You and I – and pretty much every professional artist in the history of the universe – understand how hard it is to make a living from original work…
The pain comes in different ways:
- The disappointment of boxing up your books after a slow convention.
- The extended embarrassment of a failed crowdfunding campaign.
- The frustration of a dormant web store.
- Crickets instead of commissions…
…but they all bring the same sense of rejection.
…and most of us have no idea what to do about it.
How do you promote your own work without being annoying?
Do you have to become a smarmy salesman?
Here’s a checklist that will help you sell your art and stories without selling your soul…
Death To The Salesman:
What’s your idea of a good salesman?
Is there anything good about him?
Many of us think of salesmen as pushy slimeballs who con honest people out of their hard-earned money.
In the six-year gap between art school and my first visual development gig at Disney, I worked many crappy day jobs.
But I learned the most about business during my two years as a salesman at Guitar Center.
When I was supposed to “up-sell” a more expensive product or convince someone to buy a bunch of high-profit “add-ons” they didn’t really need, I couldn’t go through with it.
“You’re right, you’re not your dad. He could sell a Ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves.”
-David Spade, from the movie ‘Tommy Boy’
Is this the only way to make money from our art?
Do we have to betray our own empathetic nature and learn how to “sell a Ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves?”
Of course not.
Since my time at Guitar Center I’ve learned a lot more about creative business and I’ve even experienced some honest success in my own.
Good business is about making people happy, not brain-washing them.
Good business is about compromise and cultivating mutually-beneficial relationships where everyone wins.
You give people what they want and in exchange for your service and expertise, they help you stay in business by giving you money.
Which leads us to my first point…
Mistake #1: You’re Offering Something Your Fans Don’t Want.
The first possible reason your fans aren’t buying your books, prints, shirts, resin orcs or whatever is simple.
They don’t want to.
When you toil away in secret until your great idea is “ready” and then announce it to the world, expecting everyone to just pay up, you’re risking public rejection.
Don’t spend a dime or a minute of your time on any kind of merchandise, product or crowdfunding campaign until you are certain it’s exactly what your audience wants to buy from you.
How do you know what your audience wants to buy?
You don’t need a crystal ball.
You just have to ask them.
And don’t just ask them once. Make it an ongoing conversation. Things change.
If nobody responds then you might not have found your audience yet.
If you haven’t found an audience, then you’re not actually ready to sell anything.
In this case, you need to make sharing your work as easy as possible.
Just focus on free for now. (Although I still think you should always have something for your website visitors to buy because a few extra bucks here and there is better than nothing.)
If you do have an audience but they are consistently unresponsive, it might be time to move on…
Mistake #2: You’re Offering The Right Thing To The Wrong Crowd.
If your audience never spends money on anything close to what you’re selling then you might be offering the right thing to the wrong crowd.
These people might be your friends or your family, but they are never going to be your true fans.
“Go to where people are. You won’t have to look very long.”
-Samuel L. Jackson, from the movie ‘Unbreakable’
Where does your buying crowd hang out?
At a specific convention? In a specific deviantArt, Facebook or G+ group?
Wherever it is, go there and start cultivating authentic relationships.
Don’t spam them.
Don’t bore them.
…and don’t bail on them.
Just be a generous, supportive friend.
If they fall in love with your work, many of them will ask you where they can buy it.
You won’t have to sell your art to these folks.
…but they’ll help you sell it to everyone else.
Mistake #3: Your Fans Already Have Too Much Of What You’re Selling.
Every time I see an artist tweet about how he “received his shipment of prints just in time for such-and-such-comic-con,” I worry…
I sincerely hope he sells a thousand prints at that convention.
…but I have a hard time believing that he will.
…because even if the art is fantastic, prints are basically the most unremarkable product money can buy. (Just my opinion.)
Does anybody really need another 11×17 print?
Now, to be fair, maybe he discussed this with his audience and got the green light. If so, good for him. He made an informed decision. Print away.
But even then, he’d probably sell more if he thought of a way to make his prints special…
Last year, one of my remarkable Painting Drama students Nic Gregory brought a set of scrolls to CTN-X.
He printed his best paintings on thinly-woven cloth, rolled each one up and tied it closed with a satin ribbon.
Now that, my friends, is special.
Of course, Nic’s scrolls were a big hit with fans and studios alike.
For an example of how to make an art book more special, check out ‘Curiosities’ by my friends Victoria Ying and Mike Yamada.
Now, it is possible that you’ve made some very special art but does your audience know how and where to buy it?
Mistake #4: They Don’t Know How And Where To Buy Your Work.
Now, before you start spamming Facebook and Twitter with links to buy your Brony Romance Novel, you need to understand something..
Desperate plugging will, at best, train everyone to ignore you.
At worst, everyone will get annoyed.
Your social media strategy should be 90% about helping other people and 10% about helping yourself.
That said, you can’t sell anything if your audience doesn’t know where and how to buy it.
This is one area where Hollywood actually has something to teach us.
They build anticipation over an extended period of time before they release something special.
Don’t try to communicate everything in one huge blog post.
Invite your audience into the creative process.
Post regular, engaging, personal updates so that all you have to do on launch day is tell them where to go…
Mistake #5: You’re Asking For Too Much, Too Soon:
Parting with our hard-earned money is painful.
As far as your brain is concerned, spending money and stubbing your toe are basically the same thing.
This is why true fandom is so very important.
When the LEGO Death Star hit shelves, the Star Wars super-fans celebrated.
Sure, many of us couldn’t afford the $400 price tag, but since it’s still available in stores, it would seem that many fans bought it anyway.
My point is that true fandom is more powerful than the pain of spending money.
In order to overcome the pain of parting with their money, your creative product must make your fans happy.
…so the thought of spending their hard-earned money on your art is more positive than it is painful.
This is why, above all else, you need to become a great visual storyteller.
In order to make a living from your imagination you have to craft stories and images that people fall passionately in love with.
Before you order a boatload of books, prints, shirts, resin orcs or whatever, you should ask yourself this question:
“Would I part with my own hard-earned money for this?”
You can’t expect anyone to buy anything you don’t believe in wholeheartedly.
Good visual stories take time.
If you’re part of this final category, the good news is that you have a head start.
The creator culture is the future for most of today’s artists – aspiring and professional alike.
Your future offers more flexibility and fun than any of the rest of us could ever have imagined.
Focus today on the life you’re moving toward.
The future has a way of sneaking up on you…
I Really Need Your Opinion:
As you might have figured out by now, we’re going to be talking a lot more this year about personal projects and how to make a living from your own imagination.
Will you do me a huge favor and answer this question in the comments:
Which path are you more passionate about: Working for the big studios or making a living from your own visual stories (online and/or at conventions)?