Neil Gaiman: “I’m obviously pissed at Amazon”

The novelist, children's author and unofficial publishing industry spokesperson on the future of book culture

Topics: Neil Gaiman, amazon, hachette books, chu's first day of school, the sandman, chu's day,

Neil Gaiman: "I’m obviously pissed at Amazon" (Credit: Chris Pizzello/invision/AP)

Neil Gaiman, an unofficial spokesperson of sorts for authors, doesn’t know exactly where he falls on the Amazon divide.

The novelist (“The Ocean at the End of the Lane”) and graphic-novel legend (“The Sandman”) has a new children’s book, “Chu’s First Day of School,” due out June 24. The sequel to “Chu’s Day,” it tells the story of an innocent kiddie panda whose powerful sneezes disrupt those around him.

On the subject of the ongoing dispute between Amazon and Hachette — the publisher of his wife, musician Amanda Palmer — Gaiman is undecided. “I’m a weird mixture right now,” he said, noting the murky information available: “Every time I try to actually read enough stuff to figure out what’s going on here, what I run into is lots of ‘We can’t say anything, but he says,’ and ‘We can’t say anything, but she says.’” Assuming there’s a book culture in the future, though, Gaiman — now writing for young children — is on its front lines.

How did you end up writing these kids’ books?

It’s sort of weird because the “Chu” No. 1 began with me being in China. I was talking to my Chinese publisher, and I said, “Guys, explain something to me that I do not understand. All of my adult books are available in China in translation. I’m a very popular author in China. I’ve won all these awards for you guys, I’ve got foreign author of the year twice” — really cool stuff. “And yet my children’s picture books … are only available in Taiwan and Hong Kong, they’re not available on the Chinese mainland. Explain that to me.”

And he said, “Oh, that’s very simple. Your children’s books are not published in mainland China because they show children as being smarter than their parents. They show a lack of reverence toward parents as the wisest and most important people in their family units. They show a lack of reverence for authority. And in your books, Neil, children do terrible things and get away with them. So we can’t publish them in China.”

So at that point it became this weird, mad point of honor for me to try to write a children’s book that could get published in China, that possibly did not show the reverence for the wisdom of one’s elders that it should, and also in which, perhaps, a child did something absolutely terrible and got away with it.

And that, once I started thinking about it, just became very simply the story of a baby panda who sneezed.

You’re writing for these young children. Do you feel some pressure to insert some kind of moral or lesson, or do you just want it to be pure fun for your readers?

To me, the lesson of the two books is probably a slightly hidden one. But it’s the very, very simple one that you, even though you are a very, very small child, can make big things happen, you can create huge effects. It’s a great thing to tell babies, to tell little kids, is that you can do big things, think big. And what I love best too, is the amount of devastation Chu causes when he sneezes.

I know nobody says to read your Amazon reviews, because that way lies madness. But when “Chu” came out I was furious, and I remember my jaw slowly dropping at a review that said: I’m a huge fan of Mr. Gaiman’s novels, an American guy, so on and so forth, but I’ve ordered “Chu’s Day” and I have to say this is really thin.

We’re talking about a book that’s for such a young generation of readers — you could say it’s for future readers. You’ve been a fairly outspoken advocate on behalf of authors — do you think there will be a book culture in the future? 

I certainly feel it is my responsibility to help create it. And I worry a little bit because kids love iPads and tablets. They really do. They are shiny, they’re fun, they move around, they have bells and whistles — often literally — so they will forget the joy of a book.

By the same token, I just got back home after being on the road for three weeks. I was in Jordan in the Syrian refugee camps, the United Nations, I was signing books in Norway and in Sweden and in Spain. And I got home, and waiting for me was the board copy of “Chu’s Day,” which they’d just gotten for really little kids. And I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud holding this big cardboard thing where the pages are big and thick and you know the pages are going to get chewed on and sucked.

And your mind goes back 52 years, in my case, and you remember what the taste of chewing a board book is. I’ve made one of them. I’m a real author finally.

That tactile relationship to physical books is one argument against e-books. In light of Amazon’s tactics against publishers, notably Hachette, have your feelings about Amazon changed in recent months?

I’m a weird mixture right now, because on the one hand, I’m obviously pissed at Amazon. I’m a Hachette author in the U.K., my wife is a Hachette author now, and I’m very aware that Hachette is the first of these publishers that negotiations are going to happen with, and that HarperCollins [Gaiman's U.S. publisher] will be coming up in six months’ time or whatever. On the other hand, I’m just as aware that what you’re seeing right now, is huge, giant-level dealings between huge corporations both under non-disclosure, and every time I try to actually read enough stuff to figure out what’s going on here, what I run into is lots of “We can’t say anything, but he says,” and “We can’t say anything, but she says.”

There was a thing I read yesterday where somebody, apparently from Amazon, speaking off the record, was saying why this whole three-to-five week delivery [delay] thing was happening with Hachette Books was that Hachette was playing hardball and they weren’t delivering the books to Amazon. Was that true? I don’t know. I have no idea.

What is obviously problematic is that Amazon has, whatever it is, 30 to 40 percent of the book market. Which is not a good thing. The point, I think, where I would go incandescent is if Amazon ever repeats the number it pulled, I think a few years ago, with the Macmillan books — which is basically saying, we are not selling you this book. At that point, they’re doing the equivalent of what Barnes and Noble did a couple years ago to me, when they were arguing that they were having one of these, again, corporation-to-corporation arguments with DC Comics, and they said, “Well, the Sandman books aren’t for sale, you can no longer buy them at Barnes and Noble.” And I was fuming.

What would you like to see happen in the publishing industry over the next few years?

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What I would honestly like to see is more and more healthy, independent bookshops. I think one of the reasons why I’ve been, if not pro-Amazon, then pro-something-like-Amazon for a very long time … [is that] I remember very, very nervously buying my first online book from Powells.com, who are still out there and who I recommend, they are wonderful. Buying Powells.com books in 1995, really, very nervously, because I for many years lived in middle America. And it was a hundred-mile drive to bookstores, to a town with Barnes and Noble, to a town with real bookstores. And there was briefly a little shop near me called Books and More, and I got very excited.

What’s the “more”?

I found out it was secondhand books and aquarium equipment. These days, whenever I see “and more” I always assume it’s aquarium equipment. So I really felt, at that point, we need bookshops. We need independent bookshops. But I absolutely understand anybody going to an online sales place because if you sit and look at a giant map of America, which is a pretty huge place, for a lot of them, it’s a long, long way to a bookshop. But I don’t think that anything actually matches the experience of actually going into a good independent bookshop.

I look around and go, This is a brilliantly curated place and, wow, they have this, and I didn’t know that was out, I like their taste, and you walk out with stuff. As opposed to large chain bookstores where I normally walk in, feel very, very depressed, and just start wishing people stop writing books.

If you could tell Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, one thing, what would you say to him?

I think it would be more complicated than just one thing. I think it would be reminding him that Amazon began life as a bookstore online. And then it became an anything store. And now it’s the biggest anything store in the world. And I don’t know if that’s true, but I assume that Amazon could stop selling books tomorrow and it’s bottom line probably wouldn’t hurt that much.

But I would point out that books are special, books are the way we talk to generations that have not turned up yet. The fact that we can actually, essentially communicate with the people in ancient Egypt, people in Rome and Greece, people in ancient Britain, people in New York in the 1920s who can communicate to us and change the way we think, and change the things that we believe.

I think that books are special. Books are sacred. And I think that when you are selling books, you have to remember that in all the profits and loss, in all of that, you are treading on sacred ground. Again, it’s complicated by the fact you’re dealing with giant multibillion-dollar book corporations.

When I was a young author, I loved how fast things were changing, and [now] I hate how fast things are changing. When I was a young journalist, I was a book reviewer, which meant I got all the different catalogs from all the different publishers in the U.K. and most of the publishers in the U.K. were little publishers who’d been publishing for 50 years, 80 years, 150 years, 200 years, and they were sometimes in the same building they’d always been. Sometimes the family that ran them was the family whose name was on the masthead.

Allen & Unwin, who were Tolkien’s publishers, the Unwin family was still around. And then by the end of the ’80s, all of these publishers had been eaten by other publishers and they were no longer. All of these little publishers that had their little building they published out of, and their catalog, every now and then had a hit.

So the nature of publishing itself changed. Now you’re watching capitalism in action, and it’s no fun.

It’s hard to blame a young author for feeling discouraged. Is there anything you would tell that young author or people who are starting their careers writing right now?

I wouldn’t feel discouraged right now. I would feel hugely encouraged because at this point in time nobody, not even Jeff Bezos, has a clue what’s going on, how it’s all going to work, or what things are going to be like in five years’ time. We don’t know what’s happening in publishing, we don’t know what the impact of e-books is going to be in the long term, we don’t know what the impact of technology as yet unthought-out is going to be. We don’t know how Kindles and smartphones are changing people’s reading ability. We don’t really know yet how the ability to reach everybody in the world is going to change our authors.

It’s a fantastic time to be a young author. What it means is you can do things, you can try things, you can try things that ancient fuddy-duddy creatures like me would never imagine.

I’m not going to go out and go, OK, I’m going to build an app which is going to deliver you slices of novel on a daily basis but you have to do a small thing in order to get them, or whatever. I’m not good at that way of thinking.

I’m 53 now. I would really love it if by the time I’m 65 the landscape of publishing is completely unrecognizable. I’m loving the fact that part of the unexpected consequences of things likes Kindles and Nook is books are getting more beautiful.

Not all of them, but lots of them. You walk into a bookshop and you go this has French flaps, this has deckle edges. I looked at the Spanish edition and the Swedish edition of my book “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” and they were both amazing. People had put ideas into them. What’s happening now is that the content is not the object. So if you’re giving somebody a reason to buy the object, one of the reasons is it’s beautiful.

When I was handed a prototype Kindle in 2007, I didn’t hold it going, Seven years from now, books are going to be more beautiful.

An unexpectedly nice twist.

That’s kind of how I feel about this whole Amazon versus the publishers thing that’s going on right now. Do I think it’s terribly bad for authors’ rights now? Yes, absolutely. Do I think it may shake down in interesting ways? Yes, absolutely.

Do I think that the Justice Department made a mistake in going after the “Big Five” for price-fixing when they decided to go with a non-agency model on their e-books? Yes, I do.

What you were getting there was a natural market reaction to how you deal with a monopoly, which Amazon, in effect, was. And I think what you’re getting right now is in some ways a reaction to that. I find it hard to believe that five or 10 years from now we’re all going to be looking around going, That thing was the end of the world.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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