Whether art for you right now is a hobby or career path, many of us dream of sharing our work with a wider audience – and enjoying the monetary returns that professional artistry entails!
The world of selling and sharing art today is vastly different than past times – and yet, some things never change.
Prior to widespread use of the printing press, there was no such thing as copyright law. If you were a writer or an artist, and you weren’t graced with family riches, your choices were pretty limited: you essentially had to find a rich benefactor to buy or produce your work.
At first glance, today couldn’t be more different. Technology has opened up countless ways you can make money from your artistic work. There’s no need to go sucking up to some millionaire. All you need is a YouTube video to go viral, or get 10,000 followers on Twitter, right?
In many ways the task of making a living with your art is just as daunting as it was 400 years ago. What it comes down to is working hard, understanding the game, and being pragmatic.
1) Hone Your Craft
Sure we hear stories about teenagers who break it big and sign a book deal or recording contract at the tender age of 14, but these are exceptions to the rule.
The vast majority of authors, musicians, and artists who make a living from their artistic creations have spent years honing their craft and are very good at what they do. If you’re a young or beginning artist, forget your blog, your Twitter, and all that other nonsense about making a name for yourself.
Instead, focus on learning your craft.
This is the single most important thing you can do, and everything else is predicated upon it. Take classes, read books, talk shop with pros, and CREATE! If you’re a writer, the only way you’re going to get better is to write a lot. Ditto for being a musician—practice, jam, gig, write!—or an artist—paint, draw, sculpt!
World Fantasy Award winning author James P. Blaylock, had his first novel, The Elfin Ship, published when he was 32. He still laughs when he tells how he was touted by critics as a young, up and coming writer. He’d been writing for years and didn’t think of himself as young at all.
Similarly, I’ve had two books published from very small, indy presses, in my early 30’s, and now at 35, I’ve finally signed a publishing contract with a mid-sized publisher for my newest novel, Dreamwielder .
I know it seems daunting, but remember, there are a lot of small successes along the way, and you’re doing this first and foremost because you’re an artist.
2) Find Balance Between Art, Life, and Work
Mike Cassutt, a TV producer, screenwriter, and author, recently came to speak to the creative writing students at the Orange County School of the Arts where I teach, and he said something you don’t hear often.
He said the key to success as a writer is making a writing schedule and sticking to it.
Write when you say you’re going to write, and then when you’re not scheduled to write, go live life!
I couldn’t agree more. I see too many young artists who sequester themselves in their rooms to only read, write, and create, thinking this is the key to mastering their craft.
The key to mastering your craft is not only practicing, but experiencing all the things that make us human: loving, laughing, struggling, crying, sweating, yelling, swearing, being confused, and figuring out who you are and what your place is in this world.
The mastery of your craft will grow as you grow.
And until such time you’re actually making a living off your art, you’ll need to have a job of some sort. You have to feed yourself and pay your bills somehow. Pick your job wisely.
If you can find a job related to your craft, awesome. Just make sure it’s not burning you out on your craft. If you can find a job that pays well, awesome. Just make sure it doesn’t distract you from your craft.
Find what job fits you and complements your creativity – and foster balance in your life.
3) Create a Body of Work
The reason I keep saying the word “craft” is because if you want to make a living creating art, you have to treat it as a craft and create stuff that people want to buy.
Luckily, if you’re doing Strategies 1 and 2 above, this will come about naturally.
The key is to make sure you finish your works in progress. I know writers who have a dozen half-finished novels. Artists with a glut of sketches and unfinished “practice” paintings. You can’t sell this stuff, and you’re not growing as an artist if you don’t finish your work.
It’s also a great to diversify .
I’m primarily a fiction writer, so my mainstays are writing short stories (good for building writing credits and credibility) and novels (a product that has much better sales potential), but I don’t stop there. I also write essays, feature articles, and screenplays, all of which are salable products.
The same goes for the other arts.
If you’re a musician, don’t just bank on landing performance gigs to make money. You need to be writing songs, composing, recording. As a visual artists, you should branch out and work with different mediums.
The bigger the body of work you can create and get out into the world, the better chance you have to make a name for yourself in your industry and make it – so be productive.
4) Exploit Your Creations
As the creator of a piece of art, by law you are instantly the copyright holder.
It’s now your job to exploit the different rights of the work and make money doing so.
Each art is going to have its own avenues for doing this, so make this part of learning your craft. I can’t speak with any authority to the visual arts, but as a writer and musician, I’ve learned the key is to think of the process not as “selling” your work, but as “licensing” it. Don’t ever sell away the rights to one of your creations if you can help it.
I learned this lesson the hard way.
The first short story I ever sold to a paying market was the infamous horror erotica piece “Night of the Bear,” and I gave up all rights to the story for eternity for a 100 British Pounds. It seemed like a lot of money at the time, but the publisher has gone on to put the story in several different anthologies over the years and it has sold more copies than any other work I’ve ever created.
If I had negotiated a contract to get royalties, or only offer up “first printing rights” I could be making more money off that story.
The morale of the story is to learn the business of your art.
5) Present Yourself Professionally
This might seem obvious but I see writers and musicians all the time who sabotage their chances at success by being rude, demanding, or just a plain ego-maniacs.
Remember you’re a craftsman trying to sell your product – a business person who is dealing with customers.
I’m not saying you need to be a sycophantic suck-up or start acting like a used car salesman. Be genuine, be confident in yourself and your work, and definitely know what your work is worth, but at the same time, be respectful and polite, even if the people you have to deal with are jerks.
Remember, what goes around comes around.
Whether it’s a client, an editor, a booking agent, a curator, or a sound guy, treat them the way you expect to be treated in return.
6) Interact With Peers You Respect
No one makes it in the arts without help and advice from mentors and peers.
Reach out to people in your craft who you respect.
Jam with them, set up workshops or discussion groups with them, hell, just meet with them for coffee (or a beer) once a month. Whether you’re critiquing each others’ work or just talking shop, you’ll learn how other people are dealing with the same problems you’re having.
Plus, it’s nice to have someone who understands you to commiserate with.
I personally have two writing groups — a literary group called the Soggy Biscuits and a spec-fiction group called The Inklings 2 — and every piece of work I’ve had published in the last five years has been workshopped by one or both of them. The feedback from them is invaluable.
On the musician front, I’m very fortunate to have three band mates who are extremely talented and we make it a habit to discuss where we’re at and our goals regularly. In addition, we hang out with the guys in Sam Morrison Band and Mangular whenever we can to talk shop and get some good pointers. The stuff we’ve learned from those guys has saved us from making a lot of rookie mistakes.
You know the tired old idiom, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
Well, it’s largely true.
It’s not all bad, though. If you’re presenting yourself professionally and surrounding yourself with peers you respect, you’re already on the right track.
The key here is to venture out to places where you’ll meet new people you respect outside your circle of friends and peers. If you’re a writer, go to writing conferences and meet editors and agents. Go to readings and talk to authors you admire. If you’re a musician, chat with the other bands on the ticket at a gig. Talk to the sound guy, the booking agent. If you’re a visual artist, I don’t know, go to art shows and exhibits, talk to people.
You never know when you’re going to meet someone who’s going to help change your life. You could meet your next collaborator, a new best friend, a record executive that wants to sign you to a huge deal.
After having spent months going the normal route of trying to find a literary agent for my newest novel, I ended up getting in contact with an agent via a freelance project I had done for another author. I introduced myself to the agent via e-mail, and after a couple of pleasant e-mail conversations, I asked her if she was interested in representing a fantasy novel. She agreed to look at the book and boom, I had an agent.
You never know how things are going to play out.
8) Brand Yourself
Don’t worry – branding yourself doesn’t have to be anything crazy or disingenuous.
I’m not saying you should wear a meat dress like Lady Gaga. What I am saying is look at yourself and your creative output. Identify your personality, the personality of your work. This is how you identify your target market.
As a writer, I’ve branded myself as an author of dark speculative fiction. This gives me a clear branding, while still giving me the freedom to write the stuff I write anyway: dark fantasy, steampunk, horror, sci-fi, and dystopias.
My band Wheel House has branded itself as a dirty concoction of rock, blues, and funk. Nothing fake there. Those are our influences. That’s our sound, and it gives new potential fans a clear indication of what type of music we play.
Your branding should be consistent in both your online and face-to-face marketing.
When you’re meeting customers, networking with new people, make sure that not only are you being professional, you remember what it is you create and what you’re selling. Likewise, the look and feel of your entire online presence should reflect your branding.
Which leads me to…
9) Utilize the Internet and Social Media
The biggest difference between being an artist in the 21st Century as opposed to the 17th Century is that the Internet has opened up the entire world as a marketplace for your creations.
Make sure to maximize your opportunities.
Remember to keep your branding consistent, and set up all your social media outlets so that they drive people wherever it is you’re selling your work, whether it be on Amazon, iTunes, or Etsy.
It’s called the web for a reason.
Your blog, your Facebook page, Twitter, G+, Pinterest, whatever you use, should be utilized to interact with your target audience and make it easy for them to find your work if they want to buy it.
Again, don’t be a used car salesman and try to ram your product down people’s throat.
Instead, tweet, blog, and post things of interest to your target audience. Legit marketing gurus suggest 25% or less of your online posts should be plugs for your own work. The other 75% should be tidbits and info that’s consistent with your branding and interesting to your target audience.
This can be time consuming, so make sure to not spread yourself too thin.
For my writing I only maintain a blog, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page, all of which link back to my main website where people can purchase my work. In Wheel House, we have our main website, a Twitter account, and Facebook page.
The options out there are pretty limitless. You can set up a YouTube channel, a Pinterest account, a podcast, give away freebies in exchange for peoples’ e-mail addresses so you can set up a mailing list… hell, make up your own unique way to reach your target audience!
10) Force Yourself to Work Outside Your Comfort Zone
Selling your creative work and making a living at it requires you to wear many hats, and it’s easy to lose sight of why you got into this in the first place.
That’s why it’s important you always go back to Strategy 1 and continue to hone your craft.
To this end, I highly recommend that you branch out and push yourself to create material that is new and challenging to you.
Be ambitious. Write that experimental book you’ve been scared to write. Write a song in 7/8 with no chorus and five key changes. Force yourself to create something different.
I’m also a firm believer in trying your hand at multiple different arts.
Writing fiction and playing guitar in a band exercises two completely skill sets and different creative parts of my brain, yet I know playing music keeps me motivated and helps me become a better writer, and visa versa.
Even things you’re not good at are worthwhile.
I’m a horrible photographer, but I love taking shots on my old manual SLR Minolta, and when I have the patience for it, I like to sketch maps.
It’s part of finding the balance I talked about earlier. You’re putting all this work into building a body of work and branding yourself, first and foremost, because you are passionate about your art. When you feel like you’re getting burned out with your art or the business end of being a craftsman, then branch out and rekindle your creative fire by creating something different and new.
Always be growing and you’ll know you’re always moving in the right direction.
Which of these strategies resonates with you the most?
Have you ever wanted to be a professional artist? Or are you one now? What sort of artistry?
Join the discussion, and share your thoughts in the comments!
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