The Financial Realities of Going Viral
Hi Patrons (and other friends, since this is a money post and I try to make those public when I can because TRANSPARENCY)—

A bit of an experiment this week. You’re probably all familiar with the image in this post, and some of you maybe saw that it got a lot of press last month after appearing on a major news site (more on that below). Since I’ve now got my sales figures for this stretch of time in hand, I’ve written up a blow-by-blow account of how the illustration’s been used and how much I’ve made from it—before and after a brush with viral attention.

Here's a little financial timeline of the Art of the Sailor image.

February, 2013: Thanks to an introduction from fellow cartoonist Tony Cliff, I get a request to do an illustration gig for the Vancouver Maritime Museum. They're running an exhibit on the history of tattoos and scrimshaw and want a life-size sailor poster to show off some popular tattoo choices. The Museum pairs me with Skipp Design and we have a great time collaborating, eventually coming up with the image you see in this post. I am a relatively new freelancer charging $35 an hour. (Note that most illustrators raise their rates periodically over time as they gain more experience and expertise. We are responsible for giving ourselves raises.) I spend 5.5 hours on the illustration, bringing in $192.50.

March, 2014: The exhibit goes on tour! I get emails from curators at the Los Angeles and San Diego Maritime Museums asking permission to exhibit the poster. It's a cool thing to say your work has been featured in multiple maritime museums! I do not receive additional payment, mostly because I like boat people and am happy to have them use my art, but also because I'm inexperienced and unsure of how to ask for a licensing fee.

June, 2014: I sell the original artwork of the illustration (just the sailor, sans text) to a fan for $125. (I go back and forth on selling originals vs. clinging to them "until they're worth something," but that's a discussion for another time.)

July, 2015: I pay Twin Ravens Press to produce a letterpress print version as a fancy reward for the Baggywrinkles Kickstarter. We make 100 of them. The prints are a fairly popular reward choice, but don't move at conventions. $40, while reasonable for a two-color letterpress print, turns out to be a bit more than people at comics shows are interested in paying.

2015-2017: I sell 12 of the letterpress prints over the following two years, bringing in a total of $480. Once it's clear that my audience isn't clamoring for them, I try out regular laser print versions for a few shows in 2017, bringing in $120.

Occasionally someone will point out that a military or naval fan page on Facebook has shared the image (without crediting me, Skipp Design, or the Vancouver Maritime museum), garnering thousands of reactions and comments. This is frustrating, but also just the cost of doing business online. I don’t give it much thought.

December, 2016: I list the image in my print-on-demand shop on INPRNT and sell three prints over the next six months, netting $10 per print. (INPRNT takes a substantial cut off the $20 price point for handling production and shipping fulfillment.)

October 21st, 2017: Here’s where things get interesting. Boing Boing, a website that receives about 10 million pageviews a month, features the illustration in a blog post, pointing specifically to the letterpress prints.

The author makes sure to link to both the letterpress prints and the print-on-demand version of the image featured on INPRNT, since the letterpress run is limited and likely to sell out. (Dear Lord, may all bloggers be as fabulous and diligent as the staff at Boing Boing. Amen.)

October 23rd, 2017: My Modern Met picks the story up from Boing Boing. They have 2.3 million Facebook fans.

October 25th, 2017: Pat, the head honcho at my store with Buyolympia, emails to tell me there's been a run on the letterpress prints and they've sold out and do I have any more. I do not. We get some print-on-demand editions up in his shop as well, since I'm trying to migrate all my operations over there anyway.

October 27th, 2017: Atlas Obscura (985k Facebook fans) picks up the story from My Modern Met. The next day George Takei posts about it. He has 10 million followers on Facebook, give or take a couple hundred thousand. The post gets 16 thousand reactions and five thousand comments. Many of my friends tell me I am now famous.

October 21st-31st, 2017: 23 prints of various sizes sell on INPRNT after all the press, netting me $191.50. FINALLY, that Famous Person Money I’ve heard so much about.

November 3rd, 2017: Commander Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space, shares the image on social media. He has 2.28 million Twitter followers. The tweet (never mind the versions posted to Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram) gets 1,700 likes and 572 retweets.

November 6th, 2017: I receive my sales report for the previous two weeks of commerce in the Buyoly shop. We sold 46 on-demand sailor prints, netting $345, and 7 letterpress prints (the last of the bunch!) bringing in $210 before cost of production. (I'm not factoring in the $243 brought in from other items sold in this period, but some of those sales may have come from people who initially showed up to buy sailor prints.) 

November 20th, 2017: My second monthly payment from Buyoly comes in. The rush has tapered off and we’ve sold 9 more prints, bringing in $67.50.

SO: To date, including the money I was paid to produce the artwork, I have made $1,761.50 from this image. Not bad! Notably: $814 of that came after Boing Boing decided to feature the art with a proper link pointing people to my shop. There are a bunch of factors to consider here.

I am delighted at all the press this piece has garnered, and of course very grateful to Boing Boing for conscientiously sourcing their material. It can, as this has hopefully demonstrated, have a very real impact on the livelihood of the people involved.

But I also think it's important to share these numbers as a reminder that just because you've seen someone's work shared on a popular platform (or by a popular person), doesn't mean they're automatically set for life. It does, however, mean they might be making a couple hundred bucks more than they usually do in a given month, and when you're trying to make it as a freelancer that makes all the difference in the world. I was also just genuinely curious about how much this little illustration job from so long ago had paid dividends over the last five years. 

Also, perhaps most importantly, I was pretty green when I did this piece. I didn't have a contract to lay out in clear terms what this illustration would be used for, and how I'd get paid (not just for the work, but for future exhibitions, merchandising, etc.). You never know what's going to happen to your work in the long haul. A contract can help you put mechanisms in place that will protect you. It's always, always worthwhile to have a contract that specifies who owns the artwork and what they can do with it. It's also always worthwhile to keep a high-quality file for making merch. I'll get off my contract soap box for now, but if you're interested in learning more please do check out Katie Lane's invaluable blog.

Of the (probably) millions of people who have now seen this piece of art, 85 have actually made the jump to buying the physical object. Now we could look at that and get really depressed about conversion figures and feel like we’re never going to be able to convert online traffic into sustainable revenue, but here's the thing: this is all part of the plan

Maybe a few of those millions of people will remember my name the next time my work gets the spotlight. And maybe once they've seen my work a couple times, they'll visit my website. And maybe the fifth time they visit the website they'll buy a book, or recognize me at a show, or start following me on Twitter. And if they like the books, or what I say on the internet, maybe they’ll start coming back every year. And then I'll feel comfortable saying I'm famous, at least to those people.

This is how fanbases are really made—not in viral posts, but in the microscopic accumulation of many, many chance interactions and moments of recognition over time.

The best part about being in it for the long haul is getting to see those moments come home to roost.

Thanks for being the people who made the jump <3


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