Visual Dispatch #6

A photograph of two bits of paper. The first has "How do you want to feel?" written across the top with a list of adjectives below. They include connected, fulfilled, stable, lauded, validated, helpful, effective, accomplished, calm, grounded, proud, challenged. Below that are phrases like "Survival without worry" and "Creating empathy in others". The page on the right lists five categories "Financial, Emotional, Internal, External, and Visible".

I was emptying out my backpack this morning and a bunch of bits of paper fell out of a hidden sleeve. There were postcards from my trip to Hawai‘i in 2017, thumbnails from the comic about Federated Learning I made for Google in 2019, and a couple scraps of paper containing (I’m fairly sure) notes for this talk on success—also from 2019.

I wish I could remember where the lines in quotation marks came from. Maybe they were responses from the participants at that workshop? Maybe they came up before I even gave the talk? Either way, it reminded me how much I’d poured into those two presentations (the other was about money, surprising no one), and how glad I am to have recorded them.

I’m stuffed up with a head cold this week and feeling very sorry for myself, so this video window into a me who was, well, with it feels really validating. So much has changed and twisted and refined in the past two years. I feel smaller in some ways—like the circles of influence I previously occupied have shrunk considerably—but also deeper. In the five spheres of success above, I feel as if I’ve traded Visible, External, Financial, and possibly even Internal success for something deeply Emotional. And I’m still trying to let the dust settle on that decision and learn how to make peace with it.

The lesson remains: these questions are never truly answered. Not really. Not if I’m doing it right.

Inflation/Deflation

Lily Williams wrote an absolute banger of a post about inflation, arts education, and fair wages for freelancers this week.

If we take the average woman artist’s 1980 income of $24,153 dollars and plug it into the US Inflation Calculator, we learn that in today’s 2021 money that would be $81,073.47.

Funnily enough, when I sat down in 2018 to try and figure out what I really needed to be earning to maintain my quality of life at the time, the number I settled on was $72,000 a year. (This process deserves a whole blog post of its own, because it also dovetails with adopting Whiteboard Accounting and was fascinating and only possible thanks to having started keeping an actual budget the year before. DATA! It’s life-changing.)

Anyway, jumping back to my post from yesterday: if I were charging my standard freelance hourly rate for my work on this graphic novel, I’d likely earn somewhere around $78,750 for a year’s work. This feels bang on target with what Lily is talking about! Bingo! Amazing! Inflation adjustment accomplished!

But that’s not the reality.

[…] when we compare that $81,073 to what the 2020 Census numbers are for artists... we find that the average income in 2020 was only $52,340. Meaning, yes, artists income hasn’t adjusted for inflation since the 1980s. In fact, artist’s income is less than $30,000 more than what it was in 1980, which is about $30,000 under what it should be if it had adjusted for inflation properly over the last 41 years.

Am I surprised? No. No I’m not.

So what do we do with the information that artists are underpaid and that their income has not adjusted for inflation since the 1980s? We strike back in the ways that we are able. Freelancers are less likely to make a strike because of the individual nature of freelance work, unlike more organized fields in art like creatives in the film industry, who have the IATSE Guild information and network to help organize strikes. So, from an empowered standpoint knowing we deserve more… what we do is charge more and we do not settle for less.

Hell yeah.

Relative Pricing

Robin and I were texting about Arion Press yesterday, drooling over their edition of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. I mean, just look at this thing:

A photograph of two fine press editions of The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde by Arion Press. Both are exquisitely bound in sage bookcloth with understated type and illustrations.

HOMINA HOMINA HOMINA. That BINDING! The ILLUSTRATIONS! The DROP CAPS!

Also it starts at SIX HUNDRED AND EIGHTY DOLLARS!

A screen shot of a conversation between Robin and Lucy. Robin says "Agh. Oh sorry, I was not scared by the themes of the book, but by the effing price tag. If I wince at the price of a book, you done fucked up." Lucy says "I mean it takes an unbelievable amount of time to typeset a book by hand. I get that. It's an interesting conundrum. Kind of like what would happen if...Oh! Oh! I have an idea." Robin says "Here we go. Let er rip. Get em."

OKAY SO.

Creative work is often priced on a bafflingly subjective scale of value—one which can deviate wildly from the amount of time invested in the piece depending on a variety of other factors (edition size, physical scale, desirability, intended audience).

With commercial art, the equation is often simpler—although of course we’re all raising our rates over time to compensate for increased skill and swiftness in execution (right?). We often bill more like tradespeople than “fine artists”.

But with a fine press book, there are two vectors: the status associated with the object itself, yes, but also the sheer enormity of time required to typeset an entire book by hand. This is the first example that’s really resonated in my head as a decent point of comparison for how long graphic novels take to produce.

It’s a lot.

I’m tracking my time on Seacritters! because a) I love data and want to understand exactly how long it’s taking me to do everything and b) I think it’s going to be really valuable (read: sobering) to sit with the reality of how long it takes to make a graphic novel relative to the money involved.

I’ve only roughed in 73 pages of a book that will likely clock in around 350 and it’s already taken 63 hours of labor. For roughs. There are still refined pencils, inks, and colors left to go. My guess is that it’ll be about five hours of work per page at least, which means we’re looking at 1,750 hours just to complete the art itself—not including time spent fielding notes from the editor or anything aside from pure drawing. (The average American fulltime (i.e., benefitted) employee works 1,801 hours per year.)

If I were to apply a freelance rate of $90/hr to that time estimate, I’d clock in at $157,500 per book. I’m guessing at an overall timeline of 2 years per book, so that shakes out to $78,750 a year. The publishing industry isn’t currently paying artists that kind of money, so where would it need to come from?

The fine press book market feels like one potential answer to this thought experiment.

What would it really take for cartoonists to be paid fairly for the work they do? What happens to the accessibility of my work if I’m paid what I’m worth? Would the cost be passed on to the consumer or shouldered by the publisher? Who could afford the resulting product?

I really believe that art is meant to be shared. I want to make things that people can afford. When I was just starting to learn about the world of fine presses and letterpress and Artists’ Books in college, I remember being deeply frustrated by the fact that these creators—many of whom were working with themes of tactility, interaction, and accessibility—were making work that got sold for hundreds of dollars to private institutions, who then kept it in small rooms known only to a small subset of people.

It all felt so prohibitive.

(Something I’ve always loved about McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is that they publish some truly batshit Artist Book-like objects, but they’re generally under $30 a pop. That’s accessibility.)

But wait.

A line drawing of setting type by hand. Right right hand holds an individual piece of type, the left holds a composing tray full of letters.

Do I really know how long it takes to typeset a page by hand? I text Glenn, because one should always have a letterpress nerd on speed-dial. He sets me straight: maybe a little over 2 hours per page by hand, but 5-10x faster by machine (Monotype). I dig a little deeper and find that the Arion Press edition is set in Monotype with some bits done by hand.

So maybe it’s not quite the same.

Still, this was useful.

Artist Brain/Worker Brain

Still wrestling with how to write up this post demystifying the money behind my book deal. It’s unearthing some real discrepancies in how I want to talk about this stuff on the internet. I think the fundamental problem is that I have two brains. Or two selves. Two wolves. Y’know. Whatever you wanna call it.

The Artist part of my brain is drawn to gift economies, to trust-based models of community and mutual support, to play and movement and exchange. The Artist likes living in the space of thinking we already have enough, and that art can serve its highest role in society if it exists beyond the constraints of financial exchange. The Artist has also, so far, done a pretty good job giving things away for free and then managing to receive financial support for them in a roundabout way that feels almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Capitalism.

The Worker part of my brain, on the other hand, (especially the Worker that exists under Capitalism) is concerned with the business of enoughness, but that enoughness is often tied to needing more. The Worker sees how creative freelancers are getting the short end of the stick and is feeling utterly insane watching herself behave as if it’s all we’re allowed to ask for. The Worker wants fair wages and paid time off and benefits. Fewer barriers to entry and better conditions. The Worker wants unionization. The Worker is angry.

When I start talking about the ludicrously low amount of compensation afforded to creators through publishing’s advance system (even in instances where an author lands a “good” advance!), I feel like I’m operating from a place of lack. A world of scarcity. And it’s hard to tease apart how much of that feeling is productive. There’s a real sense of not wanting to sound ungrateful—or worse, petulant. But I also can’t help but be furious when I think about how many people—people without a decade of work behind them, or a relatively stable monthly draw from Patreon, or a forgiven PPP loan from the government, or a family to move in with (even if that move comes twinned with a new identity as a full-time caregiver)—cannot survive on the money publishing wants to pay them.

I don’t want to spend the next two years working on this book and nursing the bitter brew of this industry’s broken compensation system. I will probably—almost certainly—be okay. I built the scaffolding, I laid in supplies, I changed my life to accommodate this next season. It won’t be the golden field I’d let myself dream it might be, but I’ll do fine. The book might even sell enough to turn a profit down the line. But! But.

I want things to be better.

Compound

Back in February (oh, those heady, pre-COVID days…) I rewarded myself for bashing through my eighth tax filing as a self-employed artist by meeting a friend for tea. She listened patiently as I rambled about estimated quarterly payments and Roth IRA maximums, but when I bemoaned how much I still had to learn, she scoffed.

“I always think of you as someone who has this all figured out. You must’ve been into it as a kid or something.”

I laughed.

I did not like math as a child. I struggled with rules and numbers. Even today I have to fight to stay present when learning a new board game or trying to parse any kind of technical data. So it’s always a shock when someone thinks I’ve got this figured out. And from childhood? Yeah, right.

But as the conversation flowed on I realized there was something that had given me an understanding of how this practice could be pleasurable. I’d just never joined up the dots.

When I was about eight, I started receiving pocket money. Two dollars a week. Enough, if I saved for two weeks, for one of the smallest LEGO sets at the local toy shop. They were $2.95 a pop, the tiny, round-cornered price tags handwritten in loopy script. I’d generally save for two weeks and then blow my savings on a pirate brandishing a miniature blunderbuss or a deep sea diver sporting weighted shoes.

It was a peaceful time—until my mother introduced me to the concept of compound interest.

It started with a safe: squat and glossy and cherry red, with a tiny combination lock on the door. I can still feel the catch of the latch as the dial spun—this way, that way, click, open.

“You’re going to have an account with the Bank of Mummy and Daddy,” she explained. I was busy caressing the smooth red box, but I tried to pay attention. She handed me a narrow booklet. “This is your check deposit book. You write down all the money that comes in and all the money that goes out. Every week, when we give you your pocket money, you’ll put $2 in the deposit column, like this. Then you add up your new total over here.”

An unfolded checkbook with columns for Number, Date, Transaction Description, Debit, Credit, and Balance.

“If you buy a LEGO set,” she went on, “you write $2.95 in the withdrawal column and subtract that from the total.”

So far, so good. I could handle basic arithmetic.

But then she dropped the bomb:

“The account also has a weekly compound interest rate of 10%.”

I gave her a blank stare. Brave woman, she soldiered on.

“Earning compound interest means that the more money you save, the more you’re rewarded for saving. Every week we’ll see how much you have in your account and then take ten percent of that number and add it to your pocket money.”

I can’t imagine that I took to percentages like a duck to water, but after a few weeks the equation had become very clear. If I didn’t spend any money, I earned more money. Fast.

In ten weeks I’d saved $20—enough to double my weekly allowance. Then it became $50. Then $100. The entries in the withdrawal column thinned. The total balance went up by leaps and bounds.

Often, I would open the safe just to pull out the stack of bills and smack the soft, dense bundle against my palm. A tangible accumulation of patience. I remember how proud it made me feel. Secure and in control.

This went on for a long time—perhaps indulgently long—until I’d saved so much that my mother called a moratorium.

“The bank,” she declared, “has gone under. Let’s go get you a real account.”

While I was horrified at my new interest rate—a paltry 0.01% per year—the lesson had stuck. I was saving religiously, perhaps even a little compulsively. Over the next few years I started working lighting design gigs in my tiny hometown, socking away cash for international travel rather than bigger and better LEGO sets. When I finally felt ready to spend my savings, I had eight thousand dollars at my disposal—more than enough to cover the solo journey I’d planned around Europe for my gap year.

When I think about my drive to understand retirement accounts, investments, and budgeting, I think about that little red safe. The neat columns in the balance book made me feel like there was logic and order to this process. The increasing weekly deposits gave me a dopamine rush every time I resisted the temptation to spend. Even if I still struggled in high school math classes, I got a taste for the power and pleasure of making my money work for me.

I may never find a bank with rates to rival that first account, but now I can point to the thing that started me down this road. And if I ever have a child of my own, I will absolutely buy her another one of these.

A squat red safe with a piggy bank slot in the top and a black combination lock on the door.

Patreon is Here!

So some of you may have heard of this fancy new service called…

Oo4th_patreon_name

In a nutshell, Patreon is a platform that allows fans to directly support creators they love on an ongoing basis. As a full-time freelancer, a ton of my time and energy goes into taking client work that will help me pay my bills and keep a roof over my head. Because of this, my passion projects often end up on the back burner — which bothers me because I’m sure those projects are exactly the kind of content that led you to me in the first place, and it’s the kind of content that I would really love to be pumping out for your enjoyment every month. Fortunately, Patreon has an answer to this conundrum. Here’s my project video to tell you a little about how it works:

If you aren’t able to watch the video right now, here’s the gist:

On my page you can pledge to send an amount of money my way every 30 days — it could be fifty cents, it could be forty bucks — and in exchange you get access to sweet behind-the-scenes action, special PDF downloads, or even a handwritten postcard from me every month. This ongoing support allows me to devote more time to creating the comics I want to share with you the most, and hopefully gives you a neat opportunity to see what my process is like from the back end.

Sound interesting? Then…

SailingFacePatronI am super excited about the possibilities of this platform, and I’m really eager to start sharing parts of my process that I generally don’t talk about online through the Patrons-Only Process Blog. If you enjoy my work and would like to see more of it in the future, check out the page! I would love to hear what you think of it.

Thank you so much, everyone!

 

Worthy

I don’t often use this blog for soapboxing about artistic issues, but this comic deserves a bit of an introduction. It’s part of a short conversation I had with my mother (a freelance writer and former cartoonist) a few months ago while working on an illustration job. I’m proud of how far I’ve come in the past year in terms of understanding my financial worth and being unafraid to charge money for what I do, but moments like this still leave me a trembling, anxious wreck. Money and creativity have a fraught relationship at the best of times, and somehow financial matters always manage to cut to the heart of many people’s insecurities. We often believe we’re worthless. That we’re frauds. That someone will come forward one of these days and expose us. It’s only a matter of time. Taking risks and charging a fair price for the services we offer opens us up for the ultimate confirmation of these fears. If someone refuses our price, we are indeed worthless.

Of course, this is a load of bullshit.

Charging people money for something you love doing shouldn’t be difficult, yet somehow it’s one of the greatest challenges facing new artists in the field. We’re steeped in mixed messages telling us that creativity is simultaneously priceless and worthless. “How hard can it be?” people ask, turning around in the same breath to babble about “talent” and “genius”. The attitude I encounter most often involves folks looking wistfully over my shoulder and saying “Oh, I could never do that” — as if drawing is some God-given jar of pixie dust rather than a craft honed over hundreds and thousands of hours. Conversely, onlookers or employers can be astounded at the amount of time and effort that goes into a job — “Surely it doesn’t take that long!” “But that’s so much work!”

How can we create a system where artists don’t have to overcome so many conflicting viewpoints simply in order to get paid for their work? Of course, a great deal rests on having the confidence to realize that self-worth and artistic worth are separate entities. Often it just takes guts to be calm and up-front about asking for your price. By being professional about our financial requirements, we set a precedent for other artists in the field. But it can be hard to know where to start. It’s a lesson I learn and re-learn every time I take on a new job or decide to increase my fees in relation to the amount of experience I’ve gained since starting out as a freelancer.

This is an awful lot of gabble for such a quick comic, but it’s an issue that’s really important to me, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts. If anyone wants to read more, I’ve included some helpful links to other essays on the subject at the bottom of this post.

Phew!

Comic time.

Money

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Useful Links:

Jessica Hische: The Dark Art of Pricing

Katie Lane: Why You Should Raise Your Rates

Katie Lane: Be a Freelance Rock Star

Mike Monteiro: F*ck You, Pay Me