Make Money With Your Creativity (And Why Creatives Don’t Hire Robots)

People really don’t talk about this enough, but if you want to make money with your creativity, your product is almost secondary. Whether you’re a freelance writer, painter, potter, knitter, multimedia artist, video editor, violin maker – the product isn’t really the first and foremost in money making.

I spent nearly a decade of very sparse successes as a writer and flailing around like an idiot before I started getting guidebook work, a job as an Associate Editor at a travel website, and selling articles to magazines and newspapers, including The Boston Globe and LA Times. And I would love to save you years of flailing by telling you to stop getting hung up on your end product.

At least not exclusively. You really don’t want to end up like me, pissed off that my butlers never showed up. If you’re telling yourself your product should speak for itself, and are frustrated no one else cares about it, then you know what I’m talking about.

First, let me tell you what’s it’s not about. It’s not about collapsing into bed bleary-eyed after gorging on blog-talk about passion, drive, expertise, the epic-ness of individuality and kickass awesomeness, marketing, being an online ninja hijacking the status quo, channeling Chris Guillebeau, or any other combination therein. Do you know how little a magazine or gallery or jewelry shops or a pottery studio will care about any of that? None. You still need something else.

What you need is a compelling pitch:

  • Sales page for your services.
  • Query letter to a magazine.
  • Essay submission for a fellowship, grant, or artist’s VISA application.
  • Email to a gallery owner.
  • About Me page on your blog.
  • Media gallery and mission statement to complement your wares.
  • Cover letter for a job.
  • Blog post branding yourself as a world traveler so you can build consistency, trust, loyalty, and sell a product.
  • Services page.
  • Response to HARO or pitching a publication for publicity.
  • Email request to do a guest post.

Let me stop here and say if you have a very large following in your field and the media seek you out – then this is the exception. Your pitch is irrelevant. You don’t need this. The rest of you sit tight.

The pitch is about what your client deeply needs plus the real you. If you’re a writer and think your client deeply needs content, they don’t. You’re not there yet. Do they really need content? Or a compelling, saleable article on the comparison between Spanish and Italian convents for their upcoming editorial calendar because they need more advertisers? Is it because they need interactive content that readers will actually respond to because they’re revamping their social media?

Is it because all their content is super boring and they’re looking for someone to mix it up after firing their editor? And who are you to sell it? Why are you special? Why should they care? Can they tell who you are between the mass influx of emails just from today? Or do you just blend in? Whenever I previously read stuff like this in regards to my writing career, it made me fume. Because I thought I was writing pretty fabulous stuff and getting nothing in return. If you want to know how I handled, it read this.

I figured there must be another secret. And I blamed it on the publishing industry. They were obviously too lame to understand me. So very lame… Then something interesting happened to me. I woke up. I became self-employed for the first time in 2010 and was suddenly responsible for my own paychecks. I had to scrounge up freelance video editing work by sending out upwards of 70 emails a week and going on countless mini-interviews.

Because I was already intimately familiar with the post-production industry, I knew it would be the kiss of death to write some formal, puke-inducing “Dear Sir or Madame” style email. No one wants to read that. Seriously. Instead, I emailed like I was talking to a friend, but one I didn’t know too well. I kept it light and personable and tried to throw in a little bit of humor. Usually, about how I was skilled at making the last call Fed Ex runs to ship out elements to the client. I emailed the same big players about every 3 to 4 weeks, and I eventually got gigs from just about every one of them.

It quite possibly was the best thing that happened to me because I can now write a killer cover letter and pitch, my rate of getting a personal response is through the roof, I am comfortable in interviews (I once interviewed with 10 people at Blue Man Group without breaking a sweat), and I know how to study and talk potential client’s language. Was I the most talented video editor or multimedia person out there? Not by far. Did I often beat out those who were more seasoned than me? Most of the time, yes. And it was because I knew what they wanted from their business, what they wanted from me, and how to put it all together into a pitch.

The assistants and associates where I freelanced wanted to know how I landed so much work and started asking me to look at their cover letters and resumes. Soon I was getting paid, without asking, for my services I remember one friend had written on her resume that she was responsible for ‘ordering client lunches’ and I slammed her and asked if she wanted to be a corporate waitress for the rest of her freaking days in New York. I taught her how to think about what language to use to her industry peers, highlight her problem-solving skills, focus on her project responsibilities and deadlines, and make it seem like she was over-qualified instead of painting herself as an entry-level assistant. It worked. I helped launch quite a few freelance video editing careers and made sure they knew what kind of rates to charge instead of under-cutting themselves.

I realized as a writer, I could apply those same techniques I learned writing query letters to get published.

It finally dawned on me that NO ONE was ever going to buy an article from me or hire me for a job if I didn’t write a compelling and lucid pitch first. And when I looked back over what I had previously written, I saw it was all about me instead of the publication. Why would they care? What am I bringing to the table as an unknown writer? So I figured out what they did actually care about and kept refining the art of the letter. It wasn’t about being an expert. I wrote animated educational scripts for even though I had never seen the show. It was all about the pitch. I wrote a piece about cohousing and parents, though I’m not a parent. Again, the pitch. And I once wrote about renting out rooms to airline crews for The LA Times. Again, it’s all in the pitch.

You know what happens when you land a pitch? The checks follow. When I became an Associate Editor for a travel website (also through the power of an email pitch), I started editing manuscripts and reading pitch letters myself from would-be writers. I was shocked at how horrifying they were. How they blatantly didn’t even know what we really published, despite all our content being free online. They had no ideas for us, just wanted to get assigned a free trip (which we didn’t do), or pitched a location instead of an actual story. Sometimes, they expressed anger they couldn’t get published and were practically begging for a chance.

I also had no idea who they really were. Unless they were whiners, they were mostly void of personality and emotion. There was no connection there. If you think publishing and arts and everything else has a system of gatekeepers that should be destroyed – you’re right. But if you think you don’t need a pitch to network, land a guest post, write jaw-dropping copy to get your wares in a jewelry store, brand yourself, and otherwise, learn to fish for remarkable rates of return – you’re wrong.

Pitching takes practice, but you can teach yourself to do it and work to refine your skills. It takes tweaking, it takes studying the client’s work so you know what kind of approach to take. You’ll hit some out of the ballpark, and others will be fouls. But you don’t just quit playing the game, you make adjustments and keep going. But remember, the pitch is about what your client deeply needs, plus you being disgustingly compelling and charming.

Creatives do not want to hire robots.

They want to hire someone fun, with personality and wit, and above all else – someone they can spend long hours with getting a project off the ground. It works the same in your own life. Would you hire someone to rework your website design who’s boring? Possibly if they came highly recommended from everyone on the planet you knew, but I am highly suspicious there are crowds of people out there saying, “Her work is phenomenal, BUT… well, she’s just really, really boring.” If your approach is boring, people will assume you are boring. You need to figure out what your client wants and use your real voice to stand out, or get lost in a sea of metallic tasting pitches.