Updated: Jul 7, 2021
Ok let's start talking about money, specifically, how I make money.
This is not going to be as detailed as I would ideally like, I could write a book about some of these subjects but hopefully this will help a few people trying to do the same sort of thing!
We all need to make money in this crazy world, to pay the bills, rent, buy food and enjoy ourselves. Not many people like to talk about it though, it's kind of odd but at the same time I suppose we feel that it's personal in some way. I do wish people would talk about just a little bit more though, I feel like in today's society some professions are paid too much and some are paid too little. It’s always better if things are out there for discussion!
So, I'm going to talk about how I make money and how you might want to try making money as a cartographer or artist!
But making any kind of living as an artist seems far fetched to a huge number of people, mainly because it's still seen as unconventional. People tend to think that either luck or genetic talent is what you need to be a great artist, but really it's got little to do with these things (though they can help) In reality, time invested is what makes you successful at anything, especially artwork. There is a saying that if you spend 10,000 hours working on a skill you will become a master or expert of that thing. This is what you should focus on as a new artist rather than worrying if you have the talent deep down or when you will get your lucky break.
In recent years there has been a huge surge in freelancers making decent money doing really crazy interesting stuff and mapmaking for tabletop roleplaying games is one of those things. I do believe that my journey is somewhat unique, but that does not mean that I don't believe others can follow in my footsteps. Or take bits and pieces to forge their own path!
Before I first started creating maps full time, I had tried a few ways to make money doing creative things. These failed, but they did teach me some valuable lessons. The first one, was writing adventures, campaigns, plots etc for tabletop roleplaying companies.
I was paid very little for the word count for all of these jobs and that was a big sign to me that the industry was not at a great place for beginners. If I had kept at it, I might have started to turn things around but at the time it was tough. So I decided why not cut out the middle guys and write and produce adventures myself. This was also not very successful and it didn't make me much money, but it did pay for itself which was sort of nice. It did get me a little bit of recognition for the work that I was doing however, and I ended up making the maps for those adventures which people really enjoyed.
It was around this time that someone mentioned Patreon to me and I lept at the chance to keep making maps there instead.
Now before I go any further, a big thing to bear in mind is during this period of my life I had finished University and I was unemployed. I was also looking for jobs at the same time in the games industry as a game designer or as a story writer. That did not end up happening of course and I’m quite thankful for that. Regardless, I didn't have the same kind of responsibilities that many people might have, in terms of making a living and paying rent. I was very lucky therefore that I was living at home and could focus on being creative almost completely full time. I can't overstate how big that benefit was for me and what that might be for somebody who is starting out being self-employed or doing freelance work. Being able to literally throw yourself into projects is a fantastic way to put the hours in, in order to get to that 10,000 hour mark I mentioned before.
Anyway, Patreon became a big thing for me.
In fact I make MOST of my money from Patreon in a month.
Slowly month by month, after many years and it is still my dominant income source. I made $53 dollars in the first month posting maps on patreon, then $115 in the month after that. Growth was not always consistent, some months I'd grow by a few dollars, others months by a hundred dollars or more. But I always focused on overall, long term growth and that was a pretty good call in hindsight.
I made maps that people could grab and print, or play online with and they were terrible. I had no idea what I was doing but I kept going. I kept improving and posting new maps, with updated resolutions, sizes and techniques and new styles. I tried to make things that no one else was making but also things that people needed. Maps of taverns, deserts and forests, alongside creepy mouth maps and planar maps. I also talked a lot about the process which really helped with growth and I will talk about this in more detail later.
Early on though, I had to make a hard choice, whether to make maps for the growing patreon, or to take commissions. In the end, I did both. I'm still not sure if that was a great idea or not but it seems to have worked out. I do think if I had focused more on my patreon it would be more successful today but I guess we will never know. Certainly doing commissions allowed me to work with some huge companies and provided a great signal boosting service, which may have been invaluable.
Regular uploads does help with growth, though not as much as you would think. So don't worry about that too much. I will say for someone starting out that your tiers, and “front page” hook needs to be strong. You need images, examples and clear concise text. That seems to be the best way to get people hooked.
Generally speaking Patreon is a fantastic thing for creatives, and even though I could maybe write an entire article on Patreon itself I will just say, have patience. Keep creating things that you want to make and that people want or need and month after month if you see even a tiny bit of growth then you are heading in the right direction.
I mentioned earlier about taking commissions, and if you do decide to split your attention between making things for the general public and specific people, then make sure you choose your clients very very carefully.
I already think that my skills are very split between making assets, tokens, world maps, city maps and battlemaps and things can fall apart very quickly if you add commissions into the mix. At least this was the case for me. Commissions can be a great way to get your name to different or existing audiences.
They can always bog you down and a map made for an individual or even a larger company will not be useful or needed by the vast majority or anyone at all for that matter. Which is not great and will hurt growth on Patreon or your own growth in general. The best kinds of commissions are the one with massive name recognition or the ones that you know you can use to further your own skillset or growth.
(A commission for James Haeck for their home game)
Here are a few of my basic rules to bear in mind when taking commissions:
Consider the time investment. Is this commission going to hinder long term growth? Spending 2-3 weeks on a large commission is pretty much an entire month of growth on Patreon gone forever.
Make sure the client is helpful, available and appreciative of the time you put into the work. Do they respond to your questions? Are they a big fan of your style and previous work?
Exclusive commissions for random individuals (work that you can't show off or give to patrons or a general audience) is not worth it. Only consider exclusive commissions for very large companies or people with massive audiences.
Payment is always tricky for everyone, no one has it covered. Don't be afraid to set your prices high and then negotiate down to a price clients can deal with. If they want your work they will be willing to talk to you about payment.
I might have a few more to add to this later but for now this will do.
By and large I like taking commissions for the ideas and creativity that comes with them, commissions are always pushing me to make things I wouldn't normally consider, however I choose my clients very carefully.
Oh my, here is the big one.
Social media is by and large the biggest reason you will ever get any kind of audience, this is pretty much how you make your money! So managing social media effectively is a must.
Unfortunately I’m really really bad at social media. My advice should be taken with a pinch of salt. Generally though, you need to put your work everywhere, on every platform that makes sense. Put yourself out there as much as possible as well either giving opinions, talking about your work and process, talking to other people about their work, getting involved in various bits and pieces across the communities and industry. Building relationships with other people, other artists and mapmakers is also a fantastic idea. I've had many opportunities land in my lap after other artists have not had time to do something. (Deven Rue asked me to help on the map I did for Critical Role! I only got that job because she asked me)
Again this is a massive subject so do some more research and make it a large part of any plan going forward.
Lastly I think the most important thing to take away from this article is how you present yourself online with your art. This is something that I feel a lot of artists don't quite understand but it's so critical to your success it should be talked about a lot more.
Putting out beautiful artwork into the void of the modern internet is a challenge, a challenge to get noticed to get people engaged and to build an excited audience. 99% of the people that view or look at your artwork will at best, smile and say nice. 0.5% might comment saying nice. 0.4% might comment on how you made it or with other questions about the time it took. 0.1% will look at your social media links, and MIGHT start to follow your work, progress etc.
These are tough odds, so in order to improve these the best thing you can do is make sure those people don't just see a soulless machine making something neat. They need to feel a personal connection.
You can do this in a couple of ways:
Don't create a company name, create a personal name. It can be your real name or it can be something that is made up, but it has to be personal to you. When I first started out I used Blue Sword Games (The blue sword is still my logo) and a lot of my older maps are marked with that instead of Caeora. This was a mistake and did not help build an audience.
Share your thoughts! Talk about the struggle a little bit, how much you enjoyed working on a particular section, how much time you spent working on a map or project, the tools you used, your beverage of choice in the morning and how something has affected how flow today. I’ve found that this really helps!
Generally, building a personal connection to your audience does take time, you need to engage them with your thoughts and feelings on issues and questions related to your work and personal life. Though the amount you choose to share about your personal life should always be carefully considered.
When you talk about these kinds of things people understand that almost all artwork is a slow arduous process of love and that these things have taken a lot of time and effort and skill to create they will be much more inclined to follow and support YOU. And that is so much more importantly than anything else.
That's it for this article, I might think of a few others things and update this at some point but that's how I make money by making maps, I have a Patreon, I have a social media presence of some kind, I try to focus on putting myself out there as much as my work.
This somehow makes enough money to support myself, though it took at least two years to get to that point. I won't lie, the process takes a long time and unless you stick to most of the above you won't have a great time.
I do believe that anyone can do what I do however, you just need patience, time and passion.
Good luck and thanks for reading!