Neil Gaiman | “Word of mouth, even if it’s on a social media site, is still the best way to sell books”

Neil Gaiman | “Word of mouth, even if it’s on a social media site, is still the best way to sell books”

You might think you’re busy, but compared to Neil Gaiman, you don’t know busy.

Here is what the fantasy author/children’s writer/comics legend has in store for 2013.

Starting off is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, out in June, Gaiman’s first novel for adults since Anansi Boys in 2005, for which he is doing a punishing three-month world tour. In September there is Fortunately the Milk (Bloomsbury), his children’s book illustrated by frequent collaborator Chris Riddell. HarperCollins, meanwhile, is releasing The Silver Dream in July, a sequel to Gaiman and Michael Reaves’ young adult SF tale, Interworld.

We’re not nearly finished. Various re-releases include Sandman Omnibus Volume 1 (DC, September), 1602 10th Anniversary Edition (Marvel, August), and Good Omens, his 1991 novel co-written with Terry Pratchett, which will be published as part of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series in the autumn. Then there is the TV and film work, such as an episode of “Doctor Who” he wrote which aired last week, and the screenplay of his biggest selling adult novel, American Gods, which he is writing for HBO.

When we meet in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, Gaiman is looking a bit frazzled, but that may be more to do from his transatlantic flight the night before and his famously wild mop of hair. His free time certainly seems precious. “I didn’t realise that when I handed in Ocean . . . that I was also handing over the months of June, July and August [for the book tour],” he says. “I think I might be handling this schedule appallingly. My entire life is being littered with the thumping sounds of balls that 
are dropping.”

Magic and suicide

Of all those projects, it is clear Gaiman holds Ocean . . . closest to his heart as it was written as something of a love letter to his wife, the musician Amanda Palmer. “My wife was recording an album in Melbourne. Soon after I met her I discovered that being with a musician while they are recording means—emotionally and pretty much in any other way—that they are completely unavailable. She’ll have one relationship going on: with the album. So I missed her. Normally, my audience is me. And in this case it wasn’t; I was writing Ocean . . . for her because she was a long way away.”

Heartfelt and poignant it is, but is not your average love letter, full of suicides, magic, horror and some pretty intense cruelty to children. Ocean . . . begins with an unnamed narrator coming back to his hometown in the English countryside to attend a funeral. This triggers a flood of memories from a horrific time when he was seven when a South African lodger commits suicide after gambling away all his money, which unleashes dark forces, and only the three mysterious women who live in the neighbouring farmhouse can help.

There is an element of the autobiographical. Gaiman did grow up in rural Hampshire and the family had a lodger who killed himself, which Gaiman only found out a few years ago. He had bought a Mini and asked his father what ever happened to the white Mini the family owned when Gaiman was young. His father then told him the story of the South African lodger who gambled away his and his friends’ money, then stole the family’s Mini and killed himself in it by carbon monoxide poisoning. His father was called by the police the next day to identify the body, and sold the car by the end of the day.

“And my sisters and I never knew!” Gaiman says. “I used to think that nothing that happened in books ever happened in our lives. No murders, no suicides, 
no smugglers . . . so I grabbed 
that incident, threw a kid into it who was a lot like me, and watched it run.”
In common with most of Gaiman’s work Ocean . . . has realistic every-day scenarios brushing cheek by jowl with the fantastic and mythical. This has long been an obsession. “When I was six and a half, I watched an episode of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ with that man in an unconvincing lion suit and was entranced. I then read the Narnia books. As far as I was concerned this was the biggest, truest thing anyone had ever written. Obviously this magical place was there somewhere and I spent a lot of time looking for it. Partly, that’s what Ocean . . . is about—the relationship you can have with fiction at that age.”

Duran Duran

Infected with the writing bug by Narnia and a raft of SF books Gaiman became a journalist. His first book was published in 1984 and is out of step with the rest of his career: a Duran Duran biog he dashed off in three months. Long out of print, it has become a collector’s item, with editions trading for over £1,000 on Abebooks.

Reading Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and a subsequent friendship with Moore, gave him entrée into comics. Though he has written extensively for traditional superhero series, his genre-busting Sandman comics, first published in 1989, are what truly made his name—and did much to change the makeup of comics audiences.

“When I first went to comics signings it would be all male,” he says. “Then, slowly women starting coming, and eventually it would be about 50/50 split. I started to get people who looked like Comic Book Guy out of ‘The Simpsons’ coming up and saying: ‘Man, I gotta shake your hand, you brought women in my store, they never came in before.’”

An early digital adopter—he was one of the first author bloggers—Gaiman is comfortable in the e-book age. “Complaining that things have changed is like a scriptorium of monks whinging that there are no longer anymore 25-year illuminating manuscript jobs because that nasty Mr Gutenberg is getting all the work.”

The challenge is about discoverability. “We used to have information gatekeepers. Those gatekeepers are still guarding the gates, but the walls around them have fallen down and information is flowing out. Now what we need are tastemakers, recommenders, people who can say: ‘This is a great thing.’ Word of mouth, even if it’s on a social media site, is still the best way to sell books.”

Personal file

1960 Born in Porchester, Hampshire
1970-84 Educated at Whitgift School and Ardlingly College. Becomes a journalist
1984 First book, Duran Duran, published
1986-present Written hundreds of comic books, 20 novels, four non-fiction titles and edited over 15 short story collections
1989 First Sandman comic published
2002 American Gods wins the Hugo and Nebula Awards
2008 First person to win the Carnegie and Newbery medals for the same title, with The Graveyard Book

Book data

Publication date: 18/06/13
Formats: HB/EB/TPB
ISBNs: 9781472200310/ 0334/0327
Rights: Sold into 20 territories via Writers House
Editor: Jane Morpeth
Agent: Merrilee Heifetz, Writers House

Neil Gaiman's top five

American Gods
Headline, 9780755322817, £7.99
Ex-con Shadow falls in with ancient gods whose powers are declining because people have stopped believing in them.

Books sold: 186,751 since 2001

Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett)
Corgi, 9780552137034, £7.99
Pals the angel Azirphale and demon Crowley join forces to stop the apocalypse. A 2012 WBN book.  

Books sold: 168, 520 since 1998

Headline, 9780755322800, £7.99
Novelisation of Gaiman’s BBC TV series, about London Below, a fantastical world in the London Underground.

Books sold: 139,376 since 1998

The Graveyard Book
Bloomsbury, 9780747594802, £4.99
Children’s book where an orphan is raised by the residents of a graveyard.

Books sold: 121,862 since 2008

Bloomsbury, 9780747562108, £6.99
A girl finds another world that is an idealised version of her own frustrating home, but discovers it has a sinister side.

Books sold: 107,079 since 2002