“I just want to create things. I’ll let someone else handle the business and marketing side of things.” I hear this all of the time. I thought the same thing for a very, very long time.
That mindset may have been the most damaging mistake for my creative work. It laid a foundation for a myriad of other mistakes, resulting in hours and hours of work for books that suffered from my ignorance. Had I actually understood the business of publishing, how the industry has evolved, and where I fit into it (the hardest piece to sort out), I could have invested significantly more time in projects that would have been both creatively fulfilling and financially sustainable.
I’m not alone with my mistakes when it comes to the business side of creative work. I’ve seen friends literally lose control of their books because an inexperienced agent made a bad publishing deal with a new publisher who went out of business right after the book released. I’ve seen colleagues get more of less dropped by their publishers before or during their book releases, with publicists offer very vague, limited support.
Other professional writers and bloggers have suffered from SEO changes that hurt their websites or social media shifts, such as changes to Facebook’s author pages, that sent their click-throughs and ad revenue diving.
There are so many things that I wish I had done differently 5-6 years ago that could have helped myself immensely today. That isn’t to say that I wish I had given myself over completely to the business side of the publishing and writing industries. Rather, I wish I at least knew what I was missing and had been more intentional about the direction of my creative career.
Creative workers can mistakenly think that ignorance of business is a virtue that makes their work pure.
Ignorance of the business end of creative work is by no means a virtue. It may actually hold your work back, deprive you of opportunities, and even prevent you from being generous with your work. For instance, some publishers make it very difficult to share a high quality eBook with potential readers and reviewers. You would think publishers understand the value of putting books in the hands of reviewers who can help improve your ranking on Amazon by putting your book over the 50-review threshold. However, there are many, many cases of employees at publishers shipping PDF’s of the book’s print file to reviewers, which appear as a mangled garble of words and punctuation in most eReaders.
The more you know about business and marketing going into creative work, the better off you’ll be in choosing the direction that is most sustainable and consistent with your values. I have taken one self-directed crash course after another in the publishing business and marketing. I’ve made enough mistakes over the years that I’ve been very motivated to sign up for industry publications and blogs such as Digital Book World, Jane Friedman’s blog, Writers Digest, Joanna Penn’s podcast, and many more. I’ve read books about the craft of writing, the business of writing, and how independent authors make it work. I’ve read about the marketing strategies and tactics that are available.
None of this has taken away from my creative vision. I’m not changing my plans dramatically. Rather, I’m learning where my creative work can overlap with the strategies that work best today.
Here’s the ironic part of this shift: the more I understand the publishing business and where I fit into it, the more I’ve been able to invest in the kind of work that I love. Back when I was completely ignorant of the publishing industry, I wasted so much time on social media, chasing influential people, and more or less wringing my hands about the things that didn’t work out.
With a better picture in my mind of what works and what doesn’t work, I’ve invested in tools that make my work time more efficient so I can focus on my creative projects and the freelancing that will help pay the bills.
Understanding the business side of my creative work means I can choose what to ignore and compensate for the gaps that creates. For my independent books I spend very little time courting endorsements or reviews on top blogs. Rather, I focus on sharing guest posts and give out the books liberally to all who will read and review them. It runs against some of the industry advice, but it feels like a good path for my work. It’s a choice that I’ve made with full awareness of my options.
These are the decisions that no one else could make for me. I couldn’t just “trust” the experts to tell me what to do. The experts can tell you what has worked for them and for other people, but they can’t tell you how to chart your creative career.
Most importantly, if you don’t set your own course with the backing of research and self-knowledge, you could end up running from half-baked ideas to half-hearted projects over and over again. It’s far better to spend time focusing on what you need to do and then jumping in with both feet and playing the long game. It’s a risk and you’ll certainly need to make adjustments along the way. However, it’s far better to give yourself to a particular plan in order to know with a fair amount of certainty that it doesn’t work than to dabble in three different directions without a clue about what would actually work if you give yourself fully to one of them.
There’s a danger for creative workers when it comes to the business side of their work, but the danger in most cases is ignorance of business, rather than selling out. I only have my own network to go on, but I think the number of sell outs to business are far fewer than those who flounder because of ignorance of the business side of their work.
Authenticity and integrity do not demand ignorance of business.
If you value integrity and your creative vision, there’s no harm in learning about the business side of your creative work. Dig in and sort out which advice rings true and which doesn’t. Take a look at how you fit into your industry and how your creative work can either reach more people with this knowledge.
If any particular practice in your creative industry strikes you as troubling or unsustainable, no one will blame you for avoiding it. It’s better to see the opportunities and obstacles with clarity than to avoid them both in ignorance.