“Am I a failure if I’m not making enough money with my creative work?”
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“Am I a failure if I’m not making enough money with my creative work?”
If you’re asking yourself this question, you’re not alone. Artists, writers, cartoonists, performers, and creatives of all stripes share with me the painful dilemma of not making enough money in practically every coaching call.
“I feel like being able contribute to my family financially relates to my value in the home, even though nobody else feels that way. I keep asking myself, what’s my value in this house?”
“I don’t feel like I deserve to spend time making my work, because it’s not paying the bills.”
“I don’t want to depend on my partner. It feels really uncomfortable after a life of striving to be independent. But my work isn’t bringing in enough money. I feel like a failure!”
And yet, when you think of making a real effort to earn money with your work, it can feel beyond pointless. Everything you’ve ever heard about making a living as a creative says that only the super-special ones make it.
And that the vast majority of artists can expect to starve.
It gets you wondering, “if I haven’t made it yet,
does that mean I’m destined for failure?”
As one client put it, “The original myths about being a creative are that you’ll never have any money. So don’t expect to have any. You’ll never have control over what you earn, so don’t even try to. You’ll just spend your whole life doing what you love in exchange for fear and scarcity and the nightmare of always worrying about money.”
To say that this pisses me off is a massive understatement.
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”).
- Artists who make an effort to sell their art are less talented and worthy than artists who don’t.
- Artists who do use their art skills to make a living are sellouts.
- Artists whose work doesn’t make them a full-time living (without any real effort on their part) are not real artists.
So, to recap:
- You can’t sell art because that makes it (and you) less worthy.
- You can’t do anything else with your creative skillset because that makes you a sellout.
- You must be earning a full-time living with your art, or you’re a failure.
To whoever came up with this existential Catch-22…
F U very much.
Let’s start from first principles.
You can’t seem to make enough money with your creative work or skills.
You feel like this means something dire about the value of your work, and that you’re doomed to failure.
The key piece you need to understand that links these two fact together is that you’re using a SYSTEM to try to make money.
You do certain actions, and those actions have results. That’s a system.
Here’s the thing: You may very well be successful—right now—at using the system you’ve set up to make money.
But the system you’re using to make money with your creative work is broken
Every system is perfectly designed to get you the results it’s currently getting.
It’s not your fault: You were never taught to intentionally build a system for making money. You were just taught to make stuff and hope, essentially.
You’re scrappy. You’re creative and hard working, and you’ve been cobbling together whatever you can find to pull the making part and the income part together, and turn it into a functional machine.
Meanwhile you’re constantly bombarded by gurus who try to convince you that they’ve got the magic tactic to start turning your art into gold: Instagram Reels, email newsletters, YouTube channels, optimizing LinkedIn…any of it could be useful. Maybe.
But duct taping random tactics to your janky system doesn’t make the underlying system any less janky.
If your system is not designed to make you enough money, adding a random marketing tactic will not suddenly start making you enough money.
By the way, that “system” you’re using?
It’s called a business model
I know, I know, I used the “b” word.
But what are you doing when you set out to support yourself as a self-employed creative (whether full- or part-time) and end up going into business for yourself?
If that sounds scary to you, join the club.
Culturally, we treat business school and art school as sworn enemies.
But 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.
However, working artists, writers, performers, and all other creatives who don’t take control of the decisions around how their business runs are making bad decisions, guaranteed.
How could it be otherwise? If you lack crucial information about how you’re trying to get paid, it’s inevitable that you’ll struggle to make clear decisions about what actions to take to secure your financial future.
NOT getting paid for your art or creative work doesn’t make you a failure
Let’s get clear on this: 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, or 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.
Making the conscious choice to keep your day job, or move to a trailer and live off the land so you don’t have to make money, or even to find a generous partner with an amazing job who’s willing to support you are all legitimate, awesome, perfect choices for some people.
There is absolutely zero correlation between how much money you make and the value of your work to you, or to other people.
You do you.
At the same time, getting paid for your art or creative work does not make you a dirty capitalist collaborationist or a sellout
If you do need or want to make a living from your creative work…
But you feel like a failure because you’ve been acting on received wisdom about how to design your creative business…and it’s just not working?
You need to read the rest of this article.
Let’s do this.
What is a business model?
At core, it’s not that scary.
A business model is just 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: How you get paid? And what do you need to do to make getting paid happen?
If you’re already making some income from your creative activity, you have a business model. If it’s not bringing in the money you need, it’s just not a functional business model. Don’t let this derail you. You’re not inept or incapable because you can’t do the impossible.
The two main creative business model recipes most artists and freelance creatives choose from
- Volume. Sell a lot of something cheap to tons of people. (i.e. a comic book, an MP3, a t-shirt).
- High-ticket. Sell a few of something expensive to just a few people (a painting, an expensive service).
I’d say the majority of people I work with initially have low-cost offers. Books, prints, online courses and programs, patterns…really anything that is priced up to several hundred dollars requires that you use a Volume model, because you have to sell a lot of it to make the money work.
In theory, you can make a $100,000—a solid, middle-class income—selling a $10 book 10,000 times.
What does the marketing for a Volume model look like?
This is probably the source of a lot of your anxious worries. And not without reason: the go-to answer to “I’m not making enough money with my creative work” is “sell more of it.”
And how do you sell it? With promotion.
However, when you promote your work (using one of those fancy tactics you keep seeing ads for…) you may make a few more sales. But when your profit on any one sale is low, a few sales are not even close to what you need to get to “enough” money.
What you need in order to make a true Volume model work is what’s called “traffic” marketing. That means using a relatively shallow content assets (like social posts, blog posts, videos) and lots of automation (email funnels, sales pages, countdown timers), and very likely, ads (a LOT of ads) to get a huge number of eyeballs on what you’re selling, so that a teensy-tiny percentage of them will take action and buy.
The work that has to go into creating the marketing for an effective, truly high-volume traffic model is MASSIVE.
It looks like:
- Huge amounts of content creation, including, probably, daily social media
- Following the trends on various platforms and adapting to algorithmic changes
- Learning copywriting or hiring expensive copywriters to create all the emails, the landing pages, the sales pages…
- Engaging in the DMs and email with large numbers of people who respond to your work every day
- Learning to make effective videos, and doing it often
- Either hiring help or learning all the tech platforms to connect everything
- Writing email to your list weekly, and sending intense sales campaigns every few months
- and probably, spending thousands to tens of thousands a month on ads.
What does the back end of a Volume model look like?
I haven’t even gotten into the other parts of a Volume model: The systems, financial structure, and the back-end capacity to manage all those transactions and customers. 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.
How much time does it take to run a Volume model business?
In short, for a person trying to run a business mostly solo, implementing a traffic model means working more than full time, and spending probably 80% of your time on marketing…and still making compromises that make it difficult to hit your numbers.
It also privileges those who are comfortable on camera, willing to share their lives (to an extent) with strangers, and who have a high degree of personal charisma (to say nothing of the huge and unfair impact of race, class, gender, body type…)
This is why the Volume model won’t work for the vast majority of creatives
Most people I work with are already maxed out.
They need more time and space (for their creative work, their families…their own tired bodies…) not less.
This is why I say that “more”—making more things, doing more traffic marketing—is rarely an acceptable answer to income plateau issues for creatives.
Who does the Volume model work for?
Large companies. Nike, McDonalds, Masterclass, Penguin Random House.
They all put huge resources into marketing their products, and leverage tactics like ads, SEO, and email marketing to get millions of people to see what they do so that many many thousands will spend money.
Their products are low-cost and have low profit margins, but they can make that work because they have the scale to invest a small part of those profits to hire full-time professionals to market and sell their wares.
There are successful small companies who use the Volume model as well, like some YouTubers or Instagram influencers. But even if the face of the company is one person, they usually aren’t doing it all alone (and when they do, that’s when they burn out fast). And marketing is essentially all they do. (Also, often what they’re actually selling is sponsored posts, which can be pretty High-ticket.)
We see them online and think, they can do it, so why can’t I? But we’re just seeing the surface layer, and not all the investment that goes into creating what they publish.
There’s also an element of luck. Some early adopters of Instagram who used it well built large followings with simple actions and leveraged that into thriving businesses (see: Lisa Congdon). Some people who used Facebook Groups strategically in 2016 were able to rocket to the top. But once a tactic ages and more people jump on it, its utility drops dramatically and we’re back to the usual need for massive labor to make this model work.
Again, it’s not you. By the time some guru is teaching what she did to get so huge, it won’t work the same way anymore.
What I learned about my own broken creative business model, and how that pointed to a solution
From 2006 to 2015 I was attempting to make a living as a commercially-published author. And in some ways the default author model is built on making Volume work like High-ticket.
A large chunk of my income came from selling books to publishers, where I earned 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 the author model is predicated on an underlying Volume model.
An advance is a lump sum, often delivered in 3 payments, paid to the author during the making of the book and on delivery of the manuscript. It’s an “advance” because it gets paid back in tiny increments each time a book sells—usually earning the author 6-8% of cover price, which the publisher applies towards that advance.
Until those tiny ~$1 payments pay back that multi-thousand dollar advance, the author doesn’t see another penny. This is the MOST COMMON outcome of a publishing deal. You never see a penny past the advance.
An advance seems like a lot of money because it comes all at once…
…but you’re not making enough money to pay for the work that goes into the books in the first place.
I never “earned out” (paid back) my advances, so no royalties were forthcoming. (Again, I am not an outlier. This is the most common scenario for published authors.)
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 in order to get a new advance.
It was like taking out a payday loan.
I realized that none of that would ever be enough. I was not making enough money (and was never going to) with the Volume model.
I chocked the gaps with freelance editorial work, illustration jobs, and adjunct teaching.
I was exhausted. I saw no chance this would resolve itself.
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 thought ought to be materializing somehow 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
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. (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-received and sell reasonably well, they just don’t sell to mass audiences, and aren’t likely to start.
Anyone up for some traffic marketing?
Before I did this simple math I felt confused and victimized
I ruminated darkly on a quote from the TV show True Detective, “Be careful what you get good at.”
I laughed sardonically at the story my friend, cartoonist Ronald 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 (and invest much more time into) selling my books…
…or I needed to figure out what I could offer that would be more valuable so that I could afford to reach fewer people (but the right ones).
It put the decision in my hands
Guess which I chose?
“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%) over how many of each thing you sell X price of each thing.(We do the math for you over here in the Income Clarity Calculator.)
Can you make the numbers work out?
What does a High-ticket business model look like?
Focusing on a smaller number of higher-value sales (of objects or services) is just so much simpler.
There are many High-ticket models. Typically, though, someone starting out with this style of business model will be delivering something high value to individual clients, one by one.
First: Let’s address the elephant in the room. Most people have very real, understandable fears around charging a lot of money for something. Especially when they already feel like they’re failing at something lower-cost that seems like it should be so much easier. (By the way, it’s not.)
“What do I even know how to do that’s valuable?”
“How do I make anything good enough for that amount of money?”
”Who would pay me that much?”
“How do I get my work in front of the people willing to pay that?”
I don’t want to dismiss these fears, because they really can stop people from taking action they need to take. But I’m going to set them aside for the moment so we can look at the structure of this kind of business model in the abstract. I’ll come back to this topic in the future.
Here are examples of the kind of High-ticket business models artists and writers might implement
- Coaching (book coaching, art coaching, ADHD coaching, career coaching)
- Consulting (storytelling, branding, production optimization)
- Services (copywriting, podcast production, web design, app design, mural painting)
- High-end commissions (portraits, metal fabrication)
- High-end products (visual art, craft objects, furniture)
Marketing for a High-ticket business
To sell to clients in the High-ticket space you don’t need to dance on TikTok. You need to connect with just a few of the right people, and help them get to know you and trust that you’re the right person for the job. That often looks like intentional relationship-building and, especially, referrals.
That means initially, you’re:
- Asking your friends for introductions
- Asking former clients for introductions
- Having conversations with interested people
Yes, there will be more in the future, like getting on podcasts or getting articles written. But even then, we’re talking a few hours a week of time.
The back end of a High-ticket business
As long as you’re working 1:1, delivery of your services is usually simple, and requires very little tech or administration. Obviously, there are things you’ll need to set up, such as an invoicing system, and if you’re creating physical objects, a way to deliver them. But it’s generally something one person can easily handle with very little in additional cost.
How much time does a High-ticket business take to run?
That depends on your revenue needs and just how high-ticket it is. But it can usually be designed to leave ample time for your self-directed creative work as well as other personal priorities, like your family. Again, depending on your personal variables, it can take as little as 10 hours a week to make a living.
I don’t want to overplay the advantages of a High-ticket business model: It still takes hard work and commitment to make it work. It’s still a small business. That brings some level of risk with it automatically.
But it’s essentially built for a single person to run successfully in a way that the Volume model is not, no matter what the internet marketing celebs are trying to sell you this week.
And none of this means you need to abandon your creative work. The High-ticket model you design could be based on either raising your prices for something you do now—probably by a lot—or it can leverage your creative skills, and be set up to leave ample time to focus on your own work alongside.
I know this is not what a lot of people want to hear
We want to believe in magic, that we can somehow, by force of pure will, working ever harder, make the volume model work and make whatever we feel like making, and have financial success.
But if you’ve been at this a long time, and miserable, isn’t it better to understand what’s happening, and why?
Is this not the moment for some real talk…and possibly a major pivot?
Next time you start feeling like a failure because you’re not bringing in enough money with your creative work
Remember: It’s not your fault that you can’t force a broken business model to work. And it’s not your fault that you didn’t know it was broken.
You have what it takes to build something better, a business that meets your needs. And there’s never a better time than today to start.
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?
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Yeah, that's right. We're gonna do some math.
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
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.
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.)
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!