An important secret to my process as a creator: build a good business from your product. This means developing the ability, infrastructure, and skills to earn money independently from partners, handlers, and other gatekeepers. At his blog, Derek Sivers writes:
Make one plan that depends on nobody else. No record deal. No investors. No lucky break. Your profits may be small but sustainable. Grow your audience. Develop your skills. Build your reputation. You can happily continue this way indefinitely.
Make another plan that uses the music industry. Build your team. Pursue a record deal. Find investors. Increase your odds of a lucky break.
Pursue these two plans simultaneously.
This sounds obvious, but it’s actually the opposite of what happens. For me, in much of my 20s, I experienced a creative block from constantly trying to position myself; finding a prominent co-author, meeting the right agent, working with a traditional publisher. I learned the hard way that it just didn’t work for me. I wasn’t doing the work; I wasn’t writing my books. My strength is in my creative work, not in my schmoozing, so I wasn’t putting my best foot forward.
It reminds me of what Curtis Jackson (better known as recording artist 50 Cent) and Robert Greene write about in The 50th Law; many recording artists, who work in the traditional record label system, grow dependent on their record labels. They’re essentially highly paid employees, in golden handcuffs because they need the reputation and infrastructure of these labels in order to work well. That means they have to work within the rules of the label; the label gets to tell them what to do. (Even if that means making a viral TikTok!)
In other words, an artist who is able to work independently always has the option of working with a partner, for distribution or credibility, but it doesn’t work the other way around.
After years of half-hearted attempts to find a situation for myself, I was inspired by how recording artists made and launched mixtapes to build buzz and make a name for themselves. I decided to write, publish, and promote a digital book independently. A year later, I worked to revise and expand it with a publisher (and make a print one too).
The key was I first published the book independently, launched it independently, and made money independently. And I kept the customer data, so that I can build relationships with my readers. Next time I wrote and published a book, I could reach out to them.
I appreciate authors who embody this two path philosophy. One of the things I’ve noticed is that they independently make, and sometimes sell, a format (let’s call them “ebooks”) that are somewhere between long articles and books. Some of the ones I’ve noticed:
- Farnam Street publishes Member’s Only PDFs
- Steph Smith sells Doing Content Right and Doing Time Right
- Modus Operandi Institute sells programs and books
- Nicolas Cole has his own bookstore, and separately co-authors and publishes his Category Pirates books
- Julian Shapiro publishes cool guidebooks (like these)
- Kaleigh Moore creates and sells products for freelance writers
- Seth Godin has published over a dozen ebooks (see his results with his Ideavirus book, which he wrote in three weeks—he’s also done a workshop to make an ebook in 80 minutes)
- Paper Gains publishes books and essay collections
I don’t have the inventory to start a store like this yet, though I’ve definitely got the raw material for it. If you’re 5–10 years into your career, or your creative practice, I’d wager you’re probably in a similar situation: you’ve built up a degree of skill and expertise that you can share with people. Or you have a proposal that no handler seems to understand, and that you want to move forward with anyway.
Don’t wait, just make the smallest, lightest, version of it possible and see if people will buy it! If they do, then take the profits and make a higher fidelity one. That’s how the creative process works.
In making art without worrying about money, I proposed another suggestion to alleviate financial pressure from your creative work, which was to get a full-time job and make your creativity your hobby. That approach can pair well with what I wrote about in this post.