Sally Jane Thompson is a writer, illustrator and comic creator. She exhibited work with us as part of Memories of the Future and you may purchase her e-comic Now and Then in our online shop for just £1. Here she answers a few questions about freelancing and balancing personal and commercial work…
And who might you be…?
I’m Sally, a freelance illustrator and comic creator living in the East Midlands.
How long have you been a freelance illustrator & what sort of stuff do you do?
I started freelancing with a few part-time jobs here and there while I did my MA (so since about 2008), and built up slowly. It’s still building really – I think freelance careers often take some time to build to the level of momentum you want – but I’ve been full time since I finished my MA a couple of years ago.
The jobs I get tend to be fairly varied – one thing that’s quite nice to see if the increasing use of comics in corporate documents… things like information wrapped in example stories or case studies, for their employees or potential clients. But my favourite are the occasional comic jobs that are outward-facing, that a lot of people can read and enjoy. A recent example was a Victorian-set story done for a local heritage site… that sort of thing is both exciting to do and produces a great, shareable product at the end.
Other examples from the last twelve months are editorial illustrations for magazines, an e-book cover, and a packaging illustration for a food product – you really never know, which is often stressful, but does keep work fresh and challenging.
As well as working commercially as an illustrator you make & publish your own comics, how do you balance very personal work with other commitments?
I think for people who have a compulsion to tell stories or communicate ideas, personal work is the most important thing, and day-job-work is what makes it possible. My own comics are divided between self-published and traditionally published and to me personally there’s no real division there. It’s all my work and is fairly cohesive in content whatever the format.
Like a lot of creators, I do find it frustrating to have to put aside work I’m really passionate about, and want to figure out more ways to essentially buy myself time. There are more options to do that now via crowd-funding etc. But it’s by no means easy and is always, I think, the main issue for people wanting to create something.
I have a new graphic novel out – ‘Atomic Sheep’ from Markosia. It took years to do, because it was my first full-length book and I was learning what it means to make a whole book that had to fit into the flitting spare minutes between everything else. I did my fair share of leaving it for long stretches, which lengthened the process further because by the time I came back to it I’d improved a lot and had to redraw pages! I also did far too many other things – short comics, collaborations – for someone trying to get a book done. But that was a learning process too (and I’m very happy with the results).
I’m now at a stage where I’ve learned to say no to interesting collaborations with people I like (a vital skill!), and have learned to discipline myself to work on – well, not quite one, but a small amount of projects at a time, until they’re done! I currently have one graphic novel, one prose book, and a sketch/painting series going as my current personal projects. That may very well be too many, but their differences compliment each other…the physicality and freedom of sketching or experimenting with painting can wake me up in the morning before the freelance work, the prose makes my brain work in a different way than comics, and the comic is a place of comfort and passion at the end of a work day, or over a coffee break.
Gosh, this is a long answer isn’t it! But there’s so much to say on this topic. It’s always a challenge. There’s never enough time. And my home is always messy. But bit by bit, I’m getting the stories I want to tell done, and that’s what matters!
Do you feel you’ve made compromises between doing the sort of work you really enjoy & taking on work which pays better?
Absolutely! If I could, I’d do my own projects all day, every day. And that doesn’t mean I don’t love my job, and that my work isn’t interesting. It’s just that, as I said above, if you have stories you want to tell, the hours you spend doing other things can hurt.
In comics, it can often be not so much “work which pays better”, but “work which pays at all”. I’m not talking about all the people online after free work from you, or accepting bad rates (<please don’t do either!) but the fact that it’s a challenge to make ones’ own comics pay, and often it’s more a case of one thing funding the other.
How did you fund setting up as a freelancer in the first place & what costs were involved?
Well, I was doing an MA when I started, so was able to ease into it while doing that. I know some people advocate taking a risk, diving right in, to put yourself in a position where you have to succeed… Personally, I tend to think if you can ease in at a time when you’re not financially depending on it, that’s better. It can take years for the work to turn into a stream that – if never exactly reliable – is at least steady.
Start-up costs can be very low, depending on the sort of work you do. If you can work from home, with materials you already have, that makes it much more viable, and helps you avoid starting out with a loan (not that that’s the end of the world, but it’s nice to avoid it when your own income is new, fluctuating, and insecure). There are also a lot of organizations in the UK to help new business. (look some up).
However, I have to make a confession here – I have a spouse with a regular job. If I didn’t have that safety net, I’d still be doing this, but part-time while I did whatever other work I could find. Which is I think the balance for a lot of freelancers, and while I’m under no delusions about how lucky I am, this can and does work well for a lot of people
How do you discover clients & do you have any tips on garnering repeat trade?
Largely online. Lately it’s become a bit more balanced with recommendations and people seeing my work elsewhere, but that takes time (a paper trail of work out there for potential clients to see, your peers knowing your work and reliability enough to recommend you). I still need to be proactive despite some recommended work, keeping my eyes open, promoting myself, etc.
I did a post a while back on hunting for jobs online, which is here: Hunting Jobs Online
Repeat trade is largely about the impression you made, I think. And how enjoyable you were to work with. Pleasantness, promptness, politeness, good communication. Added to that, keeping a good contact list and occasionally reminding them you’re still there – whether via a mailing list or occasional emails. Don’t spam people; I like to have something to offer when I contact former clients, like a Christmas greeting with a great new illustration, or a download link to a free copy of a new comic as a thank-you for their custom in the past.
Have you ever used an agent?
This is funnily timed, as I’ve just begun working with a literary agent in the last month.
When I started freelancing, I wanted to both build a track record that would be attractive to one, and do the business side myself for a while to make sure I understood it. That way, even if working with an agent, I can ask the questions I need to and make sure I have information and control over how my work is being used. And while the admin side of work can be draining and annoying, I’ve found I actually find contract negotiations, etc., quite interesting – and find it quite satisfying when I learn something new and can add a useful new clause to my standard template contract!
So it was a few years before I got to the stage where it felt like the right time to look for representation – and while I’m excited, and am hoping it will me help push my career up a level, I’m also glad I waited and built up to it.
Can you recommend any websites which may be useful to illustrators starting out?
– If you’ll forgive the plug, I’ve been running a weekly ‘Freelance Friday’ blog series on freelance issues over at my site, which are largely aimed at those in their first couple of years of freelancing. Topics covered so far include networking at events, responding to queries, and quoting.
– Katie Lane’s Work Made for Hire blog on creative business issues is fantastic.
– Illustration Age has some good resources, including the Illustration Age and Escape From Illustration Island podcast.
– The UK is lucky enough to have lots of small business-supporting organizations. Google a bit, or perhaps see if your local university has a business hub that can suggest some good ones to look up.
– Additionally, there are various excellent professional organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Association of Illustrators, etc… Even if you decide not to join right away, they have events that are open to non-members, and useful publications like the AoI’s “Illustrators Guide to Law and Business Practice”.
UK-based Zero2Illo has some great resources and blog posts.
Many thanks to Sally for taking time to answer our questions. You can purchase her e-comic Now and Then in the Bees Make Honey Shop and/or read a chapter of Sally’s new comic Atomic Sheep at atomicsheepcomic.com
Find out more about her other work at sallyjanethompson.co.uk