Let me start with something akin to the "ideal" webcomic creator situation. You do some work you enjoy pretty much every day. You throw that online for free. People visit and enjoy your work to varying degrees. The people who REALLY enjoy it then buy whatever material you've got related to that -- printed books, posters, t-shirts, keychains, whatever. Because they're primarily made via a print-on-demand service, you can effectively keep everything in stock indefinitely. As your output continues, then, you still get a decent income even when you don't have a new book out because you've got enough of a backlog of material that you've always got people buying your old stuff.
That's an extremely short (and specific) version of what's called "the long tail." SmarterComics recently published a graphic novel version of Chris Anderson's book explaining the idea in more detail. Worth the quick read if you're not familiar with the concept.
So why should we be following that example?
Well, let's take a look at the economy over the past few years. A lot of big corporations have "downsized", collectively laying off millions of people since 2008 and yet, seemingly miraculously, have managed to remain profitable. Indeed, many companies have seen record profits in this recession. And what this tells CEOs is that the way they can continue to make money is by cutting costs. While they may have already stripped personnel to the lowest they can, there's a growing movement towards reducing the price paid for those workers by changing them from full-time employees to outsourced freelancers. This is cheaper because the employer no longer has to pay for benefits, just the straight paycheck. Which, now on a work-for-hire basis, means that they don't have to pay a FULL salary, just for however much work is done.
Business, it seems, is moving towards having everyone as freelancers. Your job may not be outsourced overseas, but it will be outsourced, even if it's being outsourced to you.
Except, of course, the "important" people like CEOs and high-level executives that are already in that top 1% of earners. They'll keep their full-time jobs and be fine.
I don't want this to be a rant about the growing disparity in income (and therefore all other forms of) equality. I try not to get angry about the rules of the game; I just do the best I can with the way the system is set up. But especially in light of the recent debt ceiling "debate" and pending agreement, I can't help but see things getting more difficult for anyone not already in that uppermost income bracket. Politicians are not even trying to be coy any more about skewing the game to favor the wealthy. So here's my thinking...
As freelancers, we're essentially going to always be on the hunt for the next job opportunity. Some folks will be lucky enough to score gigs that maintain a fairly stable/reliable amount of work, but I think that, for most of us, we'll be working on individual projects as they come up. Which means that there will be busy periods (with decent incomes) and slow periods (with little to no income). In order to smooth that out, it seems to me, we need to have a source of ongoing income that is unrelated to our immediate output. That is, we need to start using a business model like webcomic creators who continue to sell their books, posters, t-shirts and keychains even if/when they get sick and don't post their comic on whatever schedule they're on. You need to create a body of work which can take advantage of the long tail to continue to sell regardless of what your current job situation is.
(Have I mentioned lately that you can buy my book, Comic Book Fanthropology, on Amazon?)
Now the odds of creating a work, or even a body of works, so popular that you'll be set for life are pretty slim. But that's not the objective. The objective is to put out as much as you can so that there's SOMEthing coming in all the time. Maybe your first book only sells one copy a month. And maybe your second and third books only sell one copy a month. And maybe every book you write only sells one copy a month. But if you write 30 books, then that's effectively a sale every day. Which still may not be enough to keep you in the lap of luxury, but that could easily make the difference during some of the slower periods you'll experience in the freelance market.
The reality is that we live in an economy that does not want you to become a success. The whole system is catered towards keeping a wall between you and rich folks. I'm not going to try banging my head against that wall trying to knock it down, or wasting my breath shouting at it. I'm okay with not being among the super-rich, so long as I've got enough to be comfortable. What I'm trying to do -- and what I'm recommending to everyone reading this -- is to set things up now so that I can be a little more comfortable in the coming economy.
I'm no more a soothsayer than the next guy with a blog. But I see zero indication that things are going to get better any time soon. So I suggest you pay attention to what webcomic creators are doing now, because I think their business model is what's going to save your tuchus in the next decade or so.