When I tell authors they should be thinking about who will read their book as (and even before) they are writing it, some tense up. I know what is going on in their brain – because I ask them, but also because I see it a lot. They believe thinking about commerce diminishes their creative work. What a load! I have a macro theory about why this exists but more on that another time.
For now, here are 5 reasons why the idea of Selling Out is nonsense.
Reason #1: You don’t know how to sell out and neither do “they.”
Do you actually believe there are a set of steps you can take to trade your creative integrity into easy money? Creating and selling quality art is hard work. The effort of writing a book for a specific market or exploring a new genre to grow your brand is the same amount of hard work as writing a book in whatever genre the accuser thinks you should be writing.
Reason #2: No one is in the business of buying integrity.
Selling Out hinges on the belief that someone is out there, lurking, waiting to give artists money if they will only create or say something that betrays their principles. This betrayal can take the form of promoting something for money, changing styles or genres, and even just doing something too many people like.
First, off there is no one (or group of people) waiting to give you money in exchange for your artistic or personal integrity. Have you ever thought to yourself, “I would read more books by Jane Smith if only she would change this one thing.” I’d be willing to bet the answer to that is no. All of us are striving to make our best work.
Second, unless you are already massively successful (and presumably very influential), integrity has a very low market value, and people just aren’t willing to pay. Which leads into...
Reason #3: You are not successful enough to get the chance to sell out.
Yes, there might be times when the label fits, but only for massively successful people – people who are deep inside whatever creative field they have chosen to work in. If you have taken a stance for decades and someone comes along and pays you to change it in your work – that is selling out. You might say, “If my principles are worth a lot one day, shouldn’t I worry about defending that integrity today?” The truth is you don’t have to worry about it because no one will benefit from getting you to change it until you have invested years and years into it. But that leads into the fourth reason.
Reason #4: Only you know what the next right move for you.
Buried in the sell-out label is this claim: “I know what you should do better than you do.” Do you believe that? The people who yell about selling out do not understand the lives of the artist they are shouting at, the realities of the business we work in, or the reasons people make the art they do. They also don’t have any right to tell you what to do next. If that voice is coming from inside, figure out where it is coming from, because instead of simply being wrong (like when others say it), you are probably lying to yourself because you are uncomfortable thinking about the value of your work and where it comes from.
Reason #5: You should be proud of the value of your work.
Knowing the monetary value of your work is something you should embrace and be proud of. It is an honor. You should want to create art that is worth people’s money, money they earned working hard. Money that they are going to trade for something you worked hard to make, just because it delights them. Not thinking about the commercial value of your art, and using that knowledge, is a quick way to not have the resources to make more. The kind of people who call artists sell-outs for thinking about how they will make money from their work are the kind of people who want you to starve.
Don’t avoid or put off thinking about the small business you are trying to create and grow when you decide to be an author. The sooner you get started on that side of your business the easier it will be.
Let us look at a great practical example. Comedians gather an audience by making people laugh. People buy tickets so they can laugh, and part of those ticket sales go to the comedian. When a comedian writes new jokes, no one is there to laugh. When they first perform those jokes, some don't work, some almost work, and some are great. Would they be a better comedian if they refused to work on the jokes that didn’t work?
Of course not.
They make decisions to think about and change their ideas to better reach their goals and pay their bills. Sometimes they make changes they do not like and change back; they deserve the freedom to do so, just like you do. Continuously finding the balance between commerce and craft – that is the process of creative growth. It not the process of selling out.