Financial Transparency: 2018 Edition

As is now my annual tradition, it’s time for me to tell everyone how much money I make.

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.

Freelance Earnings

I have been freelancing since I took my Master’s degree from UW–Madison in May 2010, but things didn’t really take off until 2012, so let’s start there. My gross 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
2017: $48,775.38 [$45,000 from one big contract, so it’s a bit atypical].
2018: $17,795.60

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
2017: $9,925.00
2018: $7,505.00

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

Teaching

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 $7,182.18 (formerly $6,954.39 from 2010–2015).  This number seems to compare favorably with what I’ve seen posted at other institutions, or heard from colleagues elsewhere.

Donations

I do a fair amount of pro bono work, and I’ve been much more shameless about asking for support for my tutorials, Project Linework, and other resources that people seem to draw value from etc.

2012: $37.00
2013–14:
$0.00
2015:
 $5.00
2016–17:
$0.00
2018: $1,711.08 (a number that completely floors me)

Speaking of donations, here are some handy buttons if you want to help empower me to keep sharing cartographic knowledge and resources.

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
2017: $342.78
2018: $354.10

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

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, though it’s definitely not a life I would have been able to choose if I had to worry, for example, about dependents.

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.

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What I did in 2018: An Annual Report

Friends, this last year I’ve been more bold about asking for donations. And I’ve been quite honestly amazed by the level of support that I’ve received. I love giving back to my fellow mapmakers, and their generosity in return has been humbling and gratifying. Thank you all so much; that includes not just those who have opened their wallets, but all of you who have offered advice, aid, and kind words.

Since the start of 2018, I’ve been keeping organized track of some of the ways I’ve tried to contribute to the cartographic community, aided by your support. I want to give you what will be, I hope, the first of an annual series of reports. So let’s jump in.

In no particular order, in 2018, I:

  • put up a detailed new tutorial on my blog (Smart Type Halos in Photoshop and Illustrator)
  • made a couple of updates to my Shaded Relief in Blender tutorial (thanks Dunstan Orchard and Anton van Tetering for pointing out improvements).
  • spent a while writing up a walkthrough of one of my mapping projects: On Airline Mapping
  • publishedThe Power of Appearances,” an adaptation/combination/rewrite of two of my earlier blog posts, in Cartographic Perspectives
  • publishedA Freelancer’s Approach to Teaching Cartography,” a reflection on how my mapmaking career informs my pedagogical approach, also in Cartographic Perspectives.
  • presented on monochrome mapping (a favorite of mine) at the 2018 NACIS Annual Meeting
  • contributed a new map of the Kingdom of Pergamon to Wikipedia, in the spirit of the old FixWikiMaps project
  • built a new low-fi polygon linework set for Project Linework called “1981,” which I hope you’ll make use of
  • conducted a mini survey of my fellow cartographers on the typefaces they like to use
  • conducted, along with my colleague Aly Olivierre, a sizeable survey to help bring transparency to how much freelance mapmakers get paid
  • completed my final year as Director of Operations for NACIS; I’ll still be helping out with the transition in the coming year as Nick Martinelli takes over for me
  • undertook an ongoing effort to reprint the first three volumes of the Atlas of Design, including creating an all-new layout for Volume 1.
  • made a bunch of maps on a typewriter and wrote a blog post on lessons learned
  • answered a variety of questions on Twitter and via email

As we move into 2019, I hope to continue to merit the support you have shown me. I never know exactly how much I’ll be able to do so in a given year, but I do know that I fully intend to keep up my efforts to contribute to the cartographic community. You have all taught me so much, and I will continue repay the favor.

If you’d like to support my efforts, please click one of these handy buttons.