I am excited for this next part. We’re going to do MATH!!

No no, wait! Don’t run away! I’m sorry I used the M-word!

I promise I’ll keep it super simple and straightforward, and honestly…?

The one simple calculation I’m going to share here can mark the pivot point between years of painful Cyclical Burnout and having the power to break free.

They were for me, and they can be for you.

If you want, I’ll even give you a calculator to do the math for you! Just hang tight and we’ll get there.

It’s a straightforward but multi-step process, so let’s dive in.

Set your goals based on your needs

First, you need to figure out the average price of your offer

📌 Jargon translation: Offer.

An offer is one thing of value you exchange for money. That “thing” could be anything you make or do: It might be a piece of original art, a printed book, a digital course, a theater ticket, your time and expertise creating a website, or your advice on how to get a better job, or really anything that you create that has value, that other people can buy.

An offer can be something like “commissioned portraits” that may include different dimensions and content each time, but it can’t be “any art I make” that includes murals, paintings, and digital prints. Those three offers are entail entirely separate modes of production, different types of delivery, and very likely different customers as well.

OK, now that we know what we’re talking about here, on average, how much do you sell your offer—your product or service—for?

I know figuring this out might be easier said than done! We’ve already established that you’re probably doing way too many things, and they probably all have their own price-points.

  • Start by picking your best seller. Whatever you sell most often.
  • You can also run numbers on each thing you sell and compare.
  • Because everything I’ll be doing here is strictly “napkin math”—round numbers to give you parameters and indications for which path to choose going forward—it’s not crucial that you pinpoint these numbers exactly, so don’t get too attached to perfection!

OK! Ready to take your first step into investigating the Mysterious Mechanisms? Don’t worry, hold my hand, and I’ll help you through it.

Determine your sales goals

This number is the basis for Step 2 of designing your business to meet your needs: Establish your parameters: Time and money.

Your sales goal is extremely simple. How many of your thing do you need to sell in order to hit your Enough number?

  1. First, take an educated guess at what you net on a sale of your offer. If you sell a service, it’ll be close to 100% net revenue. If you sell a physical product, you should subtract materials, packaging and shipping, that kind of thing.
  2. You’ve already built your creative business overhead into your Enough number in a rough way—I instructed you to include studio rent, equipment, and app subscriptions. So that’s baked in here.
  3. Divide your Enough number by the net revenue on your offer.

That’s your sales goal.

Simple, right? That's 3rd grade math. Yet knowing this number is incredibly powerful. You'll see how in just a while.

Your sales goal is a lever that gives you control over the Mysterious Mechanisms

Your sales goal is not a fixed point. You can change it by changing what offers you're making, your enough number, or your pricing. But whatever it is right now gives you insight into what's going on with your business, and how to improve your situation. Only, not exactly how you think it does. 

Here are three examples:

Let’s assume this person’s Enough number is $6000 a month.

Offer: Digital prints for $25

Offer: A self-led course for $300

Offer: A branding design package for $3000

Try yours!

What is your Enough number?

What do you charge, on average, for each of what you make or do?

These are your sales goals based on your Enough number:


Want to try again with different numbers? Just update your fields and hit that calculate button again!

What is your Enough number?

What do you charge, on average, for each of what you make or do?

This is how many of your product or service you need to sell in order to meet your financial needs:


Want to try again with different numbers? Just update your fields and hit that calculate button again!

(I’ve got a much more flexible and complete calculator that I’ll share with you in a bit, but I want to keep us focused for now!)

I’m just gonna guess your numbers told you “sell more”…

…Because if they didn’t, why would you be here right now?

So: When you compare the results you got to your current sales numbers, what’s the gap?

If you’re in a spot anything like mine in 2015, that gap is more like a bottomless chasm.

When Out on the Wire came out, I told myself, "this is the one."

This book is going to be popular, and I’ll start earning royalties, and that will mean I can relax a little and stop trying to do eight other things to still barely make my rent.

When I ran the numbers, I realized popular enough to bring in real money meant selling nearly 100k books in the first year, and similar in the following years.

(I make a bit more than a buck a book in royalties.)

100,000 is a huge number, but I had no sense of what it meant in terms of on-the-ground action. So I set the goal for myself of selling 100,000 in a year, but I didn’t break it down by month or week. I didn't have a plan. I just had this big number hanging over me, and a vague sense of, “I need to do that.”

Turns out, I had virtually no chance of success. According to author Elle Griffin, only something like .01% of books 100,000 or more in a year.

“According to Bookstat, a website that aggregates data around book sales, of the 2.7M books sold online in 2020, only 268 sold more than 100,000 copies—that’s 0.01 percent of books.

Meanwhile, 96 percent of those 2.7M sold between 0 and 1,000 copies.

Out on the Wire is a popular book. People love it, it’s made a huge impact, and I’m very grateful.

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2019-08-29 ootw book group

I checked my royalty statement recently, 8 years after the book was released.

Total sales to date: 24,140.

Uh oh.


So, how do you close that kind of gap?

Here’s how you DON’T do it: By adding more stuff.

After all my talk about Cyclical Burnout, I think you probably understand this intuitively, but “do more” still tends to be our reflexive go-to.

Time sometimes feels like the only variable completely within our Circle of Control

When all else fails, throw more time at it and hope for the best.

But time is one of the three essential pillars of a sustainable business, because it has everything to do with all the other needs in your life. You need time to rest, to spend time with loved ones, to take care of your health, and even to do the investigative creative work that leads to the next big breakthrough.

Your time is far too valuable to throw it away on work that isn’t set up to meet your needs.

Here’s the thing: I was trying to make my numbers work with a ridiculously low-priced offer.

Selling vast numbers of anything means you have to put that thing in front of exponentially larger numbers of possible buyers (because, obviously, not every person who sees a thing will decide to buy it).

The lower the cost of your offer, the vaster the number of people you need to reach with your marketing.

Low cost offers can feel like the right way to launch a creative business, because they’re “easy to sell.” And that’s not entirely wrong …if you only need to sell a handful.

But the lower the cost of the things you sell, the more things you have to sell in order to make your numbers.

The more you have to sell, the more the exponential math of getting in front of enough people kicks you in the butt.

And that means, ironically, the lower the cost of your offer, the more your business needs to be organized like a marketing machine.

Pretty much the opposite of most early-stage creative businesses I know.

Committed to making your business work with low-cost offers?

Get (a lot) better at selling.

Before you freak out, there ARE other options! I’ll come back to them in just a little while.

But if you’re committed to making your Enough number with low cost products, like $15 books, $79 courses, or $90 prints, you can increase your sales by reducing the number of offers you have available, and focusing like a laser on selling the one or two offers that are most important (and most popular) to a single, coherent audience.

We’re talking an audience of hundreds of thousands to make a middle-class living from low-cost sales alone.

The path looks something like this:

  • Expect to spend 40-50+ hours a week on your business
  • Expect to spend 60-80% of your time marketing
  • Commit to mastering copywriting, using video, and building a massive audience on one or more platforms
  • Build a large and fast-growing email list
  • Spend large amounts of time engaging directly with your audience
  • Probably build a team

All that content marketing can be punishing, and there are of course no guarantees, but people do make this work.

But you MUST know your numbers and work towards hitting visibility goals. Track your views, track conversions, and ruthlessly improve your own stats.

Hey, Jessica?

I thought you weren’t going
to tell me to do more?

So, this is very likely more than you’re doing now. Definitely. Sorry about that.

But there is a sense in which it’s less, also.

The key in making success on this path achievable is narrowing the scope of what you offer so that you’re not trying to market multiple offers to different audiences. That’s where things fall apart, because you’re just one person, and there’s only so much time.

Doubling the offers and the audiences means doubling all the marketing as well.

It’s not just you: I didn’t understand the math, either

I tried for a long time to make a living with comics and books, and I failed. I mean, I made some money, but not “Enough” money.

Even though my work was well-received, I constantly had to scramble to make a living. And I didn’t really get it. Every time I came up with a new project I was like, this one really has LEGS! It’s gonna be a big hit!

But I never understood just how big a hit it would have to be in order to make enough to support my family.

I know this is sobering.

I don’t love delivering the gutpunch feeling of Whoah, seriously? How could I ever...?

I apologize.

Me, I want to know. If you didn’t want to know? I’m sorry. (I did try to warn you!)

What I do love is the empowerment that comes with this bracing confrontation with reality.

Knowledge means you have choices, and they’re yours to make.

Even if your situation is dire, It’s life changing to know that you’re moving in the right direction, building to meet your needs.

The hidden math is daunting. And once you see these numbers, you can’t unsee them.

But until you choose to know your numbers, and act on them, these hidden dynamics control you.

The biggest danger of learning this math is that you’ll feel helpless and hopeless.

That’s NOT what I want. The point is that the math is there whether you’re looking at it or not, and once you understand it, choice is in your hands.

Whatever you’re doing now to make money with your creative work…

  • Sending out emails with links to your offer
  • Writing a blog that links to your offer
  • Networking and sharing your offer
  • Posting on social media with links to your offer
  • Speaking and sharing your offer
  • Tabling at fairs or conventions
  • Seeking stores to sell to wholesale
  • Or anything else…

...That's your system.

Once you've got your numbers, you’ve got choices.

Get your own Income Clarity Calculator.

    There are inputs (your actions) and outputs (sales of your offer), and there are the Mysterious Mechanisms in between that turn your actions into results.

    The good news is, the mechanisms are getting a lot less mysterious. Now you know a few specific ways that system actually works to connect your actions to results. (I’m talking about sales goals and conversion rates.)

    The bad news is…

    Every system is perfectly optimized to produce the results that it's actually producing now

    And there is no magic thing that will change the results without changing the system.

    Read that again. It’s so important. Taking this in is a potential pivot point in your career.

    In different words: Your system for making money isn’t actually “broken.” It’s working perfectly…as it’s designed to work.

    It’s simply not designed to produce enough money for you.

    That’s why you have to CHANGE THE SYSTEM

    …from the ground up.

    Pulse check

    Before we go further, we need to check in. How are you feeling at this point?

    A: Encouraged

    It all looks pretty doable. I’m hitting my numbers regularly, getting enough sleep, and have time for my family and self-generated work.

    B: This is unsustainable

    I’m scraping by, but it’s touch-and-go, and I can’t imagine pouring in more effort and time. And god forbid I get sick or have an emergency!

    C: OH. CRAP.

    There’s no way. There’s just no way! I’m working flat out as it is, and the money is not even close.

    It you’re an A, that’s awesome. Put your plans into action and keep me posted! I want to know what happens!

    If you’re B or C, don’t panic. There are ways out of this mess.

    …but NONE of those ways are “keep doing the same thing, but work harder.”

    Why? Because your Enough number, your “hourly rate”...these are not just random numbers.

    They represent your human—and creative—needs.

    You can’t just bump yourself up to 60 hours a week and add 3 “income streams” and work for peanuts with no plan to improve your outcomes.

    You will run out of time,
    and still struggle.

    It’s unsustainable. And more important: without changing the underlying system you’re using, it simply won’t work.

    If you’re a B or a C, the most important thing you can understand right now is that incremental improvements on what you’re doing now will not get you there.

    This is not about doing the same thing and getting marginally different results. It’s about doing something NEW.

    If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of devoting your life to building a marketing machine, I’ve got good news for you:

    Mass marketing is not the only way to build a sustainable creative career

    In fact, it’s arguable whether mass marketing IS sustainable for a single person…

    There are in fact two other approaches to building a sustainable creative life and career (though one, arguably, takes the long way around).

    And both involve doing LESS, not more.

    We’re about to turn a corner! Yay!

    Click Continue to read Part 4