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It's time to banish the poor author back to the garret and explode the myths of the penniless creative. Choose the model of Picasso and Michelangelo, merging creativity and business to get your words out in the world, change lives and grow your bank account.
We live in the best time in history to be a writer and in today's show, Jeff Goins and I discuss why and how you can integrate creativity and money.
In the intro, I give a little update from NYC as I'm currently at Thrillerfest. I also mention PublishDrive adding PayPal as a payment method, and Draft2Digital adding Payoneer, both fantastic options for authors in countries where bank accounts are not so easy with Amazon payments. Pearson has a sold a 22% stake in Penguin Random House, in order to focus on being a digital learning company. Interesting times!
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Jeff Goins is the bestselling author of five nonfiction books, including The Art of Work as well as being a blogger, podcaster, and speaker. His latest book is Real Artists Don't Starve: Timeless Strategies for Thriving in the New Creative Age.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- What has changed for Jeff and his writing life since he was last on the show
- The creative practices that have improved and changed for Jeff
- How to know if an idea is big enough for a book
- Ways for artists to thrive instead of starve
- The strategy behind Jeff's choice to traditionally publish his recent book
You can find Jeff Goins at GoinsWriter.com and on Twitter @JeffGoins
Transcript of Interview with Jeff Goins
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn, from thecreativepenn.com. And today, I'm here with Jeff Goins. Hi, Jeff.
Jeff: Hi, Joanna. Good to be with you again.
Joanna: Yes, absolutely. Just a little introduction.
Jeff is the bestselling author of five nonfiction books, including “The Art of Work,” as well as being a blogger, podcaster, and speaker. And today we're talking about his latest book, “Real Artists Don't Starve: Timeless Strategies for Thriving in the New Creative Age,” which is the perfect fit for this podcast.
Now, Jeff, amazingly you were on the show back in April 2012. I can't believe how time flies.
What has changed for you since April 2012, in terms of your writing journey? I didn't even know if you had a book at that point.
Jeff: I wrote two books that year. I don't know if I did or not either. I've cut my hair since then. I'm wearing a jacket today because I'm about to go to an interview, you know. What has changed?
I don't like the term, “Find your voice,” because I think that's something that we're continuously doing as writers. But I've certainly become more confident in a certain style of writing. And I think the main things, especially with this book that I've learned is, I've learned how to do, like what I would consider real research, not just like Googling a bunch of stuff, and telling a bunch of personal stories.
And I know, especially with your fiction, you're very intensive on the research, which is something that I admire, and I've been learning a lot about. I think for a while, I was trying to find a genre that fit me.
I wrote a memoir. I wrote a bunch of different kinds of nonfiction, before I really settled into…what's been the past couple of books, which is essentially narrative driven, personal development, self-help kind of books, with typically some sort of, you know, business bend to it.
Every book for me has an opportunity I think to reinvent myself, to learn something new. My two books ago I learned how to tell stories. The last book I learned how to interview people, and incorporate those into those, like new contemporary stories into a book. And this book, I learned how to do really deep research, and that was fun, and those are all skills that I want to continue to use in upcoming books.
Joanna: Right. Another thing I've noticed about you is you do seem a lot more relaxed than you were in 2012.
Joanna: And you mentioned confidence there. And a lot of writers email me, and they probably do you, going, “Oh, my goodness. I'm so nervous about doing a podcast, or doing a book or…”
Where are you in that level of anxiety about new launches, or doing a podcast like this?
Jeff: Anytime you do something enough you become more comfortable with it, and I think confidence is basically a product of competence, you know. So the more you do something the better you get, and then, therefore, more confident in it you get.
But I hear this all the time and I'm sure you do as well, people go, “How do I overcome the fear of failure?” And I say, “Look, every successful writer I know, every successful person I know, is at least a little bit afraid every time they sit down to do their work.” If you're not afraid you're not doing it right. You're not taking risks.
I'm not nervous now because you're a friend, and I've done enough of these things, that it's no big deal. But every time, I mean, even when my book came out, I was really scared. But I think what I have learned that's helped, first of all knowing that everybody's doing the work afraid is helpful.
So when you feel fear, all of a sudden, is not an obstacle, it's a reminder that you're doing your job, right? Like, fear is a reminder that you showed up to work today, which is much better than not.
The second thing, I think I've learned talk about being relaxed. I just had a book come out, and I wasn't stressed the week it came out, in part because for the longest time, I was anxious about the results instead of focusing on the work. And I believe that writers have a lot of control over how many books they sell, this idea that you write a book and you throw it out into the universe and you just see what it does, that's not the way it works. I know that's not the way you work.
But at the same time you cannot control and manipulate readers' reactions to your book. And at a certain point, the book does have to take on a life of its own, and it's not just you constantly promoting it that is leading to sales. I think I've learned what am I in control of and what am I in control of, and so am I measuring the results, or I'm measuring the work?
The week my book came out, my wife left town and left me with the two kids. I took the week off of work which was good. It was a reminder that work is something that I do but it's not 100 percent who I am, which five years ago, I would have thought was a crazy idea.
I remember reading in Stephen King's memoir On Writing, he says, “I used to think that life was a support system for art, but now, I realize it's the other way around.” And our art needs to be giving life to the rest of our life and if it's not doing that, and I would say for a few years, I was obsessed with my writing and all other aspects of my life were taking a toll. And then ultimately, that was hurting the art.
And so today I think I have a more integrated approach to work, and life, and art, and all of these things feed each other. I think the by-product of that is confidence, but really what that has produced is a sense of peace, like these are the things I can control, these are the things I can't.
I'm going to focus on the things that I can control, which is really getting up every day and doing the work, and that is writing. It can also be doing a podcast to promote the book, doing this or that. That's part of the work as well. But I have no control over somebody listening to this going, “Oh, I'm going to go buy this book,” or whatever.
That's not my job. My job is to show up and do the work.
Joanna: That's exactly right. And it's interesting because you do have quote from the book, it is a great book I think. Everyone should go buy it, we, all authors, are just doing stuff. But you do have a quote that creativity is work not magic. You mentioned showing up and doing your work.
What are your creative working practices now up to this number of books, and what has improved or changed?
Jeff: The better question is what are your creative habits after having two kids?
Joanna: Yes, that would help people, too.
Jeff: I think people talk about these rituals, and habits, and ideas as if they are abstract concepts. I think the best way to look at your values, your habits, is to go, “What did I do today? What did I do yesterday?”
These are your habits, not the things that you say, or you wrote in a notebook one time. I have these reminders, this morning ritual that I want to do every day. And my wife saw my phone one day and you know, because on your iPhone, now these reminders can pop up, and it's like do this, do this and it starts at 5:00 a.m. She just started laughing out loud, she's like “You don't do this.” I was like, “But it's an ambition, it's an aspiration someday.”
My day basically looks like this. Typically, I get up and I work out. So I get up at about 5:30, I go work out. I love Steven Pressfield says about this, you have to use something very early on in the day to beat resistance, you have to do something, and it could be any form.
Resistance is trying to keep you from being your best self. So I get up and work out, then I come home, make my kids breakfast, then I take my son to school.
And the workday for me starts, you know, 9:30 or 10:00, sometimes a little bit later. And that's typically when I sit down, not really, I stand and do some writing. And my goal is the same that it's always been, which is to write 500 new words every day.
Now, when I'm on a deadline, when I'm working on a book I could write 3 or 4 or 5,000 words. I've never been somebody who's been incredibly prolific. I know people who write 10,000 words a day. I mean you're an incredibly prolific person.
But for me that's a small enough number that it's easier to do than avoid. And for creating habits, that's always been my MO, it's got to be like so annoyingly small that I might as well just get it over with, versus so big that I'm scared to attempt it.
I had a thousand books shipped to my house the other week because I was going to sign them, and then send them back to this online bookseller. And then this would be kind of an exclusive Wittgenstein book. Do you know what? You do probably know what a thousand books looks like. It was 48 boxes on a pallet, piled up higher than I am tall in our garage.
For a week, I avoided touching them, because I kept telling myself, “I'll do it on a Saturday.” There will be a time when I have a big enough block of time. And then one night, I sat down, watched a little “Game of Thrones,” and I opened a box and I just tied myself. I was just signing, “How many can I get through in an hour?”
And it was like two and a half boxes, basically. I added up the time and I go, “Oh, my God, this is going to take 12 to 16 hours to do. I have to space it out, I will not have big enough lifetimes to do it.” So for the next week and a half it was just, you know, go grab four or five boxes, bring them upstairs, watch a show, and then go to bed. And that's the way I write; just one piece at a time.
The afternoon typically, is administrative work. I run a business like you, and we've got a small team of people. And so I'm checking with them, seeing how things are going there. And then I'm home by about five, and it's family time.
It used to be that I would open up my laptop at 9:00, and do a little bit of work. I don't do that anymore, I typically leave my laptop in the car. And, the life and work is not balanced, but more integrated. I'm working fewer hours, but in those hours I'm accomplishing just as much, sometimes more as I did before.
But with the writing routines, every day, I follow what I call the three bucket system where I start something new, I finish something old, and I publish something. And so the three buckets are ideas, drafts, and edits.
My work is every day, to move something from one bucket to the next. So every day, like most people I'm coming up with ideas, and that happens not during writing time, that happens in the afternoon, driving, jogging, whatever. I open my phone and I use an app called Drafts, and I just enter in some ideas there and then I typically send that over to Evernote. I am constantly coming up with five to 10 ideas per day. That's where the ideas come from.
Then when I sit down in the morning to write for a couple of hours, I'm taking an idea from the idea bucket, and I'm moving it to the Drafts bucket, and that's what where I'm writing my 500 words on. And then from the drafts bucket, I'm taking another piece and I'm moving that to edits, I'm editing it.
So every day, I want to sit down and write, I'm writing something new and editing something old. And then that edited piece may be something that goes into a book, it may be an article, it may be a blog post, and I'm queuing that up for publication.
And so for me, that's the work, coming up with new ideas so that my well never empties, writing to stay in practice, and then shipping the work, publishing it, putting it out there so that, I continue to share the work with the world, practice in public, build the brand, all that stuff.
Joanna: I'm interested there because, obviously, you and I met because of blogging more than books at the beginning when we kinda first became aware of each other, and we've both been blogging for ages.
Joanna: How do you decide when an idea from that bucket becomes a blog post, or whether it is an idea big enough to consider for a book? Because, you and I both know the ideas are not a problem, it's the taking the idea to that next step.
Some ideas are just tiny, not even big enough even for a blog post, and sometimes they are big enough and sometimes they were books. How do you know?
Jeff: You know that Annie Dillard quote about where she spends it all. You know that quote where she says, “I've never, never said something.” Every time you sit down to write, spend it all because if you save something for later, you'll go into your safe and you'll find ash, right?
I hear so many aspiring authors or writers saying, “Oh, I've got this great idea for a book someday.” And I go, “Whoa, where have you shared it?” And they go, “I haven't done that, it's so big.”
I know a guy who had this killer idea. We actually went on the ski trip together with a group of friends, and he said, “I've got this great idea, it's a killer idea. I think it will be a book.” I go, “That's amazing, tell me, tell me.” He told it to me, I go, “That's a great idea.” I said, “But you know, what you should do first is you should write an article.”
Because an author told me early on an author by the name of Sean Aniqua said, “Most writers think that they have a book on their computer, when in fact, they've got a chapter.”
When we're not really disciplined, and I can really relate to this, we're not really disciplined and we would be aspiring writers. And in my case, that meant binge writing every Saturday afternoon for a few hours. And it felt like a lot of work, and I felt inspired. It was a very emotional experience.
But I didn't realize showing up every day and just writing a little bit would actually make me a better writer and create more work in the same amount of time. She said, “We think we have more work and we sit down and actually write the book. It's not there.”
And the other thing I think is true is we forget, particularly with…well, I think with any kind of writing. You know Hemingway said, he never set out to write a novel, he always set out to write a short story. And if he couldn't get it done in 5, 10,000 words, it became a novel because it had to be.
I think we forget that books, hopefully, if the authors doing their job, 200, 400, 500 page books, you know, a 100,000 word books, that is the shortest most concise way that that author could say that thing, right?
And so do not write a book if it can fit in an article. And so for me, I test almost everything out with an article. And particularly in the nonfiction space, this is still a really great way to spread an idea and even to get published is to go, “Hey, I just published this thing that went viral”.
Publishers are shelling out major book deals for viral articles that could be turned into books. But for me, I'm testing out the ideas, in the book I call it, “Practicing in public.” It's this idea that I'm just sharing the best ideas that I have right now through books and articles, getting feedback on them saying, if A is a demand for this idea, I am scratching an itch?
And then B, if I finish the article and I get a bunch of questions and comments, and I feel like there's more to say, then that's a pretty good indication. Okay, I could take this to the next level, I could write a series of articles then eventually, I could turn it into a book.
Joanna: Now, I think that's really right. I was just thinking you might be successful with the mindset. I wrote a blog post about the roller coaster, you know, I love writing, I hate writing. It was just went up and down, up and down. And I read all this, and then it resonated so much. I was like, “Oh, my goodness, that's a book.” You know, every bit of that is a book.
You've mentioned a viral article there which you can't build a business plan on a viral article halfway.
Joanna: So let's just come to the title, “Real artists don't starve.” You're obviously an artist, a creative writer, but you have multiple streams of income, and that's what you talk about in the book. You don't rely on one thing.
What are some of the ways that you, as an artist, don't starve, and what do you recommend for others?
Jeff: A number of years ago I read this book by a guy named Charles Handy, it's on the shelf here somewhere. It's called “The Age of Unreason.” And in that book, it's a business book by a British business philosopher.
In that book, he talks about organizations and organizational structure, and philosophy of organizations. And in that book, he talks about portfolios. And he says, in the future most of us will be what he calls portfolio people, meaning that your work will not be one single gig, it will not be one job for 40 years, you work, you get your pension and you retire. It will be a portfolio of jobs.
And there was a study that came out not too long ago that was released by Forbes, where they predicted that by 2020, 50 to 60% of the workforce is going to be freelance, and this is what we called the gig economy today. So it is inevitable that most of us will have to be thinking entrepreneurially about our jobs.
You and I both know, as business owners, having multiple streams of income is really, really important. When I started writing, I was reading blogs, I was hearing a lot about online courses, and information products and online business. And so I just kind of assumed, this ended up being wrong, but I assumed you couldn't make enough money just writing books.
Eventually I did, but I started out going like, “Okay. So, what I'm going to do is, I'm going to have a business helping writers while I continue to write my book. So I'll write a book, I'll hopefully become more successful, then I'll tell people how I did it.”
That was the idea of the business early on. And so I wrote this book called, “You are a writer” and I self-published it, and it sold 10,000 copies in about six months, and I made $50,000 off of that. And I put my e-mail address in at the end of the book, and people e-mailed me, thousands of people e-mailed me saying, “We need more. We need more help.”
I turned that into a course called “Tribe Writers,” and then I wrote another book. And then I started speaking, and you know start doing these things. And I began to build a portfolio where I had different streams of income.
The idea was, I wanted to not have to rely on any single stream of income. If one of them went away, I would still be okay. But I also wanted to strengthen each stream that I could potentially live off of each one of I wanted to. And that's where things are today five years later. I could live just off of book royalties, but I'm very entrepreneurial. And as you said, I love writing, I hate writing.
Every time I'm about to start a book, I'm sort of frustrated with like the demands of life, the business, these other things that I'm doing. I just want to write and then I spend, like in the cases of this last book, 11 months writing like six hours a day, and I'm just like, “Never again, never again.” Yeah. And I like it, I like the portfolio life.
I think most artists tend to have a few different things that they do. One, by the necessity of just like maybe one thing isn't a great income, but three or four things is.
And then also, I think it's the way many of our brains are wired. I read a bunch of interesting research about distraction, and even ADHD and the connection to creativity. What's going on in your brain when you're constantly distracted, or you suffer from something like ADD or ADHD, and how that can actually make you more creative.
I talked to a psychology professor and she calls this a leaky filter, which I think is kind of a cool idea. Basically she's saying, one of the benefits of distraction, if you can harness it, is that you can identify multiple opportunities at once. Whereas, if you're just focused on the thing that you're doing right now, then you're going to limit yourself to doing that and you'll do it well, but you may miss out on other things.
An example of this that I shared in the book is Michael Jackson, one of the most successful pop musicians of our time. The majority of his fortune was due not to the songs that he wrote and produced himself, it was due to two other investments.
One, he brought up the majority of the Beatles catalog for something like $40,000,000. And when he bought it, people thought he was crazy. They're like, “You're crazy, why are you doing this? He's like, “This is an artifact, this is a cultural heirloom.”
That catalog went on to be worth over a billion dollars, you know, just insane.
And the other thing is real estate. His property was worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And so if he were just focused on his music, he would have missed the opportunity to use his distraction to help himself become more successful.
A lot of very successful creatives, writers, artists, creative entrepreneurs that I know, their bread and butter, their biggest source of income is often something that you wouldn't imagine. They're really successful for writing that book, but they make most of their money off of consulting, you know, or they had this big book deal or whatever, but this self-published thing that they, you know, that they wrote five years ago, that's just constantly paying out royalties every month has made them more money.
Whatever it is, the point is we don't know what exactly is going to be the big difference maker for us. I would argue that many starving artists are hoping for the one big payout, like if I could just do this one thing and make a million dollars, that would be great.
Well, sure, of course you would, like we all would, but that's probably not the way it's going to happen. And the really smart creative people that I call thriving artists are not putting all their eggs in one basket. They're harnessing that leaky filter and they're going, “Okay, I'm gonna that. Well, I'm doing that. I had this other idea, so I'm going to do that.”
And the challenge is not to be a jack of all trades, not to water down your art so much that you're not really excelling at anything, but it's to become a master of some, to create your own portfolio of income streams that make sense for you.
Personally for me, the three hats that I wear are, a writer, I love writing books, so I'm always working on a book and I'm getting royalties for that. So that's an income stream, and that's a great income stream.
Entrepreneur, I like business. And so I run an online business helping other writers through some of my courses about blogging and writing, and that's an income stream.
And then like marketer/speaker. And that is an income stream, an activity that I just do to promote the rest of the work, so blogging, speaking, podcasting. I get paid in some ways to do these things, but it really is a promotional part of the portfolio. So those three things are three skills that I'm constantly trying to get better and better at, and they feed the income for me.
Joanna: I think that's right. And, of course, we have quite a similar nonfiction side or the both fiction side is well.
I think your model is pretty common with nonfiction authors. And generally, if you're a nonfiction author, you don't just focus on the book, you can actually make a lot more money sometimes from this backend product.
I want you to come back to what you were saying there about the cultural heirloom of the Beatles back catalog, which, I believe, there's a 55-year rule and Paul McCartney is trying to get some of it back now, which is really interesting. But these intellectual property rights are something that are incredibly important to authors.
I was really interested because you have self-published, and in the book, you say quotes, “The thriving artist owns his own work,” and yet, you went with a traditional publisher for these books.
I'm really interested in why you chose that when you obviously understand the importance of ownership. And what do you think about the changing world of publishing?
Jeff: When I wrote that I felt angst because I was anticipating this. Like “Don't sell out too soon,” is what I say the books, and I really wrestled with this.
So to be clear, the book is not 12 of my best ideas on what I think the artist should do. The book is my understanding of what successful creative people have done for the past 500 years leading up through the present.
I read hundreds of biographies of famous successful creatives, people like Jim Henson, the choreographer, and dancer, Twyla Tharp, Michel Angelo, Picasso, and many artists in between, the Brontë sisters.
I want to know, what are the timeless strategies that we have always used that help people achieve creative success, whatever their art is, and which of these is still working today?
And so then I also interviewed hundreds of working creatives from all different industries, finding out what they were doing and seeing what were some of the common points. And the 12 most common points of thriving artists were these “12 rules of the new renaissance,” as I called in the book.
These are the 12 things that thriving artists do, and they happen to be most of the things that starving artist don't do. Things like marketing, I mentioned practicing in public, apprenticing under a master, finding somebody who's a teacher, who's really good either informally or formally, to learn from, borrowing, stealing from your influences and building upon their work, and then this idea ownership of the work.
It turns out that starving artist tend to sell out too soon. They tend to take the first book deal. They tend to take the first record contract. They trust the system to take care of them, and the system disappoints them. And in the book, I tell a story about a musician who did just that and really regretted it.
And honestly, this is part of my story; I got a traditional book deal, my first book deal was for $5,000.
Joanna: That's quite normal. Just to let everyone know that's normal, right?
Jeff: Yeah. And I was like, “Oh, cool,” you know. And to this day, I still struggle with traditional versus self-publishing. I think the whole industry is moving towards indie publishing. I think there will probably always be some sort of high end mass distribution model for very, very…like top tier A-list authors, or you know, like people that just don't wanna have to deal with all of that stuff.
The reason I published this book with a publisher, and the thing that I would say to any person who is struggling with ownership, it's not that you hold on to ownership of your work forever. I could write a song and stick it in a drawer and own that, and it doesn't make me any money.
So the challenge is, you don't want to sell out too soon, but you don't want to hold on to your work forever that you don't profit from it. And in the book, I tell some stories of people who did this, like George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars.
Joanna: What did he do?
Jeff: He did all of it. So “Star Wars Episode IV,” the first one, it's confusing I know, the first “Star Wars” film, he partnered with Fox, they were his financial backer, he didn't have any money to produce it. And they give him some money. It became a worldwide blockbuster, sold like $700,000,000 in the first year at the box office.
So he gets all this money, he make up to $20 billion off of that. And then he goes to produce “Empire Strikes Back,” and Fox wants to back him, and he goes, “No, I'm gonna back it.”
And as a result, he ends up owning, keeping, because even in film, you've got to give away certain percentages just to distribute the film, but he kept 77% of the profits of “Empire Strikes Back.”
The genius move was he kept 90% of the merchandising rights. And Fox is like, “Merchandise, whatever.” It was originally 100%, and they negotiated 10% of it. And it was a bad deal for Fox, everybody agreed this is a bad deal, but they were so afraid. “Star Wars” was so big that they were afraid he would take it somewhere else, and they would take that deal. So they didn't even let him shop the deal around. They said, “Okay, done.”
And that was a good move, that was him, holding on to ownership of his work. Well, 30-plus years later, he ends up selling the whole franchise to Disney for billions of dollars. And I think it makes sense to sell your work off to someone else when the payout is big enough, that you're not gonna have to work for a while, like I'm talking years. In Lucas's case, a lifetime.
And also, they can help you make the work better, right? I think that's something to consider. I will partner with a publisher who will actually help make my work better. That's not always true, it's not always not true, and I will do it for the right amount of money. And at that point, yeah, I'm okay with selling ownership of the work.
Because when you work with a publisher, at least my experience with it has been there are some hurdles, but the biggest hurdle, and once you get over it, you're fine, is the assumption that they're going to do anything other than print the book and help you distribute it.
I was in charge of the marketing budget for this book, I made all the creative calls for the book, and there was some back and forth, and we disagreed about some things. I was talking to a friend who used to work in marketing as a marketing director for publishers, DP marketing for a publisher, and I said, “Hey, we're going back and forth on this title, ‘Real Artists Don't Starve,' a little bit of controversy, then a little bit worried about it.”
What do you think about that?” I said, “I feel really strongly about this. I know I'm picking a fight here, but I think it's a worthy fight.” And he goes, “Yeah, I love the title. You should stick with it.” I said, “Well, how do I convince the publisher that this is a good idea?” He goes, “Well, if you just stand your ground, you'll be fine.” He goes, “Just FYI, the publisher always concedes with the author on this.” And I was like, “Oh, I didn't know that.”
Joanna: Eventually, I guess.
Jeff: Eventually, yeah. And they did. And a few months later, they were like, “Oh, yeah, we love the title, it's great.”
I think it's okay to sell out, and I mean selling ownership of your work, because again, it's better than it sitting in a drawer. Do it for the right price, that's your call. Don't assume that it's going to lead to somebody taking care of you, which is why it has to be the right price.
Still be willing to do the work, and do it when it's a partnership, where they're going to actually help make the work better. You can reach a broader audience.
If I can sell more books partnering with a publisher, and make the same or even a little bit less money than self-publishing, I'll do it because there's a benefit, a long term benefit for me to having more readers. Now, still has to be the right price and all that.
But just to be clear, every book, I guess, a self-published or traditionally published. I think it's an important question that authors should be asking. And with students in my course, they go, “Should I self-publish, or should I traditionally publish?”
I say, “Are there any traditional publishers knocking on your door?” “Well, no.” “Well, then…” Like there may not actually be a choice here. Self-publish, I think, is a great way to start. And as you know, Joanna, if you successfully self-published, publishers will start knocking on your door because all they want is to guarantee that the books are going to sell.
Joanna: I think you're right with that. And it is interesting.
I'm starting a new series right now, and I'm having that discussion with myself, and I go back and forth every single day because I guess, with you as well, you know how much money you can make, approximately, if you do it yourself.
Whereas a traditional publisher is more of a lottery ticket, weirdly. Once you have a platform like we do, you know what could happen when you do it yourself, but the lottery ticket price is quite interesting.
But as you say, if you have that portfolio, those books will feed into your other business as well, wouldn't they?
Jeff: Right. And so for me, and there's also the benefit if you self-publish a book, you write the book and get paid. If you traditionally publish a book, you get paid and then write the book.
Obviously, advances are paid out in segments, but you get a check before you finish writing the book, which is, you know, a good deal.
Joanna: What was really interesting about the book was the collaboration and co-writing. And you've mentioned partnership with the publisher there. And this myth of the lone author in the garrote, and the poor writer in the garrote on their own, I think he's part of it. And as you've chosen to partner with the publisher, which is a very different approach to many authors, as you say, that they will be looked up to.
How is that collaboration, co-writing working with others? How is that important to the thriving artist?
Jeff: I remember I was gonna say before.
Joanna: Yeah, you can carry on with that if you like.
Jeff: I think the whole idea, the portfolio life from an income standpoint is, I'm thinking every year, what do I need to do to bring in this amount of money. And so, okay, I'll sign a book deal, I'll bring in that money, then I'll go do this thing with the business, I'll bring in that money, then I'll go to speak and we're bring in that money.
I'm thinking about ownership, but I'm also just thinking about, how do I use each of these income streams to make a living for myself?
And I think the starving artist puts a lot of faith into one thing, like I'm going to write this book and it's going to be a big payday.
So you're right, the book advance doesn't have to be huge for me to make a living because there's all of these other ways that I can monetize that attention that comes from the book.
Anyway, the collaboration. So Beyoncé came out with this record called “Lemonade” not too long ago, and in the liner notes, she credited 72 co-writers. And people went to twitter and went nuts, they go, “They call her a genius, you know, and she's got 72 other people helping her,” as if creative genius happens any other way.
We have this idea that the world's best writers, and speakers, and entrepreneurs are doing their work in solitude, and that's how they're creating their best work.
Certainly, we understand that there is a portion, a significant portion of our time as writers spent in solitude. I'm not writing my book with like a bunch of people typing the keys with me. But I do believe that genius is a group effort.
And you just look at the stories, I mean it's staggering when you kind of get down to it. The world's most successful creative minds had a mastermind, they had a peer group, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, J.R.R. Tolkien, so many people were getting feedback from each other.
There's a great book called, “Powers of Two,” where he talks about partnership, Joshua Wolf Shenk is the author's name, and he talks about how the smallest denomination of like creative success is a duo, it's two people, Lennon and McCartney. And you've got these sort of famous pairs and partners throughout history, and he talks about Emily Dickinson, which I thought was really interesting. People think Emily Dickinson was a loner because she was a shut in. And it is true, she's a very reclusive person, probably had agoraphobia or something.
And so it's, like, well, she didn't collaborate with people, except, she was an avid letter writer, and she was constantly sharing her work with friends and teachers and getting feedback on it.
We do not do our best work in private, we do it in the context of community. In the book, I tell a story about J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis and how they got to lunch one day, and Tolkien has stuck writing his second book. The Hobbit came out, it is pretty successful, publisher wants another book from him and he's stuck, and he's bored out of his mind, and he's a perfectionist.
His friend, Lewis, asks him, “How's it going with the new book.”
And he said, “Oh, my gosh, I'm bored out of my mind,” Tolkien said, “I'm stuck. I can't finish this book. I'm probably gonna have to quit.” And Lewis said to him, “Well, Tolkien, don't you know that Hobbits are only interesting when they're placed in un-hobbit like circumstances?”
And all of a sudden, Tolkien realizes, “Oh my gosh, the Hobbits are still in the Shire. I've got to get them out of the Shire.” And, you know, for anybody who's familiar with “The Lord of the Rings,” it should be almost everybody, the story doesn't really start until they leave the Shire.
And so here you have what will become one of history's most successful novels ever. And it was not written by a lone genius, it was written in the context of community.
By the way, Tolkien and Lewis were members of a group called the Inklings that met once a week on Tuesday nights, for years, decades. There were 19 of them. And every week, they would share their works and progress with each other. We don't do our best work alone, we do it in community.
Joanna: And I should say they met at “The Eagle and Child” round the corner from my old college in Oxford.
Jeff: Yes, they are all Oxford professors. What they call it “The Bird and the Baby,” “The Eagle and the Child.”
Joanna: Yeah, there we go.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. They would meet for lunch and they would give each other, sometimes, scathing feedback, but they all loved each other, and they all wanted to see one another succeed.
I mean it is quite clear, there's a researcher by the name of Diana Glyer, who has spent decades researching the Inklings proving that they influenced each other, because for many years people believe they didn't.
And you have letters between Lewis and Tolkien, where Lewis is basically coaching Tolkien on, “Don't do that. Do that. Don't do that.” He was originally gonna call Bilbo, Bingo. So I think it's safe to say that Lewis influenced Tolkien, and Tolkien benefited from that influence.
And so if this is what it takes to create something like “The Lord of The Rings,” a classic piece of literature, how much more do we need the genius of groups to help us do our best work?
Joanna: Yeah, fantastic. Well, we are out of time. Tell everyone where they can find you and all your books online.
Jeff: Thanks, Joanna. Always a pleasure to chat with you. You can find me at my blog, goinswriter.com. I've got a newsletter there. If you sign up for that, you're gonna get a bunch of free stuff, including how to build a tribe. I've got a beginner's guide to building an audience, just a great helpful PDF. And you can learn more about the book, “Real Artists Don't Starve,” at that website, and also wherever books are sold. If you pick up a copy of the book, be sure to go to the book site, dontstarve.com and get some free bonuses, that's dontstarve.com.
Joanna: And you have a podcast as well, don't you?
Jeff: I do. And you're gonna be appearing on that podcast. It's called The Portfolio Life,” you could search iTunes for it, there's a link to it on my web site at goinswriter.com.
Joanna: Great. Thanks so much for your time, Jeff. That was great.
Jeff: Thank you, Joanna.
Kev Partner says
“And my goal is the same that it’s always been, which is to write 500 new words every day.
[…] for me that’s a small enough number that it’s easier to do than avoid. And for creating habits, that’s always been my MO, it’s got to be like so annoyingly small that I might as well just get it over with, versus so big that I’m scared to attempt it.”
Oh yes indeed! I have a 10 minutes a day habit for exactly the same reason and I’ve had the most productive 6 months of my writing life since I started it in January. 180 days straight at an average of 600 words a day (over 100k in total).
Brilliant interview, thank you.
Aleshia Robinson says
This interview was phenomenal!!!
Very mature and only for the creatives who are willing to turn on their inner business magnate.
Most creatives won’t understand the wisdom Jeff is sharing in this interview but so very helpful for writers who are READY to play in the “Game of Thrones”. lol.
Thank you Joanna and Jeff!
This was such a great interview. Thanks for sharing it. I look forward to reading the book sometime in the near future.