I’m not an expert on this by any means, so what I’m going to say is a combination of what’s worked for me and advice I’ve received that made sense and I could fit into a framework. I also acknowledge that talking about how we survive in a capitalist system can be really uncomfortable — feel free to glance around and skip anything that doesn’t help. My goal is that you’ll have some tools that give you options to decide what’s best for you. Also, this is a long post!

If you create things, and those things are primarily digital (whether text or sounds or pictures), making money off of it is a matter of

  • Doing the creative work
  • Finding an audience online who cares about it
  • Converting that interest into income

That’s a small list, right? Where it gets complicated is the details. I’m going to focus on the second two steps in this post, and I’ll work backward because I think it’s easier to plan from that direction.

Ad-based platforms

outside traffic -> your content -> payment from ad-based platform

In this case the platform often controls both the traffic and the revenue

There are two basic ways people turn content into money on the internet (and I know “content” is a flat way to talk about our work, but’s also the most general). The first option is the one we see most often, which is to post it on a platform that sells advertising alongside it, giving you a share of the ad revenue. This is part of what you’re doing when you have videos on YouTube, or to some extent, when you depend on Google search traffic and AdSense for your blog. I don’t recommend this approach. Early contributors on these platforms sometimes do well, but in general the platform can make money by having lots of you earning small amounts (or nothing at all, since there’s often a threshold before you get paid). Changes to the platform tend to increase overall traffic and revenue at the expense of smaller creators (anyone who’s tried to promote something on Facebook over the last five years may recognize this process).

Sales and supporters

traffic -> your free content or marketing page -> your paid product (or donate link)

The second option, one that gives you a lot more control and more stable support in the long run, is to sell your content while also building up a network of financial supporters who give you additional money for less tangible reasons. This turns your problem into a pair of activities: marketing and sales.

For sales you’ll probably want two kinds of services, which you might split between more than one provider. The first service [A1] allows people to send money directly, and it might include convenience features like allowing them to schedule payments in advance, or make easy transfers using their phone. Possible providers include PayPal, Venmo (owned by PayPal but a separate company), Ko-fi (a front-end for PayPal), Square Cash, Patreon, and Stripe front-ends like Moonclerk. You can compare their fees and what countries they can be used in. In general, an option with recurring payments will bring in the most money over time, but it’s good to have a way people can throw you $5 just because too.

Your second service is a sales platform [A2]. You could use a general shop system like Big Cartel, Etsy, or Shopify; or something intended for a particular type of content like Gumroad or Bandcamp. If you’re reading this you might still be figuring out what to sell, so here’s some suggestions.

  • a story or essay collection
  • a digital zine
  • a mixtape
  • a print of your visual art (through a print-on-demand — POD — service)
  • a printed item like a tote bag or mug, also POD (focus on the kinds of products you would personally use!)
  • a workbook
  • a story subscription, paid newsletter, or online course delivered over email

Aim for things that are repeatable rather than custom. Custom items are good for special situations or bonuses for your favorite supporters, but it’s much harder to make a living or even a side-hustle out of that as your baseline. I don’t think there’s any magic formula for figuring out what people will buy, at least on the scale we’re talking about here. Follow your enthusiasm and try things you personally like.

The other good thing about repeatable items is that there’s a ton of automation you can do with off-the-shelf integrations that handle delivery, which will give you more time to make things.

Marketing?

Now that you have a way for people to give you money, we need the people. This is my biggest business challenge, personally. Sometimes you get lucky, and friends will help as much as they can, but otherwise it can be a slow process you just have to keep plugging away at.

Here’s a couple of things you should know about folks who might give you money:

  • Most people will need to hear about what you do multiple times before they buy anything
  • People are sensitive to personal timing — are they hearing about your work too far before payday? Are they distracted? Do they really need a sandwich right now and not a painting?
  • Desire to support you is more than someone liking your work, it’s the product of a relationship you build by sharing what you do

That means you need to have a way for people to see what you’re doing when they’re ready to spend money, and you need to do things that develop that creative relationship by letting people see what you’re working on or learn more about you personally. That’s a mix of exposure, connection, and reinforcement.

The most effective pair of options people seem to land on currently are a mix of social media and a mailing list. The social media and the free content and the small purchases or donations [C, D] are what get people on the mailing list [B]. The mailing list is what keeps them in the loop so they give you money when they’re ready. Blogs can also work this way, but these days most blog traffic comes from search and social media, and both of those input sources are unreliable because they’re ad platforms (see above). If RSS (a subscription protocol you might remember from Google Reader) picks up again in popularity, blogs and mailing lists may be back on equal footing.

With email through a major mailing list service, you can be pretty sure everyone who wants to is seeing it, unlike on social media where the feed or stream is reshaped to maximize the platform’s interests. I’m using both MailChimp and Tinyletter (same company, but Tinyletter is probably easier when you’re first starting). Podcasts and video channels can also take the spot of a newsletter or blog if that seems relevant to your work.

social media / search traffic / ads [D] -> reason to join mailing list [C] -> mailing list sign-up [B] -> sales / support [A]

The reasons people might join your mailing list could include: reading about what you’re working on next, seeing a sneak peek of something, not having to remember your URL, or there was a giant red button that said “click me!” so they did. Sometimes people offer special bonuses to their list, like a discount or a thing you can’t buy any other way. People like consistency, too, like a post every week, or a repeated format that makes it easy to skim for what they want. Also, another way to think about the relationship-building you do with your list-type-thing is that you’re helping the other person. You’re giving them a fun diversion, an answer to a problem, or a bit of information about you and your experiences. People will sign on for that when it’s genuine and enthusiastic.

Alright, this is a ton of words to get the point across. I’ll finish up with some examples.

Ana draws a webcomic about koala bears. Their main thing is a website with a weekly comic. People find out about it through Facebook and Twitter [D]. Readers are encouraged to join a mailing list to see the rough sketches from each week’s comic (posted monthly, to be easier on the creator) [C]. Each post on the site and mailing list has a donation link encouraging people to send $5 through PayPal [A1]. Ana is going to start posting on Instagram too with a thumbnail frame from each comic to see if that attracts more readers [D]. They’re also making a t-shirt design with an illustration of their favorite character to sell on Teespring [A2] (plus [B] if the t-shirt customers also opt in to the mailing list).

Bri writes short stories about vampire princesses. They have a Patreon where people who give at least $5 get to read new stories a month before they go on Bri’s website (which is just a WordPress blog) [A, B, C, D]. They also post excerpts on Facebook when they’re particularly excited about something they wrote [D]. Maybe next year they’ll do a paid serial where people pay $5/month to get the next chapter [A2].

Cat has a post-post-New Wave band, except it’s just one enby. They put a new track online irregularly, and are experimenting with using a podcast to deliver them [C]. They have a Ko-Fi link [A1] in their Twitter bio [D] and are going to sell a mixtape on Bandcamp when they have six tracks [A2].

You’ll hear this process called a “sales funnel” because what it does is control the flow of people who enounter your stuff into paying customers. Typically there are two places to adjust the funnel: at the start, which you do with more social media, blogging, freebies for newsletter subscribers, or ads; and the conversion process in the middle, where you build that connection with the reader or viewer. There’s a ton of tactics for this that range from intruiguing to skeezy, and you can find more ideas if you do a search.

The platforms and the options we have keep changing, because we’re not the ones with control. I’m going to end with a bit from Warren Ellis’s Orbital Operations newsletter, which is one of my sources of inspiration. He says,

Having been on the net for more than twenty years, and having been so deeply connected with it for so much of that time, it’s really still kind of weird to see it all in such a state of ruin. The “Wild West” aspect left a long time ago, of course, but I’m not sure I ever expected the aftermath years to look like cheap post-apocalyptic fiction.

Relatedly, when I pulled up Twitter this morning, I saw a bunch of comics creators talking about going to newsletters, because they and their work are no longer easily surfaced on the social networks everyone came to rely on. Discovery on Tumblr is busted, Twitter’s too loud and awful (but if you want the Nazis out of your timeline, set your Twitter location to Germany and they’ll get filtered out), Facebook decides what you’re seeing for you, don’t even with Mastodon, Snapchat got murdered by Instagram Stories., Instagram algo-management is getting aggressive… but, for better or worse, this goes straight to your inbox. (Unless you’re on Earthlink or AOL, in which case I’m mostly spam.)

Organise.

I saw a few people in the last week wax all nostalgic about the web forum I ran 1998-2002. I still get nightmares about it, personally, but it was very useful for a lot of other people, who made connections, learned things, and organised. Given that the majority of outreach about new art happens online, all I can say to the people now struggling with the current conditions, is: perhaps you could organise. Form movements. Form secret societies. Invisible Colleges and Republics Of Letters. Band together with the like-minded and become members of a bizarre order.

Besides, life’s too short to not have some fun with this shit.

Which brings me to my last point about marketing, that it’s not just you trying to be heard in the wilderness, but you as a member of a community of people who make things and share them with each other. The platforms we use aren’t really built for us, they’re built for the corporations. We create our own platform when we connect directly with each other and spread our joy together.

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Posted 13 Dec 2017