Financial Transparency

As a freelancer, I often wonder how I am doing financially as compared to my colleagues. Not out of a sense of competition, but just to answer the persistent question: is this normal? Am I earning a “typical” living? Do I get an unusually small or large amount of money from selling prints? Things like that, born of curiosity. I can look at the great work of a colleague and think it’s valuable, but the big question is: does the rest of the world value their skills the way that I do?

I find the financial opacity of the freelance world a bit intimidating, and I suspect that some others do, too—particularly those who are interested in freelancing, but haven’t yet jumped in. So I’d like to do my part to lend transparency by laying out my financial picture for all of you. Maybe it’ll be valuable for someone, and if so, I’d be interested to hear about that in the comments.

Freelance Earnings

I have been freelancing since I took my Master’s degree from UW–Madison in May 2010. I pretty much exclusively make static maps. Perhaps someday I will become interested in making interactive maps, but for now I’ve focused on an ArcMap/QGIS and Illustrator/Photoshop workflow.

I had only a scant few projects before 2012, and in any case my pre-2012 records are a bit disorganized, so let’s start after that. My earnings from freelance cartography have been:

2012: $12,016.34
2013: $20,352.75
2014: $8,508.58
2015: $10,881.25
2016: $22,795.00

I have also earned money from some other non-mapping freelance work. I do editing and layout for Cartographic Perspectives, and I’ve done some bits of paid writing, other design work, etc. This income isn’t terribly relevant to those who are wondering about the mapmaking business, but I’ll include it here for the sake of completeness:

2012: $1,128.08
2013: $1,528.00
2014: $7,014.00
2015: $10,194.00
2016: $2,000.00

These bits of side work, as well as my teaching (below), have been very helpful in leaner years.


I teach from time to time at UW–Madison, covering the Introductory Cartography course. Again, not too relevant to the subject of freelance earnings, but perhaps interesting if you’re curious about what adjunct teaching pays. My take-home pay for one semester of a 40% appointment is $6,954. This number seems to compare favorably with what I’ve seen posted at other institutions, or heard from colleagues elsewhere.

Sales of Prints

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is sales of prints. Instead of making maps for clients, I sometimes (or often) spend time making maps for no one in particular. And then I’ll put them up on Zazzle in case anyone wants to buy them. I’ve also occasionally printed maps locally and sold them through an art store or by word of mouth. But Zazzle is where almost all of my sales happen.

My earnings from sales of prints:

2012: $772.39
2013: $678.68
2014: $270.19
2015: $116.52
2016: $797.54

I don’t usually do any sort of marketing other than a tweet or two, plus a link on the blog leading to the Zazzle item, so those figures could potentially be higher if I tried harder.

And, if you’re curious as to what sells and what doesn’t, here’s a breakdown of Zazzle sales:

Again, if I tried to market these, I might be able to push a few more. Getting them into local stores can be tough because printing costs are pretty high unless you want to order them in quantities of hundreds, and thus stores either have to accept a tiny margin or offer the posters at comparatively high prices.

Fame and exposure are generally free, and often much more plentiful than actual payment. It takes a lot of clicks before someone actually buys—I have also seen this behind the scenes with the Atlas of Design. I often see colleagues whose work gets a lot of attention, and who are offering cool prints, and wonder if they are receiving lots of praise with little money behind it.

Concluding Thoughts

I never really intended to be a freelancer, because I dislike instability, and the numbers above fluctuate wildly. But I fell into it accidentally anyway, and it’s been great, but it’s definitely not a life I would have been able to choose if I had to worry, for example, about dependents. I’ve also had the advantage of a safety net, in that my partner Kate earns much more than I do and, in the early years, carried well more than her fair share of our joint expenses.

I also haven’t been able to save for retirement very much these last few years, as I’ve been focused on more day-to-day expenses. Fortunately, a sizable recent contract has given me an extra boost that will soon let me finally put some money away.

I hope all this stuff above offers some useful insight as to one freelancer’s life. I’m sure some others earn more, and some others earn less. I’d encourage others who are comfortable doing so to share their own financial information, to make the picture a little broader.


10 thoughts on “Financial Transparency

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing this, Daniel. I am continually impressed with your candor and thoughtful writing. This post will be an incredible resource for cartography students and pros, alike.
    There is probably an interesting social dynamic contrasting sharing freelance financials and sharing salaried financials. A freelancer may find themselves in sort of an independent actor role, even among other freelancers, where “more” means hearty congratulations. But someone drawing a salary exists one level of abstraction away from direct financial merit, and sharing income within that group may well foment dissatisfaction (even though the person “agrees” to their package, by staying in the organization). I’ve heard, anecdotally, of organizations that make all incomes public. It seems like that’s the only way it could work in a corporate environment. There are probably amazing studies I haven’t read about information asymmetry and the impact on employee satisfaction. This rambling comment has no point, so I’ll just end it here!

    • I have also heard of these mystical, publicized-salary organizations. In a former life, I remember there was some grumbling about people in our company making very different salaries for doing the same work, and there was a push to publicize salary ranges, at the least. Which management successfully quashed.

  2. This is really great info, thanks for sharing Daniel. I’ll have to look at what stats I have that may be worth sharing as well (Avenza map sales and some freelance work). I have one of those things called a “regular job” but have retained a single client from my contractor days (Overland Journal) and occasionally do one-off’s that find me. Because I don’t really work as a full-time freelancer anymore I don’t have a proper evaluation of my hourly rate figured out (and given my location in Bay Area it would be astronomical if figured the right way anyway). So, I tend to price by gut, based on what I think the work is worth for me to engage in, then hope I don’t get sucked into too many edits! I think they cover this in “freelancers 101 – how NOT to value your work”!

    For OJ I more or less know what each map will entail and I’m ok with the current fee. At least some of my pay comes in the form of having my work in a regular publication (and a pretty nice one at that) and the opportunity to regularly engage in the craft of making maps and not just teaching GIS. L brain R brain balance thing. When I started making their maps I was taking a loss just to do the work.

    I’m impressed with your Zazzle earning as I’ve never been able to make it work for me. I may need to go back and reinvestigate how to make better use of printed maps there. I get ok sales through Avenza PDF maps, but at this point have not made back the cost of time I’ve spent making the maps in the first place so it’s mostly a cool ego thing to see your map get downloaded a bunch of times.

  3. For the purposes of comparison between my digital maps sales (through the Avenza Map Store) and Daniel’s sales of printed maps through Zazzle, I’ll post my data here (what data I have).

    I have a total of 9 digital maps on sale in the Map Store. Various styles and price points, mostly reference maps for travel or recreation. These are also static maps and like Daniel’s, they are created as a printed map would be in a GIS to Illustrator workflow (using QGIS/ArcGIS, Natural Scene Designer, Adobe Illustrator/Photoshop and Avenza MAPublisher).

    In total all of my maps have been downloaded 577 times for the staggering sum total of $333.90. Downloads are exaggerated as a single purchaser may download the map multiple times to all of their devices, so I don’t know the total of unique purchases, I’d subtract at least 1/3 of those downloads as duplicates. Map Store proceeds to the vendor are a fraction of the map sale price (roughly 1/3 of the customer cost).

    Here’s how each of my maps breaks down in terms of total downloads and their price points (links to the maps can be found on my Map Store landing page below):

    *Hawaii Undersea Geography, $0.99, 6 downloads since 2011.
    *Hawaii Flight Map, $0.99, 1 since 2012.
    Koke’e & Na Pali Coast – Recreation Guide, $2.99, 407 since 2012.
    Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, $1.99, 79 since 2013.
    Oregon Lighthouses $0.99, 29 since 2013.
    Half Moon Bay Sonar Chart, $0.99, 4 since 2014.
    Tomales Bay Small Boat Chart & Guide, $1.99, 12 since 2014.
    Lake Tahoe Boaters Map, $2.99 , 18 since 2014.
    Columbia Gorge, $2.99, 21 since 2015.

    As you can see the Koke’e map has driven most of my sales, though Hart Mtn, Oregon Lighthouses, and Columbia Gorge are picking up. I do almost no marketing and am surely pricing some of these too low. If I were to look at the time I put into the map work itself, at say an typical hourly rate of between $30 – $50 per hour… oh boy, I’d never make my money back. But these were are in my mind design experiments or personal projects, and selling them is just a bonus. I do think I could do better though. The Koke’e map for instance is the only only map I’ve actually pushed at all and I think that shows in the downloads. Not sure what this all means but hopefully it adds another data point to what Daniel has already put up here.

    My Map Store landing page:

    * for anyone familiar with Tom Patterson’s work you may notice these two map are highly derivative of Tom’s much better looking Seafloor Map of Hawai’i ( These maps were initially an experiment in design and put up for free in the map store in light of that influence, but I’ve since decided to at a minimum always charge at least $0.99 for anything I put online, even if it’s not really intended to sell or make money.

  4. Thanks for this great insight Daniel (and for all the posts you do on process). My experience is a bit different, but perhaps valuable to any of the “GIS guys/gals” that read your blog. I like to think of myself as a cartographer (since by definition I make maps) but compared to the work you and others I’ve seen at NACIS do, I might only be labeled a GIS analyst. I certainly aspire to someday produce maps worthy of being displayed side-by-side with my NACIS colleagues, but as you have indirectly pointed out the financial side of that can be tricky, and bills need to be paid. Thankfully my wife is paid well and has paid family health insurance.

    So I’ve been an independent GIS specialist for the past 5 years. I primarily fill the GIS void for larger planning/engineering companies that either don’t have GIS in-house or don’t have enough. I’m fortunate to have also learned the community planner trade, so I can help out in that area as well. Most of the maps I make for these firms are either for a planning study, such as a comprehensive plan or open space plan, or they are for environmental compliance review – so things like mapping soils, wetlands, etc. The community maps tend to have a bit more freedom for creativity, and are more “fun” to work on for sure. If I’m lucky the project will involve creating a “vision map” which is one of the few time I get to take a map out of ArcGIS and into Adobe to make it a bit more visually appealing. I’d say a third to a half the hours I bill these companies are for making maps, another third or so to spatial analyses, and then the remainder is on non-GIS tasks such as writing an inventory and analysis section of a plan or completing an environmental compliance document.

    About 10-20% of my workload, depending on the year, is working directly for a client. Usually this is a not-for-profit, typically a land trust, which needs mapping to illustrate a message they are trying to get out to the public. In those cases it is a mix of ArcGIS and ArcGIS/Adobe (usually Photoshop and InDesign). An example of this is a watershed education poster I made for a local land trust: That project also involved creating an interactive online map, for which I used ArcGIS Online (back in its earlier days before it was as user friendly as it is now).

    During some downtime a couple years ago I created some maps to sell on Etsy ( I didn’t know about Zazzle at the time, and in retrospect that probably would have been a better route since I ended up paying to make a bunch of prints and purchased mailing supplies and so far have had a 0% return on that investment. The maps are watercolor pencil that I then added hillshade and in some cases other digital features. Now if I had read Daniel’s post about hillshade techniques before I made them they probably would have come out better.

    Anyway, if you’ve made it this far, here are the financials:

    2012 – $10,096.50 – $3,919.11 in expenses = $6,177.39
    2013 – $23390.30 – $3,206.41 = $20,183.98
    2014 – $24,532.47 – $3,672.17 = $20,860.30
    2015 – $25,747.50 – $3,047.32 = $22,700.18
    2016 – $50,225.00 – $4,310.86 = $45,914.14

    So as I said, as a freelance GIS guy, I’m in a bit of a different category, but hopefully this will be helpful to someone. As an aside, before I left the planning firm I had been at for seven years to go out on my own, my boss always told us to “work smarter, not harder.” Well it took me five years, but I finally made about the same amount of money last year on my own as I did working for him in my last year, and I did it working half the number of hours. And I am able to get work done on the house, am able to pick up my kids from the school bus everyday and am just generally happier being my own boss and setting my own schedule. So for me personally, it was certainly the best career decision I ever made when I went out on my own.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story! I think it will be valuable information. And there’s definitely a lot of value in having the flexibility of self-employment — to my mind that’s the equivalent of quite a lot of money.

  5. My situation is a little bit different because the largest part of my income is derived from selling software and maintenance contracts on that software. I get a % from those sales and in turn have to do pre-sales and first-line tech support. On top of that I do training courses and consultancy/development services for those products.

    I do try to take on a couple of mapping projects per year, but the number that I can do tends to vary wildly. In the past years the amount I made on map production ranges from around $5000 to $15000, less than 10% of my annual revenue. The kinds of projects I get this way range from working on a larger atlas as part of a small team to a long-term (unfortunately not renewed for 2017) contract for one map per month for a magazine to maps for various books and publications by a number of researchers (mostly through word of mouth). I kinda prefer working on those quirky, unique maps that the researchers ask me to do because it often involves historical data.

    Sales of “my own products” (Avenza Map Store, my own typographic map store, MAPublisher training videos) are fairly low but I hope to expand on that soon by offering more stuff, perhaps also through Zazzle or a similar print-on-demand service.

  6. Something else that’s worth mentioning for would-be freelancers is the fact that (and I think this apparent in Daniels essay as well) full time freelancing is hard work. For the short while that I was actually a full-time GIS/cartography freelancer, I’d never worked so hard for so little in my life. Like Daniel I had a partner who had a steady job that filled in the gaps. I’m not sure how many people set out to do this on purpose, many seem to have the same “it happened by accident” narrative. It’s fun work, lots of freedom, lots of pressure. I think freelancing is a great way to augment steady work and that’s sort of how I do it now. In my other life as a GIS Instruction Specialist I have enough freedom and autonomy to not miss working completely for myself, so for me there’s no desire to go back. But for others it can be very liberating, just make sure you treat it like a real job because it is HARD work!

    • It can definitely be hard work. I think I am predisposed to think that I am a bit lazy, because without that regular job structure it can seem like I am not doing a lot of work. But I put in a lot of hours on non-client work during gaps, which definitely counts toward freelancing, in the sense that these side projects tend to build my skills and earn me commissions later.

      • I’ve been a hired-gun cartographer for years: I make maps on commission and teach a little. My income fluctuates wildly (and, of course, without benefits), and though I love what I do, I’m not surprised that my children have chosen careers with salaries and benefits. It’s wonderful and nerve-wracking in equal measure.

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