Ryan Estrada calls himself “an artist/adventurer who travels the world making comics.” He’s lived in Australia, Canada, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Lao, India, Kenya, Tanzania, Costa Rica and Panama. He’s created a number of webcomics available on RyanEstrada.com as well as contributing to the Flight anthology; he also founded the Cartoon Commune. Personally, I’d say his self-description was perfectly appropriate.
Earlier this week, on Google+, Estrada posted a detailed look at his income from comics since 2007 and analyzed what he did right and wrong. It was a refreshingly open and honest piece, and I’ve asked Estrada if we could republish it in its entirety here. He quickly responded with a hearty, “Have at it! I put it together so that it can help people,so share it as you wish!” With that, I’m going to let Estrada take over for the rest of the column this week...
Money is always something that people don’t like to talk about. Especially freelance artists. But I think that in this new world where all the rules of how people earn a living have been thrown out the window, a little data can be very helpful. So because it may help a fellow independent artist, or someone who wants to make a living on the internet, I’ve done a little math homework, and am presenting my income from the last 5 years as a full-time artist, and typed up a breakdown of what I did right or wrong each year, and what I learned from it.
The raw numbers:
This is my net income, after PayPal fees and hiring other artists and such.
2007 (Aug-Dec): $5,761
Man, that dude’s poor as crap, isn’t he?
People always assume I’m rich because I travel a lot. But actually, I travel to places where I can live cheap. I would be destitute in the US, but in most places I travel, I live like a king!
Source of income:
Nearly all of my income comes from doing custom comics and illustrations through my site Cartoon Commune. I don’t have another day-job, so what you see is the entirety of my income. I have not yet tried to monetize my personal work, but rather given it away for Creative-Commons licensed online reading or download in order to build a readership for future projects. This year will hopefully be the year where the bulk of my income comes from personal projects.
The number looks low, but that’s because I didn’t start until mid-August. It was actually a very good year, since I started making a living right off the bat, mere hours after I launched my freelance site. The big coup though, was landing a regular gig illustrating a comic about poker.
What I did right: I marketed my site not to my existing readers, but to anyone who might be looking for a comic. And to be honest, I don’t think any of my customers have ever been readers of my personal comics. And I made a flat rate, and a simple order form to make it as easy as possible for people to give me money.
What I did wrong: I greatly undervalued my work. I was charging around 15 bucks per page in the beginning, with lots of discounts available. Which meant I had to work all day and night at far less than minimum wage just to have enough money to eat.
This was a great year that SHOULD have been even better, were it not for a couple of deadbeat clients that stiffed me for $10,000 worth of work that they never paid for. But unfortunately, I was still grossly undercharging for my commissions and it meant I did nothing but draw commissions, and lost my entire readership for my personal work. I raised my prices a couple of times (to like, 50 bucks a page, I think?) to try and slow down commissions, but more kept coming in. It never occurred to me that that might mean I was undervaluing my work. The poker comic was still paying well, but toward the end, the boss-man stopped paying me, but kept getting free comics with lots of promises. This is the year that I began my very strict pay-up-front-no-matter-what policy.
What I did right: I must have done a good time presenting myself and setting up the site, because I had a constant flow of customers without ever advertising the site.
What I did wrong: Still not charging nearly enough, and not delivering artwork before being paid.
A bad year! Man, I was poor this year. The poker year was over, so it was all on the Cartoon Commune. Thinking of ways to make more profit (and STILL not thinking to simply charge a decent rate) I decided to fix what wasn’t broken and start offering a wide variety of different things on the site, by different artists. Custom children’s books, music, animation, and lots more. Problem was, it was the simplicity of the site that had brought in customers, and now the site confused people. And I charged so little that the ‘cut’ I got from the work I farmed out to other artist ended up being only slightly more than the PayPal fees. Which meant I was making pennies on the new stuff, which was cannibalizing my business to begin with.
What I did right: Not a lot.
What I did wrong: Being a terrible business-man.
Life was pretty awesome this year, because I was living in the jungle, playing with monkeys and swimming in the ocean on my private beach. But work-wise.... Burnout. I was so sick and tired of drawing boyfriends as superheroes. I kept raising prices to slow down orders, and the orders kept coming. I started getting a good rate, but I ended up giving a lot of the commissions away to other people while I tried to raise money for more fun projects. I had two movie projects that failed apart because I was so sick of comics I was convinced I had to make a movie in order to tell creative stories again. But movies kind of require a lot more manpower and money than I had. I put no further effort into expanding or refining my business.
What I did right: I focused on my awesome life instead of work. Truth is, I didn’t even realize how little I made and why until putting these numbers together. Because man, I lived like a king and was happy all the dang time.
What I did wrong: Burning myself out on work that felt like a chore, to the point that I stopped loving one of the things I love most... making comics!
Last year was a very good year. Not only did I make more than I’ve ever made as an artist, but I did it with minimal effort. Most of my energy this year was not on drawing boyfriends as superheroes, but on doing personal work! I finally started charging a decent rate for my commissions ($250 a page), so I was able to do one or two big jobs per month (the new rates attracted new customers like millionaire playboys, international rockstars and celebrity politicians), farm out the ones I didn’t want while still getting a decent cut, and spend the rest of my time doing personal work. I finished my graphic novel Aki Alliance, compiled dozens of ebook collections of my work, rebuilt my site from the ground up, took 3 months off to film a season of my adventure show in South America, and I made new stuff for Google+ that earned me more than a quarter of a million followers.
What I did right: Value my work, and more importantly, put time into work that I’m passionate about.
What I did wrong: I think I did pretty great. I didn’t earn a lot, but my life was amazing so I think I did everything right.
Man, I got ideas, and I got plans. Whether they work out or not, there will be a big changeup in the numbers next year. I’m focusing on telling my own stories again in a big way. I’m working behind the scenes on a lot of things that I’ll announce in due time. I’ll be excited to do one of these again in January 2013 and let you know how it went.