Selling Yourself without Selling Out: Part 1

Blog, Featured, Visual Arts — By on August 5, 2010 at 8:00 am

Self-promotion.  It sounds like such a dirty word.  Is it sinful to promote yourself?  Is it selling out to want to earn a living off of your art?  Or, is promotion a critical component of a successful arts career?  Redeemer Presbyterian Church‘s Center for Faith & Work in New York City broached this sticky subject in Selling Yourself without Selling Out: An Introduction to Marketing and Promotion.  Led by Luann Jennings, the artists’ professional development workshop, held on Friday, July 23, 2010, used Scripture, anecdote, guest speakers musician Melanie Penn and photographer Steve Williams, and Q&A to address the concerns many Christian artists have about self-promotion.

When asked what the hardest thing about promoting one’s art–be it visual art, dance, music, acting, literary, etc.–the crowd shouted out a machine-gun round of answers:  We’re afraid of sounding cocky.  We don’t want to be prideful.  We feel like we’re manipulating people.  We don’t want to hound people.  Our work is not quite ready yet (… and might never be because we’re perfectionists).  We don’t value ourselves–or our product–to market ourselves.  We don’t want to sound desperate.  We’re afraid of rejection.  We think it’s unChristian to self-promote.

Being an artist and a Christian can feel like a bit like a double whammy–no, a triple whammy.  As artists we’re repeatedly, lovingly cautioned to have something “practical” to fall back on in case–though implied: when–our arts careers fail.  In direct correlation to that, “most of us when training to be artists didn’t learn about how to make a career out of it,” said Jennings, who comes from a theater background.  In other words, we have the technical skill and knowledge of how to create our art, but not the practical, business savvy of how to get our art into the world.  The third corollary, though, is that even artists that possess a sense of marketing and promotion feel uncomfortable actually implementing it because we don’t think it’s Christian to promote our work.

As Christians we’ve been told: be humble; put others ahead of ourselves.  We see this in the NIV translation of Philippians 2:3-4, which says:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

However, when we look at The Message translation of the same verse, it reads:

Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top.  Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead.  Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage.  Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Both translations of Philippians 2:3-4 say the same thing, but The Message translation perhaps makes it clearer that ambition isn’t necessarily negative but that we shouldn’t let ambition cause us to sin.  Our ambition shouldn’t be “selfish ambition.”  We shouldn’t step on other people or “sweet-talk” to get ahead.  Rather, and this is where a Christian perspective perhaps differs from a more worldly perspective, we should help other people in their endeavors as well.

The PowerPoint presentation slid to a Bible verse:  “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.  –2 Timothy 1:7.”  It turns out there’s a difference between humility and timidity.  Humility is grounded in a reality that we are not superior to anyone, while timidity is rooted in fear.

“It’s not arrogant to tell someone I can do this [job or creative work] better than anyone else,” Jennings said; “It’s loving.”  The obvious implication is that if we love our clients, we will give them an honest assessment of how our art can benefit them.  “Some of us are going to be right for certain needs,” said Jennings, “and some of us are not.”

In part 2 of “Selling Yourself without Selling Out” we’ll look at determining what to actually sell.

What do you find difficult about promoting your art/music/writing/etc.?  How do you promote yourself without selling out?

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  • Jordan Green says:

    This is an amazing article, Stephanie, and I hope every Christian artist reads through your series.

    I’d echo the humility factor. I’m proud of what I do, and I tell people I’m a writer, but I often preface that with, “But I don’t make much money…I was just stupid enough to keep plugging away at it.”

    On the other hand, i see people who won’t stop going on and on about how they’re writers, when they’ve actually never produced writing in their lives. I think some artistic-minded people put a very high value on authenticity, and we get mad when we see people bypassing that.

  • Emily Timbol says:

    I struggle the most with envy. Whenever I see a friend or fellow writer get published I get all defeated and depressed and feel like there’s no point in continuing to write since it will never happen for me and it’s crazy that I’m even trying. I tend to be overly dramatic as well. I’m Italian. I just get impatient and wonder what the hell I’m doing trying to pursue this as a “career.”

  • Thank you so much for this, Stephanie. This might be my biggest professional struggle. I’m passionate about what I do and I think it has value, but I HATE the feeling that I might be pestering someone or they might feel manipulated. I even feel guilty putting a link to one of my books in an article because I don’t want people to think I wrote the article just to sell them something (everyone please remember this when you read my next piece . . . ::gulp::). I also cannot stomach BS, from me or from anyone else. I think one of the reasons my attempts at self-promotion seldom bear fruit is that people can sense I feel uncomfortable doing it. I can talk about the ideas with gusto and confidence, then I come off like a wet noodle when it’s time to say, “By the way, I wrote a book about this that you might want to pick up.”

    I need serious help with this and I cannot wait to read the rest of this series. I’m shopping a book proposal now, so please hurry! ; )

  • Jo Hilder says:

    This is great, and timely, the church has been inadvertantly working against artists for a long time, and it’s time artists took the ground back again. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.

  • JamesW says:

    Everyone, artist or not, has to promote themselves, when they apply for a job, defend their master’s thesis, or any one of a million other tasks. I used to struggle with it, too, especially in job interviews. But I got over it. As is often pointed out about many biblical topics, God’s concerned about our heart. If my heart in telling someone why they should hire me, I’m not being egotistical. I’m trying to find my place in this world. Same for you, as an artist. You want to make a difference with your art. That’s a good thing. Your heart’s in the right place. God’s cool with it. That’s all that matters.

  • Being a “have not been published” much of the time I feel like Jordan’s thoughts apply directly to me. I love this series and sit eagerly waiting to glean more from the “have been published” about their strategies.

    In addition, I felt it is a great opportunity to praise all of you in BWC for encouraging me and mentoring me as I attempt to explore the wacky world of Christian writing. You have been a great source of wisdom as I watch and learn from others who have gone before me.

    To Jordan and the rest of the crew, thank you for selling yourselves without selling out. I really respect your work as a collective and I appreciate the opportunity to have known and interacted with you.

    • Jordan Green says:

      Thanks, Michael. Those words mean a lot.

      And you’re not going to be “have not been published” very long.

      That doesn’t make any sense, but you know what I mean.

    • Jordan,

      You are kind and gracious. I hope you know I’m speaking of the Christian book industry. BWC is the crowning achievement of my very nascent career. I hope you see this as a compliment. My judgment is upon myself, not upon the significance of the BWC.

      Thanks again.

  • Steph Niko says:

    Wow, thanks everyone for the positive feedback. I got a lot out of the Redeemer workshop, and I hope I’m able to report on what I learned in a way that will inspire and encourage other artists.

    The way I see it, what I write is generally intended to shed light on a subject, promote someone else’s work, and/or inspire, and therefore my writing is (hopefully) service to my readers. If I don’t promote my work, how will anyone know about it?

    Occasionally, I’ll send out long-winded e-newsletters to friends and family to update them on the this and that of my life. I feel like those are the times when I feel uncomfortable with sounding like I’m doing too much self-promotion. However, three things help:

    1) I really enjoy hearing other people’s updates and accomplishments. Unless someone is always very self-centered, I usually read their self-promotion as interesting updates on their life and work. Likewise, I don’t usually talk about my writing, so people, especially those I don’t see often, like getting a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes me. People like to feel involved in our lives.

    2) My projects and accomplishments are not my own. I always try to thank those who’ve helped me along the way. I know that if it weren’t for my parents, for example, I wouldn’t have the confidence and the education to even attempt to write for a publication. Both my mom and my dad encourage me to push myself to be the best I can be, and if it weren’t for them I’d just be writing in my diary. Also, when I announce a new art review up on Burnside, I’m simultaneously promoting the artist, the gallery, and Burnside; without them, my article wouldn’t exist.

    3) Similarly, I’m excited by other people’s projects and I try to promote their work. In my last e-newsletter I mentioned fellow BWCer Chad Gibbs’ book “God & Football,” which led to my editor at The Cathedral Voice asking if I’d write an article on the book. Now, a whole Greek Orthodox community in New York City, the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (, is aware of a Protestant author down in Alabama. And, in sharing this with you, now you are aware of an inspiring and faith-deepening Orthodox Church.

    The awesome thing about Burnside is that it’s a COLLECTIVE. We’re here to support and promote each other. More so, as a faith-based publication, ultimately the promoting of our work is not to build up our own egos and careers but is hopefully to humbly express something much more important than ourselves. I hope that this is evident in our art.

  • jo says:

    I felt the Lord gave me some things on this recently though it is long and know that isn’t always appreciated (and not judging, just acknowledging) so will give the short version (I’ll try), even as I find benefit in the whole of it.

    We can come together and promote ourselves, each other, and our work, but if Jesus is not at center-stage and He is not first and foremost promoted, we are off. Our good can be a hinderance to his Good if not found in Him. Thank God He sees our hearts. Seemed others were going along (though not sure if all bought into it at heart but I know not all did), due to a need and although I don’t claim to have known the details of the needs for all, a lack of community amongst them was a factor.

    We can promote the gift, be it a work or person, over the giver of the gift. And I am not talking about general recommendations but when it has lost its Root. Even a gift can become an idol (and not necessarily the gift’s fault)

    Now I will speak of a trend I have seen. We can start off right there but then as the value is seen in the gift we get sidetracked in promoting that over the Giver of the gift.

    Anyway, I didn’t see anything awful in this article and even saw valuable things. I just thought it was interesting that it would come up now as I been prayerfully pondering these things too as I feel the Lord recently brougt them to my attention. So, feel free to explore, just offering my portion in the mix.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • jo says:

    Oops, should have said, “A lack of community amongst them appeared to be a factor.” I’m not sure if it was but what appeared to be a factor to me. Either way, we do understand the role of community and what I find interesting is that one group had community but lacked the foudation of it, and the other appeared to have the foundation of it, but lacked the community.

    Anyway, as you can see I am still prayerfully pondering it all to have it more fine tuned. For now we know that Jesus should be forefront, even as we understand how He uses community.

    That’s it. No worries. No worries. I’m off.

    Over and out.

  • Thanks Stephanie for these thoughts! Can’t wait for the rest.

  • Mike Snow says:

    From your ‘machine-gun’ answers, the “We don’t want to hound people” probably fits best with the lingering ‘un-Christian’ feelings.

    The bigger problem seems to be that someone can have a talent for their craft but no talent, let alone desire, in salesmanship.
    And then there is the bottom line in promotion: going broke is an even bigger problem than selling out.

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