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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): $5761 2008: $18,628 2009: $7188 2010: $11,957 2011: $20,183

Immediate takeaway:
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.

2007
The number looks low, but that’s because I didn’t start until mid-August. (EDIT: Before August, I was working for Citibank, making $5000 a month to basically sit on my butt and watch movies in their Mumbai call center, but I gave that gig up to follow my dream of making my living from comics!)
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.

2008
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 delivering artwork before being paid.

2009
A bad year! Man, I was poor this year. The poker gig 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.

2010
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 my customers’ 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!

2011
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 my customers' 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.

2012
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.

Any questions? Ask them in the comments, or send me an email and I’ll be more than happy to answer.
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52 comments
 
Thanks so much for sharing this! I see a trend line in that data, and it's going up -- congrats!
 
Ryan, you continue to astound and impress. You're not alone in undervaluing your work, but you've been brilliant in using social media to connect with your fans. This little financial history will be invaluable to many creatives who are starting out. Bravo!
 
Yep, that seems about right for me too. It's not a glamorous life, but it's better than being stuck in an office IMHO.

Comics is what I love to do. I'd rather be poor-ish and happy.
 
Seems that Zacatecas Mexico was a bad place for business :p
 
Goddamn, good for you! Really. Success stories like this one both encourage and discourage me. Encourage for obvious reasons, discourage because I always think - for one Ryan Estrada, there are probably 10 or 20 or even more comic artists or artists in general who aren't making anything. I'm kinda in a similar situation. Poor-boy freelance writer who is struggling to get his first customer. Still, it's always a learning experience. Thanks for sharing!
 
Thanks for posting this, it is very interesting and encouraging.
 
At least their paying you. Some one took the drawings off my desk and published them. I didn't know till I saw them in a book! Called G'pa for help. I was just mad at some people when I drew them. The basic drawings were used for a runway show that was kind of cool. No pay No credit.
 
Again Ryan, congrats on deciding to step up and tell it like it is. I was also wondering how the heck did you manage to travel the world while making comics, which almost sound like exact financial opposites. It just takes some research to find out how much more bang for your buck you can get on many places around the globe compared to, say, the US - and suddenly many things start to make sense. On 2011 I was finally able to land a location-independent job, whose advantages I'd like to exploit fully in the near future, as in spending some more time in South America like you did. If you've been able to do so much with so little, then why shouldn't I? :) Thanks for keep being a source of inspiration and adventure to so many of us.
 
A truly inspiring story. Thanks for sharing!!
 
Thanks for the kind words, everyone. I talk so much about how amazing my life is and how fulfilled I am as an artist, but I know those numbers wouldn’t work for everyone! Am I happy, content and fulfilled? Yes. Do I have $700 in my checking account right now? Yes. Both are useful data for someone.
 
I'm realizing that you're living in Korea again... it's a sign of the end of times?
 
I think I'm lost in translation. What I tried to say it's that you almost don''t live in a place more than once.
 
great share +Ryan Estrada .. I just started my journey a few months ago and I've learned a lot. 2012 should be a great year, but there's still so much to learn
 
Cool, an out gay artist I hadn't heard of! Pleased to hear about you; I shall check out your work :)
 
Not sure if you were talking to me or someone in the comments, +Dale Lazarov but I should point out just to avoid confusion that I’m not gay.
 
I've said this before, but I don't know if I've said it to you - the world needs Ryan Estrada, the Comic Adventurer. I'm not sure we can all roll the way you roll, but it's essential that at least you do.
Also, I'm mildly curious as to what your gross totals were during this stretch. Or at least, does the gross smooth out that 2009-2010 valley?
 
+Ryan Estrada Apologies. This part confused me: "Most of my energy this year was not on drawing boyfriends as superheroes, but on doing personal work!"
 
+Darren Gendron The gross is only slightly more, adding in the PayPal fees. I don’t count the commissions I sent off to other artists at all, I haven’t run any numbers on that, because that money was never mine. I just factored in the small cut I took as the middle-man.
 
If I factor in the non-comics money I made in 2007 before going full time (when I made 5000 bucks a month working for Citibank in India) that first number would be MUCH MUCH higher.

But I gave up that boring old 5000-a-month-to-do-next-to-nothing job because COMICS ARE FUN!
 
Thanks for the insight as I was think of doing something similar to this. I will definitely check out your work.
 
+Dale Lazarov Ah! Yeah, that’s just what most of my customers ordered. Drawing my customer’s boyfriends as superheroes, not mine. Thanks for pointing out the confusing bit! I fixed it.
 
That's awesome...
 
Amazing Ryan thanks so much I have a similar history I need to sitdown and check my numbers
 
Always guessing what i so next this insight gave me sort of strength. Thank you so much for sharing your story
 
Nice to see an artist giving his work away under Creative Commons can earn enough money for a decent living. You're like Cory Doctorow in comics business :-) BTW, I plan to convert some of your work to ACBF comic book format I'm developing in the future (if anyone interested, check my profile for links to project page). Sorry for a little spamming of your post. Keep up the good work!
 
Well, what comes to the Finns they talk easier about their sex life that their money situation.
 
This is great info, thank you for sharing!
My question is, aside from Cartoon Commune, where and how did you find work? Did people come to you or did you seek them out?
 
99% of it is from Cartoon Commune. People always came to me... never advertised, just let people find the site on Google. Only other stuff is the poker comic, for which I answered a call for artists and auditioned, and um... I guess the short story I sold to Machine of Death is factored in there. Once again, just answered an open call.... +Dustin Cantos
 
inspiring story Ryan..thanks for sharing and keep it up!
 
Loved reading this breakdown, thanks for being willing to share.
 
Could you go into further details about starting up? Did you build the website yourself? How and where did you market your work and how did you find your audience?

Insightful and inspirational as usual, I truly enjoy and appreciate how open you are with us and your will to share your experiences in detail, even the financial ones. I'm so glad I circled you, thank you so much.
 
I did build the website myself, though a friend who’s a web designer saw it and rolled his eyes at all my mistakes and redid almost everything. When I started it was me and John Campbell. We both just told our followers,and it started from there. I bought some Google Ads once, but only like 2 people clicked them. All the customers have come just from Googling ‘custom comics’. I just worried about my placement on Google search. I made sure that I had the right keywords on the site, and made sure I used the right words when I linked to it. Example: if I typed ‘here’s a custom comic I did for the Cartoon Commune’ I made the link on the words ‘custom comic’ instead of ‘Cartoon Commune’ so that it would improve my rank for those words. A helpful trick, but please don’t anybody use it against me on that keyword. Once you get the Google ranking, you’re all set. Example: When The Office had a one hour Christmas Special in 2010, in which Pam got Jim a custom comic for Christmas, and 20 minutes of the episode was devoted to speeches about how great a gift it was, the world rushed to Google and found my site. It was like having an ad on network tv, for free!
 
It seems that the shirts are a good source of income, though she didn't make any deductions so it's hard to tell what makes the most money. I believe the profit margin of tees and merchs are rather low?
 
:D GOSH , let the march come and let it give way to april and may, that will turn into 5 digit income... :D Good Luck ryan...
 
Thank you so much for sharing this! You've given me the courage and inspiration to charge more for the services I offer online. (I'm emi1138 on Fiverr.)
 
That's interesting that you saw a dip in 2009 like I did in 2010, but then the following year it jumped back up.
 
thanks for sharing all this info Ryan it really motivates me to chase after my artistic dream. To put your things in perspective: my net income in 2011 was close to $20,000 working as a civil engineer here in Portugal... and I lots of people are earning considerably less. I'm currently unemployed and considering other career choices... so who knows... :-)
 
Just want to pitch in my .02. Excellent post! My daughter just graduated from SCAD with a sequential art degree. That's what they call it these days. Anyway, I will share this with her, she will be encouraged. Her dream is to draw all day long and get paid for it. ;-) haha had to laugh at your commissions drawing boyfriends as superheroes.
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