Killing the Man: Making A Living As an Artist Online [Feature]

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Not everyone works in an office; not everyone is tied to the 9-5 daily grind.

Thanks to developments in computing and communications technology, artists, writers, musicians, and programmers can set up on their own.

Conventional wisdom usually dictates that striking out as a freelancer requires a plan and some savings; however, it might be something that is forced by circumstance.

I spoke to a quartet of creatives recently, each proudly working for themselves in different ways. Read on to find out more about a freelance writer forced into his dream career through redundancy, a photographer who stumbled upon a means of making money through her ability with Photoshop, an artist who followed her dream instead of processing card payments and a journalist who found himself offered a six book deal by a major publisher!

The Artist: Michel

“My strategy, I think, has always been the same, enjoy what I do!” 

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-Michel Keck, artist.

Rising as early as she likes, Michel sets to work on her latest piece. As an artist, she has an eye for a great picture, and as a businesswoman, she knows how to sell her work. Most importantly, Michel is a freelancer, a move that for her has only become possible thanks to the Web.

Before 2003, Michel Keck was a merchant account service provider. This all changed, however, at the suggestion of another artist who she knew.

Occasionally selling through eBay, her stunning work can mostly be purchased through her Web sites. If you have a website, you’ll probably be aware of the difficulties in getting listed for targeted keywords on the best search engines. SEO is an important aspect of many online businesses, but researching and targeting keywords is not exactly the sort of thing you expect to find an artist doing!

“I have high listings in the search engines from the work I do on search engine optimization for my Web site.  I also actively promote my work and make sales through the marketing efforts I make through Facebook – the only social network site I currently utilize.”

This is interesting: from experience, I know that many regularly-employed people feel that freelancers have an easy ride, but here we have an artist developing skills in SEO!

“My strategy I think has always been the same, enjoy what I do!  There are the day to day operations of business that of course are monotonous, but at the core of what I do; the painting and creating, I love it and that is what fuels my business.”

Having changed her career once already, Michel knows that things might not work out long-term. Most artists can’t work without a passion and love for their calling, and she seems to be no different.

“I’ve been making a full time living since 2003 – going on almost a decade. Business is good, but not what it was say six years ago. The economy has affected the art industry as it has all industries across the board. Fortunately I invested into my company years back so that I could self-publish as well as create originals and that is why I have remained successful.”

“The moment I no longer have joy doing what I am doing I will definitely find a new path.  I’m an Aries so I can change my mind and interests at the drop of a hat!”

As Michel Keck is responsible for such fascinating and beautiful artwork, let’s hope that isn’t any time soon.

The Photographer: Kim

“…Eventually it became so successful that I was able to quit my day job.”

– Kim Smith-Miller, photographer.

The freelance path wasn’t without its pitfalls for Kim Smith-Miller. “Having been trained as a fine art photographer… I started dabbling in weddings after I graduated from Humboldt State University in 2009. After graduating college, I shot a former colleague’s wedding, and then my sister-in-law’s, and that’s when I learned just how much I love wedding photography.

“Unfortunately, moving out-of-state to Portland, OR in the middle of a recession put the shooting end of things on the back burner…”

During her two years working with a grocery delivery service, however, Kim began selling Photoshop Actions, tools for creative post-processing and stylizing of images in the popular application. “It started off as an experiment – a way to answer the frequently asked question of ‘How’d you do that?’ – but eventually it became so successful that I was able to quit my day job.”

This, however, took time. “About a year and a half ago I started crunching numbers weekly to figure out what I absolutely needed as a bare minimum to live off of. My husband and I lead extremely simple lives, so we don’t need much compared to many married couples out there, but it was still a scary thought to give up the weekly paycheck. Once the sales from my Photoshop Actions were steadily matching the income from my part-time, dead-end job, I realized it was time to quit.”

Something that certainly helped Kim is that she was smart enough to not only save up in case of emergencies but to also take to the Web and blog about her decision…

“I had saved enough money for a 6-month emergency fund, just in case. At the beginning of 2012 I took to my blog and wrote a long post about how I quit, and how important it was to pursue my creative vision, even if it meant never becoming filthy stinkin’ rich.

“This post got a lot of attention, was re-blogged, re-tweeted and eventually noticed by the Get Rich Slowly blog — not to mention all the fellow creative types it has helped, and continues to help.”

Unlike Michel Kech, Kim doesn’t currently use SEO (“the next step for me”) but she does have plans to expand the digital products she offers. Although she hasn’t had much luck with advertising on Facebook or Google, Smith-Miller has seen some good traction from social networks. “When I was in college I was an extremely active member of Flickr, and that’s how I gained my early supporters. When it came to selling Photoshop Actions, it was cyclical– my Flickr friends were the first to purchase my actions, use them on their photos and upload them to Flickr.”

It doesn’t end there; Kim adds on the power of social networking: “Many of my wedding clients have been reading my blog since I was still in college, as well as my Facebook business page where the potential to tap into the networks of my friends/clients and have posts go viral is massive.”

“I think there’s something to be said these days about putting a face to a business… actually interacting with your customers, getting to know them, and just being their friend makes a world of difference.”

Kim isn’t the only freelancer for whom social networking plays a role…


The Freelance Writer: Stephen


“I haven’t been happier in years than I have been since I left my job. It’s something I’ve wanted to do. If it doesn’t work, then at least I’ve tried it.”

– Stephen Mellor, freelance author.

Not everyone enjoys their job. Large, impersonal companies and directionless management are all-too-common in all industries, and sometimes employees are crying for a way out. Since losing his job in early 2012, Stephen Mellor has written three books and is doing moderately well, certainly earning enough to live on, thanks to the Amazon Kindle Store.

Despite dreams of becoming a writer, Stephen Mellor had to wait until he was made unemployed before he could take his ambitions seriously.

“I was made redundant from my post as a local government Data and Information Officer back in July. I’ve been writing for quite a long time, but what I’m doing at the moment is to make a go at it without being employed doing anything else. I’ve got one book written and self-published. I’ve got another with a publisher looking at it at the minute, and I’m in the middle of editing my third.”

Like many other writers, Stephen Mellor has opted to use the Kindle Direct Platform to publish his first book, sci-fi adventure “The Long Sleep”. This gives him a page on Amazon and the opportunity for readers to leave their thoughts – as well as a means to promote the title.

Keeping in mind the axiom that a freelance should remain busy, Stephen is pleased to confirm “reasonable success” so far. “I’ve sold probably two or three hundred copies, mainly through using the Web, making contacts and sort of getting people to write reviews of it and stuff like that.”

“I’m not yet at the stage where I can certainly say I’m never going to work for someone else again but I can definitely see it coming.”

Taking advantage of the CreateSpace print-on-demand service for paper copies and the KDP program to list his titles on Kindle, Stephen takes advantage of social networking and good customer relations (“I’m a strong believer in avoiding DRM, so if anybody bought in one format they can convert it…”) in order to promote himself, along with conducting interviews and having author profiles on many popular indie publishing sites.

“I use Twitter a lot, I use Facebook, I have my own blog, my own website, I’m on Goodreads, and there’s a couple of other websites I’ve used around the subject of promoting indie writers. They’re fairly successful, and I’m trying to get myself “out there” – I probably need to do more but I’m in the early stages of working out exactly what I can do and concentrating on getting my latest book finished.

It’s trying to work out a nice mix of [promoting] the stuff and doing the work.”

Stephen’s redundancy meant that he was given an opportunity that he never thought he would get; it also meant that he could begin his new career with a small amount of financial support. “Being made redundant was no surprise, I’d been expecting it for about 18 months beforehand. If I could have left and got my employment insurance, job seeker’s allowance, all that stuff, without being made redundant, I would have been out of there ages ago.”

Of course, the money won’t last forever; Stephen is realistic about how long he can continue without the level of success he needs to pay the bills. “I’m looking at least the next 6-12 months doing this, after that I’ll see how the money’s going and see how it’s going with the publishing stuff and hopefully keep going doing this.”

You can find out more about Stephen Mellor and his books here.


The Book Deal-Wielding Journalist: Kerry

“I never set out to get, or accept, a book deal. But I had nothing to lose by taking it…”

– Kerry Wilkinson, journalist and author.

With an amazing 250,000 eBook sales under his belt, no one was more surprised than Kerry Wilkinson when he was approached by Macmillan to sign a six book deal. Surely that’s the stuff of fairy tales?

Stephen Mellor is a writer who is just starting out; Kerry Wilkinson, meanwhile, is at the other end of the spectrum. While Mellor has been eking out an existence doing a job he disliked while dreaming of long days tied to a word processor, Wilkinson was already there, working professionally as a sports journalist.

Although writing for a living already (“I’ve been employed constantly since I left university and still have a full-time job now,”) Kerry made headlines in March 2012 when he landed a six book deal with Pan Macmillan – under a year after he released his first Jessica Daniel eBook.

“I’d already sold 250,000 ebooks, so there are few downsides to moving into a market I can’t get myself into,” he told me, “I had nothing to lose by taking it, and physical books still sell more than digital books in the UK – and probably will for a couple of years yet.”

Another thing that is interesting about Kerry – in stark difference to Mellor – is that his approach to social networking has been minimalistic.

“I didn’t use Facebook. The group that is there now is a response to people who wanted one. It was only set up in (roughly) April/May 2012. I didn’t use Twitter much either and rarely tweet about the books. I like social media as a way for people to contact me, which they do, and lets me respond directly and quickly to them when they asked questions. I didn’t really have a promotion strategy. The book(s), for the most part, sold themselves.”

Where Kerry gained much of his success was through hugely positive reviews on Amazon. “There were only ever around 20-30 reviews. That obviously grew exponentially but I suppose it was largely word of mouth, yes. But then it was a popular genre, with a bit of a twist, and a female lead instead of the usual male – so it had a few things going for it.”

Like Michel with her artwork and Kim Smith-Miller with her Photoshop tools, Kerry Wilkinson took a slightly unusual approach to his craft, and ended up with a hit – one that enabled him to win one of the big dreams of any freelancer, that of industry recognition for his work.

Modern Freelancing Needs Technology

Our four subjects have demonstrated the importance of various technologies to their careers – technologies that weren’t in place just a few years ago.

Michel Keck utilises her websites and SEO to sell her work; Kim Smith-Miller sells uniquely configured Photoshop tools for image post-processing, as file downloads; Stephen Mellor embraces Kindle and CreateSpace to sell his work, while Kerry Wilkinson simply relied on online reviews of his books to gain a six-book deal with a major publisher.

Underlining all of these stories is the use of social networking (whether active or not) and the Web.

While any of these people might have been able to forge a career before the rise of the Web, the chances of their success being what it is today would have been far smaller without it.

It’s only with the provision of these tools (all free or extremely affordable) that our subjects have found their way into professional satisfaction and personal success, enabling them to “Kill The Man” in their own individual ways.

Image Credit: Conceptual handwritten white text via Shutterstock

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Comments (21)
  • Vishesh Arora

    Very nice article. I am a Motion Graphic Artist from India and I know how difficult it is to maintain a living for an artist in developing countries where people are ready to work for free and for continuous 14-16 hours. Its a cut-throat competition and there is no space for even good artists. You have to be one of the best if you want a good job with moderate salary. I have resigned last week with the !DEA of starting my own website. I have also started getting freelance work and I feel its much better than my daily hectic job schedule. Its good that you are creating awareness among people about the power of web and social networking.

  • Nats Logan

    Inspiration and a reminder to Just Do It

  • Josh VanMeter

    I’m sure that there is great self-satisfaction in succeeding on the merits of your own work.

  • Anonymous

    Artists, Rock on!!

  • SoftwareDemons

    An interesting and well written article

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This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
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