Friday, October 13, 2006

6. Managing Your Expectations

So you think you’ve gotten good. You have a body of work and peers who are pushing you to “go to the next level.” But do you even know what that means?

Chances are that you’re thinking in terms of monetary rewards, because you are a capitalist and we live in a capitalist society. And you’re probably not wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re right, either.

Remember when we were discussing your motivation and I pointed out that the odds of you being able to make a living selling your work were astronomically against you? Well, unless something momentous has happened in the past four essays, that probably hasn’t changed.

That shouldn’t stop you from wanting to release something for sale, but you do need to understand exactly what you can expect if you do. In professional environments, this is called “managing expectations” and it is basically the exact opposite of sales. A quick and dirty version might be, “Will you sell a million copies? No. Will you sell a hundred copies? Maybe.”

More than anything else, a firm grasp of reality is essential at this stage. Feel free to dream, but don’t bother to dream big, because no matter how high you set your sights the first time, you will probably fall short. Anyone who tells you differently is lying to you and you should not trust him.

Unfortunately, the really painful lesson of “taking your work to the next level” is that you are going to lose money in the short term. Like a band that goes on tour to college towns, playing for a fifteen person audience in a two hundred person venue or a print-maker who paid to get two hundred posters printed that could sell for three dollars apiece, there will be an initial investment that you will have to make.

So really, what you really have to ask yourself is not “how much can I expect to make?” but rather “how much can I afford to lose?” Some people will disagree and tell you that professionals do not spend money to make money, which begs the question of why the Small Business Administration offers loans to new businesses.

Right now, though, you are an amateur. You do not support yourself with your art, nor are you expecting to. What you’re looking for is exposure; an audience and some unbiased critical response. No matter who you are and what you do, that means marketing, and unless you own your own marketing agency, you should be prepared to spend some money on marketing materials. A good rule of thumb is to spend far less than 10% of your annual salary.

The critical thing at this juncture is to the make sure that whatever you prepare for release is good and interesting by the standards of your peer review group. Not okay, certainly not the first thing you’ve made – something solid. Something you can be proud of. Nothing sounds worse than an artist apologizing for the poor quality of the product on sale. Don’t put yourself in that position.

Once you have grounded yourself, it’s time to start making some level-headed business decisions.