Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

140: Stop Starving and Start Making a Living from Your Art: Interview with Cory Huff

There’s a secret group of talented artists who make small fortunes from their craft. They are full-time writers, painters, and artisans while some of us hustle in the margins of our busy lives unnoticed. Odds are you’ve never heard of them, and the funny thing is, they don’t care. But you should.

140: Stop Starving and Start Making a Living from Your Art: Interview with Cory Huff

At some point in our history, it became unsavory to make a good living from your art. Indie bands that sign with a label are “sellouts” and painters who distribute their canvases on Etsy aren’t “legitimate”.

This is absolutely ridiculous! Isn’t that the aim of professional artists? To obtain the freedom to step away from cubicle day jobs and dedicate their time to impacting people’s lives with their craft?

This week’s guest on The Portfolio Life teaches people how to make a living from their art by rejecting myths, circumventing gatekeepers, and learning how to run their own business.

Listen in as Cory Huff and I talk about the intersection of creativity and money, and why the system we subject ourselves to failed Van Gogh.

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To listen to the show, click the player below (If you’re reading this via email, please click here).

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Show highlights

In this episode, Cory and I discuss:

  • The untapped potential of operating outside the system
  • What it really means to pick yourself
  • Rejecting fame in exchange for a quiet fortune
  • If it’s possible for any artist to make a living off of their creativity
  • The reason stage actors don’t make tons of money
  • Why books, movies, and prints are more scalable creative products
  • How failure is just a learning experience
  • What to say to skeptics

Quotes and takeaways

  • Not every form of artistic expression is commercially viable.
  • Every artist has failed ideas.
  • There are a lot of authors who are terrible and still get book deals.
  • Gatekeepers can grant legitimacy because we allow them to grant legitimacy.
  • Fame does not equal money.
  • Having a successful online business gives me the freedom to pour myself more into the creative side of things without worrying about how to sell it.

Resources

Given the choice, would you rather have fame or fortune? What would it mean to you to make a living from your creative work? Share in the comments

Click here to download a free PDF of the complete interview transcript or scroll down to read it below.


EPISODE 140

That’s a little bit unfortunate, because that system failed Van Gogh, right? He did not make a living from his work while he was alive, but he was a genius. How many other artists out there, who are unrecognized geniuses, are in that same position? How many of them are dying alone of an infection in a house in the middle of nowhere, because they didn’t get picked by one of the big gallery owners? —Cory Huff

[INTRODUCTION]

[0:00:34.9] JG: Welcome to the Portfolio Life. I’m Jeff Goins. This is a show that helps you pursue work that matters, make a difference with your art and discover your true voice. I’m your host, and I want to help you find, develop, and live out your own creative callings, so that you, too, can live a Portfolio Life.

Let’s get started.

[INTERVIEW]

[0:00:51.9] JG: Cory, welcome to the show.

[0:00:54.0] CH: Thanks for having me, Jeff.

[0:00:56.4] JG: I don’t know a ton about you. I have heard of you here and there on the Internet, but here’s how I found you: I Googled the term “starving artist,” and I found this starving artist myth at Google. I found this guest post that you wrote for Ramit Sethi and Iwillteachyoutoberich.com. I started poking around, and then I found your website, Abundant Artist, theabundantartist.com, and I looked at your face on this website, maybe like, your little Facebook icon or something, and I go, “I know that guy!”

I went back to Twitter and I found you, and we were following each other. It was this sort of an interesting — I didn’t know you, but then I knew you, and then this is interesting. I want to start there, if we could, with this idea of the starving artist. I am a writer. You teach people how to make a living as an artist, and this is something that I hear a lot of writers, a lot of creatives, a lot of musicians — I live in Nashville — I hear a lot of people say, “Well, I can never make money doing that,” or “I couldn’t make a full-time living off of that,” and you take issue with this statement, is that fair?

[0:02:11.1] CH: I do, I don’t buy the premise.

[0:02:12.6] JG: Let’s talk a little bit about that. Why do you think that being a starving artist is a myth?

[0:02:17.2] CH: Well, when I graduated from college — I went to art school and I went to theater school, I have a BFA in theater, in acting. By the time I graduated, I had met a lot of actors. I realized that the way that other actors and the other artists that I knew, the ones I knew who were successful, they were doing things completely differently from the way that everybody else was doing it. Like, the way they teach you how to do it in art school, and the way that everybody thinks they know how to do it, right?

I was chewing on that for a while, thinking about, “Okay, well what am I going to do? How am I going to build my career?” and I got a survival job working at this internet marketing agency, and I knew what blogging was back in the day, and so I guess that was enough qualification.

[0:03:01.2] JG: Back in the day, that probably was.

[0:03:03.2] CH: Yeah. I’m selling internet marketing services, and building my creative career, and I started reaching out to these other artists that I knew, and started interviewing them and saying, “How did you make a living from your work?” People were kind enough to share their experiences with me, so I started blogging about that. I started blogging about the intersection of creativity and money, and that was about six, seven years ago.

Just started sharing those experiences with people, and I was also using my internet marketing chops that I was acquiring to get people out for my shows, and get people out to my friend’s shows, and basically it just sort of snowballed from there. I started meeting more and more artists who were like, “Yeah, I’ve been making a six-figure income for my work for 10 years, but nobody knows who I am.”

I started meeting more and more of these artists, and people started asking me to teach classes and stuff, and I think I shared this on Ramit’s blog, the story about Henri Murger from France, and he wrote this — the idea of the starving artist becomes this, it has become this big idea that everybody seems to buy in to, but I’m sure if it’s been that way for that long.

Henri Murger wrote this book in the early 1800’s called A Day in the Life of the Bohemian, is the English translation, and that book went on to inspire a play, which went on to inspire the opera by Puccini, La boheme, which then became the musical Rent, right?

The book is all about these starving artists that live in the student quarter in Paris, and they’re all getting up every day and they’re talking about how they’re not appreciated for their genius, and all that kind of stuff, and they all die poor, right?

If you read closely in the book, what you realize is they don’t actually do anything. They’re not actually serious about making art. They’re not actually serious about marketing themselves or running their business, as it were. These guys all die, and Henri Murger, in the preface to the book, he says like, “Being a bohemian is okay, but it’s a stage of life. It’s a stage in your artistic career, and eventually you have to either become a professional, or you will die,” right?

There’s all these cultural clues that I see, that I say the way that we think about art and money is wrong. The artists who have it figured out, they’re so busy delivering the work that they’re making to the people who have paid them for it that they’re not just taking the time to turn around and teach others about it. There’s this secret underground, there’s hundreds of artists who make a living from their work who nobody knows about, or at least there are very small circle who knows about.

[0:05:38.8] JG: You said, you know, you were using internet marketing, or you were using what you were learning to get people out to your shows. Those were art shows, plays, what were you talking about?

[0:05:47.4] CH: Yeah, originally it was plays. I’m an actor, I do Shakespeare and that kind of stuff. Getting people out to those shows, and then when I started helping my other artist friends, it was art gallery openings, private shows at private houses, and art café showings for art, and all that kind of stuff.

[0:06:05.4] JG: Cory, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here, because I get this flack a lot when I tell people, “You know, you could make a living off of writing.” In fact, now it just might be the best time to be a writer, because of the opportunities to reach people with a blog, and I imagine, although I’m not sure, that similar things could be said of more conventional artists or visual artists.

But people push back and say, “Is there a way to make a living writing without just like, selling online courses and information products to other writers?” You’re doing some of that yourself, and so how do you respond to that?

[0:06:43.1] CH: Yeah, I’m a member of this Facebook group, it’s a private Facebook group for self-published authors, and there’s people in there who write fiction books who are selling $200,000 – $300,000 worth of books in a year self-published, right? They have, basically they have their legion of fans, which isn’t that big, right?

They’ve got a few thousand people who buy their books, and they would never get picked up by a major publisher because they’ve only got 5,000 fans, but those 5,000 fans buy every book they put out. They make a great living doing what they do, but they’re not famous and nobody knows who they are, and there’s dozens of people in that little private Facebook group, too.

My buddy, Matt, lives here in Portland. He’s a sculptor. He makes mobiles. Big, hanging sculptures, right? They’re 30, 40 foot across, huge pieces, and he started out selling these pieces on eBay, He was an oil pipeline engineer when he got started. He got really into Calder’s work, and you know, Alexander Calder’s sculptures, and he just started making stuff that he was inspired by and selling it on eBay. Where other artists would go and try to find art galleries to show their work, he was like, “Well, I don’t know, the easiest thing seems like to sell it on eBay.”

He started selling on eBay, which turned into building his own website and selling it that way, and now his pieces are in all these amazing private collections all over the world, and he’s been featured in every art and design magazine. He’s never shown his work in a gallery.

[0:08:12.6] JG: That’s interesting, because I think that one of the objections to this line of thinking that I hear is using the internet to sell art. Whether it’s fiction, or painting, or what have you. That’s kind of low-brow, right? You can make money off of it, but it’s not going to be great, and I still run into a fair amount of people, especially in the literary world. You say, “Look, you’ve got to get picked up by one of the – now, the big five New York publishers to create anything of lasting value.”

There’s still, I think, a decent contingent of people who are saying you can’t be taken seriously unless you jump through this hoops or satisfy these gatekeepers. I think there’s like, decent historical precedent for that, and there is a lot of crappy art out there that some of these people are making a living.

I’m sure you teach these people. You coach people and teach online classes, you have a conference, and you’re an author yourself, you’ve got a book coming out. I imagine you hear that this kind of objection as well. “I want to do great work, I don’t want to become a marketer, and I want my work to be taken seriously, but also don’t want to starve.” What do you do with that?

[0:09:29.1] CH: There’s so much there.

[0:09:29.5] JG: Yeah, it’s a big question. I just asked you every question you’ve ever been asked. Answer the gatekeeper thing first. That thing about your friend was really interesting to me.

[0:09:39.5] CH: Yeah, the gatekeeper, we have built a structure around art, right? I’ll just talk about fine arts specifically, because that’s what I know. We built a structure where artists somewhere along the line in recent history, we started putting artists on a pedestal. We started saying artists are this — they channel the spiritual world, and they have these ideas that other people don’t have, and therefore we should exalt them in some way.

I think there’s a certain amount of value in that. I do think that we have to honor the visionaries and the artists, but what happened is a bunch of people saw an opportunity to make money out of that.

[0:10:16.0] JG: Yeah.

[0:10:16.6] CH: These gallery owners, they basically, they got a bunch of artist together and they said, “You know what? We’ll pay you guys to make some art, and we’ll go sell that art, and we’ll create a stable of artists whose work we sell.” The interesting thing about that is, in that kind of system, the person that benefits most is the gallery owner, not the artist, right?

The artist gets 50% of the sale price for their work. The gallery owner gets 50% of every artist’s work, and if the gallery owner doesn’t like the artist, he can drop the artist and the artist is out of luck, but the gallery owner still has a bunch of other artists that they can sell from.

That system works for a lot of artists, because the gallery owners, because of their influence and their money. They can go to the newspaper, and they have the resources to go hire a PR team, or go to the newspaper and say, “Here’s the next big artist,” right? There’s all these conflicts going on right now where the large art galleries are, on the right hand, they are donating huge sums of money to the MoMA, or the big museums. Then on the left hand, their people are going to the independent curators that work at the museums and saying, “Here’s the next big artist, you should put on a show for that artist.”

There’s a huge conflict of interest, right? Where the galleries, and the auction houses, and these people who run the money system for the art world are building up a structure that benefits them, and then they get to pick which artist is the artist that makes it, right? The only reason that — we’re essentially all following this handful of taste makers.

[0:11:53.2] JG: Yeah, right.

[0:11:53.9] CH: We’re saying, “Okay, we’re going to give these gallery owners and these auction houses the authority to decide what the most important art is.” That’s a little bit unfortunate, because that system failed Van Gogh, right? He did not make a living from his work while he was alive, but he was a genius. How many other artists out there, who are unrecognized geniuses, are in that same position? How many of them are dying alone of an infection, in a house in the middle of nowhere, because they didn’t get picked by one of the big gallery owners?

Click here to download a free PDF of the complete interview transcript or scroll down to continue reading it below.

[0:12:28.7] JG: What do we do? What’s the alternative?

[0:12:29.7] CH: Well, the alternative is you go outside the system. The alternative is you build up your own audience base, you build up your own clientele. I think that there are a growing number of artists who are going to become influential and whose work will last for a long time, and they operate outside of that system. The one that comes to mind immediately is Amanda Palmer. She is a musician, but she’s also a performance artist, and she does all these other things. Amanda’s book was so fun to read, because she was making a living form her work before she got picked up by Roadrunner Records.

[0:13:06.9] JG: Right.

[0:13:08.8] CH: Then Roadrunner came along, and it was a bad deal for her, and she figured out a way to get out of it, and her career has just exploded since then. She’s so huge, and her work is immensely influential. She’s inspiring thousands of people everywhere. Time will tell whether or not she is influential and whether or not her work retains value, but I think that she is a great example for artists and creatives who are trying to make good work, great work, work that matters, and also trying to give it all their all.

[0:13:41.7] JG: Help me understand the story, because you’re an actor, you are trying to figure out what it took to make a living, you started asking people. You started getting surprised by what you heard, because you found some people who are actually making a good living off of their art, and you started this website telling people stories.

What happened for you? Was it just sort of this gradual understanding that you don’t have to starve to be an artist? Did you immediately start seeing a response? When you started applying what you were learning at your internet marketing job to your art career, can you connect those dots for me a little bit better?

[0:14:16.4] CH: Sure. I think that there’s art that is commercially viable, that can turn into something that makes a lot of money, and then there’s art that doesn’t make a lot of money, sort of inherent to what it is, right? I personally love doing Shakespeare. I do a lot of plays to very small audiences here in Portland. It’s very fulfilling for me, I enjoy doing it, but I’m never going to make a lot of money doing Shakespeare for small audiences in Portland, Oregon.

I had a choice. I could either go continue doing what I was doing, or go into film and start doing a lot of commercial work, and I could start doing a lot of commercials and making money that way.

[0:14:58.0] JG: As an actor?

[0:14:59.3] CH: As an actor, yeah. I just decided I didn’t want to do that. I started looking around. “Okay, how can I use the skills I have, the marketing skills I have to get people out to my shows, but also to help my fellow artists?” Then, it became, “Okay, I just started sharing these stories. You’ve got a choice. You can learn how to market yourself, learn how to run a business like these other artists have, or you can continue doing what you’re doing, and if you enjoy that, great. That’s where I’m at.”

Then, as I started teaching marketing to these other artists that I was working with, words started to gradually grow, kids started asking me to teach online classes instead of teaching one-on-one. At some point, I realized I had like 3,000 people on my mailing list, and I thought, “Wow, if I packaged up an online class and started teaching it, what would happen?”

I started doing that, and it has gradually snowballed. Like, it’s not been like a big blow up or anything like that. It grows a little bit each year, and every time we help an artist be able to quit their day job, because their work is commercially viable and they have learned how to sell it, then I get so much satisfaction out of that. Eventually, I just decided that I wanted to keep doing this, and keep acting as my form of artistic expression, but I don’t have to worry about making money from it.

[0:16:17.6] JG: That’s interesting. I feel like I’m saying that a lot, but it is interesting. Are you familiar with Lewis Hyde’s The Gift?

[0:16:23.7] CH: Yes.

[0:16:25.1] JG: That’s sort of like the classic book that’s hard to read. I recommend it to people and they’re like, “You know, you didn’t tell me about the 150 pages of anthropology.” That’s sort of practical application. The basic idea of that book, you know, is that art and like, the art economy, the gift economy calls it — like the market economy, they don’t connect. The art economy is about giving gifts without expecting anything in compensation. The market economy is about meeting a demand.

As you said, I thought it was interesting, because I hear some people in this, we call it the abundant artist camp, saying like, “You can totally make a living being creative and doing artistic things, and you know, you’ve just got to figure out how to do it.” I like that you’re acknowledging that no, there are some things that are obviously more commercially viable than others.

I guess like, is it possible for any artist to make a living off of their creativity? And if so, what does it take to do that? Because from what I’m hearing, doing Shakespeare in the park isn’t necessarily going to cut it, or perhaps not going to provide the same way as teaching other artists. How do you manage that tension? I hear people saying, “No, that works for you, but it doesn’t work for me.” Do you buy that?

[0:17:41.3] CH: You know, if I’m honest, I have to say that not every form of artistic expression is commercially viable. I think that’s true. I look at a lot of art, and see a lot of stuff that is political in nature, right? Its goal is to move people to make a political choice. It’s very difficult to sell political work. You might get a sponsor or something who wants to sponsor the artist because they believe in that artist’s message, but as far as a commercial venture, that’s very difficult.

Doing Shakespeare in the park is commercially very difficult. I know a number of actors who, they do that kind of stuff, and they make their living doing commercials. Or they teach acting to other actors, or they direct. Most stage actors don’t make a living solely from performing on stage, and that includes actors all the way up to and including actors on Broadway.

Most Broadway actors, because they’re living in New York, they might get a salary on Broadway, but more than half of it goes to rent, right? It’s the function, it’s this intersection between commercial viability, between distribution, and your salary versus your costs, right? If I made Broadway salaries in Portland, I would probably have a very different career right now.

You know, that’s a different thing. I think that, let’s talk about distribution for a second. Like, the reason stage actors don’t make very much money is because only so many people can see a play at a time. The cost of putting on a live play is tremendous compared to — you can only charge so much. $300 tickets to Hamilton are awesome, but you can’t charge a ton more than that for very long, because eventually you run out of people that are able and willing to pay that cost.

Seeing a film, right? Like you can show a film to millions of people for $10, $15, and make a ton of money that way, and the same thing happens for books, right? You could sell a ton of books to people at a low price. You can sell a ton of art prints to people and make the money that way. It’s about scalability and distribution.

[0:19:48.5] JG: How do you manage this tension? You and I have similar occupations, we’ll say, where you do creative work that doesn’t necessarily pay the bills, or pay the bills as well as the coaching and teaching side of what you do, and I’m not going to speak for you, but speaking for myself, I like both of them. They’re both really fun.

In some ways, having a successful online business gives me the freedom to, as you were talking about doing Shakespeare, gives me the freedom to pour myself more into the art side of things, creative side of things, than worrying about how am I going to sell this, and in effect, you get to enjoy it more sometimes. For me, writing books, I get to create something that’s more pure, but I’m just speaking for myself, and I’m curious what your experience is.

There’s a trap in the business side of things. You can keep growing the online classes, you could — especially with internet marketing, there’s always a new tactic, something else for you to do. That feels like tension to me. I don’t know what it feels like to you, but I’m wondering how you deal with that?

[0:20:49.7] CH: Yeah, I think that’s certainly true. My film agent kind of gets annoyed with me, because I won’t do commercials. Here in Portland, we get Fred Meyer commercials. Fred Meyer’s based here, so we do Fred Meyer commercials all the time. Probably once a week I’m being asked to do a Fred Meyer commercial, and I always say no, because it’s just not interesting to me and I don’t need the money.

When I tell other actors that I don’t need the money, they get mad at me. On the other hand, I just finished a run of a play, it’s a brand-new world premier play. Nobody had performed it before. I got to originate the character, I got to work with some fellow actors to bring this new piece of theater to life. I would not be able to do that if I were in different circumstances, right?

Yeah, that’s great, but there is certainly a tension. I do spend quite a bit of time on the business side, and I enjoy it. There is the tension between how much time do I get to spend doing theater and how much time do I get to spend on my business, and I’m lucky that for the most part, I get to decide that for myself. Like my circumstances are such that I get to make that decision, and I sort of give myself 20% time. Like one day out of each week is solely on artistic pursuits, right?

Then I also do stuff in the evening and on the weekends with theater. I don’t know, I don’t have a good answer. Those are my thoughts, I guess, but I don’t have an easy solve for that. I think that it’s better than being a waiter while trying to be an actor.

[0:22:17.9] JG: Yeah, that’s a good point. There’s always — the person who is doing it full-time, unless they get some big break or whatever, and maybe even not then, they’re spending their time doing something else, of course.

[0:22:30.4] CH: Yeah. It’s really interesting to me to see — you mentioned maybe not even then. The number of musicians and actors and painters and stuff who buy all outward appearances appear to be doing very well, they’ve got a big book deal, or they just did a big movie. Outward appearances can be deceiving. The money is not necessarily what you think it is.

[0:22:53.2] JG: Totally.

[0:22:54.5] CH: Fame does not equal money.

[0:22:56.0] JG: Yeah, amen to that. One of the wealthiest guys I know quit his record label. He lives in Nashville, actually his record label fired him. He was making like $150,000 a year as a musician, pulling in millions for the record label, but he didn’t understand how many hands were in his pockets, so to speak. Yeah, they fired him because his records stopped selling and he has to figure out how to — book small shows, and sell records online, and do all the stuff, and now he makes millions of dollars a year.

[0:23:29.0] CH: I hear that story so much.

[0:23:31.0] JG: Yeah, nobody has any idea who he is. It’s really interesting. He’s not on the radio anymore, he’s not famous anymore, people don’t’ recognize him in public anymore and he loves it. He’s wealthier than he’s ever been. Speak to the purist in me, and in many creatives. I don’t care about money, I don’t want to learn about business, marketing sucks, can I still make it as an artist? What do you do with those people? You have to encounter those people in the work.

[0:23:56.6] CH: I do, If I’m being thoughtful, my response is usually, “Okay, like I get it, it sucks. I think it sucks sometimes too, but learn enough of it and do it for long enough that you can hire somebody to do it for you. Get your business to the point where you can hire somebody to do the stuff you don’t want to do, because then you retain all the control. You get to make all the artistic decisions, and if you’ve got good people around you, then you don’t have to worry about it.”

[0:24:24.4] JG: Yeah, because the alternative is, like what happened with my friend, where like he didn’t understand all that stuff and they fired him. His record label left him, his manager left him, I mean, he was left in the gutter.

[0:24:37.6] CH: The economy changed in 2007/2008 in the US. It sent a whole bunch of art galleries out of business, right? All these 50, 60, 70 year old artists who had previously been making six-figure incomes with the galleries were completely out of whack. Their sales just disappeared overnight. They came to me and said, “I have no list, I have no idea of who bought my art previously, what do I do?”

I think that there is a lot of — you really have to decide, if you’re going to do a deal with a gallery or a record label or whatever. Make sure you have your eyes open when you go in, and the other thing, going back to legitimacy, the gatekeepers who grant legitimacy, they only grant legitimacy because we allow them to grant legitimacy. We have all decided that this critic or this company knows what’s best for us, and you probably recognize this, like there are a lot of authors who are terrible who get book deals.

[0:25:39.8] JG: You know, what’s interesting about that is I’ve worked with several publishers, I’ve self-published a book, I’ve done kind of both things. Every time, the editor, because I write nonfiction, the editor will tell me, “This is fun, because you’re a writer.” I’m like, “Who else are you working with on books?”

The truth is, lots of famous people who have platforms, who decide I’m going to write a book because I can make money off of that. They’re not writers, they just are speakers or whatever, and they’ve got a message, and then they don’t know how to write a book and…

[0:26:09.2] CH: Yeah, I mean, there’s all this mystery, thriller, mystery and thriller writers who – essentially, they’re book factories, right? They’ve got 20 writers on staff, and they turn out a book every six months or whatever, and I mean, every three months. I’m looking at you, well I won’t say names.

My book is coming out from a major publisher. I’ve got a book coming out from HarperCollins, How to Sell Your Art Online. It comes out in June, and I am amazed at the doors that opened, because I can say, HarperCollins published my book.

[0:26:44.0] JG: Isn’t that interesting?

[0:26:45.2] CH: Yeah, it’s like, all of the information in this book has been elsewhere. You can read my blog, you can read my thoughts there, but because HarperCollins decided that they would pay me in advance to compile all of my thoughts into a book, suddenly it’s more meaningful. I don’t know, but that is changing.

There’s a whole world of people out there who want art, and writing, and music from artists who are outside of the traditional system. There are people who actively seek out self-published authors. Goodreads does amazing, because you got this community of people who are like, “Did you hear about this artist? This writer? They’re so amazing.” People have built their careers on Goodreads, and there’s people out there who go to concerts and they’re looking for bands that are awesome that are not signed.

[0:27:37.6] JG: Yeah, especially with music.

[0:27:40.2] CH: Yeah, these weekend long music festivals where you never heard of any of the musicians and they’re all amazing. There’s a market for that. There’s a market for people who want to buy original art for their walls, and they don’t want to go to a gallery because galleries are intimidating and scary.

[0:27:55.4] JG: Yeah.

[0:27:55.4] CH: I could go on and on.

[0:27:56.8] JG: You have a traditionally published book, but you’re like way into what — I don’t know if this is the right word for it, but like, the Indie Art scene, and you said doors actually opened for you, working with big New York publisher. I’ve seen similar things. I’ve kind of danced between independent work and working with so-called gatekeepers, and sometimes I’m like, “this is great,” other times I’m like, “what is the point of this?” Did you struggle with that decision to self-publish this book or work with a traditional publisher? Where did you land on all that?

[0:28:26.5] CH: Yeah, I really did struggle with it. I think that I would actually have made more money if I self-published the book.

[0:28:31.4] JG: Yeah.

[0:28:31.4] CH: I ran the numbers, and just based on my own mailing list, if I had self-published the book, let’s talk about numbers for a second. If I am self-publishing this book, and my own royalty, I guess, for the book is 25% for digital sales and, what is it? 15% of cover price for paperback sales? That equals out to about eight books a book, depending on the price. Not eight bucks, a couple bucks a book or something like that, depending on the price.

With my mailing list and the number of people on my list, I could, if I sold one book to each person on my mailing list right now, I would make more money than I made in my advance. It’s really interesting to try to make that decision. What’s my goal with the book? Is it to make money, or is it to grow my influence?

I opted to go with grow my influence, because the publishers do have that kind of influence, and I can get my book into all the bookstores and all that kind of stuff, and the art world that is so tethered to academia and to the gatekeepers, this book will now open doors for me for art organizations that previously wouldn’t give me the time of day.

[0:29:39.0] JG: Interesting. Are you seeing that already?

[0:29:41.0] CH: Yeah. I’ve got speaking opportunities that have come up because I said I had a book. Yeah.

[0:29:48.2] JG: What I hear you saying, Cory, is like, there’s no answer. There’s no one answer. It’s a little bit messy, and it sounds like there’s opportunity to make a living off of your art, off of your creative gift, as long as you’re willing to do some of the work, but at the same time, you’re not like saying, “Well screw all these 500-year old systems, like the printing press for example.” It sounds like you have sort of a blended approach. I mean, is that true?

[0:30:15.6] CH: Yeah, I’ve tried to. I try to look at each opportunity and each problem and say, “This is my tool box. What do I do? What makes the best choice, or what outcome do I want to have?” I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Like you don’t have to go all independent, and ignore all of the other opportunities, but I think that the great thing about the internet, at least as it is right now, is that it opened up more options for creative people.

[0:30:45.3] JG: Here’s a question, just point-blank. Do artists have any legitimate excuse nowadays to not make a living off of their art? If they’re willing to do the work?

[0:30:56.2] CH: Assuming that your work is at least somewhat commercially viable, and you know, I do not know every time whether or not a piece of work is commercially viable. I saw a woman making lace doily’s with swear words in them.

[0:31:12.4] JG: Was this in Portland? I feel like it’s in Portland.

[0:31:15.4] CH: I don’t remember where it was. She was in a program that I was in, and it looked like the doily that you would see on your grandma’s table.

[0:31:23.1] JG: Like your nasty grandma, apparently.

[0:31:25.8] CH: Yes. Just a big old F bomb in it. You know, she sold them. Whatever. I don’t know what’s commercially viable. I feel like there is a niche for every kind of weird art, and some of those niches are bigger than others. There is a group of people who are into whatever weird thing that you’re into, right?

As an artist, I think you can find them, I think that you can make them an offer and see if they respond to it. I think that you can be dedicated in following up, in building those relationships. I can’t say 100% that every artist will make a living from their work, but I can say that it’s a lot more possible than people make it out to be.

Every time I talk to, every time I get an email from an artist, more specially from a young person who is in college, I get an email that says, “My parents made me study engineering because that’s a solid career,” it just kills me a little, because I know so many artists who make more money than an engineer ever will.

It’s just — I look at it like entrepreneurship, right? Small businesses are the engine of the economy, and everybody, so many people start small businesses. I don’t think it’s that different from any other small business that’s getting started.

[0:32:49.0] JG: Yeah. Gosh Cory, you’re just being honest here, which I love. You know, you’re not overstating something or being hyperbolic, but I love that you said that there’s more opportunity than there has ever been. I’m imagining somebody listening to this going, yeah, I’m one of those people where my work isn’t commercially viable, but you said, I don’t know when that happens. If you’re feeling that way, is the best thing for you to do to go find that niche, put your work out there and just see? If people don’t connect with it then you know versus just assuming they don’t.

[0:33:20.5] CH: Yeah, absolutely. Straight up steal Austin Kleon’s book title, Show Your Work, right? Just go show your work, and what I’ve seen with artists is most of them are too afraid of showing their work. They say, “My work is not commercially viable,” and usually, they’ve shown their work to a few dozen people at most.

[0:33:42.3] JG: Yeah, wow.

[0:33:43.4] CH: They haven’t really done the work to figure out like, who would potentially be interested in that kind of stuff? Who is going to be interested in doilies with swear words in them?

[0:33:53.2] JG: Nasty Nana.

[0:33:54.3] CH: I don’t know, do you sell those as Hot Topic? I have no idea. There’s somebody out there who likes it, and there’s so many weird online communities. You owe it to yourself to at least give it a try.

[0:34:05.7] JG: Then if you fail, then what do you do? You just move on to something else?

[0:34:09.5] CH: Yeah, you move on to something else, you know? Every artist has failed ideas. Every artist has a bunch of work that’s really sucked, that they burned, right? Every entrepreneur — I started three other businesses before I started this one, and they all failed. People who, like failure is just a learning experience and you just move on to the next thing.

[0:34:28.6] JG: Cory, thanks so much for your time.

[0:34:30.8] CH: Thanks so much, Jeff.

[END OF INTERVIEW]

They make a great living doing what they do, but they’re not famous and nobody knows who they are. —Cory Huff

Click here to download a free PDF of the complete interview transcript.

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  • LOVED this. Thanks so much for posting it! I found it super-encouraging.

    • Go do all the things!

      • Regine Baptiste

        I so appreciate Cory Huff & Jeff Goins. Propaganda & mental programming from various influencers whether from the media or those with close access to us can stall the process of earning a living that matches our natural ability and desired occupational skills. Artist, writer or not, humans have a basic right to contribute in society & to get paid for it. To the topic at hand, I’ve spent 20 or so years running around in circles trying to earn a living in conventional ways. 10 years the conventional way & suffocating every minute. I won’t elaborate. I’ve read & bought motivational books like Tony Robbins. Still the starving artist. NOW with all my experiences & this interview, I can and will earn a living. I can do without the fame. I would like to repost this interview on my blog. May I? I want to use it as a jolting reminder of why I had it so wrong all along. Awarenes has just hit like a ton of bricks. Two of my recent blog posts addresses this very issue of earning a living as a writer. Reading this interview, came just in time

  • I’d definitely take money over fame. Our egos can get us into trouble. Great discussion, thanks Jeff and Cory!

    • Thanks John, glad you enjoyed it!

  • Loved this – Thanks guys! The “underground” economy is bigger than most imagine.
    My pick: Moolah!

  • I can’t pay my bills with just my name.
    So I’ll take the fortune, you can have the fame.

  • Michael Scanzello

    I would rather have the money than the fame. Fame is fickle and can cause trouble when you get more people who don’t like you because of your status. I’d rather be under the radar and rich. 🙂

    • You and me both. That’s why I’m here commenting.

      Wait…

      • Michael Scanzello

        Yeah. I like how you have a theater arts background, me too! I learned fast acting was a big pool and went towards my inspiration to be an actor, magic-tricks not voodoo.
        Not in six figure land yet, but have fun and lots more free time than chasing fame as an actor going on crazy open calls to sell soap.

  • Joanna Morefield

    I’m an introvert and minimalist–so my first pick is $$, since it is a powerful tool and could alleviate so much physical distress. BUT–my heroes were all quiet, poor, and touched people one at a time…Mother Theresa, Jesus, Gandhi. So against my personality preferences, I would choose fame. I don’t have to be spoiled by it, right?

    • I’d argue that those people were in pursuit of neither. The fame was a byproduct of what they were actually pursuing – which is kinda the point, I think.

      • Joanna Morefield

        Indeed, and I guess that is the point, huh? We are pursuing art( or whatever), and the fame or money CAN be a pursuit; but if it’s a byproduct, you’re just stuck with it. Of course, I would love to make enough money to fund my life overseas!

    • Regine Baptiste

      I like your comment. I just want to add this as a clarifying point, Jesus Christ is in no way impoverished. One of Jesus Christ’s titles is King of kings and Lord of lords. His coming in the body of a human was to expound a pronounced character trait that he possesses & that is humility. I’ll end there. We all can have an opinion about someone but I also like to find facts on well known historical figures. I hope I added some input. There is a book from a non-religious person about Jesus Christ entitled. “The man nobody knows,” that can further elaborate on my comment. On the religious side, http://www.lcg.org does a great job in expounding about Jesus Christ on a level of scholarly research that is unparalled.

      • Joanna Morefield

        My point was only that neither fame nor money was a pursuit, just the job at hand. And their WAY of doing their job did not involve money OR show Thank you for the resources!

        • Regine Baptiste

          Okay, clarified. Thanks

  • Cory & Jeff – I loved the open and realistic examples of “artists” who are finding creative ways to do what they love AND make a living. I also love Cory’s examples of saying no things that could just make money but staying true to what he loves most.