2017: Survival

Happy StarIt’s the end of a difficult year, which looks set to become many difficult years. There’s been a lot of bad stuff going on politically. Some of it impacts me directly. Other things impact friends. That made it difficult to work, because anytime I did, something else would go wrong. That doesn’t mean that I did nothing during the year, but it does mean I focused on things I was able to do without having complete focus.

Last year, I was looking at diversifying where I made money. This didn’t really work out, in the sense of the new things I tried didn’t generate money. I did see success in expanding some of the things that were already working. I’ll talk about that in detail, as well as a bit of background about some of my choices going forward. The quick summary version will be at the end, for those who don’t need the nitty gritty details.

A piece of good news from this year is I now have a set of softboxes. These are lights for photography. Lighting has been a constant issue with my photography, as can be seen by the lighting issues in the various photos I’ve posted over the years (including the ones in this post, which were before I got the lights). The lights will be particularly useful for photographing larger art pieces.

 

Writing

Writing was the area that suffered the most this year, as I need to be settled and able to concentrate to get things done. This is especially true for final edits. I had intended to publish Werecockroach, my science fantasy novella. But the struggle with the final editing meant it never quite got there.

The second book in my novel series, Conduit, had a much better fate. I wrote quite a bit and sorted some timeline issues. Knowing that next year will be tough, I don’t want to be overly optimistic on release dates. I’m going to say it will most likely be released at the end of 2018 or the start of 2019.

This means not a lot has changed since last year. I do intend to stick to a basic cycle of one standalone (either novella or novel) and one series book. My hope is that going for unusual concepts for the standalones might get people talking about them. In other words, I hope the gimmick makes people look. I don’t have a lot of hope for the current series, but I would like to have it fairly robust with a few books before moving on to a more marketable series.

I did release a few new short stories on my Patreon, which is part of writing for the next collection. I don’t have a pending date on that, as it’ll happen when I have enough stories.

 

Art On Demand

I have art stores on Zazzle and Society6. Towards the end of the year, I had my first and only sale on Society6. I’ll still maintain that store, but it’s really all about Zazzle when it comes to actually making money.

My aim for Zazzle was to reach a thousand products by the end of the year, which I hit sometime in autumn. Each design is on between ten to forty different products. I have seen results from this, with my sales going up overall. I was paid before the holidays and will be paid again in January. I expect quieter times at the beginning of the year, as people recover from holiday purchasing, but I’m generally optimistic about sales.

I also tried out Zazzle’s embroidery system. This takes some investment, as the initial stitch files cost money (someone has to convert the image into stitches for the embroidery machine). I had one success and one failure. My blue jay design made a nice stitch file. I did edit it a bit before submitting it, to remove some of the fine detail, and it converted just fine. I sold a few things with it on, which paid back the stitch file cost. I’d likely have sold more, but Zazzle halted embroidery product sales for a short time due to the company moving to new premises.

Blue Jay Stitch Preview

Image Caption: A preview of a stitch file, showing the stitch placement of an embroidered blue jay perched on a green vine.

The failure was my pixel art mushroom. The resulting design had smooth lines, so didn’t resemble the original at all. The money was refunded, so nothing lost. Once embroidery production is running again, I’ll likely convert a smooth-lined cartoon mushroom design.

Until the end of December, I was feeling stable about how things were going. Then the takedown notices started. The first was because I had textspeak that included u2 (as in “you too”) as part of the message. The concern was that it might look like merchandise for U2 the band. It’s over-cautious, but I could see they might be playing it safe. I deleted the couple of products with it on and went on with things. Then on Christmas, one of my pixel mushroom products was taken down for copyright/trademark infringement. This is an original design and has been picking up sales, so this was much more of a concern. I responded. A few days later the product was put back.

I’ll never know exactly what happened. I know some people do targeted reporting around holidays to attack people, so it’s possible that happened. It does have a feeling of someone mass reporting everything to see what would stick, especially with the timing. Needless to say, that was all pretty stressful, but I’m glad the pixel mushroom is back.

 

Reviews

Reviewing has stayed about the same this year. Views have gone up a bit. I’m seeing more review requests coming in, which is a good sign that the blog getting some wider attention. The money earnt from Amazon Associates is about the same.

What hasn’t been so good is the mainstream book problem. I picked a fair few mainstream books when requesting thing to review. This has logical reasons behind it, as these books are the ones that initially get people to the blog. I also found I could link up these books with smaller titles by running themed Twitter threads of reviews. This raised the views on reviews of those smaller titles.

All of that is fine, but the chances of disliking those mainstream books was a lot higher. Such books are often good at that one area that matches the author’s identity, but offers plenty of punches to the face to everyone else. The sort of work I’m really hoping for, with a wider intersectional perspective, is difficult to get in those big titles with all the hype.

It doesn’t help that books that get hyped in the online book communities often get aggressively defended. I’ve mostly got away with it because my reviews are often a bit after the release date, so things have calmed a little, but I won’t stay lucky forever (I’d note that this sort of attack is still peanuts to the whole death threat thing of my old blog content, but I’d still rather not have the drama). It means I’ve learnt to pay attention to some other book bloggers in the worst possible way: if they love a book, it’s one to avoid reviewing.

There’s a silver lining to all this though, because those popular mainstream titles continue to get views long after the initial review. So next year, I’m going to take a bit of a break from popular books, and rely on the views from my older reviews. I’ll continue reviewing titles that I’ve already agreed to review. Anything new I pick up will be titles I’ve chosen and titles that come through authors sending review requests. I’ll make exceptions for something on the hype train that looks totally my thing, but the odds of that are pretty low.

I’m open to suggestions of books that people think I’d enjoy and they’d like to see reviewed. I did a book bingo of things I’d like to see in representation, and I’d mostly like science fiction and fantasy where romance isn’t the main focus. Basically, it’d be nice if I could have a year where reading is fun.

 

Patreon

Patreon has continued at about the same level as before. I’m now a few pledges above my website bill, so there’s a little more safety. Until the end of the year approached, I’d have said it was stable. Then there was a sudden announcement of fee changes that would have forced a lot of my patrons out. Patreon did change it back, but it meant uncertainty about whether it would continue to be viable. It’s still possible some people will leave, due to losing trust in the platform.

This is my least favourite way of generating money, because producing masses of content each month is considered normal for the platform. I can’t work that quickly, especially when it comes to writing. Being dyslexic does slow me down, but it happens in a way that isn’t obvious to outsiders. They see that I can write fluently, so assume it isn’t like trying to float rocks with the power of my mind to get my writing to that state.

I did try some ideas this year to counter that. One was a few work-in-progress posts. These didn’t generate any interest, so I don’t intend to do more of those (they still take time to put together, which I could spend on other things). Another was to make a special reward for the end of the year, which was generally well-received. I painted a series of art cards and sent one to each patron. Given that I had seven patrons at the time, this sort of personal reward was viable to do (I wouldn’t be painting up a hundred individual art cards).

Patreon Art Cards

Image Caption: A set of art cards for Patreon, displayed on a white cloth with silver spots. The series has a central figure drawn in black ink. The figure is red with uneven white polka dots, painted with red watercolour. The background is white with red polka dots. The subjects are: a squid, a unicorn, an owl, an elephant, a leopard danio fish, oyster mushrooms, and a fly agaric mushroom. Click for a larger version of the image.

My general conclusion is that Patreon is not a good platform for me. I’m better at producing occasional big rewards, rather than multiple smaller rewards. My regular content is my reviews, but few people see the reviews as a reward. However, I don’t have a better alternative, so here I am.

 

Other Things

One thing I tried last year was a new wishlist. This went about as well as last time: only family bought things from the list. I removed most of the links to it, on the basis that a static wishlist is a lot like a news section that never updates. It creates the impression of being inactive. I know wishlists work well for some reviewers, as a way to get books that otherwise can’t be requested. It didn’t work out for me.

The list is still there and public, so I have it should there be a need for it sometime.

I’ve tried to keep my Twitter account on the light side this year. I figured people would see the news, so they didn’t need me to be the news. I posted my baking from Hallowe’en and the winter holidays, along with updates about the birds and pets.

 

Skip to the End

It’s been a difficult year for writing, as I need a calm environment to work on it. The novella Werecockroach will be out next year. The second book of the Bigfoot Mysteries, Conduit, is aimed for the end of 2018 / start of 2019. It was a good year for art, with my sales at Zazzle increasing. Patreon is about the same and I gave art cards to my patrons at the end of the year. I had a scare with both Patreon (with sudden fee change announcements) and Zazzle (multiple product takedowns), which demonstrates why I’m always looking for other sources of income to add to the mix.

2016: Diversification

Happy Rainbow OctopusThis has been a year of shifting around what I do. I have a lot of detail about that, but if you want the quick version, skip to the end. The long version might be useful to someone else considering going in a similar direction.

I’ve been writing and blogging for around eight years. In the last few years, I’ve had to acknowledge that I’d never really fit in when it came to the writing world. I’d spent years trying, but it wasn’t happening. A few people talk to me, but they’re usually on the fringes as well. If this was a social club, I’d have left years ago. But it’s a work environment, so it’s difficult to stop being involved entirely. What was for sure is continuing with more of the same would not change anything. I was spending a lot of energy on something that was never going anywhere.

The big issue with my writing is that I write about characters and themes that make it hard to get by in the mainstream, but in all the wrong ways to be seen in the diversity community. The recent push for own voices work has pretty much guaranteed anything I write will sink, as so little of it can be promoted as own voices. I’ve always tended to write about the world around me, which includes a lot of people who aren’t like me. Even when a character is like me, it’s not really the narrative people expect from own voices. An example would be a non-white character of a specific race is expected, but a non-white character who isn’t sure of their own ancestry is not expected. People aren’t going to buy something when they’re not looking for it.

So this year was about diversifying in a different context. If writing couldn’t be my career, maybe a whole lot of little things could combine to be a career.

 

The Art of Zazzle

When I was trying to get reviews for my novel, I got a reply that hated the novel idea, but loved the cover. The cover had always got much more positive feedback than the novel itself. So late in 2015, I started up an art store on Zazzle. I chose Zazzle because it’s a large site with a wide variety of products. If my art was going to sell anywhere, it’d be there.

Zazzle is overwhelming at first. There are so many products, and the design tool gives a lot of freedom when it comes to placing images, making text editable, and other things like that. I focused on common items at first, like badges, fridge magnets and keychains. I turned things into t-shirts where I could, including a special t-shirt version of the novel cover blue jay. I made random stuff like ping pong balls to see if anyone would buy one.

The first year was pretty quiet, but I’ve been slowly building up the store. This paid off this year, as the festive season went well for me. The blue jay is one of my bestselling designs, to the point that it’s going to end up earning more than I’ve made selling the novel it illustrates.

One reason this is working out well is it’s reaching new people. Most sales are either through Zazzle’s own search engine or third parties linking to a product. My writing tends to attract other people who aren’t that wealthy, but Zazzle attracts people with money to burn. I have to keep this in mind when I’m designing. I’d never pay that much for some of the items, but there are people who will. On the other side, the smaller items are in a price range that someone on a tight budget could afford, so I make sure I always have some of those for each design.

Zazzle has an affiliate scheme that is part of their normal artist membership. I can gain referrals on anything I link to, including if I buy the item. It’s a very relaxed affiliate scheme, which makes a change from certain other programmes.

My plans for next year are to keep expanding my designs. I want to do some more animals, as they’re popular designs. Probably cats, because cats are great.

 

Blogs and Reviews

My blog used to have content that was more article-focused. I wrote about general issues of representation, the community, a bit about science in writing, and other things like that. This was never an easy road. Lack of support is a bit of an understatement. Negativity and death threats would sum it up much better.

It might sound strange at first to switch to book reviewing, as authors behaving badly over reviews get a lot of attention. But that’s also precisely why I switched. When an author attacks a reviewer, people defend the reviewer as a matter of principle. That’s why you’ve heard about it. Reviews are an ideal area of blogging for a stranger, because the principle of letting reviewers have opinions doesn’t require being known or being popular. The number of death threats and the like has gone down dramatically.

At the same time, I’m still talking about the same things as before. I’m just doing it in the context of specific examples, rather than broader overviews of an issue. I also hope this will do more good, as it’ll help people find / avoid books and other media.

Though I do tend to look for work by marginalised creators, I haven’t limited the blog to this. I know from my own experiences that it can difficult to be the right sort of marginalised for blogs with limits. It’s also difficult for anyone who is quieter about their identity. So I review anything that I feel like reviewing, with a focus towards authors and stories that are underrepresented.

Reviews are working as a way of producing regular free content. It means people can see I’m working on things, even if the big projects take more time to appear. It also passively promotes my other stuff (and stuff in my section for other creators) as it’s all in the sidebar.

 

Amazon Associates

Amazon is strict with their affiliate scheme. Affiliates must state they’re part of the programme and let website visitors know that cookies can be set by third parties. I wrote a privacy policy to cover this. However, affiliates also have to be careful exactly what they say. They can’t make it sound like Amazon endorses them or beg people to use the links to purchase items to support them. Prices can’t be listed with links. It’s very easy to step over the bounds of what is allowed. I keep a close eye on the official forums, so I can try to fix mistakes before they’re an issue.

I haven’t hit the threshold for payment yet, but it makes sense to keep using this system as I link out to so many books (and other items). It is allowed to link to my own books, which is useful.

I’m open to joining other affiliate schemes, but it has to be one where I’d have a chance of earning enough money to get paid. Amazon is chugging along about as expected, so I’ve no complaints, other than I wish I didn’t have to be paid by cheque.

 

Patreon

Patreon is something I couldn’t see working, because it requires having people who’ll sign up to pay money every month. I can’t work fast enough to provide guaranteed content as rewards, which makes my Patreon less appealing. But I do know people who run Patreon as a tip jar rather than a content subscription service. I didn’t see there was anything lost in trying.

I don’t make much on Patreon, but it is paying for my website. It’s a small thing, but it takes the pressure off anything I earn. It means I can pay for things other than website fees, including getting review items and supporting crowdfunding campaigns. It also covers the website being more expensive this year, due to the exchange rate changes. Patreon pays me in dollars, and I pay my website in dollars, so it’ll keep covering the fees even if my home economy completely falls apart.

I did do one Patreon-only post, which was a picture of a warm glow (the thing people get for supporting me). I did initially mean it more metaphorically, but there you go. I will likely do some other things sporadically, but it’s better not to commit to it and have it be a surprise, than to say I’ll do it and not deliver.

 

Amazon Wishlist

My wishlist isn’t new. I started it up around my birthday one year and I’ve never had anyone buy me anything from it. But some people like buying stuff from wishlists as a way of support, so I cleaned it up and linked to it. This was late enough in the year that I don’t know if it’ll do anything, but any item will be a bonus. The list is mainly review items from the serious to the silly.

 

Other Art Sites

This comes right at the end of the year, as it was part of setting things up for next year. After my art success, I wanted to put a few eggs in other baskets.

The first I looked at was Redbubble, but I discounted it as it’d be a tax nightmare. Redbubble is in Australia, so they should be withholding 5% of my income to pay as taxes (under the tax treaty agreement with the UK). They don’t do this, and they say it’s up to artists to pay those taxes. Except it’s not, because the method for paying those taxes is through withholding, which Redbubble should be doing. Tax avoidance is something I try to avoid, so no Redbubble for me.

Society6 is an American site, so it’s the usual 0% withholding deal. I’d like it better if they were keeping the proper forms on file, but either way, I’m only liable for taxes in my home country for any earnings here.

Society6 is both simpler and trickier than Zazzle. It’s simpler in that it has fewer products and has simplified the process of putting art on stuff. It’s trickier because that means it has fewer tools. Things can’t be tiled or layered, it doesn’t show bleed lines and the like, it doesn’t take vector images… there are a lot of handy things it won’t do. Files at the biggest size are a problem when it comes to previewing. I’ve found the best way is to attempt to preview, then back out and try again tomorrow. It appears to figure out the preview in the break.

All that said, the site does function and the products look reasonable. I do like that I can tweak product image placement after the product goes live. The product pages also show my other work very clearly to the customer: both what other designs I have on that item, and what other items have that design.

There is an affiliate scheme (curators) which has to be signed up for separately. I’ve signed up for this. Also, payments will come in more regularly, as there isn’t a threshold. I know some people prefer to buy from Society6, so hopefully it’ll spread my earnings a bit.

 

Writing

The result of working on everything else was I didn’t release any new books. What I did was work on projects as I felt like working on them. The pressure was off, which gave me some space to decide what I’d do next. I have a novella that will be released next year, at the same time as related cover art merchandise. This will be the first release that ties everything together.

After that, I’ll be working on the second book in my urban fantasy series. This series is not something I can see as ever being popular, but if I’m making money on art, I don’t need it to be.

I am still writing short stories, but the list of markets on my submissions list is a lot smaller now. It’s not the primary way I make money anymore, so I can be more selective.

 

Skip to the End

To round it all up, I deleted my old blog content and have replaced it with reviewing. This has dramatically reduced the death threats. I put art for sale on Zazzle, which is working out nicely. I’m on Patreon, which covers my website costs. Towards the end of the year, I put together a wishlist and started a second art store on Society6. I’m part of a few affiliate programmes related to these things, which is listed in my privacy policy.

Next year, I will have a novella out at some point. I’m going to draw lots of pictures of kittens.

Zazzle Store Opening

I’ve talked about this on Twitter, but it’s now time to make it a bit more widely known. I’ve started up a Zazzle store. This is a print-on-demand art site, where they’ll print designs on many things. Postcards, badges, clocks, t-shirts, cookies… all sorts of thing.

The initial designs are mostly older pictures of mine, including the clouds from above photographs and my shiny blue mushroom. Some of my older work can’t be sold. For example, a lot of zoos have a no commercial photography agreement. And some of it is too small to print well. But I’ll put up the things that don’t have those issues.

My first new design is also finished, which came from thinking it’d be great to have a smiley face design, only with spiders. I’ll be adding to the store when I can, but until then, here it is:

My Zazzle Store is here!