Are you struggling with self-doubt, fear of failure or comparing yourself to other authors? In this interview, Joanna Penn talks about the successful author mindset. (Yes, it’s an interview with me!)
In the intro, I talk about the week’s publishing news, including the launch of Amazon Prime Reading, KU page reads allegedly affected by Page Flip, and the new ban on incentivized reviews that does NOT relate to books.
I remind everyone to focus on what you can control, which is writing great books and connecting with customers. I also get excited about Mark Zuckerberg in Lagos meeting with entrepreneurial Nigerians, and how Peter Diamandis’ book Bold talks about 5 billion more people coming online by 2020. If you own your rights, you can publish everywhere. We live in constantly changing, exciting times 🙂
Today’s show is sponsored by The Successful Author Mindset, available in ebook, print, workbook and audiobook formats here.
Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers under J.F.Penn. She also writes inspirational non-fiction for authors and is an award-winning creative entrepreneur and international professional speaker. Her site, TheCreativePenn.com is regularly voted one of the top 10 sites for writers and self-publishers.
This interview first appeared on the Big Gay Fiction Podcast – thanks to Jeff and Will. You can watch the original episodes on video here and here. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- What are the most common mindset issues for authors?
- On fear of rejection, fear of criticism, imposter syndrome and self-censorship
- How to deal with comparisonitis (comparing yourself to more successful authors)
- How to be gentle with yourself, but also tough enough to get things done
- On writing non-fiction as well as fiction
- My influencers, including Steven Pressfield and Seth Godin
- Producing a workbook as well as a standard print book
- How mindset issues evolve over years of being an author
- Long term thinking and making the shift into full-time author entrepreneur
- Advice to an author suffering from career issues. [This is the post we discuss.]
Transcript of interview with Joanna Penn
Interviewer: We’re excited to welcome Joanna Penn to the podcast. Joanna is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author as well as a writer of nonfiction books for authors. She’s an independent author who has written twenty titles and sold over 450,000 books in 74 countries in five languages.
The Creative Penn is where she offers information and inspiration on writing, self-publishing, book marketing, and how to make a living with your writing through articles, podcast episodes, videos, books and courses. Her latest book for authors is “The Successful Author Mindset” which came out in July. Joanna, thank you so much for being with us.
Joanna Penn: Thanks so much for having me on the show, guys. I’m really pleased to be here.
Interviewer: So we just want to dive right into the question because we’ve got so much that we want to talk to you about. Starting with the new mindset book.
What do you find are the most common mindset issues for authors?
Joanna Penn: This was so interesting because I wanted to write the mindset book because I think we all actually suffer exactly the same stuff. I think what’s surprising is that even the top authors in the business suffer from some of the same issues.
When I when I was writing the book I thought I need to put them in the order that people suffer them. So the very first chapter of the book is about self-doubt and impostor syndrome because I think this is the biggest issue that we all suffer from.
I write thrillers so I tend to talk about thrillers. David Morrell, famous for Rambo, the character of Rambo, has been publishing the last 50 years, really a veteran of the business. He says that when he reads his words he thinks they’re crap. And the self-doubt over whether this next book will sell or whether we will actually be able to make any money from a book or whether it’s any good, or whether you can even call yourself a writer.
We’ve just had a festival here in the U.K. And in the Facebook groups you hear authors saying, “I just sat in the corner because I felt really inadequate.” And these are prized-winning authors who most people would see their name on the front of the book and think, “Wow, they’re at the top of their career.”
I think that’s probably the first thing to understand is that everyone has this self-doubt, and impostor syndrome is literally the extension of self-doubt.
So it’s when you are a New York Times best-selling author and you’ve sold all these books in New York, which most people would think of as successful, and yet you’re sitting there thinking, “Oh my goodness, they think I’m an author but what if this next book is a flop?”
That’s probably the biggest issue I think, and every author will suffer self-doubt at some point. It never goes away. It just changes as part of the process.
Interviewer: I liked how you put the book together because it really flowed from the basic issues on through to when you’re a career author and the issues that you battled there.
Joanna Penn: It was a very difficult book to write because obviously it’s quite personal and I put my own diary entries in it and that type of thing. But what’s been interesting is people have said, “It’s like you read my mind,” and I was very scared.
I had a lot of self-doubt about putting this book out there because I thought, “Oh no. People are going to read it and know that I think I am an impostor and I do feel all these things.”
But actually when you’re honest about how you feel, that’s when people resonate with you. I’d urge people listening, if you are writing then just really put yourself onto the page and that is what will resonate with people, is being real and owning up to who you are even if you’re writing under a pen name. You’re still being real in an emotional sense and that is what resonates with people.
Interviewer: What are the mindset issues that you found that are more difficult to battle?
Joanna Penn: Another common fear is this fear of rejection and fear of criticism. And this holds a lot of people back, however they publish. Obviously fear of rejection, you get that if you submit to agents, submit to publishers.
But also now we get it as indie authors from reviews. That fear of rejection from new readers, the fear of the one-star review. Fear of rejection from our peers if we write something that is difficult in some way. One of the reasons people use pseudonyms in the romance space is because it’s not acceptable in many places to write some of the stuff that people write.
This fear of rejection, criticism, fear of failure, a lot of this stuff is bound up in the training we’ve had over many years, and the schooling and our families and these big, big issues that we just can’t hope to overcome. We just have to face them. And for me, this manifested in self-censorship.
I’m a very happy, smiley, jolly person and my nonfiction is very upbeat, very self-help. But I write darker fiction. One of my favorite authors is Stephen King. I’m in the action-adventure, thriller genre but some of my writing is towards the darker end.
The “London Psychic” series is quite dark, and I write some violence and this type of stuff. Even my mom said, “Why can’t you write something nice.” And when people say, “Why can’t you write something that’s more like Hillary Mantell,” was the classic quote, who wrote “Wolf Hall,” this historical Booker Prize-winning literary fiction that took ten years to write.
I self-censored until my fifth book. And then in my fifth book, which was “Desecration,” and you can tell a lot from the title. I just let it all hang out. I think this is part of the emotional journey that you have to go on and finding your voice. It’s a lot about getting over that fear of judgment, fear of failure and letting it be out there.
Those are some of the deeper issues and certainly my own issue is always fighting self-censorship.
Interviewer: Now when we were setting up this interview, we sent you a blog post from an author who’s a friend of ours. And we’ve seen a number of posts like it lately from authors who I think are going through several things. They’re comparing to others, they’re not quite satisfied with where their career is and issues like that.
What do you recommend to those authors to help get them into a better mindset?
Joanna Penn: On that comparison-itis thing as I call it, again that’s very common. I suffer from it too.
Last weekend I actually walked a hundred kilometers. I did this hundred kilometer Race to the Stones and that taught me a lot about comparison-itis. It was 50K, and then I slept and I did the next 50K.
It took me around 26 hours to walk the 100K. The winner took eight hours and I came in in a very last quartile of people on the end of Sunday. But a whole load of people never even finished. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot. “This is exactly like the writer’s journey and this comparison-itis thing.”
I’ve been training for six months. And there’s a lot of people listening who’ll be like, “I can’t do a 100K.” But it’s like, “Okay, sure, because you haven’t done the training.” But there’s no way I could have done it in eight hours. How can I compare myself to the person who was an ultra-marathon runner? And how can the person who hasn’t done any training compare themselves to me?
This is the same with our writing journey but we seem to think that in writing, everyone should be on the same level. So the comparison-itis for me is, “Okay, how can I compare myself with Stephen King?” I can’t. He is like the ultra-marathon runner. He’s been writing, training for the last 40 odd years. He started writing at age seven or something ridiculous. And in the same way, we have to think of our writing journey, why are you doing this?
To me this is a lifelong journey. You can learn new stuff as a writer until you die. And so if you’re going to be writing until you die, how can you be at the top of the game right now? I’m 41, I hope I’m not quite middle-age yet. I’d like to get to 90, a fit 90 year old. So I have a long way to go.
That’s why I think the very first thing is we need to stop comparing ourselves to other writers. You don’t know how long they’ve been writing, how many words they’ve written, how many different genres they’ve published and how many names they’ve used. You just can’t compare apples with apples in this writing space. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is when I looked at that blog post, obviously there’s a standard issues of self-doubt, fear of failure, but also not making enough money from the books. And saying with love, you have to look after your psyche and your self-doubt, be nice to yourself. And then you have to kick yourself up the ass and say, “Seriously, no one owes you a living. Certainly not from writing, certainly not from your art.” How many artists actually make a living from their art?
The reality is that most people have other jobs. I have twelve fiction books now. I wouldn’t say that those 12 books make me a full-time living still, but I also have eight nonfiction books. I do courses, I do speaking, I do other things that make me income that could be equated to a day job income.
This is what I would say to people: “Why are you writing?” If you went into this to make as much money as a day job, then it takes a while, as any job, you know. You have to become a better writer and get a backlist.
Yes, so basically be nice on one hand and be gentle with yourself, and on the other hand go, “Seriously? Just do the work and put in the time, create the backlist and also consider writing in other genres.”
As we’ve briefly discussed before this show, you don’t have to just write in gay romance. You could write straight romance or you could write other genres, sci-fi, fantasy whatever else you want to write, nonfiction. There are lots of things that we can write and we can use our writing skills to do. I hope that’s not too hard core.
Interviewer: I think you make a good point about the other genres. We talked a little bit before we started about Dana Guy’s review of the romance genre and how gay romance sits squarely in the middle of the high and the low.
And you also make a good point about nonfiction because you do make a good chunk of your income there, as we know because you put your numbers out there from your nonfiction books.
Joanna Penn: Exactly. I finished my last novel I think it was March or something. We’re in July and I wrote a nonfiction and I’m now starting to work on the next fiction and the next nonfiction.
Writing in different genres can be like a palate cleanser and can actually help you renew that energy because, let’s face it, if you do go all out on a novel which you should, never save anything for the next book because the creative well will refill itself. But when you empty yourself into a book, and I also put this in the mindset book, the feeling of being empty at the end of writing a book is completely normal. And if you don’t feel empty, then you haven’t given enough.
But the thing is then you need time to fill up that creative well again, and that takes time. Whereas actually writing nonfiction is much easier than writing fiction because it’s like you pick a topic and then you research the topic and then you write chapters on the topic. Whereas a novel is far more complex.
I think one of the issues right now in the indie author space, especially romance, is this this sort of “you must publish fast, you must publish often,” and people are burning out. And that’s an issue. To stop burnout, you have to do something else. So why not write a non fiction? Or why not write something completely different? Or do some freelance writing, do some paid blog posting, some journalism. Do something else if you want to earn with your writing that isn’t just the one genre that you’ve been writing in.
Interviewer: You use the words “palate cleanser”; writing your non-fiction books between the fiction, the thrillers that you write. For those who are listening, you’ve written some really terrific stuff about book marketing, about the business of being an author. Both those books we both love to death.
Do you think those nonfiction titles are a way, not only to cleanse your palate, but also to examine your own mindset, the way you approach your author business?
Joanna Penn: Yes. And like many people, I think many writers, I don’t really know what I think until I write a book on it.
When I wrote “Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur,” I was actually trying to make sure my own business was robust enough. There’s a really good book called the “Personal M.B.A.” I think it’s Josh Kaufman. So I got that book and I was like, “Okay, I need to go through this book and make sure my business stands up to the rigor of any other business.”
And in using that as a starting point, that’s how I ended up writing “Business for Authors,” which then also helps other authors become author-entrepreneurs.
So you’re exactly right, I want to write the books that enable me to learn about a topic. When I first wrote “How to Market a Book”, the first edition and I’m about to start on the third edition. That first edition, I was learning book marketing at the time and again I wanted to codify what I thought in my head. And then it would help other people.
It’s funny because I’m going to write a book on how to write a novel and I think I’m ready for that now because I’ve written 12, and I feel like, “Okay, I’ve got that.” But I’ve got other ideas, like for example, and this is what’s great about writing course, you always get more ideas.
We just talked about self-censorship, and I did a lot of psychology earlier in my career and so I want to write about the Carl Jung shadow side, and the importance of the dark side of our personalities, and how you can use that. And I’m like, “Okay, well I have to write a book on the shadow.” At some point I will do that, so that goes into the mix, is something else I want to really research and understand.
If people are thinking, “Oh, maybe I could write nonfiction,” think about any topic that you’re interested in, that you’re curious about or maybe you’re already an almost expert in it. And that could be anything.
I have a friend who does a lot of knitting. Knitting is a really big sort of genre in fiction and nonfiction. Or you know, my husband’s into jujitsu. You can do stuff on anything you like, it doesn’t have to be about writing, that just happens to be my obsession but I’m definitely looking to expand into other topics over time.
Interviewer: I wanted to ask about your love of Steven Pressfield. We are fans of your show, The Creative Penn, and you’ve spoken about Steven Pressfield several times. We have read his books. Anyone listening who hasn’t read “The War of Art,” definitely should. Writers or creators in general, it’s an amazing book.
What sort of struck me is Pressfield presents a subject in little bite-size nuggets. There are little golden pieces of information that you can take away. And I felt that you present your book in sort of a similar manner. You tackle different problems, different mindset issues, that authors have in a similar way.
Did he influence the way you attacked the subject and laid out the book?
Joanna Penn: Yes. I think definitely. I mean of course here, we worship Steven Pressfield. And when I interviewed him on my podcast I was like a ridiculous fan girl, and I was kind of all giggly and ridiculous. But I think he quite liked that.
But yes, I think what’s happened also in the non-fiction space, and of course “The War of Art” is a very slim book. Turning Pro which is the one that goes a bit further, which I still re-read several times a year because it’s so hard core, is very slim as well.
Seth Godin is another one who’s writing small nonfiction. I think what’s happened is it used to be that because publishers ordered books to fit on shelves and had to have really big spines, so nonfiction books used to be much longer. And now it’s like it’s acceptable to write a short nonfiction book and price it accordingly.
The mindset book is a novella-length in terms of fiction. And you would say also Steven Pressfield’s nonfiction is novella-length even though he writes massive fiction.
I think I’ve modeled his approach to the chapters. But it’s also what I like to read. What I find with a lot of nonfiction that’s traditionally published is it’s so overly packed with kind of unnecessary material.
Interviewer: There is fluff.
Joanna Penn: Yes, there is fluff and they restate the same thing over and over again in a different way. And you can tell with how many things are highlighted.
Whereas with Steven Pressfield book, and I hope with my books at some point, every single paragraph should have something highlighted.
Interviewer: Exactly. Yes.
Joanna Penn: Because it’s a different experience to fiction. If you find fiction books have been highlighted they’re usually literary fiction or maybe there’s a couple of highlights in all novels. But usually people want to sink in and just relax. Whereas I feel nonfiction should earn its money by giving a lot of value in a small amount of space.
Interviewer: Speaking of giving value this new book, the mindset book, you have a couple of different editions. You have the e-book edition of course, and the print edition. And this time you’ve also done a workbook.
Before we came on this interview I was actually in the other room and I was on Amazon looking at the workbook.
I was curious as to, first of all why you decided to do a workbook? And what’s different about the workbook as compared to the text of the regular book?
Joanna Penn: Yes. I’ve also done an audio book which I self-narrated as well.
Basically the idea in general is to turn our books into multiple streams of income. So the workbook idea, and I think I did one because I did an adult coloring book with my dad back in January, “The English Country House and Garden” fine art coloring book. And we did a notebook version of that which is essentially exactly the same images but with notebook pages in between. I use an outsourced designer and it would cost me around $60 to get a workbook version of a book made, which is nothing, right?
So why not create a version of a book that is a self-help book with questions in, into a notebook? The workbook is exactly the same in terms of the text but it has extra pages, where you can write the answers into the book if you want to.
It’s a different size, it’s a six by nine instead of a five by eight. Some people just want to have the book and some people like to write in it. But because it cost me barely anything to get an extra version, I just thought, “Well, why not?” And some people really like that. I’ve had people send me pictures of them writing in things.
I’m definitely going to do this again in the future, if it’s appropriate. With How to Market a Book for example, I wouldn’t do a workbook version of that. But How to Make a Living with your Writing for example, that might lend itself to doing a workbook version.
That’s why I did it and I think if you’re writing anything where you’re asking questions of the audience, of the reader, you could do that. I mean, why not?
Interviewer: How do you find that your mindset has evolved over your career, and how you manage the issues when you have them?
Joanna Penn: I think the biggest change is the reality or the realizing that other people feel exactly the same. And I don’t think things have changed, as in I still have self-doubt. I still have this empty feeling when I finish a book, you know, this kind of feeling that, “Oh no, I’m never ever going to write a book again. I feel so empty. What’s going to happen now?” I now recognize that that is just part of the process.
With a full-length book, I’m not a detailed outliner. So around 25,000 to 35,000 words, I will suffer a problem and then I will have to do some re-plotting. But now I understand that’s part of the process.
I think the main thing is that when I started writing, which is actually now 10 years ago, 10 years I started writing my first nonfiction book, I now understand my own psychological process and I keep journals and I write things down but it’s like, “Okay, so now I’m empty. I now need to start filling my creative well again,” for example.
At the moment, I’m starting to do research for “End of Days,” which is my next ARKANE thriller. And I did a crazy thing, I came up with the title, put it on pre-order and then went, Oh dear, I’ve just called a book End of Days which means there’s going to be some expectation around what that book is going to have in it, but also I need to do something original.
I have had a little bit of concern about that book. But I understand that when I do research, stuff will emerge from the world and as ever, it has. Synchronicity, serendipity whatever you want to call it, this stuff will appear in the world when you start researching.
I think that’s the biggest shift for me, is this realization of the creative process and also, just letting go and relaxing a bit more as well.
I think when you’re writing that first book, it’s like everything is bound up in this one book. It’s like the most important thing ever. And then when you put the book out there, you realize that it’s just the beginning of something else. In fact, I have a chapter on anticlimax and creative dissatisfaction, which I wondered whether to put in there, and I’ve actually said on it, “Don’t read this if you’re writing your first novel.”
I do think people want to know that and they actually think that it is the pinnacle, publishing that first book is the pinnacle. It’s not. It’s actually the writing that is the point.
Interviewer: You mentioned the journals.
What was it like going back through all that? I really felt like you laid yourself bare in some of those chapters and it’s like, “Wow, that’s brave, what you just put on the page there.”
Joanna Penn: I’m glad you thought it was brave because I was really worried about putting my journal stuff on there. For exactly that reason. “What if people read it and they don’t feel the same way?”
I mean that would have been pretty awful. In a way, I was expecting a whole lot of emails that said, “I never feel like that.” But that didn’t happen, thankfully.
I went through the last 10 years pretty much of my journals and typed out parts of it. And I think what’s interesting with writing, I don’t know if you guys find this, but I find when I write stuff down it’s removed from my head. I really believe that horror writers are the most psychologically healthy people out there because they take all of their dark stuff and they put it on the page. And then they’re just super nice people, they’re not concerning. It’s people who write romance or happy, nice, they’re the ones you got to worry about.
Interviewer 2: They’re the crazy ones.
Joanna Penn: Yeah. But those of us who write violence, we’re just super nice.
I think some of those quotes, I’m like, “Oh, that is hardcore.” But I don’t feel like that anymore although I did at the time. So that’s why I put it in there because over time, we learn and we change.
I also have journals from when I went through a divorce back in… goodness a while ago now because I’m in a happy second marriage. But when I look at the journals of my divorce, there’s like three of them over a four-month period, I don’t even recognize that woman. The things that I was writing down, I don’t recognize that person anymore.
And this is the same with some of the stuff around creativity and mindset. If you write it down you can move on but if you don’t, it will stick in your head. I think that’s part of the magic of being a writer, is journaling or writing books you can actually remove it from your head and get on with your life.
Interviewer: I would assume this, you’ve been in this now for 10 years, that perhaps the mindset for you has changed a little bit. You’re thinking more things that are in the third section of the book for the career writers as well.
Do you find that to be true now?
Joanna Penn: Yes. There’s two things I’m pretty obsessed with that I go on and on and on about.
One is this long-term thinking. I think too many writers get obsessed about today’s sales, tomorrow’s sales, this month’s launch. Whereas actually this is a long-term journey.
And also that you die at some point. And so why waste any time at all writing a book you’re not interested in? I mean I know some people write for day job money, but I consider that to be like freelancing writing. If you’re writing for day job money, that’s all it is. But if you are writing with your creative muse who inspires you, then work on things that you really care about because we don’t have much time on this earth.
I think that’s really important. That’s one of my obsessions, is this long-term thinking.
And the second one is the multiple streams of income idea, as we just talked about with the mindset book. I put it out on the first day with those four different formats and the audio book that I narrated myself.
The author you mentioned earlier, he’s struggling with the money side of being a writer. You publish on multiple platforms. Although I know in romance, KDP Select is pretty powerful. I’m thinking long-term. If you look at what’s happening in Africa right now, in Asia, I want to be selling to those people and that’s not KDP Select.
I think now only 45% of my income comes from the U.S. So 55% percent is now outside the U.S. That’s a big shift in the last couple of years in terms of income. It used to be, for many people it will be 100% U.S. and 100% ebook, and 100% Amazon. That’s a dangerous place to be.
Thinking multiple streams of income, multiple platforms, multiple formats, multiple books, multiple series. Thinking about it that way, what you get is, and what I’ve seen true for me as an author-entrepreneur, is every year my income expands not quite exponentially but is impacted by the choices of going wide in many senses of the word.
I think that fits in to taking control of your writing career. And it felt like the author that you mentioned before felt kind of out of control. I can’t seem to create the thing I want to create.
And so for me it’s about, if you take control of your writing career and you make decisions for the longer term, not just for next month, for example, then you might make different decisions around building the life that you want. And also, to be fair I spent 13 years doing a job I hated and I refuse to do that now.
I make decisions around freedom. Freedom is a big thing for me. For example I don’t want to be a publishing company for anyone else. This is a big thing, I get people asking me a lot and a lot of indie authors are setting up publishing companies which is fine but I don’t want to run a publishing company because I would spend a lot more time doing that. I chose to do education and inspiration and sell courses, not consulting time, that type of thing. So make these choices around the lifestyle you want, the future you want and think long-term.
Interviewer: It’s a topic for a whole other show but I just want to let the authors know that you mentioned the audio for the mindset book, that you’ve done. I at least know you did audio for Business for Authors that you yourself recorded and did not go through A.C.X. for it. But you have it available on your website.
Authors who don’t want to or can’t take the leap to do an A.C.X. recording, can look at that as something they could have on their own website.
Joanna Penn: Yes. You need traffic to a website in order to sell from your website. I wouldn’t do it with fiction. Although, I say that, do you guys know Scott Sigler?
Interviewer: I know the name.
Joanna Penn: You know of him. He’s like the most famous, I think, podcasting author. He’s been doing his own fiction audio for, must have been being nearly 10 years now.
He will write a chapter and he will record it and he’s a big New York Times published author, traditionally published. But in all his contracts, he says, “I will continue to put out free audios on my website.” And he’s been doing it for years and people love him.
He’ll read and try and be a woman and it will be not great but he does it very well. So I have considered, what if I started reading my own fiction as well as nonfiction because I think again it’s very empowering and you take control.
I’ve recorded Author Mindset. I sell it from my website. I can change the price and this is the big issue with a A.C.X. I don’t know about you guys but my income from A.C.X. has dropped in the last year as people have signed up for their subscription service and we get paid much less money per recording. So this is the issue with audio.
There was this small period where it just went nuts and it was great and now it seems to have dropped off a bit. That’s why I decided to sell direct just to see how it goes.
Podcasts are great because they can appear on your phone. But at the moment, if someone buys an audio book direct, it doesn’t appear on their phone.
I talked to Damon from Book Funnel on a recent episode of The Creative Penn podcast. I asked if they could do something with audiobook that it would appear on the readre’s device. That would change the game around selling audio direct. But at the moment, people have to pay for the MP3, download it, put it onto their device, you know sync it up.
Interviewer: You have the whole side load thing.
Joanna Penn: Yes. Whereas what’s happening with podcasting, you know, podcasting really, really took off when everyone used a smart phone and could subscribe and it just appears.
Interviewer: You mentioned obviously the long goal, the long-term, and it’s a good shifting point to talk about author-entrepreneur a little bit.
The Business for Authors book, when it came out I listened to it in late 2013. And the next year, coming into the next year, it really turned my mindset. I was like, “This writing thing should no longer be a hobby. It’s what I want to do and while I can’t give up my day job yet, it should become this side business, this business that I grow that has a plan that has a schedule.”
At what point should authors consider making that shift to author-entrepreneur and how do you really know when it’s right for you to do that?
Joanna Penn: I am so pleased, thank you so much. I’m really glad that that book had an impact. And what’s interesting, and this is a big point, it hasn’t sold that much.
The reason I wrote “How to Make a Living with your Writing” is literally because of the title. So “Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur” is quite thick, right? It’s a full-length book.
But what seems to be interesting is most people don’t want to run a business. So I wrote a shorter version, “How to Make a Living with your Writing” which sells like gangbusters and it is a smaller, much, much thinner version with much of the same information. But it’s kind of done in a much lighter way.
What’s interesting with what you’re saying is you found that book at a time when you were ready for it.
I left I.T. consulting. And some of my friends are now partners in consulting firms. There are people who became lawyers out of university and end up partners in law firms. But there are lots of people who fall out along the way.
Same thing with being a writer. A lot of people will say they want to write and never write. A lot of people write one book. When you get to three books, I think that’s when you actually start to think the question, about the questions you’re thinking.
How many books did you have when you started considering that?
Interviewer: I believe I was writing the third novel. And also I had several shorts out.
Joanna Penn: Yes. See, I think three is the magic number because if you write one book, good on you, you’ve written a book. But then you realize, “Oh, I have to write more in order to make any money and also you know I just want to try it again.”
If you write three, I think that you understand a lot more how to write a book and also you’ve either got the taste for it or you haven’t. So a lot of people will disappear at three, I think.
Two or three books, a lot of them will go away because it’s hard. This is not an easy business. It’s the same as any other creative work; nobody guarantees you any money. So you have to decide, are you doing it because you truly, truly love it and because it suits you as a person?
And as we’ve discussed, I’m an introvert like most writers. I like being on my own. I don’t like talking to people. Except for you guys obviously. Being a writer is the best career for someone like me.
I got the bug and I think if you get the bug, and especially if you’re in a job that you don’t enjoy, then you start thinking, “How can I do this more seriously?” And that’s when you should start thinking about a business.
And when we say a business, we don’t necessarily mean incorporation. It just means, for example, setting up a separate bank account. So I know in the U.S… I did an interview with Helen Sedwick and her book, “Legal Handbook for Authors” or something like that, for self publishing. The “Self Publishers Legal Handbook” I think it is. That has a whole lot of stuff on when you know what type of structure you should have and the tax stuff for the U.S.
But I think even if you have a separate bank account, you can start offsetting your costs against your tax paid and the little bit of income you make will go into that bank account. And that in itself means you’re taking things more seriously and it’s not just a hobby.
I think after three books you pretty much will start making that decision. And then as time goes on, I definitely think you should not give up your day job unless you have at least six months income saved. I had six months when I left and I also had over a thousand, like a thousand dollars a month, which isn’t that much money obviously. But I had six months’ income in the bank to give myself time to build things up. Plus, I have the two businesses, fiction and nonfiction, and a whole load more stuff.
I think the leaving the day job to go full time, you really do need to be very sure and have a lot more backlist behind you. Don’t give up your job on the first book. I think we’ve seen it in the romance space, there’s a whole ton of people who left their jobs a couple of years ago, 2013 or something, you know a big year. KDP Select came in, people making loads of cash and many of them have gone back to day jobs because that income has dropped.
It needs to be a sustainable income before you shift that far, but certainly at three books you should probably know whether you enjoy this enough to know whether you’re going to carry on.
Interviewer: And much like the mindset book, the thing about “Business for Authors,” while it is a larger book by far than mindset, you still break it down chunk by chunk, bit by bit and make it possible to essentially pick, “I need to do this, this and this now, and perhaps later I come back and become the corporation.”
Because it’s very much how I started. I set up a separate bank account like the day after New Year’s Day, like whatever the next bank day was, set up the bank account, started to make a schedule, to schedule writing, because there’s still a day job that can impact me in ways that I can’t forecast.
But there’s a pattern to it and maybe, fingers crossed, by 2020 the backlist is enough that maybe I work less, or whatever.
Joanna Penn: Exactly. I think this is why we read “Turning Pro” by Steven Pressfield several times a year because I think this idea of turning pro, you turned pro the day you set up that bank account really, because you were basically saying, “I’m taking this seriously enough.”
Everyone has hobbies that they spend money on, out of their own bank accounts. And writing, for most people, is a hobby or a creative pursuit. But it’s very, very different when you take it seriously and turning pro is a process.
The reason I keep re-reading that book is because I’m certainly a professional author, absolutely. But every time I read that book, I go, “I don’t have a professional attitude about that,” like comparison-itis is a really big issue with me and that’s why I keep reading “Turning Pro” because he says something like, “The amateur compares themselves to others.” And I’m like, “Oh, I just failed that one. I’m an amateur,” you know, the professional does it this way.
You have to keep investing in yourself, investing in the process of becoming, that is the thing. All of this is a journey and that’s what’s so brilliant.
What I love, love, love about being an author is we can literally be learning new things up until the day we die. And you know, P.D. James, Phillis who was amazing author, died at I think 96. I saw her speaking about age ninety four or something and she said her biggest fear was dying with a uncompleted manuscript.
So when she did die a couple of years ago now, I was like, “Oh god, I hope she finished a draft of whatever it was.” Because I think she had a fear of them publishing whatever her unfinished book was.
You know what they did with Michael Crichton? Which I was so angry about, is that book, “Micro,” the last one he had. He only had that in draft and it reads like crap, you know? It really is.
The point is we did get to do this for a long time. Hopefully if you love it, why not do it till you die? And I fully expect to be very wealthy, like Stephen King and James Patterson and Nora Roberts. Those authors who have a massive backlist are wealthy because the intellectual property assets will make you money over the long term.
I’m sure you guys are aware it’s the authors who have let’s say 30 books, 50 books, who are making seven figures and more. You know, the eight figure authors who we know in the romance space have a lot of books.
This is the thing for me, and obviously it’s not just about the money, but if it is partly about the money when you’re turning professional then you want to see where that line is. So when I met Bella Andre and Liliana Hart and Barbara Freethy, people like that. I remember meeting them a couple of years ago and I went, “You know what? They’re brilliant but they’re nothing special. They are just committed authors who love what they do, who have written their socks off and have built this multi million dollar business from their books.”
And I turned a bit more pro that day when I realized that the size of your backlist is one of the biggest things in terms of that sustainable income because then, hey, even if each of your books only sells 10 books a month you’re doing really, really well.
And I point people also in the direction of Dean Wesley Smith and Krystine Katherine Rusch who are my virtual mentors. I worship them because they’ve been in the business 40 years. They have, I think over 500-600 books between them, and they get criticized a lot because they’re not mega bestsellers. But it doesn’t matter because they have been mega bestsellers. They’ve won loads of awards but basically they have this massive backlist. So anyway, I hope that’s encouraging.
Interviewer: Joanna, I wanted to circle back to something really quick. Earlier you were talking about being forward thinking and about having multiple books and multiple streams of income. And I think for maybe some of the authors who are listening to this right now, that may have gotten them really excited and they felt really gung-ho and like, “Yeah that’s exactly what I need to do.” But on the other hand, there may have been some authors who are terrified of that and it seems incredibly overwhelming.
Do you think that forward thinking mindset is a prerequisite to success? Like we were just talking about people who are in this for the long haul and have a massive, essentially, backlist.
Do you think being enthusiastic about the future is one of the most important things about mindset and success, hopefully?
Joanna Penn: Obviously there are no rules and what’s interesting with publishing and what the publishing industry count on are these unicorn books. You know, the ones that come out of nowhere, like “Girl on the Train” or the last year whatever has been The Book, that has just gone nuts. And everyone’s reading that.
Does anyone remember her name or will anyone read her next book? I don’t know. But that’s an example.
Hugh Howey, to some extent and he will say it, is that you can’t replicate the success of a unicorn book. You can’t do a J.K. Rowling.
This partly comes down to definition of success, which I think is super important for anyone to think about. So if your definition of success is holding your book in your hand, awesome. Don’t think about 10 years in the future, think about finishing the book, think about publishing it, however you want to publish it. So that’s a goal you can achieve and you can say, “I am successful. I am holding my book in my hand,” even if it sells five copies, or you give it to your mum or whatever. If your definition of success, which for me was leaving my day job, making a six figure income, hiring my husband out of his job, which I did last year. These definitions of success are much, much bigger.
I certainly didn’t think of those things when I wrote my first novel back in 2011. I was not thinking that I would be able to make so much of a career in writing. Certainly, I never thought that. But that’s because this is a journey.
You have to have appropriate definitions of success as you move up the scale as such. I will say I’m one of those goal-setting and achieving type of personalities, I always have to have a goal and I know not everybody’s like that. So yeah, of course, chill out, write a book. Do what you like, there’s no worries.
What I get though, is I get emails from people. For example and this is the extreme example but you know I probably get three emails a week, “I write poetry. How can I make a six-figure income?” And it’s like, “Well mate, it’s got nothing to do with your poetry, unfortunately.” Unless you’re a rapper, like I think rappers are poets. They do pretty well.
But most people writing poetry cannot make a six-figure income from poetry, I would just say. And also, it’s like, “How can I have Andy Weir’s success? How can I write The Martian?” You can’t do that either because that’s the luck part of the publishing industry.
When I thought about my definition of success, which is having a good life and making enough money that I can travel and do the things I want to do, look after my family, that type of thing. What can you do that you are in control of? And the only thing there is developing a backlist.
If you do the word count calculation on how many words you need to write a book, how many books you need to make that, say, start with $100 a month? Then how many books do you need to make $1,000 a month? And then how many books do you need to make $10,000 a month? Which for most people they’d be pretty happy with, right? If you make $10,000 a month.
Joanna Penn: It’s just a matter of doing the sums, because even if in the beginning, make $10 a month, right? And I went through this recently with a friend of mine and she’s just written her first book and she just got… I think it was about seven pounds which is about $10 right? Except the pound’s really weak right now. So maybe $12. So she got her first seven pounds in her bank account and she was like, “This is really disappointing. What can I do with seven pounds or $12?” And I’m like, “But that’s where we all start, isn’t it?”
Most of our first payments as an indie are very, very small. Or if you can make $10 then you can make a $100 and if you can make $100 you can make a $1,000 and so on. It’s just a matter of creating that and that’s what’s so exciting. Those intellectual property assets are the things that will keep paying over time.
So no, I don’t think it’s necessary to have the long term thinking unless your stated definition of success is to make a living this way.
Interviewer: I think you make a really good point about your own individual definition of success and how that may change over time, and not succumbing to comparison-itis. You get your royalty statement one month then you’re stamping your feet because you’re not making Andy Weir money. You know what, you’re not Andy Weir, so of course you’re not making his money.
You have to have your own realistic definition of success, I think that’s a really good point.
Joanna Penn: Yes. I like to talk about George R.R. Martin as well because the guy’s been writing fantasy for how long? A long, long time and he’s done loads of things and he’s had his fame in a tiny niche, right?
But who could have guessed that George R.R. Martin and Game of Thrones would be like the biggest thing and I love it. I think it’s brilliant, and I read his books now. But I’ve spent most of my life never hearing of George R.R. Martin and now suddenly here he is. It’s like he’s exploded onto the scene but he hasn’t, he’s been around for a really, really long time just writing and writing and writing and then something happens. I don’t know, we get into a point in the world where the technology enables us to make really good T.V. and there it happens.
This is the other thing about fiction, which is so awesome, you don’t know what’s going to happen with those books.
Month one, my “London Psychic” trilogy. I really love those books, I think they’re great, but they sell a lot less than my ARKANE action-adventure and that’s partly because they’re darker, and they’re about psychics. Although I noticed psychic romance does really well so I might have to spin that, but this is psychic mystery/crime, which doesn’t actually do that well.
But the point is that suddenly, something might happen in 10 years, 20 years time. Those books suddenly might take off and I make some money from them.
I think it’s Anne Rice, the vampire lady, who says she’s made money three times with vampires; first back in the 70s, and then when Twilight came out, and now it’s all happening again. These things come around again so don’t worry too much, just create things and over time they may find their place in the world.
Interviewer: That’s really good advice, that’s almost the pro quote for me.
What do you think is the most difficult part in adopting the entrepreneur mindset? Is it just that big word entrepreneur that you’re like taking this to a different level or something else?
Joanna Penn: I think it’s that, and also I realize that this is very overwhelming. I know some people listening would be like, “What is she talking about? Intellectual property assets? It’s just a book.”
I think we all understand that we have to learn the writing craft, we all understand that when we become writers and we invest in learning the craft. Then we discover we have to learn about self-publishing if we’re going to do that. And then we have to learn about marketing which most of us never thought we would have to learn about, right? And suddenly we become experts in marketing and this is just another level of learning. So I think the overwhelm is often, “I now have to learn something new which is running a business,” and this is the truth of it.
If you want to go as far as doing this full time, you have to sort out your taxes, you have to work with an accountant, you have to do all these different things that perhaps you never thought you would have to do. And to be fair if you get a good publishing contract you should also do the same thing. So it doesn’t matter how you publish.
But I think that is probably the biggest hurdle for people, is there’s some new language. There’s new things to learn but all I would say to people is it’s just the same as learning to self-publish or learning to write a book.
Once you self-publish once or twice, you pretty much don’t have an issue next time. Publishing is not a big deal. The big deal is learning to be a better writer, learning how to market, which is a bigger thing, and learning how to run a business. I do it with my eyes closed now, but I had to learn those skills.
I think it can be overwhelming at the beginning as people are like, “Ah, I just have enough to do just writing, why do I have to do all this other stuff?
And also I would say business is super creative and you’re creating wealth, you’re potentially creating work for other people. I work with 12 contractors so I’m creating value in their lives as well as creating value in readers’ lives, in my own life. It’s a very creative thing.
Interviewer: Now knowing what you know now what advice would you give, Joanna, from 10 years ago when this was all starting out?
Joanna Penn: Well, I think the biggest thing that happened to me 10 years ago, is what I still stand by which is I read a book called “The Success Principles” by Jack Canfield which is a brilliant book and the very first thing says take 100% responsibility for your life. And that’s when I had a big mindset shift and it was like “Oh, you mean I’m in a job I hate because I chose to be in a job I hate? All these small decisions over time, I end up here?” I realized that in order to create my future I have to start taking different choices, making different choices every day.
For example, are you going to get up at 5:30 a.m. and write, or are you going to stay in bed for another hour? And then if you stay in bed, you don’t have any time to write today because you have to go do your day job. We make choices like that.
I think looking back now, I would just say to myself back then, “This is the right journey.” I think I felt for years that I was climbing the ladder but it was the classic, the ladders up against the wrong wall. And this time I’ve been building this, and just so people know, from 2006 to 2011 I was working the day job and doing this type of stuff in the evenings, the mornings, the weekends, holiday, any time.
I only went full time in 2011 and so I would say to myself, “Don’t worry. This is the right wall this time and there will come a point when what you’re planning for actually will happen.” And I hope that’s a big thing for people.
The Olympics is here. I often say to people, “Think about the Olympic time periods because often one year is not enough to measure your growth.”
2012 was the London Olympics, right? And often people can remember where they were during the Olympics because you’re just on the T.V. and stuff. So think about where you were in 2012, how many books did you have? What were you doing in terms of your writing? What did you know in terms of book marketing? Did you know anything?
And then I think back to 2008, which was the Beijing Olympics, I had never written a novel. I never even thought I could write fiction. I was making about $10 a month with my writing. In fact I haven’t even started The Creative Penn in July 2008. So many things that didn’t exist for me two Olympic periods ago.
So now if you think, “Wow. Okay, I’ve come a long way if you think about the Olympic period.” So I hope that helps people sort of put that time in perspective.
Interviewer: So tell everyone where they can find you online.
Joanna Penn: Yes. So for writers, I’m at thecreativepenn.com and “penn” with a double “N.” And I have a podcast, The Creative Penn podcast and obviously books and courses and you can find it all there. And there’s the free offer 2.0 Blueprint which is kind of answers all the questions that most people have first time around.
And my fiction is at jfpenn.com and that’s “F” for Francis. If people like thrillers and crime and books like that, although maybe your listeners like more romance. I don’t really have much romance, any romance.
I’m on Twitter, @thecreativepenn, if anyone has any questions.
Interviewer: Awesome, Joanna. Thank you so much for joining us. I hope our audience gets a lot out of this because it was really great information.
Joanna Penn: Thanks so much for having me, guys.