Lessons Learned From 1 Year As A Fulltime Author Entrepreneur

It’s just over a year since I gave up my job as an IT contractor and became a full-time author-entrepreneur. I initially gave myself six months to meet some specific financial targets and after making those, I didn’t return to the day job.

Joanna Penn making videos

Joanna Penn making videos at the British Museum, London – just part of the job!

I am seriously happy in my new life, but there have been some real challenges and lessons I’ve learned along the way that I wanted to share, as well as some action points if you’re considering making a similar move.

As ever, I just try to share honestly with you guys so I hope this helps you on your journey. I’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment at the end of the post with your thoughts and ideas.

How do I currently make a living as an author-entrepreneur?

I’m not going to share figures but suffice to say, I earn around the average wage for a UK female. It’s a good start for Year 1 of business, but it is a lot less than I am used to earning, so I have some aggressive goals for Year 2. Here’s the rough percentage split of my income.

revenue splt 201250% Ebook sales and 95% of this is fiction, skewed towards the second half of the year when Prophecy came out and I had 2 books at $2.99. Ideally I want to be at 80% book sales for my income, so clearly writing more books is the main goal.

25% Speaking. I do full day and half day courses where I teach digital publishing and marketing as well as online entrepreneurial skills. I’ve also done multi-day events as the main speaker and I’ve spoken in Australia, Bali and London – and next month, in Zurich, Switzerland. Yes, I’m available for hire!

25% Courses and Consulting. From this site, I sell multi-media courses on writing, publishing and book marketing, and I also offer 1:1 consulting sessions for more targeted help.

So you can see why I describe myself as an author-entrepreneur. I could not have given up the day job based on my fiction sales alone, but with an established platform (3 years blogging, podcasting & social networking) I was able to make the jump. I share a lot more about the challenges of being an entrepreneur in my non-fiction book, How to love your job or find a new one, which is focused on career change.

Lesson 1: It’s much easier to have a day job

I have to say up-front that it was easier to work for a company than it is to work full-time for myself. I was a contractor so I worked for a daily rate but I had a steady employer for years so there was little risk.

meditateThis may be the dirty little secret of being an author and an online entrepreneur!

Because the money was better, the social life was pretty fun and I was well regarded in my field. Back in Jan 2011, I wrote about the mixed blessings of the day job and how it meant I didn’t have to worry about cashflow and I still stand by those words.

However, I have wanted to change my career for over 10 years because of a nagging sense inside that what I did was pointless and didn’t benefit the world, let alone satisfying my creative soul. I am also aware that it takes the average company 3-5 years to make a profit, and I am in this for the long term.

I just wanted to be clear that this is not an easy option and I still have some wobbly days where I look at the contract market and think about what could be. Then I remember the stress headaches, the anger and the frustration and I smile and recommit to this path. On my wall is this quote from Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War of Art

“On the field of the self stands a knight and a dragon. You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon. The battle must be fought anew every day.”

Action Point 1: Understand the why behind what you are doing. Weigh up the pros and cons of leaving the day job and write them down. Do a lot of research about your chosen path and get educated.

Action Point 2: Save at least 6 months income, preferably a year. Do a financial plan for the first 3 years and aim to hit specific targets every month. Both of these were important for convincing my husband that this could be a good idea, and that over time, with more books, my income should grow.

If you want to know more about the money side of being a professional writer, check out Secrets of a Pro Writer with me and NY Times bestselling author CJ Lyons who seriously knows what she’s talking about in terms of making a very successful living at this.

Lesson 2: Defining your own life is a huge adjustment

I was amazed how the change affected me emotionally, and I have renewed appreciation for people who are retiring after a life of work, or women putting their careers on hold for children. When you give up a structured job, the routine you have lived your life around is suddenly broken and you have emotional adjustments as well as the practical aspects that go along with this.

My self-esteem plummeted.

I went from a high status, highly paid  job where I was near the top of my field after 13 years as a financials IT contractor to being the bottom of the ladder in an entirely new career. Yes, I had spent over 3 years building an audience online but that doesn’t mean much to family and friends. It also doesn’t pay the bills.

ipad setup at the London Library

How I write at the London Library

I also found it hard at first to sort out a working routine that produced enough material and focused on writing first, then marketing as well as creating new products. This took me ages to get sorted but I am pretty happy with how I’m working now. I rarely have a full day off though, but that’s normal for new businesses and this is my passion as well as my job!

 Action Point 1: Treat it like a job and set some daily routines. I diarize days when I work on fiction and others that I work on courses, consulting, blogging etc. I set deadlines for producing specific pieces of work. I have a routine around my email, twitter etc. I make sure that I have new income streams coming in at regular intervals, whether it’s a book, a new course or a speaking appearance. The little trickles of income will expand over time but only if there is more product :)

Action Point 2: Find somewhere to work that is not your home. I find that getting out of the house and doing a form of commute into the city really helps me as I can separate from the house, leave the chores and be productive. I also get the benefit of a commute, so I can feel part of the city vibe, I can buy myself a coffee or meet writer friends. I am a paid member of the London Library which is excellent and I try to spend 1-3 days a week there in order to write in a different environment.

Lesson 3: You need support through a physical network

I love my online friends and I could not have made this change without all of you who I have never met in person. But when you have a job that is basically all virtual, you can get quite lonely so you need physical support.

My husband is my primary #1 fan/support along with my Mum but I also have a network of writer and entrepreneur friends that I meet in London for coffee and brainstorming around our challenges. It’s a like a pro-author-entrepreneur-circle.

coffee cupI met most of these people originally online or at networking events and cultivated friendships in the real world as I moved back to London in June 2011 after 11 years in New Zealand and Australia.

I make sure I schedule coffee/lunch at least once a week in order to break up the time spent writing and being virtual. I also go to various networking meetings to expand my circle of friends. This is crucial to my sanity!

Action Point: Make an effort to go to networking events, writing groups and conventions where you can meet people physically and build a network of like-minded supportive people. Actively aim to meet people who are going places in their career.

Lesson 4: It’s absolutely worth it!

I love my new life, now I have settled into it and I can see how things will (hopefully) change in the coming years. I know from past experiences that the beginning time is often the hardest and that every year things will be different but my skills will grow and so will my number of books & products and so will my audience. When I started this site, I had nothing and a lot has changed in the last 4 years so making a start is critical.

hourglassMost of the authors making the big money have been doing this for many years, and most indies making $5000 – $10,000 a month have at least 5 books. Success in any field takes some time to achieve, as does learning the craft and the business of writing. So don’t expect to make it with novel #1, but keep at it.

On the entrepreneurial side, the mega blogs making a lot of money from online products generally started on the internet back when blogging didn’t exist and when geeks were not cool. Nowadays they rule the (online) world :) but it has taken many of them a lot of years to make it. I particular like this video by Chris Brogan, who is an A list blogger, speaker and business author (it’s at the bottom of the post). Overnight success gets up at 5am after getting to bed at midnight. Overnight success doesn’t watch a lot of TV. Overnight success is gained inch by inch when no one is watching.

Action Point 1: Look at the writing careers of people you admire and see how hard it was for them at the start as well. Read Stephen King’s On Writing – he was working nights in a laundry when he finally sold Carrie after trying for many years. It’s not easy to make this change so go easy on yourself at the beginning.

Action Point 2: Keep writing, keep producing, keep learning – and do it for the rest of your life :)

My plans for Author-Entrepreneur Year 2

Often, life doesn’t quite turn out the way we plan it, but it’s certain that nothing happens unless you have some written goals! I also believe in stretch goals and not aiming too low.

So, in Year 2:

  • I want to move into the hybrid model of publishing – with my agent helping me to get a traditional book deal for my thrillers. I will also continue to self-publish but possibly under a different brand and do some work for hire to pay the bills. This will bring in income monthly from Amazon sales but also in spikes from traditional book deals.
  • I want to double my income and move my % split to be 60% fiction, with 20% digital courses and 20% speaking & consulting. My aim is to be at 80% scalable income, which means you create once and sell multiple times. So books are scalable as are online products but speaking and consulting actually take time every time you do them so they are not scalable. But I enjoy them so I do want them as part of the business – I don’t think I ever want to be 100% author only because I love the business/entrepreneurial side of things and I love helping people.

OK, that’s a bit of a mammoth post but this is my life nowadays and I do think sharing the journey with you honestly is important. I always want to save you time, heartache and money so lessons learned are critical!

What do you think? Any questions or lessons you have learned?

Please do leave your comments below as I’m really keen to hear what you think about this.

Images: my own, iStockphoto and Big Stock Coffee Cup

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Comments

  1. Sheila Brodhead says

    What an honest article–thanks for sharing your ups and downs. Congratulations on leaving IT, (which can be totally unfulfilling) and going into more creative pursuits

  2. says

    This is such a great posting. What I like most is that you have come to the point of viewing your work, ( writing ) as a business. Many authors view it as an art. It is intriguing to learn from what you have shared about the business side of writing.

    Regarding editing: I embraced editing on multiple levels in my first novel, partially out of fear of who I know may read it one day. I contracted an experienced contractor / editor who worked on several big name projects for the manuscript level edit. I had a second editor for copyedit work. Then, I had a proof reader. I probably had even more editing that a traditional publisher would have invested. Yet, I still get people assuming that it was self-published making certain digs on editing and projecting out there that editors will solve every problem, as if they are word santa clauses. They do a lot, but certainly not everything. Ultimately, it is a long term investment which has be recaptured in the sales of the books before I even make money. I think it is a balance between investment of time and money, and potential sales and appeal of the story.

  3. says

    I saw a tweet that led me to your blog and this post. I’m really glad I saw it. I enjoyed reading about your first year and particularly your honesty. I didn’t leave my day job – it left me. And I made the transition about 10 years ago from being a full-time IT contractor to being a full-time writer. I love writing; I love everything about it. But it has continued to be a struggle to make ends meet. A lot of that has been the economy; when so many are unemployed, they think of basics first (as they should) and often purchasing a book is way down on the list. Libraries who used to buy my books now ask for my books to be donated. I am looking forward to a day when people begin buying books as they did 8 years ago. I will be signing up to receive your blogs and I look forward to following your journey.

    • says

      Hi PM, I really hope you are publishing your work as ebooks, because people are buying MORE books than they ever have been in digital format. Kindle owners buy 3-5 x as many books, so it is a great market!

  4. says

    Inspirational as always Joanna. Loved the bit about keeping focussed on Why you’re doing what you do…there are other incentives than money as you so rightly point out. I think the beauty of Indie publishing is that we will begin to see a much more diverse amount of material to choose from that publishers wouldn’t touch because it wasn’t commercial enough, yet it is still inspiring art.

  5. says

    Hi Joanna, I almost met you when you were in Brisbane a few years ago. My goal also is to be living full-time in my own business. I have done well but, alas, like you, need to do better. More writing is in order. New books are constantly swimming about in my head. I would say I desire to be predominantly a fiction writer. Great post!

  6. says

    Joanna– I am impressed with your clear and precise goals.
    I’ve had my own business for many years and learned goal-setting and planning skills “on the fly” with the help of mentors. (Would have been easier if I had been taught some of this as a student.) Setting and reaching goals works best for me when the Whole Person is moving forward, as much as that is possible, so I include good mental and emotional health in the picture. One of the great things about entrepreneurship is growing Self along with Business. Sounds like you’ve experienced this benefit.
    One of the (hardest?) lessons I’ve learn about entrepreneurship is having confidence in the particular, exact, quirky, unique niche that only YOU can create and live. I constantly have to remind myself that it’s ok to LIMIT my goals and to EXCLUDE things that 1. Other people can do much better, or, 2. I really have no interest in.
    Because I do graphics, artwork, write, blog, and design and publish books, I find other people to do the accounting, and so on. I keep checking in with myself and clarify what it is that I should offer others and what I should decline.
    My work space is at home so I visit a café almost daily. Even if I never speak to someone, I need the buzz of a social space.
    Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge. Your blog is a source I trust. Like others, I appreciate your candor. Big plus. Keep that goin’ on! Here’s one of my favorite quotations. “The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.” – Paul Valery
    Thanks, Joanna.

    • says

      Thanks Ros, I am learning to say no :) and only focus on what I enjoy – like I hate formatting print books so I have given that up. I may partner with someone later on that but for now, I just love the writing and marketing side! I also agree about the whole person moving forward – I moved countries to find my creative home in London (I wasn’t happy in Australia) and that has helped a lot. I also downsized – all of this has helped a lot!
      All the best with your creative works.
      Thanks, Joanna

      • says

        I actually love formatting and am not so keen on marketing. Someone told me once that my “rising sign” is Virgo which can be a detailed-oriented, lint picker, so that’s what I blame/credit with this obsessive affection for massaging each page. Sounds like we might make a good team!
        Thanks again for all the sharing you do.

  7. says

    Hi Joanna
    Really enjoyed this post! And your comments about breaking up writing, marketing and product production got through the fog! I have often felt overwhelmed, how do I do all this and this one idea which I’m sure I have ‘known’ forever… I wasn’t acting on. Duh!
    Diaraising the time to spend in each of these areas was very load lightning, why now and not at some other time? I was ready? That in itself is additionally exciting.
    You have a great newsletter full of gritty nuts and bolts stuff which I love. No gloss, no hype. Plain, practical logical, tangible useful stuff. I for one am grateful you are willing to put the time into the writing and research to make it happen! Thanks! Debra Jarvis :-)

    • says

      Thanks Debra – seeing you in Brisbane seems a long time ago now! I’m glad you enjoy the newsletter as well. I am still working on that part of the equation, but you know I am a ‘no-hype’ kind of girl :)
      Happy diarizing!

    • says

      Only when the income wasn’t what I was used to – and then I just readjusted my life again i.e. I haven’t been shopping for new clothes since I left IT but hey, I’m not a shopper anyway :) I basically downsized for this life move so it took some time to adjust. I have much bigger plans for the next year!
      When I considered how miserable I was earning stacks of cash, it was a no-brainer really. Life is too short to spend more than 13 years doing something I hated!

  8. says

    Thanks, Joanna, for such a great post! I usually only listen to the podcasts, but this entry grabbed me. I work in IT at the moment, too. I like it, but it’s not full-time authorship! I’m about to begin full-time authorship (if all goes well, I’ll be officially starting in 4 months), and you have some incredible advice here. Thanks for being a living hope for those of us determined to make it work!

    • says

      aha! a podcast listener commenting – hoorah! I know the audience is split Chas so lovely to find you here. All the best for your move out of IT, allow for the adjustment time and enjoy it!

  9. says

    Hi, thank you for sharing your experience. I really love to be a full time author but I still don’t have any published book yet. Working on my first book now. But have the same job for nearly 10 years really make me wanted to quit. Don’t have gut to quit my day job at the moment. Afraid what will happened to me if I quit. Hopefully, I’m not die before becoming a full time author.

  10. Bill Leslie says

    Joanna,
    Thanks for sharing. It helps a lot.

    I have been very successful professionally, so for me, moving to writing is a matter of passion, and will involve great financial sacrifices. I will be doing well to earn 20% of my professional income when I am solely a writer. But I must write, I think.

    I am contemplating the plunge, after more than ten years of dabbling with free-lance articles. I have determined, I think, that basing my income solely non-fiction on articles will lead to quick starvation. So many people expect writers to write for free. I have – reluctantly – decided that I am done writing for free. I hope that I can stay the course. With that in mind, I am moving more into fiction.

    Fortunately, I love public speaking, so that will help.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  11. says

    Fantastic article Joanna! I’m currently in the process of doing something very similar and these lessons have confirmed for me that I am making the right choice. I’ve been following you for a while now and always find your posts so informative and motivational. Thank you.

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  1. [...] Lessons Learned From 1 Year As A Fulltime Author Entrepreneur (The Creative Penn) — “It’s just over a year since I gave up my job as an IT contractor and became a full-time author-entrepreneur. I initially gave myself six months to meet some specific financial targets and after making those, I didn’t return to the day job.” [...]

  2. [...]  Lessons Learned From 1 Year As A Fulltime Author Entrepreneur  This post is by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn.  Joanna has released two novels under her author name “JF Penn.  This post talks about her first year as an author/entrepreneur without the safety net of a day job.  Well worth a read. [...]

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