I was speaking on a panel at the Literary Orange writer’s conference the other weekend and heard myself say, “Writers are creative entrepreneurs now.”
To which the guy sitting next to me responded, “That sounds hard.”
I’m not sure it’s any harder than writing an actual publishable novel. But it requires a flexibility of thinking and a different way of perceiving yourself and your work. (I for one am still working on it.)
What is creative entrepreneurship anyway?
Creative entrepreneurship is the practice of setting up a business – or setting yourself up as self-employed – in one of the creative industries. The focus of the creative entrepreneur differs from that of the typical business entrepreneur or, indeed, the social entrepreneur in that s/he is concerned first and foremost with the creation and exploitation of creative or intellectual capital. Essentially, creative entrepreneurs are investors in talent – their own and/or other people’s.
John Howkins defines creative entrepreneurs as people who “use creativity to unlock the wealth that lies within themselves”.
The value they create lies not in their physical products (if any) but in intangible assets such as their brand, reputation, network and intellectual property. They are adept at projecting a desired image and creating a personal brand, both online and offline. They also understand the principles of intellectual property law and use copyrights, trademarks, patents and licenses to exploit the full potential of their ideas.
This falls in line with what writers are expected to do now. In the era of the long tail, writers are advised to find their niche and dominate it. This enables you to create an author brand: a focused set of ideas, values and associations that symbolize the ‘you’ of you.
Which means that, before anything else, you have to have the chops. You have to put in the time and deliberate practice to become an excellent writer and storyteller.
Then you start developing your author platform. This includes your network, your community, your tribe: the friends, fans and followers who will be glad for the opportunity to support you and pay money for your work.
It used to be that there was a nice, neat division of labor: the gatekeepers who published and promoted you, and the creatives who did the creative stuff. As the world goes digital that division starts to disappear: creatives can bring their work directly to their audience and no longer require a middleman to negotiate access.
But this means the role of writer is also changing, and writers have to adapt, engage, or (quite possibly) die.
This involves a new way of thinking about content. Used to be that content was inseparable from the medium that delivered it, otherwise known as a book. The end goal and ultimate dream for aspiring writers was to have a novel published by one the major publishers who could get your book in bookstores all across America (and perhaps the world).
Now content gets delivered in different ways through different devices that create different kinds of reading experiences. Writers need to think of content as fluid and shifting, something that can be developed or repackaged across different platforms.
Your book is no longer just a book; it can also be serial installments delivered through a blog or an iPhone app or a podcast. Create a rich, compelling storyworld and your content could expand into other forms of storytelling such as video games or comic books or episodes of a web series (otherwise known as transmedia storytelling).
At her blog There Are No Rules Jane Friedman emphasizes
the need for writers to think beyond the book when envisioning their careers. If writers desire to spread a message, have an impact on a readership, and be heard, then there are many ways to do that aside from publishing a book.
Sometimes a book, or a book traditionally published, is not a smart or efficient way to spread a intemessage or to gain a readership. A book is just one form, one component, of a larger career.
In his post The Reality of Digital ContentSeth Godin compares traditional publishing to fortune cookies. Writers got paid for writing the messages you put inside the fortune cookies. But what happens when you take away the cookie? Writers need to find new ways to generate streams of revenue, which includes capitalizing on the thing that can’t be turned into a shareable digital file: the writer herself.
It’s time to think beyond the cookie:
What happens when the people with great ideas start organizing for themselves, start leading online tribes, start creating micro products and seminars and interactions that people are actually willing to pay for? It’s possible that someone like (nsfw) writer Susie Bright is never again going to make a good living just writing. Instead, she could make a great living coordinating, organizing, introducing and leading a thousand or ten thousand true fans. Each of them will gladly pay for the privilege, because the connections and insights and benefits she brings are worth it. She didn’t wake up this morning thinking of herself as a coach or a tour leader or a concierge or a leader, but that’s the niche available to her.
The Grateful Dead spent thirty years without a record label that understood them, thirty years being their own boss, leading their own tribe, connecting people who wanted to be there instead of shilling for their tiny share of record sales.
If you want to write the fortunes for the cookies that don’t exist any more, you may need to make your own organization, lead your own tribe and hire yourself.
Content also becomes a form of marketing, or rather unmarketing. When you’re online, blogging or microblogging, you are selling yourself (or not) through what you say and how you say it: through your content.
You are your content.
Your content is your ‘pull’: it has the power to invoke what Shama Kabani (The Zen of Social Media Marketing) calls her ACT Methodology: it Attracts people to your site, Converts them into consumers and Transforms them into fans (hopefully True Fans).
Which means your content needs to be so remarkable that it markets itself. It has to be what people genuinely need and want (even if they don’t know they want it yet). A writer (at least when online) shouldn’t have to ‘sell’ her work: she just has to make sure that the right readers can find it.
Which means she has to be everywhere: living in the niches and communities where her potential readers congregate and attracting them back to her website.
The sum of all this content – the accumulated impression the reader has of you, the mental thumbprint you leave behind – helps to naturally grow your brand, which over time becomes multi-faceted.
Tom Peters first introduced the idea of “Brand You” pointing out that a great personal brand transcends any company or organization you work for – or publisher who puts out your books.
A great brand gives you power and freedom.
Hugh MacLeod talks about building a global microbrand which he describes as
A small, tiny brand, that “sells” all over the world.
The Global Microbrand is nothing new; they’ve existed for a while, long before the internet was invented. Imagine a well-known author or painter, selling his work all over the world. Or a small whisky distillery in Scotland. Or a small cheese maker in rural France, whose produce is exported to Paris, London, Tokyo etc. Ditto with a violin maker in Italy. A classical guitar maker in Spain. Or a small English firm making $50,000 shotguns.
…. With it you are not beholden to one boss, one company, one customer, one local economy or even one industry. Your brand develops relationships in enough different places to where your permanent address becomes almost irrelevant.
Blogging and giving away your writing for free plays a crucial role in establishing your brand. Once you have people believing in your brand, and loyal to it, you have people who will pay for your work.
In his article in Writer’s Digest, Chris Guillebeau talks about the “three main models” for making money once you’ve attracted people to your ‘hub’ – your home base, usually your blog – and converted them. There’s the donation model, the advertising model, and the products and services model.
Chris is an excellent example of the latter.
I publish most of my writing for free, but enough people are willing to pay for the additional content that I can support myself well. I don’t lack for anything, and I’m building strong relationships with readers that will continue for a long time.
When writers grumble about “all the writing we’re now supposed to give away for free” I often think about my years in Silicon Valley and the work ethic I witnessed there.
To be an entrepreneur means you work your ass off. You sleep under your desk (when you sleep at all). You sacrifice your social life (or blend it with your working life so that the line between work and play disappears altogether). You understand that you have to build something that people actually want and are willing to pay money for, before you can expect to see profit. You learn to live with risk and ambiguity. You listen closely to the world so that you can recognize and stay open to opportunities.
And you do it because you’re one of the lucky few who discovered your passion in life. You do it because the process itself is what rewards you, and the prize – the freedom to own your time and live a creative and remarkable life – is worth it.