“Wait…to be a writer, I have to learn to sell things?”
I clearly remember the moment I learned this sad fact, as well as the existential crisis that quickly followed. The sweet naivete of my writerly youth faded away, revealing an age-old truth to my suddenly withered eyes: to be a professional writer, I had to make money from my writing.
The cries of my breaking heart were soon replaced by a steely determination rooted deep down inside my soul. Okay, fine, I thought, then I will become the best at selling things. I’ll be so good at it, guys. So good.
Cue the buying of endless ebooks on book marketing and online money-making, freelance “hustling” and building a brand. I was going to make it.
And, actually, I have “made it.” I’m a full-time writer who makes a comfortable living from my work. But the surprising twist to this tale of determination and woe is that, well, I didn't actually have to do much selling to get here.
Yes, anxious writers, take heart — the whole “market yourself” writer-preneur craze? It’s completely overblown. Here’s the down-in-the-dirt truth about art, production, and the reality of writing for a living.
Art As Story, Art As Product — How Can We Balance The Contradictions Of Our Work?
As you might have noticed, the trappings of life require currency. Bummer, isn’t it? I think we all dream of some fantasy-past where patrons poured gold into our laps simply because they loved our art.
Alas, that is and always has been a storybook myth. Artists — writers — have always had to work to support themselves. We call our collective art our “work” for this very reason, don’t we?
At the same time, we know that over-reliance on our writing for income can quickly turn into resentment, blockages, and artistic decline. It’s a rather paralyzing conundrum.
In my experience, this is where the fear of “selling out,” or simply “selling,” comes from. Our innate perceptions of how materialism-art relate to one another gives us a metaphorical stress-rash.
On an unconscious, instinctive level, they seem like complete contradictions.
You might be expecting me to deny this, now — to explain why materialism and art aren’t contradictions. But I’m not going to do that, because frankly, I think they are often contradictory impulses.
When we combine our need to earn with our passion to create, they often end up opposing one another. Finding balance as a professional writer isn’t about “working this out” or somehow “fixing” it.
Why do you hate trying to sell your creative work? Because your mind feels this as a contradiction — and that means that it is a contradiction in every way that matters. The “secret” to success is about accepting this contradiction, not forcing it to go away.
Many current success metrics center around your ability to be convinced of the validity of art-as-product. On a surface level, this seems rational; as professionals, we do seek product-ivity and all the resultant income that (allegedly) comes from it.
And yet, the fact of the matter is this: your art is not a product in the materialistic sense of the word…but you still have to monetize it in order to survive.
It’s important that you get comfortable with this seeming contradiction before you try to move forward with your career.
Facing Value — It’s Okay (And Necessary) To Be Emotionally Attached To Your Writing
Whether you write in-depth finance pieces or steamy erotica, there’s been a growing perception amongst the more entrepreneurial of us that being “too attached” to your work is bad business.
Okay, maybe it is. But ultimately, that business factor is irrelevant. I know, right, what am I saying? How can you succeed if you don’t treat your writing as a business?!
The problem is that we seem to have collectively reversed the writing-to-business relationship. The writing part quite literally has to come before the business one. And if your paralyzing fear of marketing/profit-generating/value-making gets in the way of writing?
Well, good luck running a business once your “product supply” runs out.
I don’t know about you, but one of the major contradictions I’ve seen lately is this increasingly pervasive idea that you must both value your writing and remain detached from it. “Write from the heart,” the gurus seem to say, “but don’t put your heart into that writing.”
“Selling” your writing should be an expression of your attachment to and love for it. When someone buys or reads your writing, it’s a connection forged from the shared understanding that your work already had value to begin with.
As much as we may consciously accept this truth, it seems to me that we have not been truly acting upon it. The productivity/product-making fetish our Western society is constantly whacking off to has, alas, reached our fabled world of pens and titlecasing.
Great writers — and prosperous ones — write things people want to read, it’s true. I would never deny the need to have a basic understanding of how markets function, especially when it pertains to things like genre, style, and medium of publication.
These considerations, however, should be innate. You write what you write and you find the market it belongs in — because reversing that order is a recipe for mediocrity. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all seen that truth in action lately.
Not everyone can be a professional writer, but your writing deserves the honor of holding your heart inside its words. Whether it earns you a regular paycheck or not, our integrity as professionals is inextricably tied up with our integrity as artists.
Earning From Art vs. Selling A Product — Two Different Worlds You Can’t Live In At The Same Time
All of this leads me to the final, perennial problem for most writers: how do we deal with the writing-as-art and writing-as-income divide? How do we make it as writers when the path is so fraught with contradictions?
I know firsthand how frustrating this concept can be. If professional writing is dependent on our integrity as artists, but our professional income is dependent on our ability to sell a targeted product, where is the common ground that can allow us to succeed in both arenas?
I think the trouble arises when we treat writing as product-creation to begin with. Just because something earns us an income, that doesn’t mean it is by nature a product.
A product tends to solve a problem, meet a need, or fulfill a desire. Do stories/pieces of writing accomplish these things? Absolutely…but products end where those problems, needs, and desires cease. Writing does a whole lot more.
Writing is storytelling, whether it takes the form of a research article about refrigeration technology or an epic fantasy novel with major moral themes. Stories are meant to self-perpetuate. They take on lives of their own and keep growing long after you hit “publish.”
If you assign value to your writing based on product-only parameters (i.e. will people pay for this? Does it “fix” something for someone? etc.) you will severely limit your potential as both a professional and an artist.
When we talk about selling something, the marketing involved is direct, (relatively) aggressive, and deeply, materialistically value-focused. For writers, this means we are often encouraged to ask such questions as:
- What genres/topics are “selling” right now?
- What steps must I take to actively “build a brand?”
- Which platforms do I need to be on in order to promote my work?
- What monetization strategies do I need to pursue to make money and “sell” (in any sense) more books/articles/views/etc?
Questions like these are downright alarming for many writers, freelance or otherwise. In essence, we are asking how to sell a concept — how to sell storytelling, communication, and emotion.
Not only is this needlessly stressful, but it’s also Quixotic. Rationally, you cannot sell that which is not a thing. And I’m happy to tell you — your writing is much more than an object.
The focus of your career as a writer is not on selling products. Please absorb this, and give that idea a chance. It goes against a lot of the prevailing advice out there, and I’m aware of this.
Honestly, all of this is a matter of framework as much as it is practicality. If you constantly interact with your work as if it is a simple, sell-able product, you will soon find that many of the prevailing norms and marketing tactics are both ineffective and draining.
Let me get to the point: being a professional writer isn’t about selling anything. It’s about transmuting existing, innate human value into a source of earning. Is money involved? Absolutely. This is your career, so it has to earn an income.
But are you really, truly selling a physical object or its equivalent — i.e. a “product?” Or, ultimately, are you communicating innate, human value to other people?
These innate values are metaphysical, sometimes unconscious experiences such as inspiration, fantasy, relief, optimism, mindset, and ideas.
Sure, you can “market” your work to readers more or less on the basis of these experiences, but ultimately your long-term success depends on simply maintaining them as they naturally occur.
You can’t “sell” stories. You can only tell them to the right people, at the right time, and in the right way to ensure the results you need. A product mindset will always backfire when you pursue the long-term path…and what other path is there for a professional writer?
Urgency Is The Enemy Of Success In Writing — Never Try To Write Out Of Desperation
To put it harshly, the reason “sales” as a concept has a bad reputation in many people’s eyes is that it comes with connotations of desperation.
If the sustainability of your work depends on constant product turnover — getting items into consumer hands for immediate profit — there will always be a sense of urgency to your methods and marketing. I don’t think this urgency is necessarily the same as desperation, but it can still communicate that impression to the world.
I hope you realize by now that desperation and creativity do not get along. Desperation and integrity aren’t best buddies, either. If you can’t approach your writing career without engaging in a high-urgency, short-term-dependent mindset, I’m afraid that’s a sign that you aren’t ready for that career.
This isn’t to say that you must go deep into debt to establish yourself and make an income as a writer. Far from it, especially in today’s mostly digital world. It simply means that you need to pay close attention to what the word establish is trying to tell you.
A writing career is a gradual process. You can make money quickly, but that isn’t a guarantee of career — as in long-term — success.
If you get swept up into the art-as-product, sell-sell-sell paradigm, you’ll a) lose steam very quickly and b) will likely end up way off course - with your work becoming subordinate to your income.
If you want to domesticate your work experience, I suggest you pursue it in a corporate cubicle, not a creative field. No hate for the cube life (I’ve lived it), but generally speaking it is not the life writers are best adapted to live.
No matter how desperate you feel or how urgently you behave, it will not change the essential nature of a writing career.
This is a long game that requires extreme levels of consistency. And although frequent output is an obvious prerequisite to success here, that isn’t the same thing as desperation-slash-urgency. Do not pursue a writing career if you are motivated by impatience of any kind.
Do not pursue it if you are broke, about to be broke, or simply do not currently have the means to wait for your success to build. Yep, this career always, always requires a healthy dose of waiting.
This last point was not easy for me to say, because I’m deeply aware of how this kind of work intersects with privilege (and the way that being poor quickly forms a vicious feedback loop).
Ultimately, however, this is still the reality of our field. Until you have a foundation to support you while you establish your writing, your work is going to smack of desperation and will, most likely, soon become mediocre and forgettable.
Writers hate selling things because on some deeper level we know that selling things is not the true nature of our work. Establishing value — communicating what already lives inside our writing — is not the same thing as “selling” ourselves or our art.
So, give yourself some room to breathe, put those metrics aside, and write. Establish yourself. Become a professional writer, and share your stories in the home that’s being built for them as we speak.
At the end of the day, your work is so much more than a product. And so, dear writers, are you.