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Self-promotion for creatives: Getting seen is the key to success

The arts and business don’t mix. They should. They need to. But no one likes to talk about the two together.

I’ve been a published fiction author for six years and, since 1998, I’ve worked in many forms of marketing. I now have the pleasure of combining my two storytelling passions as a brand consultant for various clients, as well as lecturing on self-branding for creatives at London’s Raindance Film School. In that time I’ve learned that people don’t feel comfortable discovering the business side of the arts.

I once taught a self-publicity module on a business MA course at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. It was all going well, everyone nodding along, until I mentioned I was a writer. “But surely this doesn’t apply to the arts,” one student said. “Creativity sells itself. Only the best do well.”

I went to answer but was interrupted by another confused student. “Writers should be doing it for the love of their art, anyway… money shouldn’t be their motivation.”

These two fallacies are part of the reason that creatives feel uncomfortable with self-promotion, and probably why it’s an industry where few people are making a decent living.

None of these students wanted to hear that their best-loved books were popular because they were well marketed. They assumed (as the industry wants you to) that the books which make The Sunday Times bestsellers list are there simply because readers love them the most. We are led to believe that movies make huge box office profits in week one because they are the best film out at the moment. We presume artists, actors, and musicians win prizes because they’re the most talented.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Not entirely true.

Putting aside the fact that art is subjective and there is no ‘best’ and skimming over the fact that artists deserve fair pay (no one should be expected to give away their skills for the sheer love of it) – creatives and their projects are successful because of one thing.


Self-branding. Exposure. Promotion. Advertising. Hype. Word of mouth. PR. Whatever you want to call it…whether someone has immense talent or not, if you don’t know that something or someone exists you are not going to purchase it nor consume it.

In this article I’m not going to talk about how to promote yourself – I will be discussing why creatives need to be seen and asking why they often feel uncomfortable with self-promotion.

Let’s start with society expectations of the arts.

For centuries artists have been painted as private people with an unbridled talent who need not show their face in order to touch the world with their brilliance. You know that shy retiring writer type… The cardigan-wearing scribe, surrounded by a clowder of cats and screwed up balls of paper at her feet, hunched over her desk from dawn until dusk, or the poor painter who refuses to speak to anyone and lives only for their work. There’s something almost romantic about those images, it’s endearing and comforting to think that our favourite pieces of art became popular thanks to nothing more than the sheer brilliance of the artist.

Yet the reality is that, in this day and age, that haunted writer who spends her days turning coffee into magical stories, and the suffering painter who dare not show his face, are not going to succeed unless they and their work are promoted – either by a professional team or themselves.

I met a writer once who said to me, “I don’t understand why you need to market yourself if you’re a good writer, the book speaks for itself.” If that were true, then every writer would be relying solely on word of mouth and chance. Good luck with that!

Wanting to make a living from your art but not wanting to promote it is like baking an amazing cake.

Imagine it. Your cake has three layers, soft and moist with silky chocolate icing. It has fresh cream and juicy berries on top, and maybe a dash of rum inside. My goodness, it even has chocolate shavings!

Photo by Umesh Soni on Unsplash

So what are you going to do with that cake?

Well, if you are like many modest and nervous creatives you are going to put that cake in a tin, put the tin inside a cupboard, and shut the kitchen door. Then you are going to go outside and lock the front door and never mention that cake to a soul. Then a few days later you’re going to get ever so, ever so upset that no one…not one person…has said how much they loved your cake. It’s a great cake; you put so much effort into it. Surely the proof of the pudding is in the eating, why haven’t they even tried a piece?


I understand the desire to do nothing all day but express yourself through your art, but unless you are already making money elsewhere no artist can avoid having to promote their work. Why?

Because in order to buy what you’re selling, the consumer needs to know and care about it.

Every day the potential consumers of our art are scrolling through their phones or watching TV, waiting for the next breaking news story, bombarded by information and advertising cleverly curated to their needs by cookies and algorithms.

It’s far too easy for the best of work to get lost among this overwhelming noise and influx of information. And that’s why, with content being at a record-breaking high, we have to ensure we are not only seen but wanted.

Books and music and movies, as a business, are no different to anything else on the market.

If you were to invent a new car or coffee brand, people would expect you to promote it – yet

it’s viewed, by many, as unsavoury to promote the arts. Perhaps because these songs and books are created by passionate people pouring their hearts and souls into their projects. Art is seen as personal not product.

So how do you stay true to your art while being commercially minded too? How can you ensure you are seen without looking callous and dissociated from your work?

The answer to that is mindset.

Shame, discomfort, and a sense of helplessness is often the reason why creatives shy away from promoting their work. They don’t want to appear big-headed; they don’t want the attention, or they don’t see the need for it. So I’m going to leave you with one thing to ponder over which may help you see things differently.

What if, instead of viewing self-promotion as you pushing your work on to others, you approach it as you giving those who you know will enjoy your work the opportunity to know it exists. You are not selling, you are showing. You are not shouting about yourself, you are allowing yourself to be seen. Often it’s these small adjustments in thinking that give us permission to be proud and excited about our work, and therefore allowing ourselves to share it comfortably with the world. And then, because it IS good, those who enjoy it will begin to do the promoting for us. So look up from your work, consider who you think will enjoy it, and make sure they see it. You are worth it. Your work is worth it. And those you are making it for will thank you for sharing it with them.


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