Time to face the music: you need a business model to make it as an artist. - Jessica Abel
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Answer these 10 quick questions to uncover the real reasons why you’re not able to take control of your creative work.

Time to face the music: you need a business model to make it as an artist.

biz models-header

I hear so many aspiring cartoonists, writers, artists, audio producers, and other creatives saying something along the lines of: “I’m hoping to really master this art form so that I can achieve my dream of becoming a professional _____.” But mastering the art form, finishing work that is at a professional level, this counts for maybe 40% of what it means to become a professional…whatever.

Mastering your art form is how you become a great artist.

It is not how you become a professional.

Another 20% of what you need to do is develop systems for getting your work finished and producing new ideas and new works. (That’s what we do in the Creative Focus Workshop).

And that final 40%? Learning how to run your work as a business. I wish it weren’t true, but it is. It’s another job, as hard and as important as making the work—if your goal is to be a professional (i.e. to make a living by doing your creative work).

I recently read an article in the Atlantic, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans” by Neal Gabler, a well-known, well-paid writer who came out in this article as deeply in debt and frighteningly financially unstable. The shocking teaser of the article—“Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.”—is that this is a man with an incredible resume including books, TV, journalism, who has found himself in the position of eating eggs for days because he can’t afford groceries.

But what really got me in this article was buried deeper in…

It was why he made bad decision after bad decision with his finances. He simply never really looked at them. He never projected forward and thought through whether his work activities added up to the kind of income needed to buy a house and put two kids through expensive private universities and grad school. “I never figured that I wouldn’t earn enough. Few of us do.” I. e., I will be middle class in the future because I appear to be middle class today. I can sell this book to a publisher, therefore it will sell well, and therefore my finances will be on an upward trend forever.

This is magical thinking.

You’ve got no way to know if your non-plan has a shot at working if you don’t look at it. If you do look at it, it’s possible that it’ll bum you out. But better now than when you’re 60, eating nothing but eggs for a week and hoping you don’t lose your house.

A few nutty ideas regarding art and money that I’ve encountered.

  • Art can’t be bought.
  • Art that is bought is less worthy than art that seems somehow not for sale (although usually that just means “too expensive for you”).
  • Business and business people are anti-art.

And more than anything:

  • Artists know nothing and want to know nothing of business, because if artists dirty themselves with commerce, their art will suffer.

Well, I got news for you. Working artists (and here I include all creatives, in case you feel squeamish about calling yourself an “artist”) who don’t have a clear view of what their work is worth and who their audience is, and who don’t in some way take charge of the transactions around their art (even via intermediaries) are making bad decisions, guaranteed. How could it be otherwise? If you lack crucial information about how you’re paid, it’s inevitable that you can’t make clear decisions. Creatives may even be played for suckers by those people who are willing to pay attention to the numbers.

Culturally, we treat business school and art school as warring nations.

But what are you doing when you set out to support yourself as a freelance creative but going into business for yourself? And if you know nothing about what that means, join the club. But why should we let the b-school grads lord it over us when we’re the ones making the cool shit that they want to sell? No offense to b-school grads—who may also be creative—intended.

Business can hurt art, if we allow money to direct the core of our creative work. But on the other hand, for the vast majority of us not living on inherited wealth or fully supported by a working spouse, being a full-time creative means you’ve got to make money at it. Once you decide to make your creative work what you do for your living, and then you’re not making a living, that hurts your art as much or more than allowing your creative work to be affected or directed by money.

Having fully imbibed this fallacy about business being the enemy of art, most artists don’t want to know anything about business.

But I can’t be in a room for more than 10 minutes with a bunch of artists without getting into the “how do you get paid” conversation. We are all dying for information, and we all feel at sea. Ironically, gaining knowledge of this part of being a professional creative, while sobering, is the one way you can make the decisions that make sense, and with hard work and focus—and luck—arrive at the creative life you are aiming at.

How do you get started down this road?

If you are now making some income from your creative activity, or if you intend to do so in the future, you’ve got to start by clearly understanding what you’re setting out to offer, how you’re planning to sell it, and to whom. In other words, you need to understand your business model.

If you don’t want or need your creative activity to pay for (even part of) your life, great. You don’t need to worry about this stuff. Just make what you want to make and carry on making a living however it is that you do so. Although even if you’re not trying to make money at this but you want to build your audience, thinking through your business model can still be really useful.

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Somebody say bizniz? Time for some classy stock photos!

What’s a business model?

A business model is basically a written representation of how a business creates and exchanges value—in other words, what you make or do, and how you’re paid for it.

  • What do you sell (products, services)?

  • Who do you sell it to?

  • How do you sell it?

The way I’m going to use the term “business model” here is a lot sloppier than you’ll see elsewhere, because a lot of people reading this article don’t run “businesses” in any well-defined sense. At least not yet. Same goes for me—I’m still figuring out how all this works, and I’m sharing what I find as I go.

Here, we’re going to try to compile as complete an answer as possible to the question: What are all the ways you get paid? And what do you need to do to make getting paid happen?

Business model “recipes”—basic approaches.

There are a lot of existing business model “recipes” that you can find out there—standard ways of setting up a business. You’ve probably heard of the “freemium” model, where you offer something for free and an upgrade/pro version for a fee. There’s the “razor/blades” model that you encounter when you buy a printer for like a dollar, but then the ink cartridges are like $50 each. Practically give away the razor, and charge a premium for refill blades.

But most of the models I’ve heard of don’t help me understand what I’m doing. The first time I got a grasp on what choice I had been (unwittingly) making, it explained so many things.

The two main model-recipes most narrative artists and freelance creatives choose from:

  1.  Volume. Sell something cheap to tons of people. (i.e. a comic book, an MP3, a t-shirt).
  2. Upmarket. Sell something expensive to just a few people (a painting, an expensive service, your work at a salaried job)

You can make a million selling a $10 book 100,000 times. But are you capable of actually reaching and selling all those people? Do you have the systems and the back-end in place to manage that kind of volume? How much time and effort can you devote to marketing at this massive scale?

If you set up the structure for a small-volume business but price for large volume, then even if you’re successful your support team will be crippled.

In some ways my own model was built on making Volume work like Upmarket. A large chunk of my income comes from selling books to publishers, where I earn an advance on royalties, so basically I’m being paid a high fee by just one entity for an expensive service (making a book).

But the idea is predicated on an underlying Volume model: the advance seems like a lot of money because it comes all at once, but it’s not nearly enough to pay for the work that goes into the books (Neal Gabler: “I chose to write long books that required years of work, even though my advances would be stretched to the breaking point and, it turned out, beyond.”).

In order to eventually be reasonably compensated for years of the work I put into my books, I would need to sell many many units to individual readers. That’s the only way I eventually pay back my advance and earn royalties, and also the only way those royalties add up to actual money (for example: my royalty on a copy of Out on the Wire is $1.19. Please buy one. It takes a village.).

And my books just don’t sell to mass audiences. They could one day. But they haven’t done so yet. And “could” does not a plan make.

Before I did this simple math I felt confused and victimized. I ruminated darkly on that Rust Cohle quote from True Detective, “Be careful what you get good at.” I laughed sardonically at the story Ron Wimberly told me about the first comics convention he showed up at, an eager beaver with portfolio in hand, where Evan Dorkin handed him a “Get Out of Comics Free” card. Funny. But really freaking dark.

get out of comics free

But once I did the math, I saw that I simply had a choice: I either had to get a lot better at selling my books, or I needed to figure out what I could offer that would be more valuable to people, so that I can afford to reach fewer of them (but the right ones).

Either path is possible. It put the decision in my hands.

The math is simply this: your revenue goal (this is a big calculation on its own, I know. One very basic version: your average spending in year + say 30%) VS. how many of each thing you sell X price of each thing. Can you make the numbers work out?

What are the parts of a business model?

What do you make or do?

Here are some possible elements of creatives’ business models—and I’d love to flesh out this list. Please add your model or ideas in comments.

  • Publishing: advance against royalties, page rate
  • Self-publishing: crowdfunded
  • Self-publishing: via market (I.e. Image Comics, Amazon Createspace)
  • Patronage: ongoing crowdfunding a la Patreon
  • Work-for-hire artist/writer: Marvel/DC, animation
  • Low-end products: t-shirts, plush, digital prints, buttons, etc.
  • High-end products: paintings, art prints, furniture
  • Education: adjunct
  • Education: full-time/salaried
  • Services: illustration, web design, editorial, translation, etc.
  • Salaried job: in a creative field or not
  • Speaking, public appearances

How much does it cost you to make or do those things?

  • Time and cash outlay for creating the thing/doing the service.
  • Cost of delivering the thing to the buyer.

How many do you sell, at what price?

Who do you sell it to?

  • Who is the target audience for each thing?
  • What kind of transformation, new POV, escapism, insight, tools, skills will they achieve by engaging with this thing? What is in it for them? They don’t read/listen/hire you because you’re a nice person, but because you offer some transformation, something that will affect and help them, and the more it affects them, the more valuable it is.

How do you sell it?

  • How do you go about communicating the way your thing solves a problem or fills a need? The audience has to trust they’ll get value from you, and that’s down to messaging.
  • What channels do you use, what methods?
  • What costs are associated with communicating your message to the audience?

Questions to ask yourself

Can you define what you’re trying to do in a few words?

Can you understand exactly what kind of career it is that you’re trying to build? What do you want to be doing in 5 years? In 10? In 20? Do you want to be running Kickstarters in 20 years? What about having your own self-publishing company? Do you want to be running your own podcast or a podcast network? And do the things you’re spending your time on now build towards that goal?

Which things are out of whack when you look at your life in terms of time VS. money VS. satisfaction?

I’ve put together a spreadsheet to help you get started. Click here to get it and start to understand what business you’re really in.

I can handle the truth. Send it to me.

PDF Documents

Answer these 10 quick questions to uncover the real reasons why you’re not able to take control of your creative work.

  • Teddi Deppner

    June 1, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    In the past, I’ve made money as a (corporate and) freelance web designer. The trouble with that was two-fold: 1) To earn the desired income with the number of hours I have available, my hourly rate is unreasonably high for the average business person and 2) I want to be publishing my own content, not making websites for others.

    I love to write and illustrate and I have a huge list of potential projects (loved your posts on idea debt, by the way, phenomenally helpful!), but I know enough about marketing and entrepreneurship to realize it’s not just about doing something I want. The product has to meet a need and reach the customer — ideally in a way that spreads itself.

    I’m currently sorting through my ideas for the right combination. Projects that:

    Satisfy my creative passion + Have market appeal + Can be created/marketed in the time I have available + Can be marketed and distributed relatively easily / low cost

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      June 1, 2016 at 9:38 pm

      Teddi – I think one key is thinking about what brings your current audience to you. What is it that you do/talk about that’s compelling to them? But then the second part is: do you want to pursue the mass-market model (many things/low price) or the more exclusive/service-oriented model. It can be a combo, but they really require very different approaches…and the mass-market model is way more dependent on marketing than I’m really comfortable with.

      Reply
  • Will Bontrager

    June 18, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    An additional model or idea is akin to a subscription.

    Some software services are on monthly subscription. Software creation I think can be classified as a creative activity in some cases, when the design and function isn’t precisely defined before the writing starts. (I also write software.)

    That model might be applied to other creatives. A list of people paying an ongoing fee for a short story every month. Or an exclusive comic strip. Or a reproduction of a new work of art, either exclusive or they get it before it’s available to the general public.

    Income from the model may begin slow, with only a few subscribers. If the subscribers are kept satisfied, the churn should be low. Which means they don’t have to be sold again in order to keep the income coming.

    Although it may start out slow, every new subscriber adds to the monthly income total. It just goes up and up and up so long as the same level of marketing effectiveness continues.

    (Found your blog via Jane Friedman’s “Electric Speed” newsletter.)

    Will

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      June 18, 2016 at 3:17 pm

      Hi Will,

      That’s a good idea. Not far off from the Patreon model actually, but perhaps there’s an argument to be made for doing it independently…

      Reply
  • valorie hallinan

    June 18, 2016 at 6:38 pm

    You know what? I’m tired of all this blame heaped on Neal Gabler. It is a different time now, and the way artists must operate is very different. I’m not saying Neal didn’t make mistakes; and I’m not saying that you don’t have terrific wisdom for helping artists make a living. But it is also true that there are serious systemic problems that need to be addressed, too. For example – education: adjunct. Adjunct teachers are exploited, period, and the way universities and colleges treat them should be considered a violation of labor laws if these laws were only set up right. There are also major magazines and other publications owned by huge corporations that do not pay writers and other creatives for their articles/work, or they don’t pay them nearly enough. This is ridiculous. I understand what you’re all about, but by all means lets not heap more criticism onto people like Neal Gabler, who wrote the article in part to show how flawed and unjust our economic system can be for creative people. Fabulous the services and wisdom you offer, disappointed to see you criticizing someone who is down and over simplifying the solutions.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      June 18, 2016 at 8:28 pm

      Oh! I’m sorry it came across that way. I can see how it would, but I’m actually very sympathetic to him; the article scared the crap out of me, and I felt such gratitude to my mom for teaching me the basics of financial management. There but for the grace of Mom go I…

      I totally agree that the arts have changed as far as how we’re paid, often for the worse.
      I absolutely agree that teaching adjunct is a mug’s game and should be avoided or fixed.

      I don’t agree that Gabler was writing a critique of how our economic system treats creative people in particular. I read it much more as a broad critique of various things that banks and lenders have done that affect most Americans negatively. And it was also a self-critique for his lack of financial education and his macho reluctance to share full info/decision-making with his wife.

      I had a ton of take-aways from the article. But the one I highlighted here was that if he had known to analyze his business model (which, why would he know? It never occurred to me until I was in my mid-40s and addressing the situation directly…) he might have been able to better project where h’d end up, given his decisions. I want to get everyone reading to make that choice now, early, so they can avoid ending up in Gabler’s position.

      If you do the business model workup, you’re more likely to understand on your won that you shouldn’t depend on adjunct teaching or crap freelance publishing, or whatever unfair, underpaid thing. Info is what Gabler lacked, that I want us all to reach for.

      Reply
      • Raylene

        June 18, 2016 at 11:51 pm

        Hi Jessica (and Valorie) … please forgive me for jumping in here, but there is an issue that popped out from this exchange that I have been struggling with, myself, and perhaps it needs some discussion. Given how quickly technology is changing (the trajectory just in the last 10 years is staggering, and looks to be continuing as such), the ‘models’ that worked even 5 to 10 years ago, or what we come up with today, may be obsolete in the blink of an eye. When the platforms we are using are so dynamic, as well as the trends in consumer demand, having these long term plans is not only difficult, but could appear as foolish on the surface as Gabler’s situation (which, in my opinion, was the result of failing to keep up with a rapidly changing industry as much as it was failing to have a solid business/financial plan).

        I find myself spending almost as much time trying to keep up with media platforms and technology as I do with advancements in my own field, leaving little time for actually ‘creating’ work. The roi on the investment in keeping up to date increasingly feels upside down given the diminishing compensation for what we do (adjuncting, research/writing, content creation, whatever … ). My point, I guess, is that business plans need to remain far more flexible and fluid than many of us are accustomed to if we are to avoid being taken advantage of. As our investments in staying on top of our game increases, our compensation seems to be diminishing. Many of us are at a breaking point.

        Reply
        • Jessica Abel
          Jessica Abel

          June 19, 2016 at 3:27 pm

          I hear you, Raylene. I don’t know the answer to all this. I do know that my particular situation is that I had no better chance of making my previous biz model work 10 years ago than I do today. I also know that, in a world where things change as rapidly as they do, a strategic, long view is more important than ever. And with that strategic view, it’s possible to make better choices about what we invest time in, and (potentially, maybe) find and choose more effective things to do. It’s on us to make it work, and that’s scary. But if we’re not ready to do that job for ourselves, I certainly would prefer to know it (and go get a regular job, if possible) than not know.

          Reply
  • Richard Nash

    June 21, 2016 at 1:21 pm

    Jessica, this is wonderful. My one caveat here—I think it is possible to play the abundance and scarcity games simultaneously. Especially given the propensity for digital to generate abundance, and then some. I like to call it “capturing all the value under the demand curve.” How do I create a thing for $1 that 10,000 people will want, and the thing for $10,000 that one person will want. (You can see the demand curve in most Kickstarter campaign page right sidebar! And in airline ticket prices.) Now, truly capturing all the value is impossible, and I think it is healthy for everyone to create more value than they capture, but, pragmatically, I think it’s useful to be looking as much as possible at partnerships when thinking about how to get all value there. But, and here’s where I think I grasp some of your discomfit around volume, I also think it’s useful to keep in mind that digital abundance is mostly, as digital product managers might say, a “funnel” for “onboarding” users. Not where revenue action is likely to be for most creative people. In other words, don’t throw all your hustling resources into the bottom of the demand curve—just think of it as one of the triangles within the big triangle. The reason I still focus on occupying as many points as possible, though, is that it’s almost impossible to bend the demand curve. It’s something I watch publishers try to do all the time. How do I sell more $15 copies of this book? Answer: don’t. Make a $100 version and a $1 version.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      June 22, 2016 at 7:01 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Richard. Your deep and varied experience gives you an incredible perspective on this subject!

      You’re completely right: diversification is really key. The problem I identified in my own plan was that every time I tried to “diversify,” it was into another low-margin, low-paid thing. That “digital abundance” is not something I’ve been able to do much with, making comics. Comics don’t translate super-well to ebooks (yet. I mean, they’re ok. But text books are 1000 times better). But yes, those “mass market” type things we try to sell can be loss leaders and platform-builders…but only if there’s something at that higher price point to sell!

      I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts about these partnerships you mention. In what form and how might they be used?

      Reply
  • LuAnne Feik

    June 22, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    Business plans need to recognize how intense competition is in all the arts these days. When a celebrity can get exposure in any field, others already are at a disadvantage.

    Reply
  • Abrian C

    August 15, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    I hear a ton of business advice. Most of it points to the most successful creative business as making a product that helps people in the field with their struggles. So for a long time I’ve wrestled with making a project to help my fellow artists (I actually made a booklet on cultivating style), but my heart is so not in it.

    What I really want is to build worlds and tell stories about them. So I started a website and am now building this world brick-by-brick, and inviting people to join my journey. Aside from prints, finished comics and Patreon, I really have no idea how I’m going to monetize this at all! Or even if I should.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      August 15, 2016 at 10:21 pm

      Not everyone has to teach something. Some of us want to help others in different ways, like by entertaining them or causing them to think. That’s a completely sound choice to make, it’s just, as you’re figuring out, a lot tougher to clearly make the connection to how you make a living from that work. Keep building your audience, though, that’s the linchpin.

      Reply
      • Abrian C

        August 17, 2016 at 7:30 am

        Thanks for your reply! Thanks to your blog and a few other resources, I think things are slowly starting to come together for me. I look forward to more awesome content in the future!

        Reply

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Answer these 10 quick questions
to uncover the real reasons why you’re not able
to take control of your creative work.