making what you love vs what sells

The writer Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, recently reflected on how he developed his business model. He drew two circles on a piece of paper, labeling one “Stories I love” and the other “Stores that might sell”. Where they overlapped, he labeled it “My Business”.

…I told myself, “Steve, focus all your effort in that little overlap and don’t ever go outside it. Don’t work on stuff you love that you believe is totally uncommercial. And don’t work on projects that you imagine will sell but that you hate. Stick to the sweet spot.”

It seems like a logical and sound business practice: find the sweet spot between making what you love and making what will sell, and build your business around that overlap. Brilliant! Should work, right? Yet, seemingly, no. Pressfield continues:

Here’s the interesting part: it didn’t work…. nothing really clicked for me until I gave up completely on hitting the overlap and just did what I loved, even when I thought nobody else in the world would be interested.

the overlap between art I love to make and art I know will sell

I have found the same thing to be true in my art career. I am drawn to make very abstract images, photographs that make you question what you are seeing. Yet my more representation pieces, photographs that are obviously of a flower or a leaf, seem to sell better. Logically, I should limit my abstract work and focus more on those representational photographs. Yet this method tends to backfire. My work stalls, my creativity dries up, and I find myself neither making work nor selling.

After thinking about this for a while, I realized that there are a couple fundamental flaws with trying to build a business in the sweet spot between your passion and marketability. First, it assumes that you can predict what will sell. And second, it assumes you can control your creativity.

Predicting what will sell based on what has sold is tricky, if not impossible. You may think you know why one type of art is selling better, but the truth is, you probably don’t. You could just be unintentionally marketing one type of art differently. Maybe you’ve been promoting it longer, or it just found its audience faster. Or maybe those works are just easier to market online (for example, it is much easier to describe a representational work for Google than an abstract one). Or you could be completely wrong about why these are your best sellers. I assume my representational photographs sell better because they are easier to understand and appreciate. But I could be wrong: maybe the photographs that sell better have nothing to do with abstraction vs representational. Maybe it’s the colors I am using in that series, or the subject matter, or the technique. Or maybe there is no real pattern at all to what sells vs what doesn’t — I mean, it’s not like I’m selling on a scale that makes any statistical analysis very valid.

Since it is so difficult to accurately predict what will sell and why, constraining what I create based on my best-guesses is foolish at best. Assuming that I know why these pieces are selling may cause me to overlook other qualities in my art that are attracting collectors. I may think I’m being market-savvy, but I may just be shutting out my next big seller.

Likewise, it is foolish to assume that I can control my creativity. If I say “ah, this type of art is selling so that’s all I’ll make”, I am profoundly misunderstanding my own creative process. My creativity is not a machine that can be tuned to a certain profitable frequency and switched on. It is messy, chaotic, and exploratory. My creativity needs to experience some freedom in order to function. Trying to limit my output to a certain style would quickly damp down my ability to create anything.

An abstract photograph of tree bark ©Daniel Sroka
One of my 'crazy' abstract photographs. This one is of tree bark (if you couldn't tell.)

I also believe that one of the reasons my simpler pieces sell better is because they are influenced by my crazier work. They may feel “simpler” to me, but they have gained a higher degree of sophistication from the techniques and ideas I have learned by exploring the creative fringes. Without my more abstract work, my representational work would probably be flatter, more boring, more predictable. My passion is in the abstract, and I believe that you can feel this passion in all of my work. If I prevented myself from doing this style of art for the sake of my business plan, my passion would diminish, and all of my work would suffer.

So like Pressfield, I have come to realize that trying to base my creation of art on the market is not the right path for me. Maybe my balance is not in the middle between passion and commerce. Maybe the best business model is to pursue my passion, throw all of my energy into discovering what makes my art unique. These pieces may never gain a big enough market share to make money, but hopefully their quality and energy will fuel the reputation for all of my work. And at the same time, I should continue to pay attention to what is selling, as long as I don’t try to chase it. Use these sales as a litmus test for what may be connecting with an audience. Learn from that connection and try to extend that knowledge to all of my work. Hopefully by following the passion, while still listening to the market, I can find a business model that works for me, and helps me make a living in this crazy industry.

Notes: I read about Steven Pressfield in an excellent blog post by Jonathan Fields. I also just read a somewhat-related post by Seth Godin, where he discusses: “should I write blog posts that increase my traffic or that help change the way (a few) people think?”

Update 3/30/10: This article was just featured on Empty Easel.


Excellent post, Daniel! I think you are so right – when ignoring your passion, and simply going for sales “My work stalls, my creativity dries up, and I find myself neither making work nor selling.” This is a very insightful post.

Daniel – this was so darn good to read. I sent it along to others to read. And I printed it out so I could reread it often. Thanks – Juliet

Thank you – I appreciate hearing that! It took a while to get my thoughts together for this one. In my gut I knew what I wanted to say, but it was a journey to figure out how to say it.

This is such a difficult issue to come to grips with. I really enjoyed and appreciate your thoughts here. The struggle of being a professional artist is very different from the struggle of making works for oneself. Finding a way to feed your soul and your family with your art requires a whole other level of commitment and creativity. Being an artist, like the making of the art itself, is a never ending process of asking questions and looking for sollutions.

Great post. I think if you look at a lot of artists you can see an evolution of their work over a period of time, and that play or experimentation was a big part of a lot of artist’s journey. I think in the rush to be commercially successful a lot of artist’s today are too quick to develop a focus or particular style. Then they quit experimenting and work in a box the rest of the life. I am all for letting creativity take control and let the rest fall into place how it may.

To me the only honest work is that which comes out of your own passion and vision. To keep one eye on the market dilutes that vision, and the work never feels quite right. It becomes more commodity than expression. I say follow your own craziness and let the chips fall where they may. You’ll either ‘make it’ or you won’t. At the very least your work will be real.

Good post. I’m glad I discovered your blog.

Daniel, Excellent post. I have yet to find a sweet spot for myself. Perhaps it does not exist. And if it does, it must be a moving target.

When trying to create based on what sells for others, I hit walls quickly. I may start a dozen pieces I think will sell, complete four and sell one.

The good thing about creating for one’s self and not for others, one’s house will be filled with the artwork that they love — their own.

This is such a complicated issue and probably at the root of the phrase “starving artist.” 🙂

I think if in the process of creating you discover something that appeals to your targeted market more than other pieces of work, there is nothing wrong with trying to replicate it. It wasn’t created originally out of pure marketing intentions and is still a product of doing something you enjoy. However, I do wonder at what point someone would encounter burnout, where they want to move on to something different, but the market demands keep them from doing so.

You do make some great points about the difficulty in conducting any type of statistical analysis. If I look back on the prints that have sold over the past year, it is quite hard to see any patterns of any significance. I certainly have some images that have been more popular, repeat sellers over others – but I would be hard pressed to create any formulas from them.

It certainly isn’t a black and white situation. Artists trying to make a living may find that very personal works may be rewarding, but they are so personal they don’t appeal to anyone else.

Hi. Followed a link from a comment of yours on Jeffrey Friedl’s blog back here. It’s been a while, but it’s good to see what you’re up to.

Here’s my cynical take: The more difficult, abstract pieces also contribute to the selling of the more simple, mass-appeal pieces because they create a “halo effect.” People want to buy from a “serious artist,” and the more challenging pieces make you that in people’s eyes. When they see those, they become more willing to buy one of the “easier” pieces because they can tell themselves that it comes from a “serious artist.”

Zak — I don’t think you are being cynical at all – I think you nailed it right on the head. Being able to do complex, difficult work not only increases your skills, it increases people’s opinion of you as an artist — and rightly so. I know that my “simpler” work gets better and better because of all of the work I put into my more complex projects. And I believe that my collectors see my complex work, and know what I am capable of, even if they prefer the simpler pieces.

Very good article.

I believe that making art you love is also making art that will sell since your passion comes through to the viewer. For some artists it make take time but as you continue to refine your work and the art you love making continues to improve people will begin to purchase it.

I do agree it is hard to determine which art will or will not sell. Some of my images sell equally in all galleries and others more in one than another. There is one image I took in Virginia that sells considerably more in a gallery in Waynesville NC than anywhere else. And that image is quite different from what usually sells there.

There is also one image that gets oohs and aahs everywhere that rarely sells.

I find it all fascinating.

This was so great to read. I’m trying to break into the ‘fine art’ photography world but as I’m sure you know, it’s pretty saturated and just hard to make it. Sometimes – no, many times I get frustrated and want to give it up. I definitely find that the stuff I love doing doesn’t necessarily translate to what other people love. But that’s what makes me happy so I’m sticking with it.

When I first started reading this post, I was surprised at the first part that said ‘stick to the sweet spot’ – but phew! I read the next few lines. I didn’t know that Steven Pressfield had a blog – I’m definitely adding it to my list. Have you read his book, The War of Art? That’s on my to-read list as well.