Thrive: Selling Your Work vs. Selling Out


Welcome to Thrive! A weekly advice column for creatives and the generally confused.


This week we’re focusing on selling as a creative. Whatever the medium, the dream is to be able to make a living off of our work without compromising the art. It can be hard to strike this balance and even harder to know when we’re ready to take such leaps. Here’s the Thrive guide to getting started on selling your work and keeping it legit.

Nothing ever feels finished. How do I know I am ready to sell? As artists we’re always going to feel some fear in sharing our work, add in the additional anxiety of asking someone to pay for our work and we’re entering Self-Doubt Station. Keep your mind from shooting off into “what-ifs” by focusing on the real and tangible. Are you regularly creating work? If you were commissioned to do three pieces (whether its three cartoons, essays, or songs) this month, would you have the bandwidth to complete them to the best of your ability? If a magazine accepted a piece and wanted another one tomorrow, could you provide it? Think about what you have, what you have time to create, and if you are capable of scaling up. Self-doubt will have you thinking you’ll never sell anything and if that’s the case you’ll be unprepared to keep your buyers happy.

Ok, so I’m not ready yet but I want to be soon. How do I do that? Following a similar model to the above think first of your end goal. Do you wanted to sell 15 limited edition prints by 2019? Do you want to have a regularly featured comic in the local paper by 2020? Do you want to sell a dress a week? Book 10 shows by June? Think of what success looks like for you and then work backwards. This method is called Reverse Engineering.

Reverse engineering is used by some of the most successful investors and CEOs in the world, and its important that we as creatives employ similar strategies when goal-setting. For example, if you want to book 10 shows for your band by the end of June and it’s now mid-Feb, you need to book a show every other week for the next 19 weeks. Do you all have room in your schedule to possibly travel that often. The funds? Do you have enough songs for longer sets if asked?

Working backwards from the goal will help you to visualize all that needs to be done to make it there or to help make the goal more realistic so you aren’t let down later. For any project or goal, get as much done as you can upfront.

I’m selling, I’m selling! But I just got asked to do something that’s not really my thing, for a ton of money. What do I do? Hey congrats on making a name for yourself! If you’ve been selling your work regularly, you may be commissioned to do something else (create an ad, write copy for a website, write a jingle). A lot of these things can pay quite well but there’s always the risk of selling out (or being perceived as a “sell-out”). I stopped a lot of freelance work myself because I wasn’t enjoying anything I was writing, it felt soulless and took the fun out of the art.

Before excepting a big check (I know it’s tempting) think about how much time you’ll have to dedicate to it, ask your contact if you can have full creative control or if they’re going to want to make the key decisions. While I do not think it’s a good idea to turn down everything just because its “corporate”, I do think you need to make sure you’re fully understanding the scope of work involved, so you don’t wind up with your name on something that doesn’t even look like it came from you. Be mindful and say yes if it feels right. If they are willing to give you a lot of control, then you’re in good shape.

We’ll being doing more pieces like this in the future. What questions do you have? Send them in!


THRIVE is answered by Amanda Kusek, a poet, blogger, and dog mom living in NYC.


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