While only time will tell whether Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Seller becomes a perennial seller, it certainly contains perennial advice.
Holiday fans will be familiar with his style; here, as in The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday makes liberal use of anecdotes and biographies—but in Perennial Seller, he tackles an entirely different issue. He asks: What makes art last? Put differently: Why do we still watch Star Wars? He answers this question in a refreshing—perhaps perennial—manner.
A word of warning: Artists and writers looking for a quick marketing fix will be disappointed. From the outset, Holiday notes that marketing isn’t everything. (Done badly, it’s barely anything.) A work’s content determines whether it sells. Advertise a dud all you want, but a dud’s a dud.
In this vein, while the latter half of Perennial Seller focuses on marketing, the first half focuses on how to produce good work in the first place. Throughout, Holiday stresses a simple point: You’re on your own. No one cares about your work as much as you do.
If you want to write a great book, fiction or nonfiction, you can’t simply “kiss it up to God” (i.e., bounce it to an editor) and hope the result is gold. Editors aren’t alchemists. Similarly, if you want to market your project, you have to put in the hard work. You have to give out the free samples; you have to cultivate the network and the email lists; you have to respond to and cultivate your fans. No one else will do it for you, at least not effectively, because no one else has the time. We’re all busy.
I found certain gems of advice to be especially useful because they concerned not just how to write or market a great book or movie, but how to live a great life. For example, when discussing motivation, Holiday notes that the so-called muse is a myth. There is no muse—not really. Like life, the act of creation is a process. It occurs over months or years or decades, and if you wait for inspiration to strike, you’ll never produce anything. The surest way to embrace the muse is to make willpower your muse and to start working—especially when you don’t feel like it. The muse and the flow-state? Those will come, if at all, after you begin.
While Holiday acknowledges that inspiration is evasive, he’s no party pooper; he offers concrete solutions for artists suffering from a deficiency in motivation. First, keep in mind why you’re tackling whatever project you’re tackling. Do you have something to say? Do you crave independence from your status as an employer’s means to an end, from being treated like fungible capital instead of a unique human?
If you know the “why” behind your project, you’ll be able to bear almost any how—even if that how entails staying up for hours after a grueling workday to pour yourself into an unpublished manuscript that you don’t even know will see the light of day. That’s the power of “why.” Of vision. There’s no magic here. As Holiday puts it, there’s no silver bullet; for both the writing and marketing processes, you’re stuck with lead bullets—and you need a whole cache.
A final piece of Holiday’s perennial advice is that perennial art is perennial because it expresses some central aspect of what it means to be human. An overworked employee chugging Red Bull at three A.M. can identify with Odysseus or Frodo Baggins because he and Odysseus and Frodo have something in common: Hardship. Tolkien’s perennial Lord of the Rings and Homer’s perennial Odyssey provide the solution to that problem: Perseverance. Both the problem and the solution have echoed through the ages, as have the artists that dealt with them.
So pour your entire self into whatever you’re painting or writing or filming, and don’t give up. In Holiday’s words, “Don’t just make it. Make it happen.”