What to Do When Your Work Won’t Sell Itself

Image: Mick Haupt/Unsplash 

Great work does not sell itself. 

Honestly, I don’t think it ever really did. I’ll acknowledge there was a time when curators were more trusted than they are now. However, many critic’s tastes have been questionable. Worse yet, not everybody had access to a curator’s attention. A curator can not promote what they don’t see or experience. The internet has opened access to the traditional curator’s door a little bit wider, it’s also granted everyone curation abilities.

Still, through artists giving feedback tainted with survival bias, or through a handler’s offhand commentary, we’re made to think that the cream will float to the top. It won’t, and it doesn’t. For every deserving artist who has made it, there are dozens—hundreds—with a similar skillset and talent, who believed they would and didn’t.

Certainly, there’s a point to be made on being so good they can’t ignore you. It’s important to also remember that Van Gogh died penniless and probably thinking that his art career didn’t amount to much. Van Gogh was lucky to have a sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, who would spend her decades making him the world’s most famous artist. The point stands: People’s indifference towards your work can last longer than your lifetime, if you don’t do anything about it.

Social critiques aside, as a creative independent or content creator, you still face a dilemma. If you’re already dedicated to your craft, and your peers and even some interested handlers or supporters know it, then you’d benefit from spending just a little bit more time on promoting your work.

Promotion is one of those rules in a stacked game that people don’t talk about, made all the more uneven because we don’t talk about it. A few months ago, I came upon the insight that choosing to promote your work can be just as radical an act as creating it. It’s certainly not as fun or rewarding as doing the work itself, but if you’re constantly underestimated in meetings with handlers, publishers, or agents, it’s an essential step to take for yourself:

Identify your audiences and forge a connection

Whether you’re in the business of making art or content, there is somebody that will be watching, seeing, listening to, or using it. Even if you don’t think you have an audience, they’re out there. Poet Cathy Park Hong writes in Minor Feelings, “We say we don’t care about audience, but it is a lie… The poet’s audience is the institution. We rely on the higher jurisdiction of academia, prize jury panels, and fellowships to gain social capital.”

Talking about promotion might draw images of MLM meetings or walking around with a “Buy my work,” sign. It’s more about building a connection with the audience. For some audiences and media, it’s all about sharing your experiences as one of them, or teaching them something. For others like institutions, it might involve a different type of speech, layered with histories and shared values, and styled with ingratiation and flattery. 

Art critic Jerry Saltz writes, it really only takes 12 people—a handful of dealers, critics, curators, and collectors—to sustain an art career. If you’re making something more like a book or a song, then you can keep your eyes peeled for 1,000 true fans. Who are some real people who would buy your work? (If you like, you could reach out to 30 people a day, or meet people who influence them.)

The point is not to cater your work or tailor it to the audience, but to learn how to identify them, find them, and to speak to them directly. That’s the first key to sales and marketing. Now, you need to get down into the business of actually finding these people. 

Find a place and start hanging out every day

There’s a scene in Will, Will Smith’s memoir co-authored with Mark Manson, where he’d hit rock bottom. He’d just broken up with his girlfriend (and set all her stuff on fire). The government was catching up with him on overdue taxes and he’d run out of credit. His career as a recording artist was fading away. He needed a break from his hometown of Philadelphia, so he went to Los Angeles.

After a few months of moping in Los Angeles, his new girlfriend Tanya strongly encourages him to take some action. She told him to pursue the only option available at the time, which was to visit the Arsenio Hall Show just to meet people. Will was welcome there as he and Arsenio had become friends a few years earlier. 

Will thought it sounded like a stupid suggestion. In spite of his reservations, Will and his friend and associate Charlie Mack would go on set every day for months, with Charlie “accost[ing] famous strangers and drag them against their will to come meet me.” 

As he and Charlie spent more time there, Will writes of his experience:

As I stood backstage, I felt the electrical currents of possibility pulsing and receding—it was like a lush forest with ripe fruit on every tree. The show was a flashpoint, a nexus, a cosmic garden of opportunity that Arsenio knowingly and purposefully cultivated. If Tanya had just said that, I wouldn’t have been a dickhead.

Eventually they met Benny Medina, who saw Will’s acting in his music videos and mentioned liking it. It was a 3-minute, insincere, “Hollywood chat,” that would eventually lead to Will’s debut as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the start of his much more prominent acting career.

You might not have a friend like Charlie Mack, or a backstage pass to Arsenio, so you’ll need to make due with what you have now. Maybe it’s choosing a social media platform and starting to listen to the conversations there, and making a contribution every so often.

The key here is Will’s and Charlie’s willingness to show up, hang out, and meet a bunch of people: Be willing to have conversations with everyone, and open to where they might go. Wherever you’re hanging out, show up every day.

Don’t promote yourself, promote your work

While the job description of a creative independent or content creator may simply look like making art and content, the often unwritten part is promotion. When you’re first starting out, you’ll also need to be your work’s first supporter and promoter. Choose a few things to get good at, see which ones you hate the least, and do it your way.

As your career blossoms, there will eventually be relationships and team members—handlers to support you, assistants to help manage and coordinate, agents and distributors to place your work in the right places, publicists to establish a greater snob value. 

For now though, it’s just going to be you. The best combination of promoter and artist will create the biggest opportunities and make the greatest impact.

Your work is already great. Go show it to the world.

If you enjoyed this article, check out my upcoming book, Creative Doing. You’ll also love my Best of Books newsletter, where I send three of the best books to your inbox every month. Thanks for reading.

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