You may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here? - Jessica Abel

You may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?

photo by Alain François

Even if you’ve read more than one of my articles, I’m guessing there’s a still decent chance you have no real idea what my main creative activity has been for my whole adult life. And that sounds bad, but I actually count that as a good thing, because it means I’ve been able to reach, to communicate with, a whole bunch of brand new people about brand new things in the last few months, especially since I published my Idea Debt article.

Here’s the history. I’m a cartoonist, writer, and teacher. But if you’ve been hanging around anywhere in my vicinity, you may have noticed something shift with me in the last year—or really, within the last six months or so.

Where I used to occasionally post news updates on my comics and events, now, I’m publishing regularly on how creative people can get more of their important work done, with very actionable information.

I’m running a course on this topic, right now, called the Creative Focus Workshop. There are 83 amazing, fascinating, brilliantly creative people in this course, coming from areas as diverse as sculpture, video games, anthropology, fiction writing, software development, coaching, the military, mathematics, journalism, podcasting, comics, and even cryptography, all with big creative plans for the future.

We’ve only been at it for a few days, but already I can feel participants turning a corner, from simply wishing they could get moving on their projects, to actually building the path forward. It’s inspiring.

Why am I doing this?

I wrote a post back in July where I promised to talk more about the thinking I’d been doing about taking a new path, and I haven’t followed through. So here I am, with a peek behind the curtain.

It all started with a realization, or rather, a series of realizations, and then some decisions I made just over a year ago, as I was finishing the artwork for Out on the Wire.

First of all, I realized I had a business model. Who knew?

My business model was to sell books on spec to publishers (sell on a proposal, that is) for an objectively decent advance, then work as fast as humanly possible to finish the books—I was never fast enough to make the advance actually come anywhere near to paying for my life—meanwhile looking around for the next book so I could sell it before the old one was done. This would eke out about 1/2 of a living.

Then I would caulk the gaps with adjunct teaching and one-off jobs like illustration and editing, which would take well over half my time, thereby causing the books take even longer to complete.

As will not surprise you after reading that…

My second realization was that my business model had very low probability of ever allowing me to work at a human pace.

PointingfingerofGod…Or to really focus enough on any one project to put it over the top in terms of visibility (and therefore income. My books haven’t earned out—I don’t see royalties).

There’s of course always that chance someone—someone with a bigger platform, a bigger wallet—would reach down and pluck me from obscurity. But I’d been waiting for that hand of god to point to me since I started, and it hadn’t happened. That isn’t a “business plan,” that’s wishful thinking.

Then I got really mad.

…For several months about how things had played out for me. Here I was, verifiably a success by the standards I had set out for myself, and yet, I felt like a hamster in a wheel.

But simmering resentment isn’t my style.

Third realization: What I had to do was to come up with something that I would love to do, but that could get me paid more for working the same hours.

Eureka!

I feel like an idiot even typing that. I mean, of course. But look around: the things we artists choose to do for money (to support our art) tend to be things that feel like they’re almost art (I’m thinking teaching here, but fill in your own day gig). But they’re not, and they take an enormous amount of time and energy, and, perhaps because these jobs are in demand by creative people, they’re among the lowest-paid professional jobs in existence.

A lot of people think teaching will be the solution. But I’ve got bad news: Adjunct teaching is not the answer. It’s a stop-gap at best, financially speaking. And don’t get me wrong, I love my students—I love teaching. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the system where you would have to take on a 5 to 6 course teaching load every semester to stay above the poverty line.

I beat myself up a lot for working too hard, not being able to take time off. But when I look at it from this angle, my behavior is completely logical. It’s a result of the way I’ve been living for 15 years. Given my underlying assumptions—all the things I’ve chosen to do to support my family are so low-density—many hours at low pay—the only way to actually make living is to cram more in.

There are only so many hours, and my hours go cheap, baby.

What that’s done is train me to just take on more. Just do more and more. It isn’t really that  I just need to “tell myself” to take time off or take care of myself. I need to do less stuff.

I felt so resentful of the way the rules seemed stacked against me, against any creator: If you struggle relentlessly against the difficulty of making a life as an artist in this world, that’s great, you’re admirable. But all that means is that you’re buying into a system that just doesn’t work.

And if you decide to opt out of that system? Weak. Not a real artist. SELL-OUT.

But my nose was so bloody from that grindstone.

I said “fuck it” and decided to start to treat my creative life as a business. What that means: making decisions about what I’ll spend my time on based on how those activities serve my goals: making great stuff, helping other people make great stuff, and using those activities to support my family. Those have always been my goals. But how to achieve those goals in a more efficient manner?

I needed to change my business model.

And that meant figuring out what I had that others need, something I could be truly helpful by sharing, enough so that those others be willing to pay me to do so. Tricky. And here I’m going to make an admission that I would have been really nervous about only a few months ago: I took an online business course.

I’ve said it before: be a poser, right? Do the thing you wish you were doing enough, and you become it. So I realized that if I’m going to treat my work activities as a business, I’d better figure out what that means.

So I dove in.

It was back in the spring that I stumbled across Tara Gentile on Creative Live, during the live (i.e. free) run of one of her courses. It took me a while to get used to her energetic vibe and use of lots of business-y terms that I had no grasp of: Conversion rate? Content marketing? Mastermind? WTF are any of those things? I’m a Gen X natural skeptic, my roots in punk rock and underground comics and, what, you want me to go around talking about how “markets are conversations”?

But my poor, bloody, scraped up nose.

It hurt.

I stuck with it. Anyway, I was drawing 8-10 hours a day, trying desperately to finish Out on the Wire on time. When we cartoonists are drawing we need to listen to something.

Then I watched Tara do “hotseats” with audience members (what I might call a critique or focus session), and my eyes were opened. She saw straight to the heart of things, and I watched these people make amazing realizations about who they were, and what they could do for their people. I wanted that for me.

I tried to sign up for her course, the Quiet Power Strategy. Fortunately for me, she was in the middle of a session, and so I couldn’t get in. Fortunately, I say, because there is no way on earth I would have been able to devote the time and mental resources necessary to it while also finishing my book.

I also decided not to pitch a new book. That was a huge leap of faith.

And I finally started in Quiet Power in the fall. It was a big financial commitment for me, and it took several months of hard work, introspection, and many many group coaching calls, but I started to home in on what I can offer, what I can do.

But how did I do that?

I literally just asked, in a survey, and by posting things (on social media and on my blog) and then gauging responses. I started out by trying to figure out how I could help with narrative structure, since that’s traditionally been my métier. But reaching out to people in my audience, I figured out that their (that is, your) number one need is focus. You need help actually making your work.

(There are lots of other things you said, too, that I might get to later. For example: this article is a piece of the same strategy: by being transparent about how I’m rethinking my business activities, I’m talking about the “making a living” piece that so many in my audience need to address.)

That’s when I realized: when it comes to finishing your work, I’ve got what you need: I’ve built systems in my own life that support my regular creative practice, and I’ve taught these approaches to many students. When I started talking about these issues on my blog, the response was immediate and urgent.

It’s incredibly gratifying to be so clearly of help to people.

And it will end up paying my bills, too.

I offered my first, pilot version of what is now the Creative Focus Workshop in December, to an incredible group of people who helped me refine and develop my methodology. And I’ve gotten reports back from many of them that the changes they made have stuck, which is just…it makes me so happy. There’s nothing better for a teacher than to see that she’s made a real difference.

I’ve got a long list of other things coming up in the next year that will follow up on this course, including running it again in the fall (you can get on the waitlist here). I’m working on a book about creative productivity.

Meanwhile, I’m still up to my eyebrows in trying to learn how to be an “entrepreneur.” I’m subscribed to what feel like 18 thousand newsletters with weekly advice…and I know I should shut off the firehose, but I’m still learning every time I read. It’s taken me ages to decode the language of the online entrepreneur, and I’m only just becoming conversant.

But there’s already so much I want to share. I’ll be dipping my toes back into this pool—sharing what I learn—regularly in this space. Make sure to join my list to get it all.

FYI: those links to Tara are affiliate links, so if you check her out, she’ll know I sent you!

If you’re interested in this conversation, about how to make a living as a creative person, please comment below with your most pressing questions and struggles: I’ll try to plan future writing on my blog around what you need.

And subscribe to make sure you get the articles when they’re published!

UPDATE: Check out my new article on what a business model looks like and how to figure yours out (with a downloadable spreadsheet to help) here. 

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  • Bastiaan Ruys

    March 11, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    Hello, and thank you for writing this article.

    I am currently struggling a lot with my professionnal, creative life. I work in a big recording studio in France : I started as an assistant 3 years ago and I have quickly worked my way up to being the manager. We create music for a variety of artists and we get to actually complete these projects and release them, which is very satisfying because we’re never “stuck” on something. We have a team of 10 people and I get paid monthly, regardless of whether we finish a project or not. I also get to teach up and coming musicians about the music business and coach their project.

    However, I have an obligation to work all year long and sometimes weekends too, so I have to give up travelling or spending time with my family and friends. I don’t get to be creative either, because we’re making music designed to be sold. We’re using pre-established rules and we never step out of the line, not taking any chance.

    I feel like I want to leave this job to be truly creative in my life and make the music I love, knowing what I know now about the music business. I also believe taking time off is important, because life is to be enjoyed and that’s when you get your best ideas. But I also feel guilty about quitting a job that was so hard to get in the first place, and which provides me financial security and the joy of working in music.

    Going out alone is also very scary, as I can’t see clearly what I will be doing and how. I plan to quit in august.

    Again, thank you for sharing your knowledge as it helps me tremendously with my struggle.

    B.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      March 14, 2016 at 10:22 pm

      Bastiaan, that transition you’re going through is so very hard, taking the leap of faith that you can apply what you’ve learned and make it as a musician on your own. I wish you the best of luck and hope you’ll report back! If there are better ways to do this, we all want to hear them.

      Reply
      • Michael L

        April 4, 2016 at 12:17 pm

        I left a job as a producer to go off on my own. While you may drop your job, keep using those SKILLS you worked so hard to develop!! But now, use them to further your own vision and income, so you become a unique ‘hyphenate.’ Also, if you need to learn more before you leap, design small projects (gigs or whatever) specifically to test your assumptions and get the info you need.

        Reply
        • Jessica Abel
          Jessica Abel

          April 15, 2016 at 9:59 am

          Excellent advice — thanks for adding that.

          Reply
  • Darrell Watson

    March 14, 2016 at 8:47 pm

    I agree. I think creative people need to be more business minded to be successful. However, I also think business minded people need to be more creative to be successful. In our economy you need both sides to be a successful entrepreneur. I think the separation of the two comes for the Industrial Age of thinking were you learning to do one thing well, and then do it until you retire. But if you look at the history of the Industrial Age, the people that had super success story were creative business people.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      March 14, 2016 at 10:23 pm

      Very true. I’ve had to utilize my creativity at least as much in this new business as in my comics, though the way it manifests itself is extremely different, of course.

      Reply
  • Cait Stuff

    March 14, 2016 at 10:02 pm

    Thank you for the transparency of this. I think this is the first time I have seen someone post how many people signed up for one of their online courses, it makes it feel less like the snake oil that I see so often when such things are offered (“helped thousands of people” on Tara’s site might be legit, and no offense to her, but it doesn’t feel quantifiably REAL). So much of the firehose of online entrepreneurship feels like a lot of groupspeak, which is why I am so intrigued and encouraged to have you learning and decoding it, because you may well be the first person I can see trusting to actually learn a better business model from.

    Basically, I can’t wait until you’ve got a full “making a living” course up and running, because this blog post has sold me on the idea of taking it.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      March 14, 2016 at 10:25 pm

      I absolutely agree. It’s so hard what to believe and what not. The reason I ended up working with Tara, and why I’m glad I did, is her basic philosophy that the only way to do well at this is by embracing your own voice, what you like, what you do well, and amplifying that. I was like, well, yeah, I can do THAT.
      I don’t know when there’s any kind of course coming…but I’m thinking about starting some kind of guided study group so we can all figure out better ways to work together.

      Reply
  • eric shanower

    March 14, 2016 at 11:54 pm

    Dear Jessica,
    My comics-creating career is now more than 30 years old. I turned pro cartoonist in 1984, when the major US comics publishers were beginning to offer royalties to artists and writers. My goal since then has been to work on major projects from which I’d earn royalties for the rest of my life, while supplementing with small projects that would keep my name visible, help pay bills, and keep me working for a variety of publishers. My desire to work on specific projects has nearly always been more important to me than the money I would make or might potentially make from them, but thinking about money is always somewhere there. I used to work really, really hard. When I turned 40, I decided I couldn’t work as hard any more. That was twelve years ago–I don’t work as hard as I did when I was younger. However, my work schedule is not as disciplined as it used to be. I have begun to get that back on track. My long term goal of having projects out there that continue to pay royalties, so that I can work less when I get into my 60s and 70s and beyond is not working as well as I’d hoped. I have no control over whether high profile work-for-hire projects stay in print. Fortunately, work-for-hire is not the larger part of my career. Still, publishing creator-owned projects means a battle to get noticed in the marketplace. I used to do a lot of promotion for my projects, but I just don’t feel I have the energy or time for much of that anymore. I have a major ongoing project, Age of Bronze, which was on a bit of a hiatus for the last couple years. I was burned out on it and didn’t even realize that for a long time. But I’ve recharged and am working on it again. Age of Bronze used to bring in money enough to live on, supplemented with small projects here and there. No more. Partly my fault for dropping the ball on getting issues out there. But in the long-term, it’s a project that I hope will generate money for the rest of my life. I still have a long way to go to finish the project, though–decades to go. One reason I’m writing is to offer a sense of my initial goals, which really haven’t changed significantly over my career, and say that at this point I’m not sure my initial plan is going to pay off. I expect I’ll be needing to work till my dying day–not that I object to this as long as I can work on projects I choose and reduce my work schedule as I age–I think of Will Eisner as my model for this. But the older I get the more concerned I grow about whether I’ll be able to keep going. My eyesight grows worse every year. I was talking with Steve Rude about that at a convention recently. He expects that medical science will make it possible to keep our eyesight with maybe an operation every ten years to repair our eyesight. I thought that sounded reasonable, but I worry about making enough money to pay for such operations, no matter what sort of medical insurance I might have at any given time. Anyhow, I’ll stop. I’m not really asking you for answers, just trying to raise some concerns other freelance and creative people might have, too. Maybe you have something to say about some of these points.
    Best,
    Eric Shanower

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      April 15, 2016 at 10:07 am

      Hey Eric,
      Thanks for sharing all this. Your business model is and was different from mine in that you depended on the direct market system and individual issues, and then collections. You’ve got a great reputation in the comics world, much more so than I do (I’m known basically only in the much smaller indy space, have never crossed over), and that’s worked for your model…until you slowed down. That’s the problem I see with even the creator-owned model, that you just have to keep churning out product and promoting constantly, or people forget.

      At this cursory level, the only thing I’d have to suggest is, well, a couple things: do you have an email list, and are you building it actively? That can really help. Also, you’ve got such a huge backlog of existing work. There’s got to be a way to bring that out to new audiences, and not have to depend so exclusively on new material. There are millions of people out there who would love Age of Bronze, and who will have never seen it. It takes real strategic work to figure out how to do that, but it can really pay off.

      Reply
      • Christoph Schiffer

        April 23, 2016 at 1:54 am

        Hi Eric, hi Jessica, even if I did not manage to test it, I would like to recommend the resource http://10ksubs.com/
        for building a emaillist. Or you try http://listgoal.com/ – a free tool to grow your emaillist. Although this is “unallowed” marketing (I am not affiliated with the work or the products from Bryan Harris), I thought this might help! Thank you so much for your valuable input, Jessica! I love your work!!! Greetings from Bremen, Northern Germany, Christoph

        Reply
        • Jessica Abel
          Jessica Abel

          April 23, 2016 at 12:56 pm

          Hi Christoph – There are dozens and dozens of platforms to use for email list-building and so on…My usual recommendation for just getting started is MailChimp, since they have a free plan for up to 2000 people. Paid plans are much more useful, but can come later. I’m a ConvertKit user, and love it. (I’ve got an affiliate code if anyone wants to join! Let me know.)

          Reply
  • August

    March 15, 2016 at 3:37 am

    Jessica, this work means so much to me–it resonates so powerfully. This post–it is my story too. Wow, the struggle to eke out a living as an artist, the adjunct teaching, and deferring the work that is dearest to our hearts so we can pay the rent. I really wanted to sign up for your Creative Focus Workshop, but my hamster wheel claimed me. 🙂 I hope to be there for the next one, though, and rest assured that I have gained so much from the content you’ve shared. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      April 15, 2016 at 10:08 am

      Thanks, August — I look forward to working with you! Meanwhile: think about what you can do that will pay you more for fewer hours! What do you have or know that can be of use to others?

      Reply
  • Aneeqah

    March 16, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Jessica, I loved the transparency within this post. It’s really interesting to see the path that you’re on now, and I truly appreciate you pulling back the curtain a bit to reveal what’s happening in your world.

    I’m excited for the next round of the Creative Focus Workshop! I wasn’t able to join this time around, but I’m totally looking forward to joining in the future.

    I’ve also recently joined the world of being an online entrepreneur, being a freelance editor + beta-reader, so I definitely understand where you are in the process! I guess I’m just struggling a bit right now with really honing down with the struggles writers have and how I can address those struggles via my services. It’s a work in progress, so we’ll see how it goes. 🙂

    Hope you’re having a lovely day! <33

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      April 15, 2016 at 10:11 am

      Hey Aneeqah,
      Glad this resonated with you. My advice would be: ask them. Do a small survey (use Google Forms) and just ask whoever is potentially in your audience (you can post on your FB profile, mail out to friends and former clients). There’s a book by Ryan Levesque, called ASK that might be of help. It’s about 6X too long for what you need to know, but the initial get-to-know-you survey is very helpful.

      Reply
  • Brittany

    March 24, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    Hey Jessica,
    I’m starting to feel scared at how much your personal story sounds like my story, and that maybe I can’t just write off this stuff as hypothetical anymore. My biggest problems are that I’m perpetually on the cusp of making my creative dreams become real, but can’t seem to make that leap into the actual business – and every time I look at the road ahead, with its broken business model of working yourself into the ground and still not making a living (complete with the complainers being deemed unsuitably weak for the industry, as you said), I just get more discouraged. I know my productivity is too sporadic for that model, and I often believe that maybe I DON’T have what it takes to be successful at this, whatever my skill at the actual craft, so that doesn’t help. My conviction lately has been that I need to stop doing commissions and projects with a one-time payment, and start producing work that can pay me many times for work I already did, i.e. per book sale or download. But would that actually work? And could I get my act together to actually finish my projects and get them on the market to try that model?

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      April 15, 2016 at 10:20 am

      Hey Brittany,
      You are asking yourself exactly the right questions, but I would counsel trying to do so without the overlay of self-blame. Just be cold hearted about it: it’s not about “not cut out for”, it’s, I can produce X amount in X time, and can get paid X. How much of my living expenses can I cover with that?

      It’s a bit more complicated than that, especially in that you don’t want to aim to barely clear the money bar, but have a healthy cushion, but the upshot is pretty much that. What are your financial goals, and what are the various activities you plan to do to make that goal? If you’ve got something that pays you well for the hours you put in, that’s a winner. Something that doesn’t, not so much.

      In terms of the individual art piece vs. publication question: you can either make your art much more expensive, and sell fewer things, (and change your marketing to reflect that) or you can concentrate on putting the work in ahead of time to make some kind of publication, then plan on investing quite a lot of time in marketing. If you make $1 per thing, or $10 per thing, you’ve got to sell a whole lot more of those things than if you make $1000 per thing. And each model means a very specific approach to audience building and marketing. What model are you more comfortable with? Because if the answer is “not marketing at all” that means: get a day job (sorry!).

      Reply
  • Simona

    July 25, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    Thanks for posting this so throrough relation of your career and your frustration – and thank you too of all your other posts. The concept of “idea debt” has been a big game-changer for me and helped to get my first serious independent project off the ground (or out of the debt phase…). Time will tell wether I will be able to finish it and how well it will fare, but I do feel I now know the recipe – even though the final dish may still not be “haute cuisine” level.
    I am currently making the transition to freelance illustration and trying to figure out how to make a living out of this “thing” that I have been carrying with me for so long. The beacon I have in front of me is the figure of the independent artist: no time seems more favorable than today to dare the ambitious goal of making money out of your own ideas and creations. Yet, when I look at all people out there that are doing this successfully, they all seem to have one thing in common. Their target audience, their “market base” to use business jargon, is partly or largely made out of people who want to be at their same place. From trainings, workshops, manuals, demos to fully fledged online schools: products targeting other aspiring artists seems to be a large part of what generates income. I do not want to criticize this in any way: I am one of the people who profits largely from this abundant offering – which is often of extremely high quality and put forward with engagement and dedication. Yet, when I stop to think what it all means and what it means for my prospects of making a living with my art, I wonder if this is fully healthy. It seems to be, if not a vicious circle, at least a pointless one….

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      July 25, 2016 at 9:32 pm

      I hear you, Simona. I often feel like I’m seeing the same thing. And even me: I’m making a course as a part of what I do for a living. But think about this: the people who are making courses and teaching, YOU are their target audience. They’re reaching out to find you. Whereas people who are doing what you want to do, illustration (in whatever format and venue) you are not specifically their target. In some cases, you may belong to some small segment of it (for example if they make products to sell), but mostly they’re targeting art directors and so on. So you may just be looking the wrong place to follow and figure out what they’re doing.

      All that said: making a living at art is incredibly hard, and it’s definitely NOT a healthy ecosystem, regardless of what sub-segment of people are also selling their services as teachers. You’ve got to be as creative in how you go about make a living as in making the art itself. Good luck!

      Reply
  • Carla Speed McNeil

    October 14, 2016 at 3:30 pm

    Boy, is this topic right on the nose for me!

    I’m a solid mid-lister, but have never broken out, never had a best-seller. No Hand of God has ever reached out for me either! The jobs are there right now, but at every show I run into another hero of mine who tells me there is no work for him or her anymore, and so they’re doing X, Y, or Z now instead of comics. Terrifying.

    What IS there to do besides ride the rocket until you fall off or it runs out of fuel?

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      October 14, 2016 at 4:13 pm

      Man Carla, ask a hard question one of these days, will you?
      Seriously, it is slightly terrifying. The one thing I can say about people I see for whom it is working, long term, is that they have built their own audience and platform independent of any publisher, and the build their relationship with them directly. Your readers, I know, would walk on hot coals for you, but do you have them on an email list and talk to them regularly? Do you have an organized strategy for building your Patreon? That could be a really effective system for you, but you’ve got to increase its visibility.
      You’re going to publishers to get gigs, but in the end, it’s the readers who will be the long-term support if you want to be exclusively making comics, and if they only ever get to you via publishers, that’s a problem.
      I.e. the possible answer is you need to spend real time away from drawing and on marketing. Not what anyone wants to hear, I know.

      Reply

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