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‘Show Your Work’ author Austin Kleon wants you to ‘sell out’

Courtesy photo "Share Your Work" by Austin Kleon

By Ellen Fagg Weist

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Apr 05 2014 01:01AM
Updated Apr 7, 2014 04:06PM

Writer/artist Austin Kleon’s book title," Show Your Work," is as straightforward as his ideas about publishing.

The book’s 10 chapter titles are directive: "Think process, not product." "Share something small every day." "Tell good stories." "Don’t turn into human spam." And perhaps most provocative: "Sell out."

"Selling out is not something that has been portrayed in a positive light," Kleon says in a phone interview from his Austin, Texas, home.

In the indie rock world, he says, selling out is considered a sin. Instead, he likes the term "blowing up," often used about hip-hop musicians. "I love that different way of thinking about ambition and taking what you do to the next level, and not being afraid to take on more ambition," he says.

Kleon always wanted to be a writer and an artist, and studied creative writing at Ohio’s Miami University in the mid-2000s. The publishing workshop he took his senior year could have served as something of a "scared-straight program." "You’re going to need to find a way to make work and have a day job on the side," his professor advised.

That’s what Kleon did, developing digital publishing skills at a series of day jobs — in web design and writing copy for an ad agency — while publishing his own poems and artwork on his blog. His poems made out of redacted newspaper stories went viral on the web, leading to his first book, "Newspaper Blackout." (As Kleon described the idea in a New York Times op-ed: "Imagine if the C.I.A. did haiku.")

His second book, 2012’s "Steal Like an Artist," landed for six months on The New York Times best-seller list and eventually was translated into more than 12 languages, all of which helped Kleon get gigs talking about creativity at the TED conference, at companies like Pixar, and this year, as a keynoter at SXSW.

Along the way, his work garnered enough attention he was able to finally quit his day job — mostly because during the time he took off for his book tour his ad agency was sold. "I never really took that big of a risk," he says. "All of my risks were very calculated. I still work — at least half of my day is spent doing stuff I don’t want to do."

His newest book, "Show," serves as a companion to "Steal." It grew out of questions from writers and artists about how to get their work noticed.

"I started thinking a lot about self-promotion," he says while he was on the road promoting his work. "And I realized a lot of the people I look up to don’t think about self-promotion very much. It’s more close to genuine sharing online. They don’t just pop up when they have a product to share. They are sharing bits and pieces of the process."

Kleon is mostly self-trained as an illustrator, yet it’s the simplicity of his graphics that draws attention to his straightforward proclamations about creativity and digital publishing. He considers his work "picture books for adults," but says they aren’t just for creative types. The ideas can be used by anybody doing work they want to get noticed. Imagine a plumber, he says, opening an Instagram account and posting how-tos about how to fix a faucet or other skills.

While Kleon acknowledges he’s benefitted from good timing in the digital age, he points out that creative people have always had to find ways to get their work noticed. "There’s always been a glut of voices, and it’s always been a crowded field. And it always will be," he says. "Every year, every month, there’s some new platform. If people are creative enough, they’ll figure out how to use it to their own end."

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