4 Truths You Need to Know to Get to the Top
At this point in my career, I've sold a lot of books. But I was hardly an overnight success. First came work in publishing and agenting. I learned how book sales worked—and didn’t work—well before I published a word of my own.
I want to use my experience here to puncture a thought bubble I encounter when talking with would-be writers and other creatives. I call it the Romantic View of Creativity. It’s not only dead wrong; if you fall for it, it will sabotage your success.
Wrong but Romantic
There are four main false assumptions in the Romantic View of Creativity (which parallels the Myth of the Starving Artist). Here they are:
- The creative life is easy, if not effortless. It beats “real work,” in other words.
- People will seek you out. Your creative fires will just burn that bright.
- People will love you for your art. They will be happy to have such a rare individual in their midst.
- You’ll easily make a living at this. And you might even get rich!
I am not exaggerating here. I have encountered creatives and other entrepreneurs who believe one, two, or all of these things. When these assumptions prove false, they often get discouraged and stuck. Some throw in the towel and quit before they’ve accomplished anything significant.
It’s a real shame—and also unnecessary.
What Creatives Need to Hear
The opposite of the four points above is closer to the truth. This will not be easy, and there are no guarantees of success. But you shouldn’t let that stop you, because there is good news here as well. Here are four truths you need to climb the mountain.
1. Real Creativity Involves Significant Work
Anders Ericsson is a psychologist at Florida State University who did the research behind the “10,000 Hour Rule,” as it was slightly misreported in the popular press.
In his book Peak, Ericsson urged readers to forget the 10,000 figure and focus on the now well-documented fact that mastery in almost any field or art form is the result of practicing a specific task for a long time, often thousands of hours.
Whether you want to be a great author, musician, painter, or comedian, it takes practice. You can’t just show up and expect most people to appreciate your unrefined talent. You must put in the hard work to intentionally practice and invest in your craft.
With respect to writing books—a field I know quite well—doing the work requires you to:
- Come up with a great idea
- Develop a proposal
- Find an agent
- Shop the proposal
- Secure a publishing contract
- Write the book
- Rewrite the book
- Submit it to outside editors
- Process their edits
- Finalize the manuscript
It’s not easy. This all requires significant effort. Successful writers have to be incredibly disciplined to pull it off. And you're only just getting started at this point.
2. Real Creativity Requires Significant Promotion
Many years ago, an author told me, “Look, my job is to write the books. Your job is to promote them.” He was simply out of touch with reality.
Successful publishing requires that the author both write the book and assist in its promotion. I understand why many authors are uncomfortable promoting their own work, but this inclination is misguided. If you have invested the hours creating the work and really believe in it, why wouldn’t you want to get the work out to as many people as possible?
It is more important than ever to have a platform. When evaluating potential projects, the first question we asked when I was Thomas Nelson’s CEO was about the book’s content. The second question was about the author’s reach. It was rare for us to offer a contract to a new author who didn’t have a built-in audience that might buy the book.
3. Real Creativity Invites Criticism
From a distance, fame looks very attractive. Famous people are endlessly praised and adored, right? Wrong. Any time your head rises above the crowd, someone is liable to take a shot at you.
It’s easy to lose perspective when folks hurl those criticisms. I can receive one hundred positive comments, yet one negative barb will throw me for a loop. I suddenly think that everyone hates me, and I am ready to quit.
So take it from a fellow criticism sufferer that what you need is not an absence of criticism but perspective. It helps to sort the criticisms as they come in into three different camps: friends, critics, and trolls.
- Friends love you and are willing to share with you the truth, even if it hurts a little bit.
- Critics don’t have anything personal against you; they simply disagree with you.
- Trolls are spoiling for a fight. They attack you because something is wrong with their heart. My best advice is to ignore them. If you engage them, it only strengthens their resolve.
4. Real Creativity Can Be Profitable, with Deliberate Action
For some reason, artists (and even some entrepreneurs) often have an uneasy relationship with money. They undervalue their work. They sell from their heels. This prevents them from taking the steps to make it pay enough to survive and prosper.
This makes little sense. Even the Bible implies that we should not feel guilty about charging for our work. As the Apostle Paul says, “A laborer is worthy of his hire.” If it's any good, creative work is real labor.
When you put a price on something, you create value. Art that is offered freely without charge is often disregarded. In other words, if you, as the artist, don’t think it is worth anything, why should I? This is why I don’t think giving your work away for free is good for you or for the recipient. In fact, here's a post on why you should do it for the money.
If you truly believe in your work, charge for it and find a way to raise your rates as your skills improve.
Don’t Be Scared
I hope that none of these truths scare off creatives who want to make a living from their talents. As truths go, these are not even that hard to swallow.
What I’m saying is don't fall for the Romantic View of Creativity. It’s going to take practice, promotion, a thicker skin, and an eye for the bottom line. Some of these things may come easier to you than others but they ought to all be possible, if you set out to master them and keep at it.
You may not be good at these disciplines to start with, but think of it this way: How long did it take you to color in the lines, draw that bow string without squeaking, or craft the perfect opening sentence? Keep at it and you may be surprised what you achieve.
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