British writer Neil Gaiman is credited as being one of the creators of the modern graphic novel as well as an author whose work crosses many genres. He’s a prolific creator of works of prose, poetry, film, journalism, comics, song lyrics and radio drama. He writes books for readers of all ages. Read part of the interview below – conducted by the British Council's Nicolas Jackson.
Neil Gaiman on radio drama, online piracy and social media
By Neil Gaiman
21 July 2014 - 14:25
Of all the things you work in – novels, comics, TV, film, music, stage and radio – which do you like the most?
Radio drama is, I think, my favourite of all the different things I’ve done, including big-budget Hollywood movies, and novels and comics and everything. It’s my favourite because it happens in real time like a film, but you can make it really fast […] and you’re suddenly allowed the magic of the novel. In the novel, you are collaborating with the person reading the book, you as an author are collaborating with the reader -- they are complicit, they are making things happen.
In radio drama, if you say to somebody ‘Kneel down here, I’m going to cut your head off’ and the person says ‘No!’ and then there is a thump and a thud, anybody listening is going to wince because they know that a head was just cut off. But they did it, they were complicit, they took a thump and a thud and they created something with it. And that, for me, is the glory of radio drama. It's Douglas Adams's line in the original The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where Arthur Dent says ‘Ford, you’re turning into an infinite number of Penguins..’ which is a line that can only exist on radio; you're forcing somebody to imagine that, to create an infinite number of penguins in their head. […]
Like many successful artists, your work has been widely pirated. Does the ease with which digital technology facilitates piracy worry you?
I feel fine about it. My attitude to piracy is: first of all, let’s stop using the word ‘piracy’ because it implies both for the people doing it and the people who are against it, people sweeping in with large swords and leaving a trail of gutted corpses.
I used to really get upset when people would copy my stuff and put it up on the web. I thought, wrongly, that it meant that I could lose my own copyright if I was not vigorously defending it. And I also thought that, if you stick one of my works on the web and people are reading it, that they’re not buying it and that was a sale lost.
And then I noticed -- and it was Russia that turned me around on this -- something really weird. Russia is the country where they’ve got the biggest amount of piracy and file-sharing going on, Russia is where all of the sites are, where all of my books are available. And yet, the sales of my books in Russia are going up and up and up. There are more editions and there are more little publishers in that part of the world publishing me and the books are starting to become best-sellers.
And I realised, I stopped and thought about this and I started asking people -- because I was curious -- how they found their favourite author. I started doing it at meetings and talks. I would have an audience of 300 people and I’d say ‘Just curious here, how many people here have a favourite author?’ and you know, you'd get 280 hands going up. And I’d say ‘Great, put up your hands everybody here who found their favourite author by going into a bookshop and buying a book by somebody.’ Normally it was about ten people; 270 people found their favourite author because somebody said to them ‘Here’s a book that I want you to read, borrow this’. Or they found it on a window ledge, or they were hanging around in a library, or they were in a hospital waiting room, and there was a shelf of books, there was nothing to read, but they pulled this thing down with an interesting cover. Money didn’t change hands. What happened was, they experienced something, they found something and now they went ‘I like this; I have to go and find more’. There was no lost sale. If I lend you a book, the author didn’t just lose a sale […] I don’t care how you found my books. What I care [about] is that you like me enough that when ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ comes out, you’re probably going to go and buy a copy. […]
You currently have over three million fans across Twitter, Facebook and other social media like Tumblr. You famously use the power of your social media following to highlight social causes such as the plight of Syrian refugees in Jordan.
It’s absolutely fascinating for me. I took a four-month holiday from Twitter, January through to May, which I loved, and was absolutely fascinated by what I had and what I didn’t have at the end of that four months. I didn’t notice any difference in book sales but -- for example things like, I’m doing a gig at the Carnegie hall in New York, and for the four months of me off Twitter, they were selling 30 tickets a week, and I came back on Twitter, mentioned it a couple of times, and it’s pretty much sold out. That, I think, is absolutely fascinating.
The reason I came back to Twitter was I wanted to talk about going with the United Nations to refugee camps; I wanted to be able to use the megaphone I have on social media for good and I’ve just loved how involved people are willing to be.
Social media is something that I don’t think we’ve figured out yet, I don’t think anybody’s figured it out. I do know that, for me, it has to be personal, it has to be small; you have to feel like, in any given day, ten thousand people may send me tweets, but if I’m in a cab and I will look at whatever’s in front of me on my Twitter, I may read 40 tweets and if there’s any interesting ones, I may reply to them, and I probably will. And sometimes I’ll just say ‘thank you’ if somebody’s said something nice to me. And I know for that one person, whatever you’re doing -- one person out of two million -- […] it’ll make them as happy as the time Stephen Fry tweeted me.
Find out more about Neil Gaiman on our literature site.