#65: Austin Kleon [Luck]
10 years as a full-time writer and stealing like an artist
Austin Kleon is the New York Times bestselling author of a trilogy of illustrated books about creativity in the digital age: Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work!, and Keep Going.
His books have been translated into dozens of languages and have sold over a million copies worldwide.
In this episode, we talk about how Newspaper Blackout led to Steal Like An Artist, when he knows it’s time to write another book, the pros and cons of self-publishing, why Austin doesn’t believe he’s business savvy, and the role of Luck in Austin’s ability to make a living as a full-time writer.
Austin Kleon is the New York Times bestselling author of a trilogy of illustrated books about creativity in the digital age: Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work!, and Keep Going.
He’s also the author of Newspaper Blackout, a collection of poems made by redacting the newspaper with a permanent marker.
His books have been translated into dozens of languages and have sold over a million copies worldwide. He’s been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, PBS Newshour, and in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
New York Magazine called his work “brilliant,” The Atlantic called him “positively one of the most interesting people on the Internet,” and The New Yorker said his poems “resurrect the newspaper when everybody else is declaring it dead.”
He speaks for organizations such as Pixar, Google, SXSW, TEDx, and The Economist. In previous lives, he worked as a librarian, a web designer, and an advertising copywriter.
click to view episode transcript
Austin Kleon 0:00
And I was thinking very intently about a trilogy because I wanted to wrap up these books. It's like I don't want to do these square books forever. I feel like this book, it's grown out of the last book. And all these books talk to each other and I wanted to wrap it up.
Jay Clouse 0:18
Welcome to creative elements, a show where we talk to your favorite creators and learn what it takes to make a living from your art and creativity. I'm your host, Jay Clouse. Let's start the show.
Hello, welcome back to another episode of Creative Elements. I want to give a big thank you to Sour Pepper and Kinetic Bear, two listeners who left a review on Apple podcasts this past week and push me past the 200 Review mark. Sour Pepper wrote, I never miss an episode. I absolutely love this show. And Kinetic Bear wrote, I don't listen to every episode. But I love how Jay breaks down the interviews. It's great to hear stories from people with so many backgrounds and industries to well, whether you listen to every episode of the show or not. Thank you for tuning into this episode here today. And thanks for leaving those ratings and reviews. Creative elements is starting to climb the charts on Apple podcasts in a meaningful way. So if you're an iPhone user, even if you listen to the show on a different app, please consider leaving a rating or review on Apple podcasts. That helps me and by extension, it helps you by producing a better and better show. You know there are just a few books in my life that were so impactful that I remember where I was when I was reading them. One of those books is Steal Like an Artist : 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon. I was sitting in an Airbnb in Austin, Texas, during South by Southwest in 2017. Which is kind of a cool coincidence because Austin lives in Austin, Texas, actually, in this book was incredible. I was three months into writing a blog post every day in less than a month away from quitting my job at a startup. I was hungry for life as a creator, but I was still very, very lost in terms of where to go next. I still had a lot of hangups and imposter syndrome, and wasn't sure if I could actually make it on my own. Steal Like an Artist with about 150 small pages of text photos and illustration helped me build my confidence ahead of taking the entrepreneurial leap. So it's really fun to share with you today's interview with the author of steal like an artist, Austin Kleon. And Austin's career as an author begins in a pretty unexpected place. A public library in Cleveland, Ohio.
Austin Kleon 2:46
The library was a stroke of really, really good luck because, you know, it didn't pay a lot. I don't even remember what it paid. But you could work 20 hours a week and have health insurance and and then do whatever you want it for the rest of the time. So to me it was like just a magic. I was like, Yes, this is wonderful. One of my bosses said being a librarian is like being a classroom teacher, a police officer, a social worker, researcher, and just all these things because you just depending on who walks through the door, at the library, your job changes from minute to minute, what I really wasn't expecting is how much the job would teach me.
Jay Clouse 3:31
We'll hear all about what that job taught Austin as an aspiring author, but by virtue of only being a 20 hour per week job, Austin had plenty of time to actually start writing. His first published book is a book of poetry called Newspaper Blackout. The book was published in 2010. And it's really an incredibly unique form of poetry, instead of writing with a blank page, often use pages from newspapers and a permanent marker to eliminate the words he didn't need. That book wasn't exactly a breakout success. But as you'll hear in the interview, it did directly lead to the creation of Austin's famous Steal Like an Artist.
Austin Kleon 4:08
See, a lot of people think Steal Like an Artist is my first book. And it's like no, actually Steal Like an Artist is a second book, and it's a second chance book. It's like, I never thought I would write another book again. So still, like an artist was like my shot at doing a real hero in my mind in quotation marks a real book, and like really going for it.
Jay Clouse 4:31
Today, Austin has published four books, including steal like an artist in 2012. Show your work in 2014 and keep going in 2019. He's been blogging and writing a newsletter for close to two decades, and build an audience of hundreds of 1000s of followers across Twitter and Instagram. So in this episode, we talk about how Newspaper Blackout lead to Steal Like an Artist. When he knows it's time to write another book. The pros and cons of self publishing why Austin does believe he's business savvy, in the role of luck in Austin's ability to make a living as a full time writer, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode. As you listen, you can find me on Twitter or Instagram @JayClouse tag me, say hello. And let me know that you're listening. And if you're not already in our listeners community on Facebook, I'd love for you to join. And now, let's talk with Austin.
Austin Kleon 5:28
It's weird, when you talk to librarians, librarians get very defensive. Real librarians have library degrees, master's degrees. And so if you don't have a master's degree, you're not a real librarian in the eyes of a lot of librarians even though you do pretty much the same work when you're working the reference desk. But the reference desk was this wonderful place for me to be because I suddenly all of a sudden, I'd never worked in a bookstore. I'd never really paid attention. I always want to become a writer, but I never really paid attention to what people read.
Jay Clouse 6:02
Interesting. Okay. And this is interesting. Yeah,
Austin Kleon 6:03
Yeah. And so when you work in a suburban American Public Library, I mean, you chase down enough Danielle Steele and James Patterson novels to realize, wait a minute, like books, do things for people like books on the whole people read because they want it or want it to be entertaining or useful. And if you could be both, that's even better. So, you know, a lot of my job at the library was just, you know, it was also helping people, it was also thinking like about what people need, and how I can get it for them. And it was just a really formative experience. I'm not gonna say I was a good librarian, or I was a good employee. But that job taught me a ton. And the beautiful thing about the job again, 20 hours a week, three, three days a week, I think, is when I was working. So the rest of the time, I was hanging out in the apartment trying to write or blog. And that's when I came up with those with those newspaper blackout poems that you mentioned.
Jay Clouse 7:09
So it sounds like you sought out this job, or at least saw the opportunity for this job to give you the time and space to explore your other interests. It wasn't it wasn't just like, I'm lazy, I only want to work 20 hours it was I want to preserve some of my time to do some of these things.
Austin Kleon 7:22
No, because I had a wonderful professor named Steven Bower at Miami. And he told me, Look, if you want to be a writer, don't go to grad school right away. Because a lot of writers they've only been to school, just like a lot of American kids, they've only been to school. So they've never been out in the world. They've never had like an actual, they've never lived outside of school. And so Steven told me, he's like, if you want to be a writer, you should not go to grad school, don't do what your mom wants you to do. Go, just get a job and write and see what happens. And it was the best advice that you know anybody at that point have given me because when you're out on your butt, outside of college, all of a sudden, you don't have a built in audience anymore. You don't you know, when you're in college, it's like your professors pay paid to read your writing. And your classmates are paying to read your writing.
Jay Clouse 7:23
Austin Kleon 7:23
And it's this wonderful artificial environment, but it is artificial. And then you get out of college and realize nobody gives a crap what you write about. And that's terrifying. But it's also liberating, because the minute I got out of college, all of a sudden, I realized, nobody's watching anyway. So I got to do what's genuinely interesting to me. And that's when those weird poems showed up. Because at the time, it's like, no one would have taken me seriously if I had showed up to creative writing class with those, you know, but I put them on a blog, and all of a sudden, people like, Oh, these are kind of interesting.
Jay Clouse 8:51
I'm gonna get to that in a second. But what I think is interesting about this advice and your experience with it, I would have assumed that the benefit of going getting the job as opposed to staying in school is that you're starting to expand your experience and actually understand what the world is like versus this kind of artificial environment of the university. Did you? Did you see that too? Or is that secondary to what you're saying?
Austin Kleon 9:10
Well, yeah, absolutely. I mean, you're, you're out in the world, you're paying bills, you're taking walks, you're looking, you're seeing babies and old people. You know, no one ever talks about that when you're in college, or when you're in grad school, or when I'm when do you ever see a baby or an old person? It's just all these like, you know, I mean, like, in college, it's mostly 18 to 22 year olds, talking about a bubble. You know, it's this other than your professors. And you know, that's if you have a very, you know, you live in a dorm and you're whatever, but for me when I, it was the first time I ever had my own apartment, and you know, I was living with my girlfriend or living in Cin at the time, you know, and so it was like, we took these great walks and like Harvey Pekar lived in my neighborhood. And I'd see him out with Joyce and like, there was a bookstore around I'm a corner. And just there was a big, like almost a nursing home, not a nursing. It was like a retirement community type building right across the street from us. So there'd be all these old like Russian people hanging outin Cleveland. And like, I used to sit on my balcony and draw people, you know, it's just like being out in the world. And Cleveland is a great city for people watching. I mean, there's just freaks and PL people all over, you know, in a way, I guess Cleveland was my New York City. You know, the end, the New York City versus MFA discussion with writers, Cleveland was both for me, it was somewhere in the middle.
Jay Clouse 10:38
I read in a conversation you had with somebody at the discontent, I think this is like 2014. You mentioned that it took moving to Texas for people to take your poetry Seriously, though, for some reason, when you went to Texas, it was a different story. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Austin Kleon 10:53
Yeah, there was something about if you said a poet, and Cleveland is blacking out the newspaper, it just felt sort of pure like and but when it when Morning Edition was like a poet in Texas is black afternoon. It Texas has this mythology that that Cleveland doesn't have you know, Texas, Texas brings an image to your head no matter what, like everyone around the world has an image of Texas. And if you're a poet, you're interested in images, and you're, you know, the power of images. And so, you know, I don't think I lived in Texas six months before NPR was calling me a Texas poet, which was just insane to me, because it was nothing. I never in my wildest dreams thought of myself as being a Texan anything. Well, not back then anyway, that was like 15 years ago. So there's a certain mythology that comes with the place that is very valuable that you can borrow? that I don't think is, you know, because and what's I mean, what's really funny with me is that people will hear my Guang and my voice and they'll think it's a Texas accent, when it's actually a Southern Ohio. So I dont know, but there was something weird about the minute I left, it was like, all of a sudden, okay, there's this new, you can be this new thing now, whether you want to or not?
Jay Clouse 12:22
Well, timing is kind of fickle. Because Do you think if you would have moved to Texas a year sooner, with this whole thing of worked out in the same way? You know, like, were you ready for this type of thing? Or was the work at that degree? Or was this a confluence of circumstances?
Austin Kleon 12:39
Well, it's interesting with the poems, you know, people don't really asked me that much about the poems anymore, because I've got this other trilogy. And so sometimes people forget that that book exists newspaper blackout, the poems that was funny, I only did like a dozen of them, and then I quit for a year. And then someone found that batch and blogged about it, you know, this is like, 2007, back when people were still reading blogs, you know, Google Reader was still around and all that. So I immediately was like, oh, people like this, I should do more of these. So it was never like, you know, it was always sort of like, reacting to how people are reacting, you know, and so, yeah, but Timing is everything. I mean, I think about that with in terms of, you know, we moved to Austin in 2007. That's a great time to move to Austin, because if you come any later than that, you know, it was already on the upswing, but about 2010 things just start blowing open in a way that's just really strange and striking. And, but yeah, it was just a great time to make that move. And I I just continue to think contextually, if I was, you know, 10 years later, what would have happened? I don't know what I've been a Tik Toker. I don't you know what I mean, it's it's mind blowing to think about it is interesting, because my blog is 15 years old now, or more than that. 17 years old. been doing it since 2005. So yeah, I guess it's like 16 years old. And I think now it's still around. I mean, that's the funny thing about blogs is they last forever if you keep them up, but it is weird. It's like contextually, what is it about timing and luck? You know, it's a big deal. You can't plan for it. The only thing you can do is be ready for it. You just when the wave comes in, you serve it.
Jay Clouse 14:39
After a quick break. Austin and I talked about the keynote he gave at a community college that led to steal like an artist and changed his life forever. right after this.
Hey, welcome back.
I started this conversation talking about Newspaper Blackout because even though it's not Austin's most popular book, it played a seminal role. In a pivotal moment in Austin's life, a speaking opportunity at a community college in New York.
Austin Kleon 15:06
Auden had it nailed in the 50s. He said, a poet can always make more money talking about writing poetry than they can actually write poetry. So the thing that happened was newspaper blackout came out. And then off of that, you know, people were asking me to give talks here and there, and Broome Community College, bless them forever. It's part of the SUMY system, and it's up in upstate, they were looking for a convocation speaker. And I hadn't done a lot of speaking up until that point. So I said, Well, what do you pay your speakers? And they said this much? And I said, Well, I'll do it for 1000 less. That's not how you know, it's not how you negotiate at all. You know, I'm 20. I don't know 20. I'm not very old this point. And I didn't have like a speaker's bureau or anything. I didn't know what I was doing. I had a, I was a web designer. You know, at this point. At this point, I was working for the state of Texas. I was working at UT at the School of Law. And they wanted a convocation speaker. In my head for some reason, I thought that meant a commencement speaker, like go out into the world children. So I was like, sort of trying to come up with this talk that I could use, but I was like 27, or 26. At the time, these kids were probably 22. You know, so it's like, what can I be stoked on these, you know, these students? It's just absurd. And they wanted a title for the talk. And I said, Oh, it's called. I saw I looked at my blog, I was like, what's the most interesting thing I've written recently, it's called How to Steal Like an Artist. That's what it's called. And I didn't have it written or anything. Like, that sounds good. But I had this blog post that was like, all these quotes about artists talking about stealing. And then I went on this walk with my wife, and I said, you know, what do I say to these people that aren't that much younger than me? And she said, Well, the best talk I ever heard at school, was this lady got up in front of our class, and she just had a list of 10 things that she wish she had known when she was a student. I said, that's great. I'll steal that. And that's where the talk came from. The talk went over well, but you know, me being a sort of old millennial, right on the edge of, you know, I was born in 83. So it's like, I have a little bit at digital native to me, but not terribly. So it's kind of like, well, what happens to all this material after I give this talk that no one recorded? And so I thought, well, it would make a really cool blog post. And that's really the thing I posted the How to Steal Like an Artist blog post. And that went viral. And this is 2011. And it became clear, like, immediately, because I started hearing from editors is like, this is your next book. Even though you put this book out, there was a poetry book that sold okay, but like, didn't really blow any doors down. But this is like the new one. So you get a second chance.
Jay Clouse 18:08
This idea of being a second chance, was this the language that was told to you by the publisher?
Austin Kleon 18:13
No, no, no, no, no, that was just in the back of my head. You know, for the publisher, it's all. Publishers just think, is it going to be a good book or not? You know, I mean, it's a funny thing, my agent would hate it if I told this story, but which makes it even more fun to tell. But you know, Ted, my agent, there was a point after newspaper blackout came out that I wrote him an email and I said, I just realized that I really need an agent. You know, like, it would be good to have an agent, I realized that now. And he sent me this email back that was pleasant, but he was like, Look, kid, I make money by selling books. So when you got you better hope this book that you do on your own sells well. And if you got another idea for a book, then come see me. Right. So that was like, right after Newspaper Blackout came out? Well, I came to him when it was time to sell steal like an artist to publishers. So it was never the second but it almost feels like I don't know, like a bands like Nirvana puts out Bleach and then never minds the like, the major label, even though that doesn't really work because my publisher workman's independent, but it did feel like okay, this is the pop shot. This is like, this is the chance to do a book that might have a bigger audience than then the poetry book.
Jay Clouse 19:32
Well, I kind of blew past this. You know, a lot of people come on the show. They've self published books, some of them have gone through a publisher and they talk about it being like a miserably difficult experience to get to the point where someone says, Okay, we'll publish your book. Yeah, you publish Newspaper Blackout through a publisher. How did that happen?
Austin Kleon 19:48
That was just an editor that was a year younger than me. Harper Perennial, Amy Kaplan, who she's got a different name now. She said, Have you ever thought about a book I said, hell yeah, I thought about a book, let's do it, they sent me a contract, which, you know, really, in hindsight, I should have never signed. But you know, I, my, my mother in law's a lawyer, and she looked over it and it seemed fine. You know, it's like, cuz, you know, it's a poetry book. And the stakes seem very low. But I, my feeling was always with books, when people want to book from you, they'll they'll tell you, you know that that's always how I felt about it was like, it's much easier to be wanted than to try to sell something fresh or new. Now, you know, every writer now has the ability to grow an audience before they ever publish a book. But the thing is, is that you want an audience, if you want to self publish, you got to have an audience. And if you want to publish with a publisher, you need to have an audience. You know, it's kind of like, your, I think the thing that I tell people now is, it's like, it's both terrifying, and freeing the fact that you always run your own show. And it's always in your core, you are always the one doing the work. You know, I've been a published professional author for a decade now. And nobody ever comes to you and says, We're gonna do it for your kid, don't worry, we're gonna make your stuff that just doesn't happen. I mean, maybe it happens to like, a pop singer, something, you know, but it's never going to happen. Every person you see, that's like a big deal. There's just all this work that you don't see that happened before that, where they were making things happen for themselves. You know, I thought when I was younger, I'm such a genius. I'm so talented, someone will just come out of the woodwork and say bold. Here you go, kid. You know, I just I just had that stupid, wishful thinking. But you know, my agent has three things that he tells writers that I think are really, really, it's really, really good advice, I try to pass on, one, get famous first. And that sounds horrible, and terrible. But really what he's talking fame is just more people knowing you than, you know, people. So fame can be a tiny fame too. So that's just getting known in your field, like get known for something that's, I would actually change it from getting famous, I'd say get known for something, you know, first, Ted second. My second piece of advice is all publishing is self publishing. So whether you're self publishing, or whether you're going with the big five or Big Four, now, publisher, you are the one that cares the most about your work. And you're always going to be the one that pushes it and sells it and gets out in the world the best. And then three, the thing that Ted says that I think is even more true today than it was when he was saying 10 years ago is you're really CEO of your own multimedia empire to only think in terms of books is very limiting now, because you have these tools available to you now where you can just do whatever I mean, you've got the access to media now is stunning, you know, so it really becomes about what you want to do. But I always thought those three pieces of advice were really good. But I think the major thing is like don't wait on anybody. No one's going to come and night you, you know, no one's going to get out the sword and put it on both shoulders and say I knight thee you're in the club, you know, and by the time it feels like you're in the club, you don't need to be in the club. You know what I mean? So it's just so I'm always with people. I always think that young people need to get sort of the best of punk rock. earliest they can not they're like, oh Sal out there spit on us punk rock, but the real sort of the kind of punk rock that Michael Azur ad writes about in our band could be your life. These bands that got in the van, and they toured and they built audiences city by city, and they got addresses and built their mailing list. You know, that kind of great American. You know, it's the best of America punk to me, like, the band on the road. That's like, sort of the best of the American dream, you know, like building your audience slowly.
Jay Clouse 24:26
Yeah. I feel like there's like a, there's a lot of analogs, from music to all the online greeter stuff we talked about today, because they were just out there doing it going on the road, building this mailing list, every time they went to the city, it just got a little bit bigger. And that's not that different than what we're doing now. It's just instead of cities you have maybe internet communities, maybe you have these small pockets of culture. It's really about the same.
Austin Kleon 24:52
One newsletter subscriber at a time. Somebody tells their friend or his tweets that or whatever, you know, that musics interesting for me, I'm sort of a, I'm sort of a want to be, you know, music is what got me through my teenage years, I realized very early on, it wasn't going to be the lifestyle for me I wasn't going to be okay with just like being on the road and trying to entertain people, which is hilarious now because half of my job is getting up on the stage and performing for people. But music has always been an influence. And music is interesting, because musicians are always the kind of canaries in the coal mine. As far as media goes, anything bad that's going to happen will happen to musicians first. And it was true of streaming. It was well it was true of digital. It was true of Napster and all that. It was true of streaming. And it was trueThe pandemic. Musicians are really the artists, they're sort of, I can't think of another art form that's really more on the edge of whatever the world is doing. And they'll do it to them first.
Jay Clouse 26:00
Yeah, yeah. I thought when we started to see holograms of Tupac at Coachella, I was like, this is this is next.
Austin Kleon 26:08
Well isTupac. It's Gemini season right now. No one this layer, but you know, yeah, it's true. It's like, the indignities that are put upon the passed away musician.
Jay Clouse 26:19
Your three rules from Ted, if you believe them to be true, which it sounds like you do that number two rule of everybody is self publishing. What is the litmus test now for someone to decide if they should go with a traditional publisher? If they have the opportunity?
Austin Kleon 26:34
Oh, great question. I think it has a lot to do with business goals. It just depends. It depends completely on the person depends on what kind of stuff you're writing. You know, for me, my books do really well by the cash register, at the paper source or the, you know, Urban Outfitters, or wherever. Now, these books have taken a hit during the pandemic, because nobody's in person anymore. Yeah, so those books take a little bit of a hit. But, you know, like, I'm reading a book right now on how to take better notes. And I forget the guy's name. But it's like, that's a very niche.
Jay Clouse 27:18
Austin Kleon 27:18
Thing that most publishers probably like, take better notes. What is the you know, whatever, I'm sure this guy's probably sold a million copies, he's probably made of fortune. The thing about self publishing that I try to remind people is that it exists on a very wide economic spectrum. So like, for example, my two self publishing heroes are on one side, a guy named John Porcellino. And on the other side is a guy named Edward Tufte. Now John Porcellino has been doing this scene called King-Cat for 30 years, I think King-Cat since like, 19, you can tell I'm not good. It's late afternoon. My math skills are bad. But John's been doing this scene for 30 years at least it's it's it's one of the greatest American comics. And in my opinion, John's never gotten rich off of it. He, you know, started when he's a kid, it's so got that punk buddha, energy to it. But john, now I think he, he just started a Patreon. And I think he's just starting to be able to save enough to have a reasonable, like, lower middle class. I mean, this is just from what I've seen of him and seen of his work. He's just starting to be able to like kind of have a decent living through Patreon and his subscribers to King-Cat. So that's like one side of the economic spectrum. On the other side is someone like Edward Tufte. Edward Tufte. He was statistician at Yale. Nobody wants to publish his book called The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Can you imagine no one wanted to publish that book. So he self published it out of his garage, took out a second mortgage on his house. Ed sold like 1.5 million copies of these books, they retail for $40. So you do the math, even if there's half I mean, this guy's made Yeah, he's made $40 $50 million. If you do the math off of of self publishing these books and he towards like the Grateful Dead, you know, he's one of those guys. He goes around with a sound system. He sets up in a Hilton ballroom, 500 people come and they sell, you know, 300 bucks ahead, and everybody gets books and he just goes around does that and makes a killing too you know, meanwhile, John's at like a comic con, hand selling King-Cat, you know, so like, both these dudes to me are our punk. You know, like they're both. They have that DIY punk spirit that the Grateful Dead had to You know, they're doing it, they're just doing it themselves, you know. But yeah, I don't have a huge opinion. I mean, the publisher thing, to me, it's still about having the muscle of distribution and getting it everywhere. And of course, the publisher takes a little bit of the risk with the printing and stuff, but that with on demand and stuff, it's changing a lot. I mean, it'll be interesting to see where you know, what happens with my next book, you know, whether I do some self publishing experiments or not, it's still worth it for me to go with a major publisher. But I have friends that say, I'm stupid, you know, I have friends who say, why would why at this point, wouldn't you self publish something, and sell it for 20 bucks and keep 10 and make a killing. But for me, it's about just being patient. I'm planning on doing this for a very long time. And so I'm just sort of patient and to be perfectly honest, I'm not very business savvy. I mean, I'm number savvy. But I'm not really interested in being a business person, which has always been a problem for me. You know, I didn't get into this. Like, if I wanted to make money, I would have gone to business school.
Jay Clouse 31:13
And research in this reading your interviews, listening to interviews, like it's clear, you are pretty business savvy, whether you're putting it into motion or not, like you understand the levers to pull, you know, sure. And something that when I project, the lifestyle of authors, into my mind, when I think the lifestyle, the tension, I feel is this lifestyle be great, because it feels like, you just get to revel in the work for months or years, you put it out, and hopefully it's successful. But you don't have to be on this treadmill that it feels like I'm on as a digital creator all the time, you know, where it's like, publishing something super high quality every week. But I may be projecting and I'd love to hear what you think the lifestyle of most writers and authors is today, if that's a trade off, that actually exists.
Austin Kleon 32:04
I couldn't speak. I don't know that many. I mean, and they all have different business models. I mean, some writers are our professors. You know, they are they have day jobs. There are very few people who can really pull off being a full time writer. So I don't really lifestyle. Oh, that's an interesting word. I mean, it's funny that you say the treadmill because I mean, there is a sort of, there is a dailiness and a week, weekly Enos to what I do, just because there's, there's output every day. And then there's a weekly newsletter, which is a bit the big heart of what I do these days. But yeah, there's, there's not, there's not a whole lot of pressure. I mean, there's pressure, but most of it is internal. But for me, it's just just like, I mean, my wife puts it this way. She's like, you just never, people look at you. And they say, Oh, that must be really nice. But like, you're never take a break. She's like you, everything is copy, as you know, nor airfrance said every single moment of your day is you're thinking of gear, you're taking notes. SRA, you know, so you just never off. The way I think about it is everything I do with my career right now, I probably do anyway for free. You know, so it's kind of like, I mean, the heart of what I do. I mean, I wouldn't be like, you know, I might not do I wouldn't speak for free. I wouldn't do client work for free. I wouldn't. You know, there's a lot of things I wouldn't do for free, but essentially, think about the world write things down and share them with people. Yeah, I would probably do that no matter what. I was getting paid for it. So the other thing is, though, there's you know, a lot of people have asked me like, we do like a money book, will you do like a creative money book or whatever? I'm like, Oh, no. I can't speak to that. Yeah, that's completely dependent on who you are. And I think, for me, the old fashioned The thing about money for me, money is always about the freedom to do more work for the artist. It's funny that Walt Disney is usually quoted as saying this, but you know, he's like, we don't make movies to make money we make we make money to make more movies. And I mean, that's certainly not I don't think that's the Disney those now, but, you know, I mean, we make, we make movies to make a lot of money. But um, for me, that's sort of the that's sort of the thing. It's like the money is just to sort of float the life and keep being able to do what you're doing. But there are so many people I mean, you know, there's so many more people you can talk to, there's so much more savvy than me. The one thing I think is really misunderstood in this culture is we glorify people with money and that's bad. Cuz a lot of those guys, I mean, like today, it just came out, you know, there was a big report on how Bezos and Musk and all those dorks, they don't pay taxes, you know, I mean, they don't they don't pay their fair share, you know, whatever, there's that. But the other thing that I've noticed is unless you have a trust fund, or your parents have given you money or something, people who make money like they will card out, I mean, like, you got to really want to make money by cuts, people aren't just handing out money. I think people have this idea that it's like, oh, it's like, there's this tension in American life where it's like, you know, people who hustle and get money. I mean, they're working hard. On the other hand, it's nothing too. It's the old Dorothy Parker line, you know, if you want to know what God thinks about money, look at who he's given it to, you know, there's, and there's privilege, and there's all sorts of issues around it. But I would say that, you know, on the whole, most of the people I know, who are just tremendously successful, they just they bust ass. And I don't I'm, I'm fundamentally a lazy person. You know, I'm, I'm fundamentally kind of like, I don't want to work hard. What I do, though, is not work. I think it was Leonard Wolf that said, Yeah, you do a little bit, but you do it all the time. For me, it's like, I do these little chunks every day. And then those little chunks, they they grow into something big over time.
Jay Clouse 36:31
Did the pandemic change the way you think about speaking opportunities.
Austin Kleon 36:35
The pandemic has been awesome for speaking. The reason is, with my clients, we say, here's what it costs. Well, it's not a pandemic, you get it half off during the pandemic, over zoom. And people have been like, Well, that seems reasonable. That's great. We've been doing like, and we get to do that. There's all this opportunity to make speaking kind of cool. It's kind of fun, you know, cuz usually I show up, and I'll do my big show, and I'll have my slides. And it's, you know, keynote II, I'm up on stage, whatever. But here, it's like, it's almost like a studio visit in a weird way. And there's all this opportunity for face to face q&a. And so I actually think the speaking has been incredible. During the pandemic, I've had a lot of fun. And I hope that my clients feel like they've gotten something. Most people their reactions been really good, but it's been great for me. I mean, I love not, I thought I was gonna miss travel. My kids are still young enough that I just don't I mean, I'd love to get away from them for a while. But you know, I mean, I don't really miss getting on an airplane. Yeah, everything else has been terrible. But that's been it's been fine.
Jay Clouse 37:50
Well sounds like.
Austin Kleon 37:51
Some people, there's people I could talk to on the screen.
Jay Clouse 37:54
I asked the question because I had assumed with like the major drivers, your business being book sales and speaking, I assume that during the pandemic speaking got wiped out. And so I was, I was thinking that speaking was less resilient. It sounds like you're telling me that speaking was as resilient if not more resilient than book sales are in pandemic?
Austin Kleon 38:12
Well, I think that I have been, I've always, I've never been that popular speaker. I think I'm a good speaker, I think, you know, for people who are looking for the kind of message that I bring, I enjoy it. I like being on stage, it doesn't take a lot out of me. But I've never been like pulling in six figures for example off my speaking I just have never done that there are other guys make a million dollars a year doing speaking. So I've just never been that because I'm not like a corporate guy. Like if I could, if I could shine up and show up at Purina or whatever, you know, wherever whatever corporation it is, if I was more corporate friendly, you know, I could be making a bigger living.
Jay Clouse 38:57
Yeah, cuz you could do that. That is that's not like out of the realm of possibility. You could say like, here's how you can build and leverage the creative muscle within your company.
Austin Kleon 39:04
I just call it innovation. I if you call it innovation, instead of creativity, you can charge three times as much by I don't I like, I just like going at my own pace. And I just continue to feel like if I keep doing good work, and I keep building my audience, and yeah, maybe you'll go speak it, whatever but I love my clients. I mean, like, it's so nice to have clients that they come to you and they want you he don't feel like you have to prove anything he just bring him the good stuff. You know that to me is really fun. But my my natural audience is always like, like creative companies. I'm great at you know, or or I've done I one of my favorite gigs of all time was I did employee Appreciation Day at like a public library. and South Carolina like that was that was one of my favorite gigs of all time, you know, stuff like that. I did get to get PBS, which was a dream, because those people are awesome. And my kids, you know, I got to meet the people who do like PBS Kids and stuff like that. So you know, it's fun. But yeah, it's been interesting during the pandemic, I mean, sure, I'd love to get out on the road again. But it's been cool. We've also my agent, and I have gotten very flexible, and we just keep it dirt simple. Now, we're just like, this is what it costs. You want it? And I think people really respond to that, because a lot of time in business now, you know, like, let's get on a phone call and discuss our needs and blah, blah, it's like, no, this is what it costs. And if you want it, you can have it and then we'll do all the talk, talk about it. But like, this is what it is, this is what we offer. And this is what you can have it for. It's just a nice, it's, it's simplified. I've been enjoying it.
Jay Clouse 40:55
I think it takes a lot of pressure off the sales too, because you don't go to a Starbucks. And they say like, Well, let me say a proposal for how much this macchiato is going to be.
Austin Kleon 41:01
I've pushed my agent to be like, why don't we just put a buy button up on the on the on the what? No, you can't do that. You got to have me taught you those, like, just put a Buy button, this is a cost hit the button, and then you get this talk. And he's like, No, you can't do that. I'm like, I don't know, we could do it. And then I'm like, I don't want to do that.
Jay Clouse 41:21
When we come back, Austin and I talked about when he knows it's time to write another book. And a little bit later, we talked about his future plans and why he doesn't pursue other opportunities outside of writing. So stick around, and we'll be right back. Hey, welcome back to my conversation with Austin Kleon. One Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work achieved commercial success. I wondered if Austin felt pressure either internally or from his publisher to continue to publish a book every couple of years. He didn't publish keep going until 2019. So was he driven by a timeline? Or was he driven by an idea? How did he know when it was time to write a new book?
Austin Kleon 42:01
Well, that's a great question. I mean, I look around. There's a lot of writers that shouldn't put out as many books as they do. I mean, we can be clear and real about that. And then there's a me who like, I should get off my ass, and do another book.
Jay Clouse 42:14
Well, you know, I think about like, sequels to movies, and where it's like this, but this movie wasn't very good, but it still made money. So you're incentivized to do and I think a lot of writers are in the same camp.
Austin Kleon 42:23
I don't do a book unless I have something to say that lets you know, I really mean that. I mean, all of my books came out of feeling like there was a there was a reason for them to exist. And the reason that keep going didn't come came out five years after show your work. I was lost. I mean, part of it is that kids, I mean, my oldest son, Owen is the same age is Steal Like an Artist. He's like eight, six months younger than Steal Like an Artist. So he got here. And then I wrote show your work. A lot of that when he was taking naps, which was horrible. Like being a young dad, trying to write that book, that book is interesting, because it's had a second life recently because of the pandemic because people are trying to figure out how do I grow an audience, just being at home and show your work is like a manual. But that book was insanely painful for me to write. It was a sequel to a successful book. And so when show your work came out, I just was like, I just don't even know if I even want to do this anymore. I this is too. It's too easy to make our blog and give talks and books are too hard, you know. So keep going came Finally, when I just sort of needed to read that book. It was clear I needed to do another book had been long enough. Sure. But like I need to read keep going keep going. I wrote at a time that I was bottomed out the way I was bottomed out the way I think a lot of people got bombed out by the pandemic, but the pandemic felt very familiar to me, because I felt like I had already been there and like late 2016 that was kind of already in what way? Well, to me the 2016 election in the tone of the country. It really felt like okay, this is over like America. This is just America has fallen apart like culturally
Jay Clouse 44:29
It wasn't like professional...
Austin Kleon 44:30
Well, it was both it was both it was it was the election felt to me like the it was like watching a culture in decline. Just the the way that all unfolded. And then, you know, career wise, it just felt I've just felt like I was hollowed out. So I was like what am I gonna do and keep going was really the result of me. Just reading. I found the right books to read. I found the right people. That is the thing about reading Is, everybody in this is not an original idea. Very few of mine are, you know, every everything you're going through, there's somebody who's written about it, you know, pretty much anything you're going through even now, you know, even as crazy as everything is there's people have been writing about the end of the world since the world began. Like, there's always something to read. And I got lucky with my reading, and found a new habit, I started writing way more regularly, I started like a daily journal. And I started blogging again, I kind of quit blogging for a while, because I thought, I'm a fancy author, I shouldn't like just blog, I have to write essays on medium or whatever. I thought, you know, whatever. And then someone asked me to give a talk in San Francisco, this bond conference. And I said, I'll do the talk, you got to put me on last. I got to go last I got to be the closer that I'll do the talk. But you got to put me as the closer because I got the perfect thing for you. And then I wrote the how to keep going talk. And then that became the book, in a way keep going was a return to Steal Like an Artist. Show Your Work was very self consciously trying to be a book, even to the point where I was doing a little bit more of the Malcolm Gladwell type of like, let me tell you a story. And then a lesson and then a story, a study and then a lesson. Infinite repeat. You know, I was like trying to Okay, well, let me write a real book now, keep going was very much like Last Crusade, it was like, you know, you had Raiders of the Lost Ark would have been Steal Like an Artist, Temple of Doom that show your work as my Temple of Doom. Not that it's miserable to watch, but it was miserable to make. And then Last Crusade is like, hey, let's go back to essentially what worked before with a new, you know, new stuff. And I was thinking very intently about a trilogy, because I wanted to wrap up these books. It's like, I don't want to do these square books forever. I want. I feel like this book, it's grown out of the last book. And all these books talk to each other. And I wanted to wrap it up. And so keep going. I was like, very, very conscious of it being a trilogy of it being the last book in a trilogy. Well, what
Jay Clouse 47:26
Well, what is the future of the Austin Kleon creative empire here? What are you excited about working towards now that the trilogy is wrapped?
Austin Kleon 47:34
Well, it's weird, I want to look forward, but the thing I'm doing now is Steal Like an Artist 10th anniversary is coming up. So I'm actually writing a new afterword for the book, and I'm doing some of the design work for the for the, it's, it's gonna be fun. We're working on something I can't talk about right now. But it's gonna be in a new format, which is going to be really fun. And then, then, you know, I, I am very torn about the newsletter world right now. I have this newsletter that I've been doing since 2013. That I love, it's the heart of what I do. there's part of me that wants to do a paid tier once my fan, you know, if my fans want to hear from me, do some sort of illustrated essay each week that, you know, and I'm sort of excited at that idea. But I'm also I feel like everyone's getting the fatigue, it's like, people are really starting to be like, how many sub stacks can i subscribe? You know, and so the thing I'm working very hard on is the next book. The next book is just it's too raw to even talk about right now. But every artist deals with this, my audience loves me for a very particular thing. I'm interested in this other thing that's over here. So there are choices as an artist, you can figure out if there's a middle ground where you could bring them over with you, you can't pull everybody over this place that you're interested in. You know, I remember questlove of the route saying one time, we just lose half of our audience, every every album, you know, when they were doing albums, they just knew they were going to lose half their audience because they were going to chase after this thing. You know, the one the one thing I'm feel really good about as a as a writer is that my output, I can do whatever I want on a daily basis. If I want to make art, I make art and put it online people are like, Oh, that's cool. And then I can use it in a blog post or whatever it is. Books are gonna have long lives, hopefully. So you got to be a little bit more strategic about books. It's really funny because some people write books are like, well, if I write a book about no one will ask me about it anymore. It's like that's actually the opposite. If you write a good book about something, you can be talking about it for five years. So like you got to figure out what you want to think about for two to five years or whatever. And that's the book you have to do. So some people really like writing and really like writing books? I'm not one of them. I love one either writer, you said you wanted to be a writer? Yeah, yeah, I wanted to be what I, what I realized in hindsight is that I wanted output, I want an expression, I wanted output, I wanted a platform, writing books, at least the way that I've had to do is a pain in the ass. I don't like the whole process. And there are people who talk to me about how publishing I'm like, Yeah, it does sound pretty good. I don't like having to get people on board with vision. That's true of any artists who needs external machinery. I mean, like Steven Soderbergh can't just show up and be like, I want to do this movie about whatever. And they're like, sure, here's 20 million, you know, whatever, everybody's sales. If you're not just a painter, or collage artist or something, there's always, if you need any kind of machinery, or distribution with your work, you're always going to be selling somebody on it, you know, and so you got to get comfortable with that, right? When books are slow, the process is very slow, and painful for me. So I don't want to dissuade people who are listening, if you want to be writers. Maybe I'm just a grumpy old person.
Jay Clouse 51:23
But you hear the quote that painters like to paint writers like to have written?
Austin Kleon 51:27
Yeah, yeah, that's probably I mean, you know, I love write writing is there's so many different kinds of writing, that is the thing that people don't talk about enough. There's writing books, which is a very particular kind of writing. And then there's just there's writing tweets, there's writing a journal there is writing a blog post, they're completely different things. And they have different kinds of energies. You know, for me, books just mean too much to me, I love to read so much. And my life is books. And I love them too much to put out a bad one. I can't let my I it's too It means too much to me. And so the stakes are very, very high. For me personally, and, and particularly now that I've gotten old enough that I feel like I have a certain skill set. I mean, I'm not the best writer, I'm not the best book designer, I'm not the best Illustrator. But like, as far as people who do those things, like, I feel like I'm pretty good now. And so there's a you want to challenge yourself. But you know, it's slow, it can be painful. It ain't like getting up in front of a comedy club, and you tell a joke, and somebody laughs or they don't get out. It's like you do this thing. And then you got to wait until it's published and see how people react to it. You know, it's like, it's just, it doesn't have the feedback loop of even doing like a weekly podcast or something. Right? You know, maybe we're coming back around to that question you asked earlier, what's it like to do something that's, you know, books versus like something like a podcast, it's like, while the feedback loop is so much bigger and longer, you can get lost a lot quicker. You know, you can you can really lose yourself in that in that loop. Especially if you stay out of it for a while. Like I should always start a new book right after I do the last one. Because if I sit too long, it's like, I don't want to do a book. Well, I've had to do that. But I love books. I mean, I love I love it. I mean, they're they're the heart of my life. And so I just take them really seriously.
Jay Clouse 53:30
Before I let Austin go, I had to ask him why at this point, he doesn't expand into other mediums or digital products with for successful books, several keynotes that he's prepared in an engaged audience, it seems like he could have a ton of optionality into things like courses, merchandise, workshops, and more.
Austin Kleon 53:50
I'm one of those guys who has read too much Henry David Thoreau, and I believe that every job you take on cost something. So to do business costs you something. And every, you know, people are always all the time. They're like, why don't you sell merch? Because it will cost me time. Why don't you do online courses, because it would cost me something all the time. There's always a cost to doing business. And it's very easy when you build an audience up to spend all your time doing things that are lucrative that you don't want to do. And so it's it's finding that balance of either finding the right crew, the people, the creative people I've seen that have been the most successful, they usually find like a business partner, or they find like a crew that can help them. I'm not interested in being a one's boss. I'm just not. That doesn't sound fun to me. I just want to do what I want to do all day and that's why I'm not living in Malibu but you know, it's just I just I like doing what I do. And it's not necessarily the most lucrative thing. But philosophically, I like to keep my overhead low, I'm married to a woman who has the same values, we try to live as cheaply as we can. And we keep our overhead as low as we can in Austin, Texas, with this real estate market, you know, and we try to, we value time over money, you know, and so it's that thing, money costs, you know, it costs you something, making money, and so you just have to make sure that the transaction is worth it.
Jay Clouse 55:45
Philosophically, I feel like that's the way to go. optimize for the most enjoyment of your time, because it's the much more scarce resource than money.
Austin Kleon 55:53
It's the thing that money is supposed to get you, you know, but it never does, it just, you know, be at once beyond a certain. Now, of course, this is an incredibly privileged point. But you know, beyond a certain point, when you can make your days look the way you want them to look, money just doesn't, you know, it's you can get more stuff. I live in a nice neighborhood in Austin, like I do, I live in like, a nice, you know, you got to you got to be like a middle class these days to live here. You got to be like a lawyer, you know, you gotta are just a tech person, or whatever it is. And I know that some of my neighbors see me like Alec, the kids are like taking a walk. And they wonder like, well, what, what's he doing? But sometimes I look at my neighbors, I'm like, you know, if you took if you didn't have such a big house, or you know, he didn't drive three trucks, maybe you maybe wouldn't have to work so much, either. You know what I mean? So there's, that, there's always that funny thing in life. And, you know, you go down a path career wise, and it comes with, that's another servian thing, you know, be aware of all endeavors that require new clothing. You know, I can keep my, I don't have a suit, I literally don't own a suit. I mean, I, I went about wanting to go to a funeral, but it's the pandemic, which is dark, but that's the reality. The only time I'll need a suit from now on is if I go to a funeral. But you know, it's that kind of, it's that kind of thing. It's a it's a lucky life, though. I've just been, I've just been really lucky. You know. So it's, it's trying not to squander that luck. It's trying to take that luck and say, here's how I'm going to do with it. Here's the kind of work I'm going to I'm going to do something that matters to me that I think can be useful or beautiful for other people. And that's why he tried to.
Jay Clouse 57:52
This was a really fun interview to host. Austin was so kind and generous with his time and ideas. It felt easy to talk to him, even though we'd never talked before. Not only was it really easy to talk with him, but he made his success seem attainable to you and me too. Sure, it will take hard work, but there's no special sauce, other than maybe catching a wave or to have good luck. If you want to learn more about Austin, you can visit his website Austinkleon.com or find them on social media @AustinKleon. Links to both are in the show notes. Thanks to Austin for being on the show. Thank you to Emily Clouse for making the artwork this episode. Thanks to Nathan Todhunter for mixing the show in Brian Skeel for creating our music. Did you know that every week I send an email with each episode to tell the story of how I booked the guest. People seem to love it. And you can get that email by subscribing to my newsletter at Jayclouse.com/emails. A link to that is in the show notes as well. If you'd like this episode, you can tweet @JayClouse and let me know and if you really want to say thank you, please leave a review on Apple podcasts. Thanks for listening. I'll talk to you next week.