Your Work has Value
Talking with a friend last night, I realized there’s something important that is too often left unsaid. I told him “You’re work has value, all on its own”.
When discussing business options with creators, it’s common to hear them talk about aspirations to turn their illustration into books, games, cards or other products that make use of art. On the face of it, hearing about plans to make some big beautiful thing seems straightforward enough but there can be a darker subtext to it. An inexperienced artist attempting to wrap a lot of writing or game rules around the art can be reflective of the artist’s fear that their work isn’t worthwhile all on its own. Often times when I hear a pitch for a project like that, I consider how common it is for creators to undervalue their work. The urge to build up something else around the art feels like yet another manifestation of the ever present impostor syndrome that pervades the creative community.
Understand your Value
I have repeatedly advised people to start with smaller and simpler projects first. Part of that is just a matter of logistics, but I also want them to see the true value of their work. Most people don’t need to add game rules or writing to their art to have value. The art has value all on its own. When I say “value”, that’s pretty abstract. So let’s put it on the record that I think artists can make money from selling their art, more or less in any format that suits them. Originals have value. Prints have value. Mousepads, mugs, tapestries, scarves and cards have value. They get that value from the art itself and by association, the artist.
The inherent difficulty of valuating a piece art is the problem at heart of every creative career. With commercial work, the value can be fairly easy to assess since bulk of it is written right there in the contract (let’s say $1000). When it’s made independently, that number can be harder to pin down (maybe $100-$10,000?). That’s the reason I’m obsessed with maximizing Kickstarter, Patreon, web sales, social media and conventions. All those different platforms are a means of potentially increasing the lifetime value of every piece of artwork in the collection. Effectively marketing the art directly increases its value but it’s always by some undefined amount. That unknowability can be both exhilarating and frustrating. Especially if you’ve never sold your art directly before because you literally have no idea how much your art is potentially worth.
The moment I credit for helping me see the potential value of independent art was when Sam Flegal ran a Kickstarter for Odin’s Secrets. With that campaign, he was able to concretely define the value of a single personal painting. Despite his modest audience size at the time, his customers pegged that value at nearly the same rate that Wizards of the Coast was paying for similar illustrations. To me, it looked like this meant the pay floor for a talented indie artist was potentially about the same as the ceiling for commercial art of similar quality. In the intervening few years, that assumption seems to have proven out. While the pay can be quite good, it has to be said that the process of finding the value of your work on the open market can be stressful and time consuming. If you’ve never run a business before, there is a lot to learn about marketing and sales in order to efficiently exercise the value of the work.
Exercise Your Value
For someone just getting started in the indie world, I personally recommend making a no-frills Kickstarter that sells a between 1-3 pieces of artwork in simple format like prints or mousepads. I also recommend that every creator start a Patreon campaign ASAP in an effort to establish a baseline valuation for their work. Establishing a baseline for your own value can help cull lower paying freelance gigs from your schedule and create a foundation for more ambitious projects down the line.
Part of the reason I recommend getting into Patreon so early is because of its stability. Month to month, it’s value rarely fluctuates by much. It can allow its users to value their work almost as precisely as if I were to be making those pieces on contract. That number always starts small, but the reliability of it makes it worth investing in. Using myself as an example, I was spending a lot of time focusing on it back when it only made a few hundred dollars a month but that investment helped grow it to roughly $7,000 - $8,000 per digital painting today. My earnings are on the high side of industry at the moment, but I see an increasing number of artists making a comparable amount or better. I can imagine a near future where it is common to see popular artists making $10,000+ per month via Patreon.
One of the biggest problems I want to address is how bad artists at assigning value to themselves. I keep ending up in conversations where I want to grab my peers by the shoulders and yell overly loud words of encouragement directly into their face. Even if I’m not speaking to you directly right now, I want this to serve as an act of indirect encouragement. Your work has value. You can get some of that value by working with publishers, studios or galleries, but you really don’t have to. Get out there and make your work for sale. Find your real value and fight to increase it. I think you might be surprised by how much you are truly worth.