiction for TV and the rest. Fiction produced for TV is doing great, for a number of reasons; the rest is still terrible, from reality to talk shows to infotainment. HBO is one channel in a sea of hundreds.

          2. Sounds to me like you’re just being a bit of a contrarian troll.

            Thinking that TV is garbage is trolling?

  6. Has anybody read the history of radio vs recording studios in the 1920s?  If not, makes useful blueprint and backdrop for this discussion, debate, and likely outcomes.

  7. Hi Cory, I was there and thought the audience received his entire talk positively.  I love your dandelion metaphor.    It perfectly illustrates the tension between the old world of traditional publishing and the new world of self publishing.  Self publishing enables high-volume risk-taking where the seed capital invested is tiny, and where the audience decides if the seed takes root.  Authors are doing this on their own without publishers.  The opportunity for publishers is to take more small risks and fail more often, because more iteration and experimentation and small failures will lead to fertile soil.

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