After giving my talk at XOXO last year I've been dedicating a lot of thought to transparency and finances. While I was up on stage I managed to articulate what it feels like to live in the emotional landscape of perceived success, but I also wanted to give practical figures that might help other creators. Fortunately, David Rees gave a talk the day after me that covered fifteen years of freelancing in hard numbers. Had I had more time I would've done the same, but he was in a better position because he's been at this longer. You can really see the dramatic ups and downs over the course of his career.
I find this stuff ridiculously helpful, so why not share it from my end, too? It seems like a great idea until the survival instinct that kicks in and says "They'll eviscerate you. You don't know how to run a business. People will misunderstand and decide that you're taking advantage. If you'd paid attention this year rather than living moment-to-moment you'd have made a real profit. Your lack of resources is your own fault. If you'd managed this correctly you wouldn't need help. Everyone will see that you don't know what you're doing."
But I think that's bunk. Or if people do think any of those things, the number of other people who find it useful or demystifying or reassuring instead will make it worthwhile.
Patreon recently introduced a feature where creators can hide how much they're making from their supporters. The logic being that some folks use Patreon as a side income, while others use it to support teams of people as full-time employees. It can be hard for audiences to parse why $10,000 a month is barely enough for one creator's page, whereas $500 a month is the highest goal for another.
I totally understand why this is helpful (does your employer force you to put your salary on your resume? Didn't think so), but I'm torn about implementing it on my own page. I don't want to hide how much I'm making, but I also want to be sure I contextualize it. Making my higest page goal right now ($1,500 a month) would equal $18,000 a year if it were my only income. That's an incredible amount of money to me, and yet it's not really a proper salary.
Supporting myself, paying taxes, saving for retirement, and having enough disposable income to develop and print new projects requires significantly more, but should I work to develop Patreon as the thing that covers all of that? Or just the buffer that helps "pay" for the comics projects that would otherwise go uncompensated?
2016 was a year where I was very clearly in that margin that makes or breaks most independent creators. This is the most money I've ever brought in in a year (usually it's closer to the mid-20s), but my expenses were also higher than ever—mostly due to the cost of producing stock, traveling to promote my book, and spending money getting it into shops and conventions around the world.
When I started this Patreon page I figured my "monthly nut" would be around $1,200. That would cover my basic expenses so I could focus on my own projects rather than scrambling for freelance. But it turns out covering the bare minimum with zero extra padding doesn't allow for the freedom to run a business and do personal projects. I got caught out when I sold the last of my Kickstarted copies of Baggywrinkles and stores were still asking for more. I'd spent the whole year churning every ounce of income into traveling and tabling, so coming up with $6,000 at the drop of a hat to pay for a new printing was totally beyond the $400 in my checking account.
Fortunately a friend offered to spot me the money for the down payment ($3,300), which means that more books are now in the pipeline and will, eventually, all going according to plan, earn me some income. For now, any wholesale income I got from selling the remaining Kickstarter books to stores (a much lower margin that what I get selling them at shows—~$5 vs. $18-$22 per copy) has gone straight back into paying for that second print run, and I'm slowly socking money away to pay back that loan.
In other words: I've moved 2,500 books and made no profit, but that's not failure—it's how growing a small press publishing outfit works. It's a long game.
Can I explain all of this in a single blog post? Probably not. There are too many variables. The temptation to ramble on and on is vast, and it's probably more helpful to put these figures up and say "Hey, these are the numbers. They'll probably look very different next year. Ask me anything you want."
So thank you for giving me the courage and the space to discuss this online, and for the vast part you've played in making this weird homunculus of a career possible.