Photo by dr_vaibhavahuja
It doesn’t matter how good you are.
If your face is unknown and your name doesn’t ring a bell, success will be a struggle for you.
Your work will be rejected by editors and gallery owners. Your best blog posts will go unread. You’ll have to work hard to generate leads for your business – and even harder to close the sale.
But if you’re a big name, everything is easier.
Instead of tossing your manuscript into the slush pile, editors vie for your signature. You’re invited to all the trendy gallery openings and schmoozed by the top people.
You’ve hardly hit ‘publish’ on your latest blog post before the comments and Tweets alight on it and the StumbleUpon traffic starts to pour in.
There are advance orders and waiting lists for every product you release. You can name your fee for consulting and cherry-pick the best jobs.
Is it fair? Maybe not. But it’s true – and here’s the proof.
At the height of his fame, the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope became so intrigued by what he felt to be ‘an injustice in literary affairs’ that he decided to perform an unusual experiment:
It seemed to me that a name once earned carried with it too much favour … I felt that aspirants coming up below me might do work as good as mine, and probably much better work, and yet fail to have it appreciated. In order to test this, I determined to be such an aspirant myself, and to begin a course of novels anonymously, in order that I might see whether I could obtain a second identity.
(Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography, 1883)
In his book Art Worlds, Howard Becker describes how Trollope published two stories anonymously, to see how they were received compared to stories published under his name. As he expected, the stories received praise from the few people who read them, but they achieved ‘no real success’.
When Trollope wanted to publish a third story, his publisher lost patience and refused – it simply wasn’t worth the effort to publish and promote an unknown, compared to the rewards of publishing ‘a new Trollope’.
Trollope reflected that it would be possible to succeed under another name, but it would take an enormous amount of work:
Another 10 years of unpaid unflagging labour might have built up a second reputation. But this at any rate did seem clear to me, that with all the increased advantages which practice in any art must have given me, I could not at once induce English readers to read what I gave them, unless I gave it with my name.
Educated readers might pride themselves on their literary judgement, but their tastes were just as heavily influenced by brand names as shoppers buying pies:
It is a matter of course that in all things the public should trust to established reputation. It is natural that a novel reader wanting novels should send to a library for those by George Eliot or Wilkie Collins, as that a lady when she wants a pie should go to Fortnum and Mason.
Trollope concluded that ‘very much consideration is due to the bitter feelings of disappointed authors’ – since their lack of reputation meant that their work was unfairly overlooked.
But was it really so unfair?
For a famous author, Trollope showed an admirable sympathy for less well-known writers, but he also modestly overlooked the years of ‘unpaid unflagging labour’ that it took him to build his own reputation. We know from his autobiography that for most of his career he got up at 5:30 am to write his novels before starting his day job.
Trollope wasn’t given his reputation – he earned it. Just like Fortnum and Mason:
Fortnam and Mason can only make themselves Fortnum and Mason by dint of time and good pies combined.
In other words, there are no shortcuts to success. One pie doesn’t build a great brand, just as one good post doesn’t build a killer blog. And two excellent stories don’t make a great author. It takes time, effort and perseverance.
It also takes something else. Something many people are reluctant to do.
It takes changing your mindset, letting go of the idea that doing good (or even amazing) work is enough. ‘Build it and they will come’ may work in the movies, but in real life you can end up doing a lot of lonely building.
If you really want your work to be seen, heard and loved – and to bring you recognition and rewards – then you need to see ‘getting it out there’ as part of the job. It’s pretty simple when it comes down to it:
Making + Marketing = Success
Success doesn’t have to be all about money. If you’re doing something worthwhile, it will also involve the satisfaction of making a contribution to the wider world, being recognised for your achievements and creating new opportunities for yourself and others.
And marketing isn’t just about selling. It’s about building your reputation or personal brand, and expanding your sphere of influence.
The good news is that these days there are plenty of tools and opportunities for you to build a stellar reputation from scratch, without having to go cap-in-hand to an agent or spend a fortune on advertising. Things like blogs, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Behance, DeviantArt and other networks.
But none of that stuff means doodly squat until you answer yes to this question:
Am I prepared to put my creative energy into promoting my work as well as making it?
Who Can You Be Now?
How do you feel about devoting time and energy to promoting your work?
Have you ever made a conscious decision to work harder at marketing yourself or your business? What did you do? What happened as a result?
What kind of reputation would you like to earn?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.