The artist may never become successful without first knowing the business of art. There is a journey to be taken before creative pursuits come to fruition. I am taking this journey now and thought I would share with you my learnings thus far. I am continuing to learn every day, and hope these experiences can help you.
I first want to give you a story about struggle. That really is the business of art. Most hide away to avoid real struggle. You should know about the pending struggle and prepare for it. Schools, corporations and institutions do not prepare you for what I’m about to share. I know this because I was once in school, and they never taught me what I was supposed to learn in my field at the time.
Life happens. Remember this. Two years ago I almost lost all of my eyesight. This was just after taking a risk by leaving my secure corporate marketing job. I had grand ambitions as an entrepreneur, but I wasn’t sure if it would be possible. Luckily I recovered some of my eyesight. This may have motivated me to start creating children’s books, anything to escape the typical career path. I certainly didn’t want to waste away doing nothing.
Less than two years later I wrote, illustrated and independently published 50 children’s books. That was something to me, to figure out how to do all of that. Problem is, I only had a few sales to my name and no real following. I was unknown, and I doubted myself.
To this day, I’m still not really known in the children’s book world. I have dealt with self-doubt and anxiety at every stage. This is my struggle, and I spend my days trying to figure out the business of art. Even though I’m unknown, I think it’s important that I share this current journey with you, as it’s in progress.
You always hear stories of success, but struggle is appealing too. Struggle is a reality. This is why Lord of the Rings is so popular. Two little people, willing to tackle a seemingly impossible feat. The journey to creativity is most perilous and noble (I sound a bit ancient there), and there is no better path to take.
Artists and entrepreneurs have a shared challenge of fighting depression. Dr. Seuss battled it. Edgar Allan Poe battled it. When pursuing something meaningful, there can be a torrential downpour in our minds when we least expect it. We are the proverbial bosses of our of creative empires, and we may not have adequate mental capacity to carry out our dreams in isolation. This results in a downward spiral towards substance abuse, addictions, isolation, depression and potentially suicide.
I’m not saying all of this to scare you. The reality is, the things you really want in life are hard to get, and you have to be mentally strong to get them. Make sure you handle your limiting beliefs. I proactively went to a therapist and coach to ensure I could handle anything that gets thrown my way. If you’re dealing with troubling thoughts, support of any kind would be wise.
You have a pile of messy crap that you need to swim through before your art becomes acceptable to you. I’m paraphrasing what author J.K. Rowling had said in a speech. Once you have the confidence in your art, your mess becomes more defined. More you. Masterpieces will become easier to produce as you build the habit of daily production.
Even during the struggles, it is important to continue making art, no matter the quality of output. Most times our struggles bring out the best in us. After the art is finished in your mind, it should never be touched or edited again. The art now belongs to the world, and it is now time to get working on the next piece.
Go get what you’re worth. Don’t look at people in the Philippines or India and think you have to compete on price with them. This is especially true for graphic designers who decide to compete on logo contests or freelance projects. Stick to what you think you’re worth and charge for it.
How do you know what that value is? Write down what you think it is right now. Can you ask for that number confidently? Great. Maybe raise it a little more until you reach that fine line of confidence and anxiety with your price. Too many artists undervalue their work and just give it away for free. Free is unattractive. Real customers of yours will pay for your unique value.
Art is very entrepreneurial. You need to be promoting yourself endlessly, especially now that traditional publishers and galleries are pickier than ever. I reached out to hundreds of promoters, expecting them to do all the marketing for me. The reality is, you have to be the best marketer on your team. And that means you have to approach this like a business empire, a publishing platform.
Prospective customers are waiting for you to grab their attention. This is where artists fail. We simply lack the confidence or choose the wrong marketing channel to get the word out there. If you are introverted like me, maybe you can explore social media or prepare an opinion piece like this. I doubt high-pressure sales would work for us introverts, or most authors for that matter. Look at mastering a channel or two, but not too much more. Stay focused on the art, and it will begin to market itself.
You may have heard about Kevin Keller’s 1,000 fans to build your art business – make $40 a year off these thousand people and you have a sustainable income. But maybe that’s just an average goal for average people. My goal is to hit $30,000 per month because it’s a scary enough goal that I have to stretch myself further to figure it out. Getting to $40K puts you with everyone else, and anything less puts you with nonexistent artists, with paintings being sold at a discount on Craigslist.
You can digitize your work. You can create merchandise online. You can grow a YouTube channel. Think about 5-7 income streams for your art, just like you would think about diversifying your investment portfolio. This allows you to scale your work for the long-term and build a viable business. Here are five revenue streams to consider now, with no up-front costs:
Art itself. You should be charging reasonably for your product (remember your value). This is your main income stream to start.
Affiliate sales. If you sell your art or books on Amazon, check out the Associates program. This gives you an additional commission on any sales coming from your website. Easy to set up and helps with long-term income as you become more and more popular. Many platforms out there, but obviously Amazon is the major player.
YouTube ads/sponsors. I have a YouTube channel where I do narrations of my books and vlogging of the process. Once this grows significantly enough, I can monetize it by running ads or asking for sponsors in my niche to support me in exchange for a mention. As you get more and more views and a following, you can make this a viable option. Find a simple niche aligned with your art style and start filming today with your smartphone.
Courses. You can do a how-to course and sell it on Udemy. “How to draw a cat” or some other unique topic might net you some cash if you have that inner-teacher in you.
Merch. Take your art and create variations of it in the form of merchandise. T-shirts are an option. Or quirky stickers. The options are endless. In terms of popularity, Redbubble is one platform to check out for this. Or Merch by Amazon.
There are many more ideas, like workshops, coaching and consulting, and it makes sense to choose the ones that align with your interests.
By thinking about how you will scale your artistic endeavors, it becomes more than a hobby or boutique passion. That’s what you want, so this can work for you in the many years to come.
I wake up at 5am every day to go swimming first thing in the morning. Countless authors and artists have structured routines to ensure they are in a tip-top mental state. Stephen King has to write 2,000 words per day before he watches a Boston Red Sox game.
When you’re as isolated as most authors, being mentally sharp is a necessity for becoming successful. You sit down and look at that blank canvas for hours if you have to. Don’t get caught up in what appears on that blank white page or screen or canvas. Something is better than nothing. I use a template to ensure my creative start is as easy as possible. Momentum works wonders for production.
To continue, there is this make-believe thing called writer’s block. It’s essentially another term for being lazy. There is no barrier in front of you. The boss expects the TPS report to be on his desk by Sunday. Do you think writer’s block exists in the corporate world? Nope. And same goes for art. You need to set up situations where you are always in a state of creative flow. Lock at the proverbial blocks and determine why you are mentally putting them there.
For me, my set template that I start with for all of my children’s books helps with that mental block. The best thing is, I’ve already written three outlined pages before even starting! These little aids disguised as motivations are what will help you move forward every time you sit down before the daunting task of creating. Once you are in a consistent flow, art will appear effortlessly.
What other stresses are getting in the way of your creative flow? Walk through them in your head or on paper and come up with solutions to move past them.
You need to celebrate when things are going well. Self-care is important. Take the time to recognize your successes so that you can maintain that forward momentum. Stay humble and grateful while recognizing these silver linings.
I like to celebrate my accomplishments with treats or fun hikes. Unwinding after a success will prepare yourself for the next one. Take a breath and enjoy these moments.
Are your Mondays great? They better be. You can’t be creating if a job is getting in the way or if you feel like doing nothing at the start of the week. By the time you hit Friday, all you will want to do is party or watch movie marathons. Map out what your Monday should look like and pursue it as reality. Your creativity depends on your ability to feel stress-free and positive every week.
A.K.A. “The Haters”. People who get in the way of your desired path. These are social media trolls and anyone who is jealous of you and your pursuits. Commenters, both positive and negative, can put you on an emotional roller coaster. It’s just plain stressful.
I’m personally terrible with receiving feedback. As a result, I will limit the amount of time I accept comments, to the point of using few social media channels. Most artists are impacted this way. Any critiques, reviews or suggestions can hinder your progress. Only accept feedback when you are mentally prepared for it. And don’t listen to what everyone says, they’re not you.
I buy a Basquiat because of the backstory. I buy a Banksy because of the backstory. I buy a Van Gogh because of the backstory. What is your story? What makes your art interesting is the journey, not the finished product. Your journey should be visible in the product you create. Find out what your story is. That story will drive you to create more.
You can call it your mission, your passion, your pursuit – anything. It’s the thing that drives you to create every day. If your answer is money, you might be blinded by greed. The business of art ironically starts with how you are making an impact in the world, not how you are making money. Some artists aim to enrich the lives of others. Others aim to share fun stories with the world. Define what all of this is for you, and constantly remind yourself of the why behind your pursuit.
This is the business of art.