I started The Creative Penn podcast in March 2009 as a way to learn about writing, publishing and book marketing as well as make connections in the industry. I recorded the first interview with a landline phone on speaker and a hand-held recording device. It was a pretty terrible start but hey, it’s improved!
I had no idea the show would continue this far, or that it would help the community so much, or become a cornerstone of my author-entrepreneur business.
It just shows you what can happen when you consistently produce over years 🙂 You just have to start somewhere and improve over time. There’s a lesson in that somewhere …
In the intro, I mention Tim Grahl’s new Book Launch show, Penguin Random House derecognizes staff unions, Harper Collins uses Alexa Skills for book marketing, WordPress enables VR as part of the platform, and Amazon starts using drones for delivery in the UK. Cool!
In my personal update, I give my numbers on the London Psychic crime thriller box-set promotion and how it has (positively) affected my audiobook box-set sales. Definitely something to consider for 2017 if you have multiple audiobooks in a series.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
- Looking back at the past two years of The Creative Penn
- Reflecting on the changes with Kindle Unlimited in 2016
- How the paid advertising space has shifted for indie authors
- What has changed for Kobo since 2014
- What Joanna and Mark have learned from in the past 2 years, including missteps and mistakes
- What the future might hold for indie authors
You can check out publishing options with Kobo at www.Kobo.com/writinglife and also find useful tips about publishing and book marketing at www.kobowritinglife.com. You can find Mark at www.markleslie.ca and on twitter @markleslie
Transcript of Episode
Joanna: Okay. Hi everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today, I’m back with Mark LeFebvre or Mark from Kobo as he’s known. Hello Mark.
Mark: Hey Joanna how’s it going? Happy 300th anniversary.
Joanna: Oh look, you just stole my thunder.
Mark: I’m sorry I’m just so excited to be here. I’ve been a fan of yours for so long. To be in the 300th episode, oh my God, I’m feeling like I’m tingling I’ve got goose bumps I’m so excited.
Joanna: I’m excited too.
Today, we have a special episode 300 and Mark and I will be interviewing each other or basically having a chat and talking about the last well… We probably won’t get into the last six years of podcasting but we’re certainly going to talk about what’s changed in the last two years since episode 200. So just a little introduction in case people don’t know Mark.
Mark is the director of self-publishing and author relations at Kobo, and he also writes horror and dark humor under Mark Leslie. So Mark is both an author and a part of one of our great retailers and also podcast sponsor. Many hats, Mark.
Mark: In one trade show I had to put on all the hats on of course.
Joanna: The very first show of “The Creative Penn” went out in March 2009, which is crazy. Episode 200 went out in November 2014. We’re going to talk about like what are the big things that have changed for Indies, for e-books since 2014.
I wanted to start with when I went back to try and look at things was that Kindle Unlimited launched in July 2014. So a little earlier than episode 200, but that shift I mean at the time I think you will remember to the sort of subscription model for readers. They hadn’t taken off, there was Oyster, there was Scribd but it hadn’t really taken off.
What do you think the biggest impact of KU has been for readers and authors?
Mark: I think and you have to credit Amazon for this in many, many ways because it was the launch to the Kindle that really made e-book publishing a big thing particularly to 300 authors. So we have to go back and respect that.
I think it was KU was one of the subscription models that was brought to a larger group. You did have Scribd, you had Oyster. I remember sitting in digital conferences looking at the subscription model and everyone noodling over and saying I don’t know if they ever gonna make this work. It’s not like a gym membership where you buy it and you never use it. It’s not like the Netflix model. So when Amazon did it, they did it to the largest audience of readers possible who already had Kindle devices there.
That really made this subscription model, people stand up and take notice to the subscription model. And I still think we’re in the early phases of that readership.
I want to go back to Netflix because that’s something that a lot of people are probably familiar with. I mean Netflix was like a distribution where you’ll get a disk in the mail and then they started streaming later on. I still think we’re in the very early phases of this subscription model and of different models for reading.
E-reading, you have to remember as much as you and I live and breathe this world every single day, I’m reminded constantly that, you know, for most territories globally and English language markets, 80% of the market is still print distribution. We forget that because there’s so much going on in digital. And so when you think about a subscription model that is not, you know, the consumer buys it and owns the digital copy but they actually have access to it.
Libraries are stronger than ever before in rating and obviously we’ve got some great things going on in Kobo and I’m just saying that because I’m a biased party that really loves what we’re doing with OverDrive.
But the subscription model is yet another way to make reading easier and to bring it to more people. That audience is only gonna grow and help, and particularly indie authors who are digital and digital first or digital natives when you think about to bring up an old term. It gives them access to more customers. So those kinds of models bring more people into reading digitally and more people reading digitally is what we all need, right? Retailers, authors etc.
Joanna: Yes so it’s interesting because I’m an Amazon Prime customer and I didn’t go into KU for ages. But this year I thought I’m going to have to join the program to try out the experience. I do find myself clicking specifically on books that are KU in order to and then says it says you already have 10 checked out, which one do you want to check back in again? That’s really interesting and I think it’s so important for us to understand how people are buying these things.
But probably the biggest impact for authors is the change in payments. It used to be that you got pay out based on borrows and then we’ve moved to this pages read model.
What’s interesting even as we talk in the last two weeks Amazon advertising has now opened up to non KDP Select and we should mention that Select is different to KU. Select is you have to be just on Amazon whereas KU is the readers side, but KU has obviously impacted what you get on KDP Select.
Obviously, I go wide – that’s why you’re here, but I saw one of the biggest benefits I thought for people in KPD Select was the Amazon advertising and they’ve now opened up. So to me, this is actually a big shift. I in fact in the last two days, I’ve set up my ads for my books that are wide on Amazon. This seems like a really interesting model, and we’ll talk later about how things are gonna go forward. But paid advertising is another big thing.
What are your thoughts on how the whole paid advertising space has shifted?
Mark: I have a pretty unique perspective on Amazon going wide with their ads and it’s exactly what BookBub has seen, but I mean BookBub came in, indie authors were their first. They were buying ads, they were killing it, they were making billions of dollars, it was rocking the world.
And then along trundles traditional publishing with big bucks to spend, but they used to buy giant full page ads in newspapers. And now, they’re turning those marketing dollars into BookBub. And so now, it’s harder for indie authors to get those spaces.
Amazon is a pretty smart company, they know what they’re doing. They’re opening this up because if they want money from big publishers, they know big publishers, real publishers don’t just go throwing exclusively with a single retailer. They want that money, they’re smart, they’re good business people, they are gonna open it up so more people can buy.
The other thing about targeted ads and this kind of leads to more things we’re doing Kobo, I can talk about later is, when you don’t mass broadcast, when you more specifically target and narrow in on the niches, you may not get as many eyeballs on the book but you hit the right eyeballs on the books.
That targeted ad means more people can buy more ads for more money and Amazon can actually start to make a profit, which could be a good thing for everyone, right? Because you know you actually still make good money off what they do see. I can work for the competitor at Amazon and still recognize and acknowledge the great things that they’re doing for authors because I’m an author on that platform to and I haven’t yet taken advantage of the ads. And I’m looking forward to now being able to try it out because everything is worth a shot.
Joanna: I think that’s really important because probably in the last two years we’ve seen… I’m pretty sure BookBub was around more than two years ago but we saw the Indies as you said the Indies moved in Facebook advertising course Mark Dawson’s stuff. I think 2015 is when Mark launched that course for the first time and obviously there were authors before that in 2014 who were using Facebook advertising, I think mainly in the romance space. And then over the last two years paid advertising through Facebook, Amazon, BookBub, Freebooksy, Bargain Booksy, these types of sites have kind of matured.
And we’ve seen more and more tools. We’ve also seen Facebook themselves change to a pay-to-play model just on a bigger sense from an organic reach to pay to play.
Do you think that we have moved into a more of a pay-to-play merchandising atmosphere? Are there still things that authors can do without paying to play?
Mark: It’s interesting because the pay-to-play model, and let’s take Facebook as a perfect example, you used to have an author page that you post it there and all your followers would see it. But then there was more and more, there was more connections, more things to see and Facebook wants to keep you engaged in a platform. They recognize that advertisers want people to engage with their thing.
So it’s kind of like, again, a business move for them to make money off of that. I mean I’ve specifically targeted ads myself as an author, following the teachings of the Mark Dawson’s of the world who share their expertise and knowledge, and he’s really helped me fine tune those things.
But then from a Kobo Writing Life perspective, we’ve taken ads out about the books that Kobo authors are paying to be placed in the features and we’re pushing those ads out to, not to writers, but to readers who we know are reading on Kobo and we’re trying to draw them in that way. Because we’re trying to do everything we can to make sure that authors who are investing in their sales on Kobo are actually seeing those returns on the profits.
It speaks to the curation model. I’ve been a book seller for 25 years so it’s always been about curation, and we have more things than ever before. How do we balance and juggle that and put those books in front of the right people?
Paid advertising is one answer to that solution because it separates the wheat from the chaff. It separates those who are the scammers and the ones who are in to try and make a quick Kindle buck or a quick Kindle million to those who are in this for the long term and who are dedicated to working and finding their target audience or who know their target audience and using these as tools to get to those people.
Joanna: Although it’s funny because I know there are then people listening going but I’m a good writer and I’ve got a good book. Let’s say a literally fiction novel that is really good and I don’t have the money to spend on advertising. Does that mean that only the people who have money like people have always bought their way into the New York Times list, right? Does that mean that those books won’t get out there?
Actually it’s so funny because my answer is becoming, look maybe you need a small press, maybe you need a traditional publisher because either you want the publisher to be paying for the advertising or you have to do it yourself. I’m almost now saying that you have to decide how much you want your book out there.
Is it go traditional and expect someone else to pay the money, or you’re going to pay the money?
Mark: Sure. I have to say this because we’re an international podcast, right. The foreign language shows. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s so true because for some books that’s exactly… I do that with Dundurn. I’m the self-pub guy at Kobo, I’m the one trying to convince people to take a DIY ethic and to do it yourself and look up what you can do and yet I gladly and willfully sign rights to a traditional publisher, because I know that the niche markets that they cater to, the distribution I get in book stores into Wal-Mart into Costco. I mean the last book “Creepy Capital” was everywhere. I think it was at grocery stores as well, which I could never have done myself. Maybe I could have done myself but nowhere near as good. So those literary titles are perhaps better served by those niche markets.
The other thing too is there are always exceptions to every process to every rule. There are so many great books being written and published today that sometimes it is just luck after lots and lots of perseverance and then you just hit it, right?
There is just that one thing that happens, and says, “I’m going to make this into a movie,” and then all over sudden that’s the luck that happens. But that luck would not have happened without all the hard work I mean it kind of goes back to, you know, the same principles that we’ve talked about.
Joanna: You’ve mentioned a couple of things about Kobo, you know, some things have changed for Kobo since 2014. One of the biggest things I think is the Kobo promotional tab, which is available to specific authors, has really helped people with a bigger back list and quality titles to get out there.
What are the other things that have changed for Kobo since the end of 2014?
Mark: I think the promo tab is great. And we’re doing some things internally to try and figure out right now, which just specifically for merchandising spaces on the website. We’re looking at other things we can do with testing for targeted emails.
And then here is one of the things that I think leads in this kind of promo tool, and it’s curation but it’s also related to stuff our merchandising team has been doing with big data. Nathan Maharaj is the director of global merchandising team. And the big data team are actually taking the best of human curation and the best of machine curation and merging them.
More and more of our emails that we’re sending out aren’t just, you know, you submit let’s say we get 500 or 600 submissions to be featured in a 200 title sale. And then what would happen is a bunch of humans who put the email together go well these six covers look nice, we’ll put these in the email, and everyone gets those six covers.
It’s great. “Hey, Jo Penn, one of her ARKANE books got featured in it because somebody in Toronto thought this was a good cover.” Which is great but what about all the readers who aren’t into thrillers, what about the ones that are there for romance?
So, taking a list of those 200 titles and using big data to develop a really complex affinity score means that I may get the J.F. Penn title and the fee because I’ve read several of her books and I’ve rated them really high and I love them and I can’t wait to get to the next one. So I might see that title but the reader beside me who’s a romance fan or a literary fan might get that title and has a higher infinity score for them. Meaning fewer people see the title but more people who are the right people see the title.
What I love about this is we can now include more titles, because we can then line up those titles with specific customers rather than saying, “Okay we have a James Patterson style, everyone wants James Patterson. We have a Dan Brown everyone wants Dan Brown,” as opposed to doing that we can more specifically cater to those markets.
So that literary title you spoke about, that good literary title could potentially get to exactly the right people. I’m really excited about how we can incorporate those two things.
The other thing I’m really excited about is what we’re doing with our sister company, OverDrive. Early beta testing has been absolutely phenomenal considering that we have just over 200 titles in the beta program.
I was just running the sales report for an author this morning because it’s all manual right now so that’s why it’s very, very limited. Then say, “Okay, here’s what you sold in the last month.” I’m really excited about that because it leads to that next step.
I’m now seeing authors who are selling through Kobo into the U.S. which was a never a big market for authors in the U.S., now they’re selling to a different market in the U.S. So our strategies for 2017 have a lot more to do with, how do we help the libraries find the right titles? For example let’s use J.F. Penn as an example. People who love Dan Brown, who love these kinds of thrillers, here is another author that you may not be familiar with that you should be checking out as a librarian, that you should be stocking.
The easiest one that we’ve done to date is Diane Capri. You know you like Lee Child, “The Hunt for Jack Reacher” well there is a direct tie in right there. So the libraries have just gone nuts to buy those. And so, Shana, on my team who’s doing a lot of that amazing work, she is doing a manual curation that says well people who like these kinds of authors, here is a bunch of KWL authors who have similar titles that we’re pretty sure your patrons, your customers will like, and putting together packages to the libraries to say, “Hey, here’s what you like. Here’s what you know your patrons want and you got a waiting list for 500 people who are waiting for that book. Why don’t they check out that J.F. Penn title while they’re waiting?” It means we’ll give them something that they want and then suddenly you’ll have another fan. Those are the kind of things I’m really excited about.
Joanna: That’s cool, and just a comment on that what we’ve seen with Nook in the last two years is Nook shut down all of their global sites to focus on America. And what I think is really important for everyone to know is that Kobo is still expanding. I think that’s a really important point because any company that is shrinking their digital side, that’s just not a good sign. It will be really interesting, we’re gonna come back to the future but I’m really pleased that you guys are still expanding. Who knows what Apple are doing because they never tell us anything.
Mark: I imagine a lot has changed for you since 2014. It’s been two years what has changed?
Joanna: Yeah so first of all about my growing stuff, so I went back and had a look. In November 2014 I had eight fiction books and four nonfiction, so that’s 12, and I had sold through Kobo in 58 countries.
I’m just about to put out book 21 it’s on pre-order and I’ve sold in 86 counties. I guess the very first thing is, I’ve written more books and that should always be everybody’s baseline. Look back two years, have you at least finished a book or have you moved your creative self forward. And I think by writing these books I’ve become a better writer. I think that’s really important.
The next thing in terms of big things, my husband left his job and we hit our first multi six figure year. So this is another thing. You know I started writing in 2006 and I left my job in 2011. I’m at the 10-year overall stage, I’m at the five-year full time stage and this year was kind of the tipping point of making more money than I made in my day job.
I think that’s something else to mention that it’s to do with time in the market and consistent creation. That’s not just from book sales, that’s also podcast sponsorship, going to Patreon with the show. That’s my website traffic, my affiliate income. It’s like everything has gone up. And if you think of it like the snowball, it really just starts very, very small. I showed someone the other day like my first affiliate payment ever was like $1.53.
Mark: That’s a lot actually.
Joanna: Yeah exactly that’s loads of money and I was like you can’t imagine when you make your first $1.53 that it will ever, like you will ever be able like my husband was able to leave his job because of all these things kind of coming together. That was a really big thing.
Going weekly with the podcast that’s actually been quite significant because two years ago, it was interesting, I was coming up to episode 200. I thought I was going to shut down The Creative Penn, not the whole website but I was gonna stop the podcast and I was gonna focus on fiction.
But instead, I’ve actually doubled down on The Creative Penn and helping people and empowering authors. I’ve gone back into courses because again, the market has matured to a point where people want more training and there’s more authors joining.
Those are probably some of the biggest things. Also in narrating my own audio books, ACX came to the UK. I’m actually next week about to start narrating my next audio book, nonfiction for myself. So yeah, those are probably some of the biggest things.
Mark: It’s interesting that you spoke about all the elements and all the pieces that make up the Joanna Penn, J.F. Penn, The Creative Penn business enterprise with your husband and all those pieces. You’ve always been an advocate for having multiple streams of income, having those multiple sources. You’re the poster child for that, not just in selling to Kindle and Kobo and Nook and iBooks and in as many places as you can make your books available, but in the types of content you produce, which I just admire.
Thank you by the way. After we were in London earlier this year and you were talking about the journals and other print books that you put out. I traditionally published some books but I did a ghost writers journal, so that people can record their own ghost hunts.
Again it’s $5 dollars, it’s cheap it’s just sort of an add on extra thing but thanks to you, you’ve helped me become a much better writer and a much better business person.
I have to say this because I know there are people listening to this 300th episode who want to say, “Oh my God Jo thank you so much for not giving in after episode 200.” Thank you for doing this because you have given our community so much. You’ve given me, you’ve given so many other writers out there so much information and value and that I couldn’t imagine doing this without having you in my ear every week.
Joanna: You’re so sweet.
Mark: And being a champion. And I know I’m speaking for thousands of people out there who feel the exact same way, so I’m saying this for them.
Thank you for the last two years and for obviously the stuff before.
Joanna: Thank you so much. And I guess the other thing has really been for me that realization and I think the Patreon thing has been a really big deal. When I started that, I literally did not think anybody would sponsor the show. And, you know, Kobo obviously sponsor the show but I gave up the other sponsor because now the Patreon support is big enough to do that.
I guess it makes it worthwhile, of course it takes time but I love sharing the journey. I guess I wanted to reiterate that this is a journey and maybe we’ll we do this together in two more years time. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve shared some of the stuff that’s gonna be changing. I’ve spent today wrestling with more print ideas and ISBNs, which is something I never thought I would talk about. Like some of the things I’m going to be doing with small press with foreign rights and trying to move to the next level.
For anyone who has been on the journey, we’re all at different points. I think that’s really important for people to realize. So, if you go back to 2009 and listen to those early shows, I didn’t even do anything personal because I didn’t even think people would be interested. I kind of wish I had done now because I can’t figure out what I was thinking back in 2009. All I know is things are so different for me and for Indie authors in general.
In fact, that was something I was going to say off the back of what you were saying about traditional and hybrid. Two years ago, there was still energy around them versus us you know us versus them, you’re self-published, you’re traditionally published. I do think that that’s changed quite a lot. I feel it’s changed like I feel there is much more openness to me when I go and speak at various publishing events.
Do you think that’s changed in the last couple of years?
Mark: Oh for sure, I mean I’ve seen the dramatic changes going back to 2004 and I would not dare admit I had self-published a book to now where I proudly do. In some circles, I sheepishly say, “Yeah, actually this was originally published.”
It’s kind of funny because at the end of the day and there is more and more recognition that the consumer doesn’t really care, all the consumer cares about it having access to really good stuff that they want to read and more of it.
So yeah, that definitely continues to change and there is still a long way to go. I’ll be honest with you, a lot of the challenges that I have that are related to self-publishing is still a misperception of self-publishing even internally at Kobo. Even from people who know self-published titles like Kobo.
One of in every four books that sells a Kobo was a self-published title. Most of which, you know, 22%, 23% of those are from Kobo writing life and then there are the other sources.
Yet if one in every four books that sells is self-published, why is there still this stigma that, well this is probably a book that couldn’t get sold. That is probably a book that’s really, really cheap. It’s probably a book that hasn’t been edited. And that’s only because there are still those who haven’t yet grasped the business aspect.
Again, that’s why you’ve always taken that approach and it’s been a long term thing for you and you’ve built and grown. I do want to come back to a little bit about the personal. I love that you share personal, I love that you do the Tweet shout outs, that’s a really great thing. It’s very much in line with the advice authors are given about the newsletter. And I just composed my monthly newsletter and again, it’s not been monthly because I try, I don’t really have anything to tell them.
I did this one more in my voice than ever before, not trying to be formal, just try to be me. Try to be silly, a little off beat and share a couple of interesting things that are going on. I honestly think that will have a much better impact because I’ve always felt like I’ve known you even before I met you, just having your voice in my head. But then hearing you share, you know, the walk you went on and you compared it to writing. It’s like a sermon, I don’t need to go to any sort of mass because my mass is The Creative Penn.
Joanna: Oh goodness, that’s a little lush.
Mark: No but I mean in some ways, and I know I’m not exaggerating that much when it can be for a writer hearing from another writer and hearing that even though they’re on a different journey, they’re on a different path, hearing that relationship to things in your life that go back to being a creative person to be in creative is just to adeptly call your listeners.
I’m not surprised at all that Patreon has been so successful for you. That’s exactly what Mark Dawson and Nick Stevenson and all of those who’ve been sharing how to connect with your community, how to connect with your readers, that’s exactly what they’re getting at. And you’ve done that through example over the years. I can’t help but praise you, I have this great opportunity to praise you on stage, I’m going to take advantage of it.
Joanna: Oh you’re sweet. You mentioned that your newsletter, which was good in the voice aspect, which I think is really important.
Has anything else changed for you as an author? Like when I met you recently, you talked about a slight pivot that you’ve been doing with your haunted series.
Mark: The haunted books have always been a passion. The first book I wrote was “Hamilton The City I Live In: Ghosts and Historic Ghosts” then “Sudbury” and “Ottawa” and then “Haunted Bookstores and Libraries in Tomes of Terror” because I’m a big book nerd.
But then the accumulation, the one that’s my magnum opus, is the “Spirits Untapped: Haunted Bars and Breweries” I mean craft beer and the love of my life, that’s what we do, is we craft beer together it’s how we met, it’s how we’ve grown together.
Shortly after I saw you in Oregon, she flew out to Portland, we met and we spent four days just enjoying the entire artsy scene, especially the craft artsy scene, Spirits Untapped is one of those. And it’s one of the ones that I will probably be sad because we’ve got the blog at spiritsuntapped.com but I’ll be sad when that book project is over, because I know that even once the book is done, I’m going to still want to write about the beer things and the beer touristy things that we tend to do together. That has changed.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the last few years and I’m curious to know what are the things that you consider or what are the mistakes that you’ve made? What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned over the past couple of years?
Joanna: Mistake is a difficult word isn’t it? Because, of course we try things sometimes they don’t work out that well.
One of the biggest things I did was repackaging and rebranding the first three novels in the ARKANE series. You remember way back when they were “Pentecost”, “Prophecy” and “Exodus” which to many people sounded like religious books. I have a Master’s in Theology, I’m not a Christian and these are not Christian books so they’re actually more like Dan Brown you know. I redid the covers and renamed them, “Stone of Fire”, “Crypt of Bone”, “Arc of Blood” so the conspiracy thriller with a sort of religious angle.
Rebranding and repackaging those was really hard work because you actually have to do so much. You can actually retain the reviews but it becomes an absolute nightmare and also of course I’ve made a bit of a misstep in terms of how readers perceived me. I’ve met quite a few people now who said, “Oh I thought you were a Christian writer, I thought that’s the niche you were in.” I was like, “Well, no but that’s the impression I gave.”
It wasn’t a mistake, it was a misstep because I got the branding wrong, and actually it was my current agent who suggested the rebranding and the repackaging and for which I’m really grateful. Sometimes it takes somebody on the outside to take you out of your head and I think this is actually a big issue with indies.
So often we think one thing because we know our books but actually having someone on the outside can really help. That was one big thing that I want people listening to take away because I think it’s applicable to so many people.
Mark: Could I ask about that a little bit more?
Joanna: Yes yeah.
Mark: That was a hard thing for you to do, there is a lot of processing, there were a lot of things you knew you were going to lose. Did that actually hurt you and hurt your sales? Because I think it’s important for people to understand, because I’ve actually been talking about this recently and I use that and I send them to your blog post as an example of that. Here’s what Joanna did.
Did that end up hurting you in the short term?
Mark: Did you help you in the long run?
Joanna: It probably hurt me briefly but who knows. It definitely hasn’t hurt me in the longer run. You know it was just a lot of pain in terms of, you know, actually redoing everything especially print book, getting all the new files done and you can upload new Kindle files but of course there is lots of people who still have the old Kindle files and Amazon are very reticent to push out an updated file. I think basically it was a misstep rather than a mistake.
For example, I started out publishing my fiction under Joanna Penn, and it was two years later it was 2014. No it was before that like 2013 I think when I changed my fiction to J.F. Penn. You mention voice and I think this is so important. I didn’t grow into my voice as a fiction author until like I wrote “Desecration”, book five.
I still feel reticent to share J.F. Penn because, you know, it’s a darker side as you struggle I think to share some of Mark Leslie, because we have a corporate side and an outwardly facing helpful side. But yet both of us have a dark side.
I’ve read some of your horror and when people read your fiction it’s like they see inside your head in a very different way. We understand and maybe that’s why we’re friends outside of business is that we actually have read each other’s work, a fiction work. We’re kind of like, “Oh yeah, I know that person a bit more because of seeing inside their head.”
I want to encourage people around making these types of mistakes because literally, I don’t think I knew. I didn’t know what I was writing. I didn’t know what my branding should be. I kind of still don’t but I’m very, very glad I created another brand as J.F. Penn. Really, really glad. That was a good thing to do. And then I’m really glad I did repackage those books. And I think I understand who I am a lot more, but it definitely takes time.
Mark: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think you did some things very, very correct and perfect in the original branding for “Pentecost” and “Prophecy” and “Exodus” because you were targeting the Dan Brown audience. You were targeting the people who were looking for those religious tie end thrillers based on your understanding of theology and background etc.
But then as the market shifted, you recognized there was a different audience and there were some misunderstandings being eased on. I mean but it’s all part of a learning experience, is that, “Okay I tried this. Now I learned from that now I’m going to do this,” and wow it’s even… I love the fact that you kept ARKANE.
You did keep some things very consistent. But again, that was still part of that and you got even darker in your fiction. I do want to explore that a little bit because “The London Psychic” series again I love Dr. Morgan Sierra. I love her character, she’s kick ass. There are disturbing things that happen even as the novel opens. But then “The London Psychic” takes you even darker down the darker alleys, and wow.
There must be a lot of good crossover in your readership who read the ARKANE series but then also read “The London Psychic” series?
Joanna: I find them quite a different group. Some people will email me and say, “I really don’t like the ARKANE books but I love the Psychic books,” or vice versa.
Joanna: It is really interesting. And this is another lesson for everyone; the biggest question I ask if people email me and say my books aren’t selling is, “Do you have series?” Because you know the people who found me since The London Psychic books like Desecration, they didn’t even want to read the ARKANE books anyway and vice versa.
If I didn’t have the two series then I wouldn’t be attractive to those two different audiences. I’ve now just started work on a third series that I don’t know where it’s going to go yet but what’s interesting I say is that, you know, Kobo commissioned me for those short stories based on Dante’s Inferno when Dan Brown’s Inferno came out. And those stories still draw me and I still get comments about those stories.
Mark: That’s fantastic.
Joanna: Actually being the darkest thing that I’ve written, it was really, really funny. It’s interesting how these things come back.
I do want to just own mistakes. There is something else that I want to talk about. And that’s something I haven’t talked too much about yet, so I wanted to bring it up here, which is translations.
A couple of years ago, I was all in for like, “Yeah indies go translation, we can do this.” We saw sites like Babelcube which I never used Bablecube. What I did was basically put a shout out on the podcast with people I’ve met and say, hey, I’d love to work with people on, you know, doing kind of co-publishing in that I’m not gonna pay for a translator but we will share 50/50 royalty split, which is much more than a translator would normally get if the book sells. But in return I want a marketing partner. My idea was to find people like me who were also translators and together, we would make more money than if I tried to sell my foreign writes.
Now I haven’t been talking about it much because I’ve been buying my translators out and un-publishing all of those books. This has cost me quite a bit of money.
What’s kind of crazy, I also licensed a three-year deal to a German publisher, so I’ve done both. I’ve sold license rights and I’ve done co-publishing with translators and none of it has made any money. My last royalty statement from the German publisher was €3 for six months. I know it was crazy.
And so what I’ve ended up doing, because the money that it’s made has been worth less than my time and actually processing all the sales at the end of every quarter. I’ve been like, “Okay. Well look, I’ve been paying my translators out to get the rights back because I had signed with them for like a 10-year deal.”
The mistake was in over-estimating sales in other languages right now. Because as you said the e-book market is not very mature in many other places. Somewhere like France for example I mean they’re just so anti-digital, it’s crazy.
My second issue was over estimating the ability of someone who is a translator to also be a marketer and that was a mistake on my part, and also the translators’ part. All of them said I wanted to do the marketing but there was no time, you know, all of this type of thing.
Joanna: Basically I wanted to talk about it as a mistake because it’s cost me quite a bit of money. I think last year a lot of people said, “Yay, translations,” and it’s died down quite a lot. I think a lot of people have not made money with this.
I was trying to consider why this was an issue. And then I discovered or I realized that the reason why is I had one book in each language, and as we know one book is completely pointless. What I would have been better doing was doubling down in one language and doing the whole series.
What my aim will be next will be to say, “Okay, so I’ve got nine books in the ARKANE cycle,” I’m gonna call it a cycle, which is Morgan’s books. What can I do with those nine books in a country rather than taking each book individually. And as we know one book is really, really hard to sell.
You’re in Canada which obviously has French and you know Kobo has things in different languages.
What are your feelings on translations and indies?
Mark: We did the experiment with translations. And the money to earn back, so we did the co-publishing with some authors, we took Bella Andre and Barbara Freethy and Tina Folsom, and started to do collaborative translations into French.
The interesting one was with Lucy Kevin, Bella’s pseudonym, had never had any books in French. So, we were staring completely from scratch just like an author would be doing. There are five books in the series, and it wasn’t until the fifth book was released that we actually started to see the money come back. It wasn’t until we did the giant box set and the additional content as for Joanna Penn that actually started.
Now the other thing we did too is we were way too generous with the authors, I mean which is a good thing, it’s a great default position to have and we need to be generous to the authors. But from a business perspective, when I look at it I said, “Oh geez if we had done this a little bit differently where in the early days to make our money back, we keep a little bit more.”
In traditional terms, once the advances are earned out then we give them the Full Monty, then we give them everything. Had we done that, we could have done more because we would have earned our money back sooner so then we could reinvest that money.
And again as you say, more is better. I mean I’ve used Babelcube, I had the first book I’d ever published in 2004. It’s now in Italian through Babelcube. I think I’ve made $10 in total.
Mark: But I look at it and say, “Well, there is now people reading my stuff in Italian and they never were.” My investment was a bit of time and energy working collaboratively with the translator. I still think that in other markets, now we are seeing growth in France, for sure, that’s our biggest growing market.
Two years ago, the last year was a 45% increase from Kobo writing life in France. And this year. we’re trending to a 30% increase. So again as the dollars become bigger, the percentage goes down a little bit, but it’s still double digit growth because overall we’re growing 10%.
Joanna: The growth from like $1 plus 45% is still $1.45.
Mark: Well no, no. I have to call out some of the stuff that we’ve been doing. Now keeping in mind in a market like France Fnac, our retail partner, plays a much more significant role.
Now Kobo in Canada, yeah, we have Chapters-Indigo but Kobo in Canada is a power on its own in other territories. And that’s why we recently announced the Fnac Spain. The retail partner really represents the lion share of our sales. And so the stuff that we’re doing with Fnac has been phenomenal.
Julie De Lestrange was an author who came out of KDP Select probably four or five months ago. As a native French author not translated and her sales have actually shot past people who’ve been on Kobo all year. In a four-month period, she’s actually in the top 25 overall from Kobo writing life and that’s mostly sales in France.
Joanna: I would think the big thing here is also you said she’s a native French speaker. I can’t email with readers in French or German or anything else. I can’t have a newsletter in these languages. I can’t do social media in these languages and this was a big issue.
All I’m saying is, what my plan now and start to look forward is that in the next two years, so by November 2018, I want to have licensed my foreign rights unless there is a partner who can do marketing.
The only success I’ve had with this translation is with the lovely Serial, and I’m not gonna say his name in case everybody pitches him, but Serial has a platform for authors in France and he has translated and published some of my books for authors in French. And because he’s got the newsletter, he speaks French, he’s in France, he’s doing all the marketing we’re actually making some money.
I think just the point here for anyone who’s interested in translation is, yeah if you’re a Tina Folsom and you’re German-English and you can do German-English or that lady and you speak French, then yes, do it. But if you don’t I think it’s really, really hard.
Joanna: Yeah. So let’s switch to looking forward because we’re totally running out of time.
Mark: We’re having too much fun that’s it.
Joanna: We are having too much fun. You mentioned and I think this is probably the biggest deal, you mentioned AI, big data and curation. Now I think this is the big thing that’s gonna happen because obviously Amazon are doing it, you’re doing it, Kobo’s doing it. I don’t think Nook is but iBooks I’m sure are doing it.
How do you think we’re going to see discoverability and automatic curation work with the rise of AI?
Mark: I mentioned it earlier when we talked about what we’re doing with big data and it’s a significant shift. You have to remember, I come from traditional book selling background where before you walk into a store, those books have gone through eight levels of curation like before it even got there.
And imagine, you have this on Amazon and you have it on Kobo, not having a single store front. Right now, the way that we merchandize our stores or we have merchandizer for the UK, merchandizer for Australia, merchandizer for Canada, merchandizer for France, merchandizer for Germany, there will always be some level or curation in that way.
But when you go to the store front right now in the UK and now you can on Kobo, there is a little map at the top, you can actually click the little flag and now I can see what you see in the UK, which is awesome. I still can’t buy, I still have to go back to Canada to buy but at least I can see what my book looks like in the UK.
I can see the pounds and everything, I can see the ranking. But when I go to the site in the UK, perhaps I should be seeing a different store experience. Now the store experience is gonna be based on what’s selling about on that market but also what the connections are in that market for readers and that market which… I can’t overstate how important that level of machine assisted curation could be.
I like that term machine assisted curation, because it’s not just an algorithm that says everyone who bought this bought that. It’s an algorithm that goes deeper and talks about percentages read and it really gets into why did you like it. Did you actually read it, did you actually rate it high? How does this connect to you personally and how do you get more of that experience?
Mobile, you talk about this a lot. We have not even properly exploited mobile. But when I check in on Swarm, I’m getting recommendations, you have Foursquare and all that based on places where I’ve been. Based on recommended items off the menu, there is more and more of that location basing.
Imagine that I’m walking through a location where, you know, a nun got burned alive, in one of your novels, and I get because they know I’m a reader, they show me your book and say hey you’re enjoying hanging out in this beautiful setting. Why don’t you check out these books?
There is so much more we can do, taking AI and machine assisted curation plus human curation plus GPS location based. I think we’ve only just begun to explore that. I still want to see an interactive murder mystery where you have to go to physical places to get the clues.
Joanna: Like Pokémon Go basically.
Mark: Like Pokémon Go but imagine a mystery. Imagine that I have to go where Morgan Sierra goes in order for her to see the next clue. And if I go to the wrong place, this book could take me years to experience like Pokémon Go. It could be a long term commitment where Morgan Sierra has a Toronto-based adventure that you’ve put together and I have to go to the CN tower or I have to go to Niagara Falls in order to follow her along and either help her solve. I don’t know, I mean there is just so much that could be done in the future again.
Joanna: I think that fits more into the augmented realities/virtual reality space that kind of gaming, but coming back to which I am also excited about but I think that is more than two years away, but what I do think is coming.
You mentioned mobile and also the internet boom. By 2020, the stated goal of companies like Facebook, Virgin, Qualcomm, a whole load of other companies, SpaceX, you know, is for 4G or 5G internet to the whole world. So, what we’re looking at is by 2020.
By November 2018, we’re probably looking at 2 billion, 3 billion more people coming online. And because of the $5 smartphone that launched in India, it could be that the devices are free. So I think that’s probably what’s gonna happen.
What we’re also going to see is control of the internet which is slightly more dodgy, but I’m someone like Kevin. I’ve been listening to Kevin Kelly a lot and he’s got this book called the “Inevitable” which I think everyone should read. He talks about humanity being 50.1% or something like that but as in over 50% of humanity if for the good. Now there might be 49.9% for the bad but I believe in the good of humanity.
To bring on between 2 billion and 5 billion more people onto streaming internet on cellphones, it won’t be on a laptop like, you know, a recording on our bigger devices, it will be on a cellphone. So for me, the big thing in the next two years will be mobile sales to countries outside of the current fast internet. I fully expect that to be a transformation. That’s what I’m so excited about, and that’s why pairing that with AI is exciting because I have readers in Rwanda.
Like whenever this guy from Rwanda emails me I email him back going, “I’m so excited,” and I love that. And actually Dan, the guy who’s now doing the podcast, hello Dan, he’s in Marianas’ Islands which if you remember I sold a Kobo book to you and I was like, “I’ve never heard of that place.” This is the thing, I think what we’re looking at in the next two years, this is my big pick for the next two years is mobile sales and sales outside of U.S., Canada, UK, Australia, are going to be the biggest expanded market.
Indies are going to be very well placed because most traditional publishers are not even interested in these markets and they are not publishing their authors in those markets whereas through Kobo, iBooks, Amazon and these other platforms through something like Draft2Digital and StreetLib, other platforms, we can actually reach those cell phones. That’s probably my most exciting pick.
Mark: For sure, for sure. And I’m on board with that. I completely agree, I mean that’s why Kobo has done the expansion that we’ve done. We recognize that these markets are still in the early, early phases, early stages. The growth that we’re seeing there is slower to come, but again, it’s a much bigger market than anyone realizes, when you only think about the English language and western world.
Joanna: I’m still thinking in English language because we’re so lucky, you know, the British Empire was an awful thing in many ways but what it did do was make English kind of pervasive.
Other things that I’m picking for the next two years is a collaboration engine. This is what I’m calling it. So I might have to just buy the URL, because, you know, I did this co-writing thing with J. Thorn, I’ve done these things with translators which didn’t work, but next year, I’m doing more co-writing. What we don’t have is the equivalent of ACX for publishing. So unless you are the publisher and you get all the money to your account and then you do all the publishing, co-publishing is extremely hard right now.
Joanna: So with J., I published the book and every couple of months I pay him some money. ACX have done a very good job of it but they are obviously just for audio and also they’re locking everyone into a particular system.
What we need is an agnostic collaboration engine where like you and I can decide to write. I’m like, “Okay, let’s do a book on Spirits Untapped in the UK but we co-publish it together and then the engine will automatically us both the royalties.”
Mark: Oh, divide them up yeah.
Joanna: Yes. So I’m picking that and I keep talking about this because I don’t want to build it. And I’ve talked to a few people about this. I think there is big money in that software.
Mark: Yeah, well I’m gonna sound a little archaic when I say this but is that not what a publisher does?
Joanna: Yes, absolutely.
Mark: An archaic agnostic collaboration and we just need a digital one.
Joanna: You’re exactly right, but I want to do more co-writing. Say I want to co-write with you, I want to co-write with J., I want to co-write with my friend Orna, I don’t want to keep being the publisher, it’s a right pain in the neck.
Mark: That’s a huge limiting factor for indie authors because one person has to step up and say, “All right, I’ll take responsibility for filling out the forms and creating the account that I have to now send you guys reports and then you have to trust me. And if I get ill…” Yeah.
Joanna: Box sets are a good example because at the moment, one person has to publish the book set and then pay out to everybody else with a multi-author book sets, so that’s another pick of mine. Because we’re getting the tools slowly, the tools are maturing as more and more authors need this stuff.
I think the reason co-writing has not taken off massively, I mean multi author box sets have but I think more people want to co-write, but because it’s really painful, they’re not. I see collaboration as being a huge part.
For example, what if I want to do that mobile thing? Do I have to license my rights to a mobile person, or can we collaborate with this engine, or what if I want to do a 3D printing pattern, can I offer a percentage of my royalties to a 3D designer, a 3D printing designer?
I see this type of collaboration between creative people as something that could really liberate and bring in so much more creativity into this space.
Mark: Yeah and again, leveraging the right creative people and the right ways to properly exploit, and I use exploit in a positive term, but properly exploit with their best ad to make something that you could never have made in the history of creation before.
Mark: Yeah, that’s fantastic, I got to get started on that.
Joanna: Well every time I talk about that, I think gosh I should really build that myself because I really think there is money there. Like a Kickstarter take a tiny percentage of the projects that go through them and, you know, making and Airbnb.
All these models that are a collaboration market place type models taking a little percent. I think this is a big deal. Anyway, there are some of my picks and you know there is so much more we can talk about, but we are definitely out of time.
I wanted to just kind of take it down a notch and kind of what we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks with the U.S. And this whole year, we’ve seen political changes in the U.S., the UK, we’re about to see it in France I believe. Canada got a really nice prime minister so you can all just stay in your own nice island.
A lot of people would be worried with what we’ve talked about. A lot of people will feel like, “Oh my goodness, how am I going to deal with AI, what if AI takes all the jobs? What if the political climate changes and goes anti-creative, anti-whatever?”
How do you recommend that people cope with this change, and how should people stay productive in the next few years?
Mark: I have to say Canada is a Commonwealth country. So things that happen in the mother country, but we still think of England as our mother country, does have an impact on us. That was a difficult thing that happened.
The U.S., we’re connected to them as our closest neighbor. We’re building our own snow wall right now. I mean there is a lot of anxiety and divisiveness that I’ve never seen before. I’ve only been around 47 years but that terrifies me.
The beautiful thing that we have as writers, the beautiful thing that we have as creators, is that we have the ability to tell stories and the stories aren’t just to escape stories. The stories are a reflection held up to reality. They are a reflection of who we are as people, who we are as a culture, who we are as a global society. It points out the things that we can say in fiction that we can’t say on a Facebook feed because we lose 1000 friends when we do that.
It points out observations that if I point out to you my difference in political opinion and your difference in political opinion, we’re just gonna get angry with each other and fight and not talk to each other. But if I can scrawl out a narrative in which we can both see how much we actually have in common as well as the differences without it being a personal clash, there is magic and there is power in that.
I think as writer, as creators, we’ve never had a more important role than ever before to be able to tell those stories and to talk about the things that are critical to talk about. To talk about what’s important what binds us together as humans. To talk about adversity and speaking up and not being silent and not letting something happen just because, “Well, it doesn’t really affect me.”
I think in many ways we’re boiling frogs. We’ve been in the water and we’re watching the water boil around us. We’re not even realizing what we’re doing to ourselves.
As story tellers, as creators we owe it to ourselves to help us get out of the water. We owe it to ourselves to actually tell those stories in nonfiction and fiction ways as much as possible. I think writing has never been more important because we can help one another, whether we need to escape or whether we need to just really hold up that marriage of reality and point out some things that should be obvious to us boiling frogs.
Joanna: Yeah absolutely. And I will echo that and say if you’re feeling confused or stressed or whatever, unplug your internet, do not get on Facebook or Twitter or any of these things and just go write, you know.
Go analog and take your notebooks, take your pen, go somewhere where you do not have to see everything else that’s going on and just write. The other day I was just like, my to-do list is so big and just got out the notebook and started planning the next series, and I was so happy. I was just like, “Oh, I’m just loving this. I’m just gonna ignore the other stuff and I’m just going to create stuff.”
The other thing I want to commit to for the next two years, I’m going to commit to episode 400.
Mark: Yes, that’s awesome.
Joanna: So committing to everyone. What I’m also committing to is to be a positive voice. I hope everyone feels I am but I want to commit to trying to keep people upbeat about the changes that we’re going to go through.
I’ve recently added this little futuristic thing in the last couple shows. I’ve been saying the news might be terribly bad but here are some great things going on in the world. I’m going to commit to trying to bring everybody forwards in terms of the technology and the acceptance of what’s happening. And yeah, I guess that’s what I’m going to commit to.
Joanna: You want to commit to anything, Mark?
Mark: Yeah you know what I want to commit to being with you to get to that episode 400 for sure.
Joanna: Fantastic, that’s great.
Mark: Both as a fan and a listener but also a Kobo Writing Life to be there to support you and sponsor you. Because we need that positive voice, we need that creative energy and we need more writers, we basically need writers to keep doing what they’re doing.
I do have to say the unplugged part, an essay to read, Henry David Thoreau On Walking was written over 100 years ago applies so beautifully today. To unplug and to go out on a walk and to actually just absorb the world around you, the natural world around you whether you live in a city, whether you live in a country it does not matter. It’s one of the best things you can do as a creative person and just to keep your sanity and all of this madness that we’re going through. Again I re-read that essay every couple of years and I keep going, “Did he just write this last week, because this is just so brilliant.”
Joanna: That’s awesome. Okay so well we will be back. I’m sure I’ll have you back on the show before November 2018, Mark, but until then or until the next time, where can people find you and Kobo writing life and everything online?
Mark: Well I’m at Mark Lesley on Twitter, or markleslie.ca not .com because I’m Canadian and Kobo writing life. So check out kobowritinglife.com that is where we have our own podcast, our own blog information for writers including a recent article on going for a walk and how that can help your writing. Thanks to folks like Kevin J. Anderson who you had recently on the show. Those are the places and at Kobo writing life on Twitter, Facebook etc.
Joanna: Fantastic, well thanks so much for your time, Mark. That was brilliant.