Joanna Penn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of several books including Business for Authors: How to be an Authorpreneur. Joanna writes and publishes both fiction and non-fiction. She is a sought-after speaker and lecturer at writers conferences, publishing industry events and online educational workshops. Joanna has been a full-time “author-entrepreneur” for more than 4 years, and shares her best ideas, tips and more on her blog The Creative Penn.
Joanna started her professional career as a business consultant. For 13 years she worked with large corporations dealing with banking issues. Her college degree was in theology. She started a number of businesses including a scuba diving business, a travel agency, and a property investment business.
Those businesses taught Joanna that she shouldn’t sell physical products because she wanted to have an income that wasn’t dependent upon her location. That’s why she focused on creating digital products to sell.
Joanna started blogging and writing nonfiction before she transitioned into writing fiction, and primarily thrillers.
Today Joanna writes fiction, some nonfiction, and she speaks at author conferences. Those are her income streams right now.
Joanna’s first book Career Change was a book she wrote when she was going through her own career change. She wrote that book because she hated her job and she wanted to write down the process of figuring out what you want to do with your life. Joanna also has a book on public speaking for authors, and book marketing for authors as well.
She always wanted to write fiction but she thought literary fiction was the only fiction you were allowed to write because her mother was a teacher of English literature. Joanna does like some literary books, but she really loves thrillers. Getting over the idea that she had to write literary fiction is what really launched Joanna’s fiction career.
Now she writes thrillers with a theological element. Joanna describes her arcane series as Dan Brown meets Laura Croft.
Write What You Love
Joanna’s writing a new London crime thriller series. The first book in the series is Desecration, which she published last year. In the book she explores the theme of what we do with our physical body when we’re alive and after we’re dead.
She’s currently writing the sequel, Delirium, another crime thriller. There’s a murder that takes place in the mental institution Bedlam in London.
“With nonfiction you write what you know. With fiction you write about what you want to know. You write what you want to learn.” – Joanna Penn
After Joanna is done with delirium she will return to her Arcane Series with a story about the Spanish Inquisition brought forward into modern days.
She writes her books based on where she wants to travel next.
Design Your Life
When Joanna first started looking seriously at becoming a career fiction author, she designed her life based on the things that were most important to her.
- A location independent life.
- The freedom to travel.
- An income that supported her lifestyle.
She achieved her goals by getting rid of most of her possessions. She doesn’t own any furniture. She doesn’t own a house or a car. She can run her business from anywhere in the world, with a laptop.
Build Your Network
“There’s no direct return on investment when it comes to podcast interviews, or being active on social media, or with blogging, or with my podcast, or YouTube. Unless you embed code everywhere to track links you’re never going to have a direct relationship between chatting with somebody and somebody buying a book. But by taking consistent actions on social media every day, you can build a platform.” – Joanna Penn
When Joanna started she didn’t have an email list, or a community of people interested in her writing. She wasn’t on twitter, and she didn’t have a ton of followers on Facebook.
Joanna built her platform one follower at a time by taking consistent action on social media over the last five years.
Joanna has built her following by being helpful and interesting.
Some people can build a following because they’re funny. Joanna doesn’t have that arrow in her quiver. But she has been successful by sharing good, useful content with her audience. If you share content that helps other people they will share your content as well.
Another way Joanna has built her platform is through her podcast. She interviews the successful writers to see what they’re doing. The act of interviewing someone builds a tangible connection with them. Interviewing writers has helped Joanna build her network faster because the writers Joanna has interviewed tell their audiences about her.
Another important element of her social media strategy is consistency. She has shared every day on twitter for over five years. She blogs every 2 to 3 days.
It’s a lot of work but Joanna loves doing it, and she was able to give up her day job 2 ½ years ago, so obviously something she’s doing is working.
“For authors small regular effort over the long term is going to make a massive difference over the long haul.” – Joanna Penn
If you want to read a scientifically researched book about the benefits of small consistent actions over the long-term take a look at The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy.
There’s no magic trick to building a platform online. If you share quality content consistently over a long period of time you will build a platform.
Repurpose Your Content to Build Your Brand
It’s important to remember that you can repurpose content and share it on a number of different channels to help build your brand.
The podcast you’re listening to right now is available on audio. You also have the show notes which are written. Some of these podcast are video interviews which are shared on YouTube and on the show notes page.
When you write a book you can deliver it several different ways. You can have:
- The e-book.
- The paperback book.
- The audiobook.
- The translation of your books into foreign languages.
- Movie rights.
As you can see, you can create many streams of income from a single book.
The Business Benefits of Writing Fiction
The brilliant thing about fiction is that it doesn’t age. If you write nonfiction, that information can become dated very quickly these days. But good stories will always be good stories and people will always want to read them.
Stories stand the test of time. We’re still reading stories that were written thousands of years ago.
Realizing that fiction doesn’t age was the lightbulb moment for Joanna. With fiction you only have to write the story once and it will keep selling and making you money until the day you die, and even 70 years after you die (because of US copyright law.)
Joanna does courses for people and the technology that you teach in a course will go out of date within six months.
But stories don’t go out of date.
Recently Joanna has been reading her short stories outloud and putting the audio files on SoundCloud.
The Importance of Consistency
Consistency is the one biggest predictor of success when it comes to anything in life.
Another important element is that when you consistently produce fiction, you get better at telling stories over time.
Hugh Howey has had massive success. But he became an “overnight success” only after writing stories that didn’t sell for 10 years.
Libbie Hawker is another example of an author who seemed to have achieved overnight success. She started writing at the age of 14 several years before she became a successful indie author.
You shouldn’t want or expect success with your first book because you may come to regret it later, especially if you allow the success of your first book to shape your expectation for future books.
Another benefit of consistently producing new fiction is that you get better, and you begin to discover your author voice as you write more stories.
How to Design Your Authorpreneur Business
The important thing to think about when you’re designing your author business is you have to enjoy doing your work. When you’re working for yourself you don’t have anyone telling you what to do. So when you’re designing your authorpreneur business, make sure that you’re writing books you like and you’re doing marketing activities you enjoy.
One thing Joanna has been doing lately is including pictures and quotes from her travels on her social media profiles.
She does it because she enjoys doing it and her followers enjoy it as well. But the important thing to remember is that she is doing it for herself first.
It’s hard to be consistent over the long term doing something that you don’t enjoy. Life is too short to do things that you don’t like.
A Different Approach to Marketing
“Most authors don’t enjoy marketing because they think it’s scammy or terrible. Marketing is sharing what you love with people who want to hear about it.” – Joanna Penn
Joanna describes her books as Dan Brown meets Laura Croft. The people who understand what that means and like action movies will like Joanna’s books. People who like literary fiction won’t enjoy the types of stories Joanna writes.
The key to marketing is to talk about the things you love and people who like the same things will be attracted to you.
Joanna doesn’t pay attention to one star reviews. Her books are religious thrillers, and because of that there are a lot of people with strong opinions about the subject matter who read her books. She knows that she can’t please all of them, so she doesn’t bother reading the reviews of people who don’t like her work. For her, it’s a waste of time and it drains her energy.
Writing novels is hard enough without getting the voices of naysayers inside your head.
“At the end of the day you have to realize that not everyone is going to like what you do. Not everyone is going to like who you are, as a person, and you can’t really do much about that.” – Joanna Penn
The best thing for authors to do is surround themselves with positive supportive feedback from others, if they listen to it at all.
It all comes down to the type of author you want to be. If you want to be the type of author who argues with people, you can make that into a successful author business for yourself. Several people have.
Joanna simply isn’t cut out to argue with her audience, so she doesn’t.
Public Speaking and Building Your Platform
Joanna recently released Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives and other Introverts because she has found public speaking to be a great way to build her platform and audience.
A lot of authors and artists are introverts and feel like they can’t handle public speaking. The truth is that being a speaker can be much easier than being in the crowd if you’re an introvert. The potential to grow your platform and make genuine connections with your audience is phenomenal. If you’re an introvert who wants to build a platform check out Joanna’s book.
Joanna started her speaking business by including a speaker page on her blog, and advertising herself as a public speaker on her business cards.
In the beginning she did speeches for free to build her portfolio of speaking engagements and gain experience.
Having a book really helps because people want you to speak on the topic of your book. Getting public speaking engagements is much easier for nonfiction authors because nonfiction books establish you as the expert in your field of study.
Fiction authors don’t always have a topic that people will pay to hear them speak about, unless it’s writing fiction.
Speakers who are nonfiction authors get paid much better than speakers who are fiction authors simply because the venues expect to pay nonfiction authors more money.
Literary festivals pay fiction authors next to nothing for their time when they speak.
Joanna speaks at entrepreneurial conferences and author workshops.
Joanna’s first speeches were given for free. She got testimonials from the audience for the speeches and put them on her speaker page.
From there she started to learn how to speak professionally. She joined the National Speakers Association, and went to professional speaker conferences.
Joanna has been speaking for four years now and she’s at the point in her speaker career where she can afford to turn things down. As an introvert she needs to manage her energy especially when it comes to large events like speaking at conferences.
Learn from Your Mistakes
When Joanna first started indie publishing, she ordered a print run of 2,000 copies. This was in 2008 before the Kindle came on the market. She was in Australia when she ordered the print run.
Joanna ended up putting 1,900 of them in a landfill. If you’re going to sell paper versions of your books, do it with Print on Demand publishing.
Using Print on Demand, the customer sees no difference between your book and a book by a traditionally published author like Stephen King, but you don’t have any inventory to deal with!
Print distribution is very difficult if you are an indie author, and in 2017 more than 50% of all print books are sold online anyway. It really makes no sense to invest time and money to try and get your book into bookstores for most indie authors.
Authors should also learn search engine optimization because Amazon is a buying search engine. What you want to do is put in the title of your book keywords people are searching for. That allows them to find your book organically when they search for a keyword phrase.
Joanna’s book, Career Change, ranks in the first paid for the term career change. She originally titled it “How to Enjoy Your Job or Find a New One.” That book wasn’t being found by anyone.
As soon as Joanna change the title she started to sell a lot more books.
Joanna’s third piece of advice is learn from other people so you don’t have to make the same mistakes they did. She has a lot of quality advice available for free online through her blog, podcast, and YouTube channel.
There’s a ton of information online about how to be successful as an author. There are free podcasts, free blogs, YouTube channels, and online communities full of people who are willing to help new authors become successful.
Find what’s free, and use the Internet to gain the skills you need to become a successful authorpreneur.
All the information you need to be successful as an indie author is available online today, for free or at a very low cost.
Ordering a print run of your books can make sense if you’re a speaker and you can get a cheaper deal on a print run, and charge more money per book at your live talk. Otherwise, print on demand is the way to go.
“Business isn’t about how much you sell. It’s about how much you keep.” – Tom Corson Knowles
When Joanna does giveaways she’ll order the book directly from Amazon, so that the book is shipped by Amazon to the customer. It might end up costing her a little bit more money to do it that way, but buying directly from Amazon increases her sales rank, makes her some profit on the sale, and allows her to live her life without having to go to the post office to send books.
The Publishing Industry Outlook
The area Joanna sees the most growth in the future is the sale of foreign rights for novels. The United States, Canada, and the UK are still the biggest markets when it comes to e-books. But other countries are growing quickly.
It’s worth investing the time and energy to investigate the different worldwide markets for e-books. Different countries have different infrastructures and e-reader tablets.
Joanna got all of her translators from interacting with her fan base. Over the last year she seen her first income come from sales in foreign markets.
Particularly countries like India, China, and Africa, which are seeing really high penetration rates of cell phones in the market now. These markets should see very high e-reader growth in the future.
The fact that people can read e-books on their phone now may drastically change the marketplace.
Authors should start thinking about how they can get published in all of these countries.
Amazon, Kobo, and IBooks publish worldwide. Kobo actually has a very detailed report that breaks down each individual country.
The last two books that Joanna has written she consciously wrote them to be low-budget movies, so they’d be more attractive to Hollywood writers and agents.
In the future look for income streams beyond selling English-language copies of your book.
Joanna’s Time Management Techniques
Joanna manages her time by managing her daily actions. She has signs on the wall to remind her to be creative. And she marks down her word counts on a daily calendar. Any day that she gets over 2,000 words of fiction written she gives herself a gold star.
When she’s researching a fiction book, she’ll often write a nonfiction book concurrently so that she can keep her word count up while she’s researching. She’s able to research for fiction while writing nonfiction material.
She also uses time zones in her favor. Because she is a morning person and lives in Britain, by the time she’s done writing, people in America are just waking up. This allows her to do her marketing activities in the afternoon, and her writing in the morning.
It’s important, if you can, to schedule your day so that you are writing when you’re most productive as a writer. Tracking your word count as a writer is also very important, especially in the beginning. Tracking your word count each day allows you to celebrate small wins, and it also tells you when you’re off-track if you’re trying to meet a deadline or goal.
Joanna uses the Office Time app to track the time she spends on different tasks. She tries to keep her marketing and creative time equal. She puts all of her data from office time app into an Excel spreadsheet, and keeps track of the percentages that way.
She schedules everything. She tries to schedule things five months in advance. She also make sure that she isn’t overscheduled so she doesn’t burn out on any particular activity. Generally speaking, she’ll only do one interview a day.
It’s really important to schedule your time so that you don’t burn out. As a business person who relies on their creativity to pay the bills it’s important that you give yourself the energy, space, and time to create.
Joanna likes marketing. For her marketing is easy. Writing novels is the hard work. If you’re going to be successful as an indie author, there are going to be times where you need to be willing to do the hard work.
Joanna agrees with Stephen King that it’s better to rewrite your novel after you’ve given yourself time away from the manuscript. It’s important to clear your mind of that manuscript so you can look at it with fresh eyes later.
Build Your Team
In Tom’s book Secrets of the Six-Figure Author Tom talks about the importance of creating your own team. If you were traditionally published, the publishing company would put a team in place around you. As a self published author, you have to create a team in order to put your book into the marketplace.
You need to find:
- Your editor
- Your proofreader
- And your cover designer
The great thing about being an indie author is you can experiment with the cover design and your blurb to see if you can sell more books.
Joanna is a member of The Alliance of Independent Authors. That’s a nonprofit group benefiting indie authors by advocating for indie authors in the media, and building a community with knowledge and resources to help new indie authors to be successful.
Joanna follows about 400 blogs. She’s constantly learning about self-publishing. In particular she follows Orna Ross who keeps her focused on her creative side, and the self-publishing podcast that helps keep business considerations in focus.
Joanna studies the art of fiction to become a better storyteller. What she likes to do is take one element of storytelling and do a deep dive into studying it.
Right now Joanna is studying how emotion works in fiction. When she decides on an area of study, she searches out all the information she can on the topic, and finds people to follow who are experts in it. That’s how she constantly improves her craft.
Because of the Internet you can find your mentors anywhere in the world. Search Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter for an expert who know something that you want to learn. Follow those people, buy their material, contact them and, learn from them.
“You’ve got to constantly be learning because you never know what you don’t know until you find out.” – Tom Corson Knowles
In Jack Canfield’s Success Principles he explains how you get from where you are to where you want to be. Learning from other people is essential in that journey.
If you want to network with other people, be respectful. Look at what they’ve already put out there. Buy their books. Know something, and don’t ask silly questions.
“It takes a long time to build a career as a writer. There is no get rich quick scheme. You have to put the time in, you have to write good quality stuff for the long term.” – Joanna Penn
You can’t count on being the next Hugh Howey or E.L. James. That’s like winning the lottery. If you want to build a career as a self published author, it’s absolutely possible. But you have to be committed to working for the long-term. Remember, the time is going to pass anyway. You might as well build a platform and readership while it does.
When you go into self-publishing with high hopes, the first month you encounter some sort of resistance, a bad review, or your work not selling as many copies as you had planned, you may give up.
But if you go into self-publishing knowing that it’s going to take a long time and you’re committed to doing the work, you will eventually become a success story.
In order to be successful as an indie publisher you really have to give your books enough time to find their audience, before you decide that you’re a failure.
Success isn’t about how hard you work in one day. It’s about doing the right things every day consistently.
Joanna is making about one third of what she made as a professional in her 9-to-5 job. But she left that job 13 years in, and she’s only been self-publishing for three years.
You can’t expect to quit a job where you have experience and instantly make the same amount of money self-publishing as you did at that job.
As you get better at what you’re doing and you learn more about the marketplace your results will improve.
It’s really important to have realistic income goals when you contemplate starting and authorpreneur business.
People and Resources Mentioned in This Interview
Career Change: Stop hating your job, discover what you really want to do with your life, and start doing it! Was Joanna’s first nonfiction novel. She wrote it when she was going through a career change of her own.
Jack Canfield and his book Success Principles
Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives and other Introverts by Joanna Penn
How To Market A Book: Third Edition by Joanna Penn
https://soundcloud.com/jfpenn – Joanna Penn’s sound cloud. She has several chapters of her books and short stories available there.
https://www.allianceindependentauthors.org/ – a community of indie authors dedicated to helping each other succeed in the marketplace. They have forums and information dedicated to how to be successful as an indie author.
https://www.thecreativepenn.com/editors/ – a list of editors Joanna has worked with who work with indie authors.
https://www.thecreativepenn.com/coverdesign/ – a list of cover design options for you.
https://sterlingandstone.net/series/self-publishing-podcast/ – the self-publishing podcast. Here Johnny B Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright talk about the business of self-publishing.
https://www.ornaross.com/ – the blog of one of Joanna’s creativity mentors.
http://www.officetime.net/ – Get the app Joanna uses to track her creative productivity.
Connect with Joanna Penn on twitter https://twitter.com/thecreativepenn
Watch the video interview below
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Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.