Artists: I want you to pay attention here because this post is for you.
The rest of you, those who love business, please read because you might find some inspiration here. But I’m talking to the folks who seem to believe that practicing art is something that is divorced from business and must remain so. Those who practice art in this way believe that once they have finished their piece, then someone else will take care of all the messy business details, from marketing that art to creating a brand to creating some kind of business plan to creating an estate.
By “practicing art,” I mean everything from writing fiction to painting to creating textiles and beyond. If you’re creative and you create a “thing,” be it a song or a story, a mural or a play, then you are “practicing art.”
Note that I did not start this piece with the word creatives, because that’s unfair to the folks I addressed in the second paragraph. We’re all creatives, even if some of us choose to learn business and others don’t.
I chose the word artists on purpose. I almost wrote it with an “h.” Ahr-tists. But that indicates contempt. And I don’t feel contempt for people who want to keep their art “pure.” I feel sorry for them.
Yeah, I know. That is not the best way to start a piece in which you want to convince someone of something.
But I learned long ago that the artist mindset, as mentioned above, is one that isn’t easily changed. A lot of artists—and now, primarily, I’m going to switch to the word writers, because this blog is writer-focused—believe that they finish their work and from that moment, their responsibility ends.
That way lies embezzlement, lost of income, theft, and heartbreak. Most writers I know with that attitude are people who can’t write a lot because too many people have stuck their fingers in the work. Most writers I know who have that attitude end up with writing as a hobby that they “indulge” in their free time, away from their day job and their “real life.”
What these folks don’t realize—or, more likely, ignore—is that art has always been a business. The business model changed over the centuries (and with various cultures). Artists from Mozart to Michelangelo created works to keep their patrons happy. In return, the patrons paid artists—either on an annual or per-item basis—to continue making art.
With the development of the printing press, artists were able to create more freely, and many items were easy to sell without a patron. Other items were not.
Writers have struggled to balance earning enough to live on and keeping their art pure for all of human history. But…the writers we remember, well, they were the ones who figured out how to manage art and business in their time and their culture.
In other words, those folks were popular, either with their patrons (and their patrons’ friends) or with the masses. Now I’m going to use the word “writer,” not the word “artist,” because this blog is for writers.
The idea that writers in particular should remain in their garret and let someone else take their work into the world is a particularly 20th century concept. It has doomed thousands of writers, forcing them to accept bad business deals and remain mostly unsung in day jobs from teaching to writing technical manuals.
These writers, these artists, never realized that they were running a business, and they certain don’t have the business mindset.
What is a business mindset?
Back in the day, my ex-husband would have called it a “winning” attitude. So many people confuse business with a competition that leads to “winners” and “losers.” See the How Writers Fail post on competition for other reasons why that attitude is harmful.
The business mindset is completely different from the idea of winners and losers. It’s also different from the creating in a garret and deigning to give your work to the world.
Let’s step out of art entirely, shall we?
No one starts a business with the idea that the business will fail. No one opens a restaurant—a notoriously hard business to succeed in—with the idea that the business will last a year or two and then disappear.
Everyone who starts a business expects it to succeed. And those who have experience and education in the world of business know that success takes planning.
Planning is not what other writers tell you—that you need to figure out what you’re going to write next or to have a list of projects and work your way through them. Nor is planning what editors (traditional, mostly) tell you, which is keep writing what you wrote before because that’s what readers want.
Planning is not what your writing professor told you either, which is to make sure you outline everything and rewrite your piece to death.
Planning—sadly—has nothing to do with craft and creativity—in any business.
Planning is about thinking ahead. Planning requires game plans for contingencies. Planning looks at success and failure, and figures out ways to deal with both—and the entire world in between.
Writers expect to win the lottery. They think: I’ll write a book and get someone to put it out into the world and then I’ll be rich and famous!
Writers are willing to do what lottery players do. They buy as many tickets as they believe they can afford. They listen to the advice of gurus on how to win something which is, essentially, a game of chance.
They try everything from querying dozens of agents who will then tell them to change everything all over again to listening to editors on panels who say that vampires are hot, so the writers add vampires to every story they tell. Writers willingly destroy their own voice and their own creativity to get someone else to market their work.
Or the writers try to market a few times and give up because, they say, writing is a fool’s errand.
And when you write to win the lottery, it is a fool’s errand. The chances of long-term big time success decrease every year. Not for the individual writer, but for all traditionally published writers.
The world has changed that much in the 21st century.
Writers who are indie published don’t know how to define their success. Is it money? Is it free downloads? Is it awards? Is it page-reads?
Because no one really captures the cultural imagination and holds it for years anymore. When was the last time everyone you knew was discussing a breakout book? When was the last time everyone you knew was discussing a breakout TV show? When was the last time everyone you knew was discussing the same movie?
We’re in peak entertainment right now, and a lot of people are earning a good living telling stories, making movies, making music and making art, but none of them seem to capture the cultural zeitgeist.
That might change in five years. It might never go back to the way it was mid-20th century, when one book could be on the coffee table of every reader in the country. The book everyone had to read—or lie about reading—because it showed we were all literate.
How do you plan for success in such an upside down crazy world? Isn’t it just easier to expect failure? (I suppose it is, but it certainly isn’t as much fun.)
There’s two kinds of planning for success. (Actually, there are more, but we’re going to keep it simple.)
The first is what most writers and artists think of—winning the lottery. Creating one product that hits the zeitgeist and makes you rich and famous. As I said above, that really doesn’t happen.
But what does happen is that one thing you do—and it’s usually only one—takes off. It outsells everything else. In its niche, it becomes the thing everyone talks about.
Writers expect that one thing to take off within weeks (days?) of publication. Or, maybe, after someone makes a movie out of it a year or two later.
That’s completely unrealistic.
In art, as in most regular business, success of that magnitude happens years, often decades, after the thing is completed and sent into the world. Witness what just happened to Kate Bush.
There are ways to plan for that, without being able to predict the technology of the future or even the trends of the future. I’ll discuss that below.
The second type of success is short-term. You open a restaurant, it gets good reviews, and more people show up in the first month than you planned. A good business person knows that such success is short-lived, and plans for the inevitable drop off of business.
The business will fall to some plateau that will become normal. The business owner will have to either decide to build slowly so that the business doesn’t remain on that plateau or will have to figure out how to occasionally goose the business to refresh interest in its product.
Writers refresh naturally, by putting out new books. Some books will do better than others. Some will have a moment in the sun, and then be forgotten. No one and no one thing remain on top forever.
Living in Las Vegas has made that cycle even clearer to me, as we drive daily past restaurants that still exist and have a solid clientele, but were, once upon a time, visited weekly by the city’s business elite and entertainment royalty. Those folks are gone now, but the restaurants still have that 1970s ambience—and that artery-clogging food.
There are a lot of businesses here like that, from wedding chapels to casinos to famous nightclubs. There are also less flashy businesses, but equally important, like the air conditioning installation and repair people who save us all in the summer. At least two of those businesses have existed in Las Vegas since the 1930s.
The arts have a longer-term future than a restaurant or an air-conditioning repair place. Those businesses are dependent on the now. Many of them are dependent on the families or owners who started the business. Each transaction is a finite transaction—a meal, a repair—that results in good word of mouth.
But art can last for centuries. We’re all still reading stories written hundreds of years ago. We’re looking at paintings that were created hundreds of years ago as well. And if we’re so inclined, we can watch movies from the dawn of the talking era.
Writers can create work with incredible longevity. In the United States, the copyright in a single short story (anything committed to a form, really) last from the moment of creation until 70 years past the writer’s death.
What does that mean for the business-minded?
It means that each negotiation, each contract, each license, each publication, each decision the business-minded writer makes about each short story, novel, blog post…each thing that they write…must be made with an eye to the future.
The easiest way to do this is simple: Ask yourself if you’ll be happy if someone pays you $50,000 to buy all the rights in your novel. What if that person then develops the novel into a movie? A game? A comic book? What if that novel becomes the most famous thing you’ve ever done…and that other person makes millions while all you make is the initial $50,000?
How does that $50,000 (long spent) feel now?
Pretty crappy, right?
Here’s the problem: You will never know which of your products will eventually become successful, particularly in a world that you can’t imagine. As I said in the Kate Bush article, there was no way that 27 year-old Kate Bush could imagine that her song would be used in a streaming TV show called Stranger Things decades after she wrote and put the song into the world.
There was no streaming back then. A show like Stranger Things couldn’t have been made for network TV or for cable.
But Kate Bush negotiated all her contracts with an eye to the future…or, more accurately, from what I read…with an eye to controlling her work.
That’s the key to future success. You keep as much control in your work as possible.
That means if someone offers you a bad deal, you walk. Those of you who have signed traditional publishing contracts in the past 20 years on the advice of your agents? I can guarantee that you all have signed very bad deals…if you look at them coldly, with an eye to future success.
What that far future success most often means is this: You’ll take less money now so that you can control your copyright. You might walk away from that $50,000 deal mentioned above because you would lose control of your work.
It might mean that you have to keep your crappy day job longer because you’re not earning enough on your indie publishing yet. It might mean that you’re stockpiling work for a future you might not live to see, but which will make your estate valuable and you (momentarily) famous.
It means you have to do estate planning. You’ll need to find someone who can manage your copyrights after you’re gone. You need to keep track of all the work you’ve done and what you’ve licensed. You need to keep contracts on file.
You need to think like a business person.
You also need to see failure differently.
If your book gets released (indie) and you only sell five copies that first month, then you need to realize that month is the first day of the book’s life. It will live from that day until someone (probably not you) takes it out of print. It will earn for you and your heirs from that day until 70 years past your death, if you control your copyrights.
Yes, you’ll need to work on short-term success and failure. You might only earn coffee money in those first few years or your earnings might decrease because your books become less visible due to some algorithmic change.
You’ll have to learn how to manage cash flow—money on the short term—so that you can continue to earn money for the long term.
You will need to plan for next week and for ten years from now and for seventy years after your death.
How do you do all of that? I just told you how to do the 70-year thing. The short term? Well, you the business person is constantly evaluating earnings and goals…not so that you change your writing.
Your writing—your art—is what you want it to be. If you want it to be pure and to follow your vision, then keep it under your control and don’t let financial decisions through the door of your writing office.
But, having finished all of that, your baby turns into a widget, something you put on the market. And you must think of the business side of your career as something separate from the creative side.
This is the only way you’ll ever be able to write in a garret. Your writing space and your writing products are sacrosanct. Your writer self tosses those products out of the garret without any thought as to how to market them or how much they’ll earn.
Those thoughts, those business concerns, live in your business office. Your business self then picks up the product and figures out how best to use it.
If your business self is seeing the world through a life-plus-70 lens, then your business self knows that sometimes the best thing to do with that product is wait a year to market it. Or your business self might decide to release the product with zero fanfare the very next day.
Your business self plans the short-term and long-term business part of your career. Your writer self plays in the garret without regard to any of that business crap.
My descriptions here are very simplistic. They are just here to get you started.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
Artists! You need a business mindset. You need to plan for a success that you might not live to see. You need to understand that your work can live for a very, very long time.
You want to reap the financial rewards for that—you and your heirs. To do that, you must control that work. To control it, you need to understand copyright, contracts, negotiation and all those other things you want to farm out to people who would love to handle it…at the cost of your future.
Clearly, no one learns all this overnight. So start now.
Your heirs will thank you.
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“Business Musings: The Business Mindset,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / thomaseder.