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, and even 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%? Learn how to run your work as a business. I wish it weren’t true, but it is. This is 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 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 that includes books, TV, journalism, who has found himself in the position of eating eggs for days because he can’t afford more 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 to know that 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 about how you want to be paid. Creatives are even 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?
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 arrive at decisions that make sense. With hard work, [a functional business model,] and focus—and luck—that’s how you arrive at the creative life you are aiming at.
How do you get started with a business model?
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 artist business model. And even if you’re not trying to make money with your creative work but you want to build your audience, thinking through your business model is still crucial.
If you don’t want or need your creative activity to pay for (even part of) your life, if you’re doing it on your own time, just for yourself and friends and family, 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.
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?
A business model is 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”—standard approaches
There are a lot of existing business model “recipes” that you can find out there—standard ways of setting up a business to earn money. You’ve probably heard of the “freemium” model, popular with software and gaming companies, where the company will 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. Companies practically give away the razor, and charge a premium for refill blades, forever.
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 creative business model recipes most artists and freelance creatives choose from:
- Volume. Sell something cheap to tons of people. (i.e. a comic book, an MP3, a t-shirt).
- Upmarket. Sell something expensive to just a few people (a painting, an expensive service)
In theory, 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?
How much does all that operational back end cost? Printing, warehousing, shipping, paying people, paying for ads…even if you can bring in that big million-dollar prize, how much do you keep?
If you set up the operational structure for a small-volume business but use a high volume model, then even if you’re successful, your business will be crippled.
What I learned about my own broken creative business model, and how that pointed to a solution
In some ways my own model as an author was built on making Volume work like Upmarket. A large chunk of my income used to come from selling books to publishers, where I earn an advance on royalties, so essentially I was being paid a high fee by just one entity for an expensive service (making a book).
But author model 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, while my books are well-liked and have a solid audience, they 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.
This left me running like a hamster on a wheel to keep pitching books, cranking out pages, and pitching the next book before I’d even finished the last, all while chocking the gaps with freelance editorial work, illustration jobs, and adjunct teaching.
I was exhausted. And I couldn’t figure out why, until I did the simple math to figure out just how vast the gap was between the income I somehow thought ought to be materializing and the actual numbers of books I’d need to sell to get there. We’re talking a multi-tens of thousands of books gap.
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.
After 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 (or simply be a lot more expensive), so that I can afford to reach fewer people (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 an artists 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)
- 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?
- 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?