Patrons, Perks, Payout? Patreon for DIY creators

Illustration by Ian Sullivan Cant 

“AS SOON AS I SAW IT, I had the gut feeling that this is the platform that I should be using,” Rio Aubry Taylor said.

Taylor is a multidisciplinary cartoonist based in North Carolina who set up a Patreon account in 2015 and spent a year preparing to officially launch it in January 2016. Xe now uses the platform as the main page for xir comic series.

“I don’t think I’m a business person particularly, but since I’ve chosen to be an artist, I have to be,” Taylor said. “Sites like Patreon make it easier for me to do that.”

Patreon streamlines the money aspect of art, allowing creators to deposit a monthly transfer straight to their account — which means that people like Taylor, who primarily make their money through art, can do basic things like pay rent.

Jack Conte co-founded Patreon in 2013 to help creators earn money for their work, while maintaining creative control. Creators set up their Patreon with a series of fundraising goals, and when they hit that level of monthly income, they begin to work on corresponding “perks” to give their ongoing supporters, or “patrons.”

The site’s concept thrives off simplicity. Every month, a patron pays a fee to have access to a creator’s work. The fee can be as low as the $1 “tip jar,” but each level of payment provides different perks. Perks depend on the person or project, but the most common idea is to allow the patrons a behind-the-scenes look into the artist’s process. The media vary dramatically, from videos to art to pins to poetry. Because of its flexibility, Patreon has become a crucial way for some artists to supplement income by doing something they love to complement or even replace boring freelance work they can’t stand.

Marnie Galloway is a cartoonist from Chicago who started using Patreon in May 2017 when her family was experiencing financial distress.

“I had been holding off on jumping into Patreon, and that was the nudge I needed to go. ‘Ok, now is maybe the time to do as many things as I can to help us get through this hardship,’” Galloway explained.

Galloway has been using Patreon to work on two bigger projects: a new full-length graphic novel and an installation piece. The bulk of the money she makes through the platform goes to childcare expenses for her toddler, which gives her the time and space to get work done.

“I have a big picture window in my living room. It’s huge and beautiful, and last year when I was at home with my infant son, I spent a lot of time looking out the window and feeling very much inside, not stuck exactly, but set in this space,” Galloway said of what inspired her installation. “Thinking about the tension between the domestic sphere and the public sphere, and this big picture window was the boundary between me and that. So, I’m writing a comic in 12 pieces that I’m going to install in the picture window.”

The picture window comic will be a Patreon-exclusive production for Galloway’s patrons during the new year, except, of course, for those who see it walking down the street. This project is a new approach for Galloway, who finds she has a supportive community of readers, but has struggled with merging her web presence with her real-world presence.

“Going to the same shows year after year is really rewarding because people come up and [say,] ‘I got this book from you last year, what’s next?’” Galloway said. “But that’s really location specific. If … I can’t go to a show multiple years in a row, then there’s not as easy a way to keep that connection going.”

Taylor has been using Patreon to work around this. While arts and zines fairs have always been a main source of new readers, Patreon allows that audience to stay engaged past that single event.

“Many of my online subscribers on Patreon are people I’ve had come to my events in person. Sometimes I have my friends set up with computers. I give the presentation and then I say, ‘If you wanna subscribe right now, here are my friends and they’ll sign you up right now,’” said Taylor. “A lot of really well-meaning people want to sign up when they get home, and they just forget.”

However, not everyone finds Patreon so useful. Vicky Stevenson, an artist from the UK who runs Pen Fight Distro, shut down her Patreon a year of use.

“You really have to be good at self-promotion, because the website itself isn’t going to be getting new traffic to come your way,” Stevenson said.

“I compare it to something like Etsy, where the trade-off for paying their fees is that you do reach new customers who like to browse the site for new things. I don’t think that really happens on Patreon,” she said, pointing out that folks with followings or palatable online personalities can cash in more easily. “It seems to work better for YouTubers, podcasts, and digital comic creators.”

Stevenson’s stance might make sense. In the “What is Patreon?” video, founder Jack Conte features creators like Hank Green and Nick Scarpino — people who had a large online following and successful careers long before Patreon. Thus, independent creators can’t rely on the platform itself to support them. Rather, they must pour resources and energy into promoting their own pages.

“It’s not really all that suited towards [most] people,” Stevenson said. She’s decided to move on and create her own system.

“I’m looking into setting up some kind of subscription through my own hosted website. If I’m gonna be doing all the work to fundraise, I may as well get to actually keep more of the money,” Stevenson said. “Hopefully that’ll mean I can give more back in return. If I get enough people signing up, I’ll be able to do fun stuff like making exclusive zines, prints, badges just for subscribers, which so far haven’t been worth the time it would take to do.”

Taylor has struggled with developing perks specific to patrons rather than following her own creative path.

“I realized that there are things I wanna do sooner, rather than when the goals are actually reached. There’s one about taking feedback from people to do spotlight issues on specific characters. I’m basically already doing that,” Taylor said. “I haven’t reached that ‘goal’, [but] I’m just kind of scrapping it, because creatively it’s what I want to be doing right now.”

Could Patreon be just the tool an underground zinester or emerging illustrator needs to support themselves as an artist? Or is it just another restrictive web platform to get lost in, taking up more energy than it’s worth?

It depends how much you’re willing to play their game. For those willing to do extra promotion and follow a specific structure of fundraising goals and corresponding perks for patrons, it might be a welcome boost. For others who work in a more free-form approach, or want complete control over interactions with their supporters, it might be yet another situation where D-I-Y saves the D-A-Y.

Have any tips or stories about using Patreon as a zinester or comic artist? Tweet at us at @brokenpencilmag and let us know!