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Sell Out (With Me, Oh Yeah)

Sell Out (With Me, Oh Yeah)

How do I make this work the most welcoming to the most people? asks George Saunders. It's a very good question.

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Today's column was inspired by a Note from

a couple of weeks back:

I wholeheartedly agree with Russell. And, I think it's critically important as practitioners not to reduce marketing to only putting yourself out to enough people.1

Let's get into it.

I was a trombone player during the new swing and ska craze of the late 90s.

My high school jazz combo always had plenty of new radio-play songs to cover. Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, Royal Crown Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy...

The band Reel Big Fish held a special place in our teenage musician hearts. Their biggest hit, "Sell Out," unexpectedly came through my headphones the other day when I was working out, and I was immediately transported back to the Central Dauphin High School band room. We played "Sell Out" whenever we could:

'Cause you're gonna go to the record store  
You're gonna give 'em all your money  
Radio plays what they want you to hear  
They tell me it's cool, I just don't believe it

Sell out, with me, oh yeah  
Sell out, with me tonight  
The record company's gonna give me lots of money and  
Everything's gonna be alright

For Gen Xers and elder Millennials, a "sellout" was about the worst thing you could be in the 90s. "To 'sell out' is to betray your principles, your art, your community, yourself for some kind of financial or commercial gain," explained Willa Paskin in an episode of Decoder Ring on the cultural phenomenon and how it petered out.

The fear of selling out boiled down to this: Real artists don't sell out. Real art isn't made to be marketed and sold. Real artists make things to say something true, not to make money. These beliefs are central to the myth of the starving or long-suffering artist.

For a long time, fear of selling out and the myth of the starving artist led many creative people to avoid promoting their own work. We still have people referring to "shameless self-promotion"—a phrase I hate because it implies that there is a shameful type of self-promotion.2

And here's the thing—that myth exists because, in some way, these beliefs are true. Art, as expressed by the artist, communicates a truth that defies commodification or capitalistic forms of value. Art, as received by the viewer, requires a type of attention that subverts capitalistic ideas of acquisition.3

But art can be legible.

It can be approachable and accessible. It doesn't have to be—but it can be. Art can also be profoundly desired—even if that desire is fuzzy and unclear to the desirer. Critic Mark Fisher writes that "the most powerful forms of desire are precisely cravings for the strange, the unexpected, the weird."

All that said, I want to transition to a related subject that's a little more familiar to me than art. One that has a slightly cozier relationship with commercial exchange. And that is craft.

Any skilled pursuit involves craft. Writers, actors, and musicians all talk about craft. So do welders, bakers, and candlestick makers. Even work that's often derided as "low-skill," including in the retail, domestic, home healthcare, and food service sectors, has a craft.

Craft is simply how we approach the work we do and the ways we can improve on that approach.

Honing one's craft might involve participating in workshops or classes, peer-to-peer feedback opportunities, or mentoring. It can also be a contemplative practice, one that uses revision, performance analysis, or reflection to improve.

I've become very interested in the way craft interacts with marketing. Marketing and craft have a much closer relationship than it might appear on the surface. For our purposes, I define marketing like this: Marketing is any activity or strategy designed to connect a product (broadly defined) with the people who might want to use that product.

Marketing seems to be directed outward, while craft seems to be directed inward. Marketing is about telling people about some brilliant new thing, while craft is about making something brilliant. Marketing is the enemy of craft. Trying to combine the two is selling out.

Like any binary we construct, this is false.

I came across this passage from

's interview with writer a month or so ago on Notes:

I tell my students to liberate a certain part of their mind that, because they are good, humble people they may have likely suppressed, and that's the part that wants to be known, that wants to be famous or rich or whatever. I say that part is not entirely separate from the part of you that wants to be a great writer. Which is not separate from the part of you that wants to be a beautiful writer. So maybe, as we think about what the next book is, or how to edit the one in front of us, we might even say quietly to ourselves, “I want people to read it. I want this to be the next big thing.”

Now, that doesn't work for everybody; some people that terrifies, it shuts them down. But I've always found that being honest about my own ambition (which is very grandiose) helps me, artistically - because then, when you're revising a passage, you ask, “How should I revise this part? How will it be the most welcoming to the most people?”

It's easy to interpret Saunders as saying that his work is, at least in part, directed by the market. But I interpret it differently.

I take Saunders to mean that the ambition to be read by many people helps him make his art better. Or, to put it another way, wanting to reach as many people as possible helps him to hone his craft. Craft, then, is part of marketing.

Now, if my thesis here was that ‘you need to do both marketing and craft,’ it would be moderately valuable but tired advice. The internet is full of people telling you how to do self-promotion without compromising your self/your craft/your art.

Instead, my thesis stems from Saunders's last question: “How will [the work] be the most welcoming to the most people?” Here, Saunders is talking about creating and revising with the reader in mind. And not just one reader but all of the people he wants to reach with his work.

So my thesis, as I just mentioned, is this:

Craft is a critical aspect of marketing.

When the word marketing gets thrown about in our social media-colored world, especially among independent creators, it’s often synonymous with promotion. People want to know where the best places to share their work are, whether there are any tricks or techniques that will boost their reach, and how to get more people to engage with their promotional posts. Promotion is just one tiny part of marketing—and a rather inefficient one at that.

Just yesterday, writer and editor

reflected on her "quest for readers:"

...here’s the thing: I still don’t really know how to find readers. Just last week, I was looking at my trending numbers and was once again plopped into a swirl of questions: Am I doing the right things, publishing in the right cadence, opening myself enough in my writing? While I was fretting, I kept writing, pushing, crying and nudging the doors of honesty open. So I’m here to say that no one really knows how to find readers. I just know that, for me, I have to keep knocking on doors, trying new things in my writing and going to the deeper places inside myself.

Also yesterday, novelist

shared that she'd deleted hundreds of TikTok videos from her account because she was over leveraging gimmicks to promote her work:

I finally believe that the stories I have on my future slate are good enough to stand on their own, without the need for me to stand on the virtual street, banging my cymbals together, yelling at random passersby that they should buy this book because it has the Only One Bed trope. I trust that the stories I’m putting out there going forward will resonate with readers—to the extent that they’ll want to press the books into their friends hands and say, please read this so we can scream about it together. I trust in myself, and in word of mouth. ...
I’ve spent the last year and a half telling everyone that TikTok saved my career. But that’s not true. What saved my career was writing a great fucking book.

Done well, marketing gets baked into the product being marketed.

The way a product is designed, packaged, and presented—that’s all marketing. A company can try to market a product that doesn’t appeal to people, but its effort is unlikely to yield many positive results. A person can dream up a product in their garage or on their computer screen, but without “getting out of the building” and talking to potential customers, they won’t have confidence that their product is something anyone wants.

I think there's a significant misunderstanding about how marketing functions in the lifecycle of a product. The goal of marketing shouldn't be to create desire for something undesirable. Although, after having spent three nights in a hotel room with my daughter watching cable television, I am acutely aware of just how much marketing of this kind exists today.

Instead, the goal of marketing should be to take something desired—even if it is in a novel or unrecognizable form—and connect it to the people who are already desiring it. As Fisher said, the weird and unexpected are at the root of our strongest desires.

So when Saunders writes about making his work 'welcoming' to as many people as possible, I think it's this kind of product-centric version of marketing. He isn't talking about how to get his work in front of as many people as possible. He's considering how his work might be received by those he wishes to read it. After all, plenty of cultural products get blockbuster marketing campaigns only to flop because audiences just aren't into them.

For Saunders, a critical component of his craft seems to be to take up something novel or unrecognizable and make it welcoming. It's thinking about who is coming to the work—the product—and making sure they see something to grasp onto.

I've been working on this for years. And I'd judge my own ability as mediocre at best, though I've had some real successes in this realm. Even the intro to this piece is an effort to give you something to grasp. Remember when we were so concerned about selling out? Do you remember when all the cool kids were swing dancing?

Many creators, independent workers, and small business owners are going through somewhat of an existential crisis about the massive deterioration of social media that's been unfolding for many years. The only way they've known to market their work has been by promoting it on social media. If those channels are dying, how will they find customers? How will their businesses keep functioning? How will they pay their bills?

These questions are real and distressing.

Personally, I feel a bit lost and inadequate when people ask me how they can get their work in front of more people. "I honestly don't know," I tell them. But it's somewhat of an evasion.

The real answer, I believe, is craft.4

The problem with telling someone that craft is crucial to reaching more people is that it feels almost passive.

It doesn't feel like doing something. Promotion is doing something. Posting one by one on each social media network is doing something. Telling people about what you're up to is doing something.

Spreading the word is active. Considering whether that word will land with the people you spread it to just doesn't feel productive.

Because I can't detach from my instinct to say, "It depends," allow me to admit that sharing one's work can be an essential part of improving one's craft. How do we know if something is going to land with potential customers (or readers, or viewers, or listeners)? Often, the only way is to ask.

Whatever one's craft, improving on it requires developing a relationship with the work. It takes more time and effort spent on the work itself. It's challenging, but it's not producing anything new. It doesn't seem to be catalyzing any positive results. But without that relationship with the work, no amount of self-promotion can save us.

Without asking Saunders's question, How do I make this the most welcoming to the most people?, it doesn't matter how successful one's self-promotion is. It doesn't matter if the reach of a post or comment is extended a little further. It doesn't matter how many people click a link. If the work doesn't create a spark of recognition for those who encounter it, no amount of promotion will lead to the desired results.

Don't get me wrong. Focusing on craft alone isn't likely to engender much attention. But attention is fairly useless without craft.5

Even with the self-promotional landscape fracturing, it's still a great time to create cultural products, to offer services that stretch people in new ways, and even to make art that sells. We have more tools for creating things people desire than ever before. Our challenge is to hone our craft so that others can be welcomed into our work.


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More of what works:

  • On Thursday,

    and I are launching a new joint project called . The first few editions will come out here on What Works in addition to the main Cold Pitch feed. I’m excited to share our first edition with you!

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  • I’ll be leading another session of Work In Practice in 2024! I’ll have details next week—but this session will run from February 8 - April 25, 2024. Live sessions will be Thursdays at 12:30pm ET/9:30am PT.


To be clear, I don’t think Russell is suggesting that at all. It’s just a common misunderstanding of this type of advice.


You might be thinking, “Okay, but some self-promotion is gross or distasteful.” Sure, fine. But that doesn’t make it shameful.


Jenny Odell explores this subject at length in her masterful How to Do Nothing.


Amanda speaks to this in her piece: “It’s also entirely possible that your writing needs a little improving. It might need a little work before people are inspired to pay for it.”


wisely offers this reality check:

But still, sometimes no matter how crafty you become, you try your very best to be so good they can’t ignore you, but your best just isn’t good enough. So they do ignore you, whoever they are.

What Works
Context Curious from What Works
For people who are curious about the beliefs, systems, and stories that shape the 21st-century economy and how we navigate it