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When they’re faced with an income plateau, here’s what creatives (artists, designers, writers, whatever) think they need to do to increase their income:
- Work more on skills. Study. Practice. Go to grad school.
- Make more things. Develop merch—T-shirts, pins, prints. Write more books. Take on more clients. Create more services.
- Do more marketing. Post more on social media. Write more email “blasts”. Write a blog. Make a podcast.
Notice a certain word popping up frequently?
How much more do you have to give if you want to increase your self-employment income?
If you’re like most creatives I know, not a lot. You’re probably functioning at your outer limit as it is, scraping by financially while you care for others and try to keep making your work…somehow.
Of course you need to make more money.
If the idea of wanting to make more money makes you uncomfortable, think about it this way:
→ More money means time, freedom, flexibility.
→ More money means relief from anxiety, and the ability to care for yourself. Feeling—and being—cared for gives you the ability to show up for others in the way you want to.
→ More money translates to power. It amplifies your voice and allows you to have a greater impact on your community and the world.
What should creatives do to make more money?
If you’re confused by the idea that MORE doesn’t work, it’s absolutely not your fault. In fact, I googled “make more money with creative work,” and here’s the advice I got.
Short version? MAKE MORE.
I’m dismissing the idea of more, but let’s look more closely at why.
…by working through those Google list options.
Starting a Patreon, selling photos to stock websites, selling on Etsy, or selling fonts
Those will most likely will only generate a dribble of money (or none at all) unless you put your back into the selling part.
And remember, making the work and selling the work takes time, potentially a lot of time.
Unless you currently have a lot of free time on your hands, a new product or service is necessarily going to eat into what you have available for whatever you’re doing now. So unless this new income stream is better than what you’ve already got going, AND you’re willing to quit or reduce what you’re doing now to make space for it, you’re going to lose by adding complication.
Starting a clothing line, writing an ebook, or teaching a class are not making money.
Selling clothes, selling a book, and selling a course…THAT’S making money.
And between the making and the selling, each of those are pretty much full time jobs.
How many full time jobs are you willing to take on?
OK, so…Start a blog? Become an influencer?
That’s what you’ve got for me?
Making some money vs making enough money
Most of the awesome creatives I know make some money with their work. They’ve sold a few pieces, they have some clients. And once you sell something, the most logical idea for how to make more money is to do more of that. Sell that thing (or something similar) again, over and over, until you get to your personal level of “enough” money.
Maybe even mad money!
Here’s what is far more likely (barring magical unicorn luck): You make more, but your sales and revenue plateau at some point.
You start out with a thing. You sell it once or a few times. It’s so exciting, but the money is not nearly enough.
So you add another thing to the mix. Your sales on the Thing 1 droop, and on Thing 2 are decent. But not enough.
You add another thing to the mix. Now Thing 1 is foundering, Thing 2 is just OK, and Thing 3 is just OK also…and you’re burning the candle at both ends to keep all the balls in the air.
You’re making a bit more money, but still very far from “enough.”
So you take on a client or teach a class. And this takes all your time from the Things you started off with, and you put them on hold for a while.
And then eventually you start over.
I talked about this dynamic, and why it doesn’t work, in a lot more detail on the Autonomous Creative Podcast. Give it a listen here.
Why leaning on MORE doesn’t lead to an increased income. It leads to plateauing and burnout.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with anything on that list of “what creatives think they should be doing,” up top, but you don’t have time for all of it…and there’s not a single thing on there that will necessarily lead to more money.
Sure, you might make a little more money by adding to your product line (a new book, a new service you can offer, a Patreon).
But each new thing you create comes with costs: time and energy to make and deliver, sometimes hard cash. And your time and energy (and cash) are finite. When you max out on what you’re able to give, as you add in more offers, products, services to the list, each offer suffers.
Honestly, for virtually all creatives I know, the first thing to go when you’re maxed out? It’s not making the stuff. It’s the selling.
This is why adding more to the pile frequently leads to hitting a frustrating (and demoralizing) income plateau.
How do we end up in this situation?
I don’t know about you, but I started a business by accident
I wanted to draw and make comics, so I self-published a comic on a photocopier. I sent it to people who reviewed it, and other people started sending me $2 (cash!) through the US mail. (Hey, this was 1992…)
When I had a new comic out, I sent postcards to people who’d bought my previous comics (← accidental marketing! LOL).
I sent them to reviewers for free, and got reviews.
I went to comics conventions and set up a table to sell.
I pitched publishers and got offers.
Bit by bit I learned a little about how to get into the illustration game. I made postcards and bought mailing lists of art directors, and got a few gigs.
I figured out early that the US Government thought I had a business when I needed to file quarterly taxes and a Schedule C.
I was a “sole proprietor.” (I was perversely proud to use that term and not “small business owner”…as if there were any difference! Yo, punx not dead!)
I did what most artists do:
On the one hand, I had a thing I wanted to make, and I made it
I made comics, textbooks, illustrations. I taught as an adjunct and did editorial work. I had speaking gigs and did workshops.
On the other, I had financial requirements and other limitations
I had a mortgage and two tiny kids—in a very expensive town. I had only so much time and energy in any period of time that I could devote to my professional work.
I never even attempted to figure out how to close the gap between “some money” and “enough money.”
It never occurred to me that I could try to work backwards from enough to what I was doing to try to get there.
I did stuff. It wasn’t enough.
I added more stuff. It wasn’t enough.
I added yet more stuff. It wasn’t enough AND I got burned out.
Sure, technically, I had a business. But it was one that was cobbled together from dribs and drabs of things I could do plus what I figured out from observing the outside of what other artists did to make a living. (Now, of course, I get to go inside and ask the real questions, on my podcast!)
I made decisions reactively
It was: Oh crap, I’ve got to pay the mortgage. Sasha will pay me to edit that book, and George asked me to pick up another section of that class, and I’ve got a an idea for a new book proposal I can try to sell…
…And then I’d try to do all three at once. 🙄
That is why it took me 12 years to finish a 200 page book, and then not make royalties on said book, in a nutshell.
How to increase your income as a creative worker: Put your needs first and work back from there
AKA Start a business on purpose
If you sell anything—product or service—you already have a business, so if the word makes you gag, get over it. That’s a prerequisite to taking control of your business and making decisions that serve you. My perverse resistance to treating my business as a business—even though it clearly was one!—hurt me and held me back for a long time.
What you do for money is a system that emerges from a constellation of variables, including your skill set, your existing audience, how you like to engage with them, what you’re willing to do to share your work, the established market for what you do, your pricing, and lots of other elements. (h/t to Tara McMullin for foregrounding this idea for me.)
To arrive at “enough”, your job is to approach those variables with an open mind, and recombine them in creative ways.
1. The very first question you have to answer is, what is enough income, for you?
Obviously, money is not the only contributor for “enough.” But we’re going to let financial need stand in for all the other things you might need or want from your work because it’s easily quantified (and often top of mind).
Enough varies wildly from person to person, and according to life stage. When I was 22, I made $13,000 in a year (sure, this was 1992, but even then it was very little money), and still started a Roth IRA. I kept the nut very small.
Today, I have a house and a car and two teenagers, I like to eat well, and I’m the primary breadwinner. Enough looks—ahem—a little different these days.
It’s important to note that you have a certain degree of control over what enough money looks like. You can decide to keep the nut small—you could move to a trailer in a cheap area, sell your car and bike everywhere instead. There’s some flexibility, but I’m going to start with the assumption that you’ve already done what you’re willing to do in that area.
Identify what your “enough” looks like. If you’re not sure, as a quick starting point, take what you spend every month and add 25%.
A few hints to help you identify this number:
- When I say “enough”, what I mean is the amount of money that will fulfill your needs to the point that you are not constantly worrying about the next bill that’s going to show up. You need margin, a cushion, for that to be the case.
- If you are not solely responsible for your household’s finances, then “enough” is just what you want to contribute.
- Enough should cover your expenses related to your work as well as your life (and your taxes. When self-employed you’ve got to consider that). This is a general ballpark number, not a detailed financial plan.
- If you’re thinking, wait, enough now, that I have a dayjob and I’m doing this on the side? Enough for when I quit my job? Enough for retirement? Yes, all of the above. Run the numbers in several scenarios.
- If you have no idea what this number is—possibly because your finances are just too scary to look at directly—consider this your call to action to engage and spend time with your money and bills. If you take nothing else from this article, but get a grip on your cash flow as it stands, that would be life-changing.
Of course, you can also do this exercise with “amazing” money…but I do not recommend that you allow yourself to do it with “squeaking by” money. That will lead to ongoing scarcity and anxiety, and plenty of overdrafts.
2. Clarify your personal requirements (beyond an increase in income)
The hidden truth of that constellation of variables I mentioned above is that it also includes all kinds of personal factors. The problem is, that part is usually invisible, and so what matters to you on a personal level gets ignored and trampled.
To avoid that, foreground and get clear on your requirements for a creative business that works for you.
Make a list of personal factors that truly make a difference in how satisfied with your life, and happy, you are.
- How many hours are you willing to put in on this creative business in a given week?
- Do you have mental or physical limitations or differences that you need to take into consideration? What does that look like?
- Are there people who depend on your care, and what impact does that have on your time and energy? Is that flexible?
- What elements of your work (medium, content, process) must be included in what you do professionally? (The distinction is that there are of course many creative elements that you may want to include in your life—but you don’t need to be paid for them.)
- How do you like to interact with people?
- What is your larger skillset?
- What do other people value about what you do or can do?
- What are your personal values as far as working with and for people?
- What change do you want to make in the world?
3. Use what you have at hand to design a way to work that will meet your personal needs and increase your income
You may not be able to handle all the variables at once. It’s complicated. So pick your 3 top variables (including financial need), and start there.
It’s highly likely that what you come up with will not look like what you’re doing now, scaled up. Set that idea aside and see what you can come up with.
Your art is important. But recognize that your business is separate from that—and more than that. You have skills and you have a way you want to work, as well as things you want to produce.
Here’s an example:
You have an idea for a cool custom hand-bound planner, but making each one will take 15 hours. Unless you’re prepared to charge $500-$1000 for it, it’s not a viable business idea. It won’t meet your needs.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make one just because you want to.
And it also doesn’t mean that your planner-creation skills and/or book-binding skills aren’t useful in building a business that WILL support you.
An offer based on selling an object
What about offering custom commissioned books to collect people’s memorabilia? You’d have to charge a lot, but people may be willing to pay for something like that.
An offer based on a group service
What about a workshop to make planners?
An offer based on a 1:1 service
What about coaching people how to effectively use your amazing bullet-journal system to get more done?
None of those ideas is a sure shot at success, of course. You’d have to design the way you offer it to align with your needs. And as a quick
bucket of cold water reminder, let’s just be clear on one thing:
There are only two ways to make more money
- Sell more (either more to the same people, or to new people)
- Raise prices
…and either of those two options will have all kinds of ripple effects in how you build your business.
→ Pricing is a factor of the value of what you’re offering to the audience, your financial need, and how many of the thing you can deliver in a given time.
→ The marketing and sales approach depends on the audience, the details of the offer, what you’re willing to do (and good at), and the pricing.
→ The operational needs of the business will be dictated by how large the audience is, what relationship you have with them, the way you prefer to work, and technical requirements of the offer.
I don’t want to be “flexible”! I want to do what I’m doing!
I know a lot of people reading this will be thinking, NO, WAIT. I want to keep making my [small press comic book/hand-embroidered tea cozies/felted dolls] and that’s it! I want to figure out how to increase my income from those endeavors (and make a living!!)!
Make it so, Jessica!
What I’m saying can be hard to hear—and it’s important to note that there are unicorn exceptions to the rule! I can’t predict the future.
But there are hard, math-based realities to creating that do not go away because we wish they weren’t true, and the adding-more-leads-to-time-crunch rule is one of them.
The fact is, if your work isn’t meeting your needs, once you know why, you have control over your choices.
If you want to keep making what you’re making, you have the option to choose a different “enough” number, and fill in the gap between what you can bring in with your work and what you need to live on with a full- or part-time day job, or client gigs, or a generous spouse.
That’s also being “flexible”—just coming at it from the opposite direction.
I know this is complicated!
I’m developing a whole series of resources for you to help you work through this absolutely crucial question.
And next week we’ll be publishing the brutal math behind why the 1,000 True Fans model is so difficult to achieve—and what to do about it, as well as a functional calculator to start to map out your next steps! Stay tuned, and make sure you’re subscribed to my email list so you get notified when it’s out.
What got you here won’t get you there
The most important takeaway from this article is that—while what you’ve done to get this far is awesome—if you’re feeling tapped out and like your creative work is turning into a beast that keeps taking without giving you a sustainable living, it’s because what got you here simply isn’t designed to get you to the next level.
You have to take control and change things up. Shift the variables and design a new solution around your needs and what lights you up.
It’s a challenge, but no one is better suited to the kind of open-ended, generative thinking needed than creatives!
Think bigger. Instead of adding complexity, add ambition. I know that you’re capable of it.
This article is part of a series of resources designed to help you understand your choices, and to make better ones
- How to go from making some money to making a living as a creative, with Matt Madden [podcast]
- 1000 True Fans + 1 Elephant in the Room (The hidden math that controls your success—until you control it) [article + audio recording]
- What does it actually take to find 1,000 True Fans? with Matt Madden [podcast]
- Run your own numbers to pinpoint the actions that will lead to a sustainable income from creative work with the Income Clarity Calculator.
Are you meeting your income goals with your creative business?
...or are you stuck wondering why your blood, sweat, and tears are leading to diminishing returns?
Check out the free Income Clarity Calculator and get clear on how you need to change your strategy so you can go from "making some money" to actually making a living as a creative worker.
Yeah, that's right. We're gonna do some math.