In his keynote at the fifth Digital Minds Conference, bestselling author and Twitter superstar Neil Gaiman kicked off the London Book Fair by likening the digital transition to being on an unruly, but exciting new frontier. "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," Gaiman said. "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."
Over his 30 minute talk Gaiman entertained and challenged his audience to think creatively about the future, conceding that he himself was “perfectly willing to acknowledge the possibility that the novelist may have been a blip” in our cultural history. “The model for tomorrow, and this is the model I've been using with enormous enthusiasm since I started blogging back in 2001,” Gaiman said, “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.”
Gaiman’s speech kicked off what conference chair Sara Lloyd, digital and communications director for U.K. publisher Pan Macmillan, said was the highest attended Digital Minds event yet, and the most diverse, with more than 32 countries represented. Since its debut in 2009, the event has served to “set the temperature” for the London Book Fair, she noted, and this year’s conference, themed “the future of publishing content,” was no different, with a daylong program of panels and speeches focusing on the state of publishing’s digital transition.
To that end, Gaiman, whose The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Macmillan) will be released in the U.S. this spring, put a fresh, and personal spin on the persistent challenges facing the industry. He began by recounting his youth in a punk rock band (“punk rock Neil”), when he was given a yellow sticker for his instrument case that declared “home taping is killing music.” He acknowledged the uneasy shift from an age of scarcity, when books were difficult to get, to one of abundance, where e-books can now can be delivered at the push of a button. And he spoke of the benefits, particularly of discovery, arguing that most readers find their favorite authors by “encountering” their books through libraries or friends, rather than buying them in a bookstore.
“People ask me if I think we should guarding the gates more carefully, and I say, sure why not, that makes as much sense as anything else,” Gaiman said, adding that he didn’t see that as a “long term solution” to the problems facing publishers. “We can imagine a world in which novelists no longer make money from selling books, but clean up from charging for readings. Or, a world where your buy a physical book and that automatically gives you the e-books and audiobook. The truth is, whatever we make up is likely to be right.”
To that end, Gaiman also suggested he was not ready to concede the end of print books. He recalled a conversation he had years ago with Douglas Adams about the coming of e-books, long before there was an e-book market. "I asked him if he thought the inevitable e-book would mean the end of the physical book," Gaiman said. Adams replied by noting that sharks existed alongside dinosaurs, and yet sharks are still around. "That's because nothing has ever come along that was quite as good at being a shark as a shark is," Gaiman said, adding that books, too, are very good at being books.
“I suspect that one of the things we should be doing is making books that are prettier, finer, and better. We should be fetishizing objects, and giving people a reason to buy objects, and not just content, if we want to sell them objects.”
Gaiman was followed by Will Atkinson, sales and marketing director at U.K. publisher Faber, and Robert Levine, author of Free Ride.
Atkinson offered a nuts and bolts presentation of where the industry stands in its digital transition: ticking off a range of topics: the continued growth of e-books, although at a slower pace; legal and government actions; the device market; the development of “chunking” and subscription models; the future of DRM (or not) and other things, such as the new skills being brought in the industry.
But while the first months of 2013 might suggest that some kind of equilibrium is returning to the publishing business, Atkinson cautioned this was a mere “respite” in an “extraordinary” period. “Nothing is sacred, everything is changing,” he said. “Yes there might be some stats that say we’re slowing down, but quite frankly, we’re just in the dressing room at halftime having an orange, and we’ll be back out for the second half soon.”
Levine, meanwhile, politely disagreed in his talk with Gaiman’s assessment of the digital landscape, of the music industry in particular. Levine said the music business was actually in much worse shape than it appears, with its current sales down by over half. But the real problem, Levine stressed, is that 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.
While he acknowledged copyright has its share of problems, “it is important to recognize that without copyright, Amazon would treat writers like employees,” he said. “Amazon has been a good partner for me. But I wouldn’t want them to treat me the way they treat the rest of their employees.”