Note: This post has been updated to reflect my situation at the conclusion of 2017.
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.
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 gross earnings from freelance cartography have been:
2017: $48,775.38 [$45,000 from one big contract, so it’s a bit atypical].
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:
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 pre-tax pay for one semester of a 40% appointment is $7182.18 (formerly $6954.39 from 2010–2015). This number seems to compare favorably with what I’ve seen posted at other institutions, or heard from colleagues elsewhere.
I do have some subtle donation links located on the pages of my river maps, and every once in a while, someone clicks one. In 2018, I’m thinking about expanding donation options and making that opportunity to clearer.
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:
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:
- River Transit Maps (sales began Jan 2011): 430 copies sold, $5,353.19 earned.
Most of that happened during a brief period of popularity in early 2011. The maps of the Mississippi & Columbia systems are the most popular by far. The majority of the smaller systems have never sold a copy.
- Lake Michigan Unfurled (Oct 2015): 17 copies sold, $259.26 earned.
- The Ways of the Framers (May 2011): 8 copies sold, $75.96 earned.
- Noteworthy Islands of the Great Lakes System (Feb 2017): 1 copy sold, $5.58 earned.
- Michigan: Natural Modernism (May 2015): 0 copies sold.
- Metropotamia (Oct 2016): 0 copies sold.
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.
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, though 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 I had a partner who earned much more than I did 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. But, things have been looking up lately, and I’ve started putting at least a little bit away again.
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.