OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
Two years ago, I gave up a secure career as an IT business consultant for large corporates, earning a six-figure income, to become a full-time author-entrepreneur.
Yes, I understand that writing is not just about the money, and yes, I do value creativity for its own sake. But this is also my life and pays the bills these days.
I also don't buy into the ‘poor author in the garret' myth, and proving myself as a creative entrepreneur is important to me. So this is an unashamedly commercial post!
When I wrote my lessons learned after 1 year, I still had some nagging doubts that I would have to return to that day job – you know, just in case … But these days I am truly unemployable in the traditional ‘job' sense! Yippee! And I know I will definitely NOT be returning to IT consulting because I now have a viable business.
How do I currently make a living as an author-entrepreneur?
I currently have 5 fiction (3 full length novels, 1 novella, 1 short story collection) and 2 non-fiction books for sale. I am a hybrid author as I am mainly independent/self-published, but also have a audiobook contract with a small press. I also have a NY agent who currently has one of my books out on submission.
I'm not one of those authors who have had lightning success, there has been no crazy sales spike, no film deal or runaway Amazon Daily Deal. I hope this encourages you, because basically I am just putting in the time, learning the craft and trying to produce good books that people want to read. I work every day at writing as well as connecting with readers, peers and other entrepreneurs. This is a long-term game, a career for the rest of my life, so there's no hurry …
To set the scene financially, I describe myself as an author, speaker, entrepreneur when people ask what I do, because I make income from book sales, professional speaking and teaching courses online for authors.
I'm not giving exact numbers but I am now earning around twice the average income for a female in the UK, double what I made in the first year, meeting the target I set last year. If I can keep going at this rate, I should be back to earning at my previous income levels by the middle of year 4.
For those who haven't been following along, I started my first book 6 years ago, started this site in Dec 2008, wrote several books and started a business on the side while working full-time, and gave up my job in Sept 2011 when I was already making a small income. I agreed a 6 month trial with my husband based on income projections, and thankfully, have not had to go back as the business continues to grow.
These figures are a few months old as my book-keeper comes in shortly for the last quarter, but basically the split for the last year is still mainly between book sales (42%) and product sales (45%) (you can see all my training courses here). Professional speaking makes up the other, smaller chunk (13%).
However, I see this changing in the next financial year as I am winding down my online teaching and focusing more on books and professional speaking. This shift is just taking a little longer than expected.
Lesson 1: Being an author these days is definitely a viable business and the opportunities expand daily
The penny dropped for me this year, and I finally understood how publishers make money from rights, and how authors can too. Check out this discussion on rights between me and Orna Ross for all the details, but basically, this is the magic of being a writer. Here's an overview.
Step 1: Write a great book – yes, it may take a while, but once it is finished, it's finished.
You have a product, but it's not just ONE income stream. It can be MANY income streams – PER BOOK.
- Print Book – Indies have pretty much got ebooks & print-on-demand sorted now – here's my Self-Publishing 101 if you still have questions
- Audiobook – the audio market for indies has opened up in the US with ACX. I now have 3 audiobooks on Audible & iTunes, created as a collaboration with a small press and brilliant narrator, Veronica Giguere. Hopefully ACX will be expanding in the next year into other markets. Lots more on audio in this interview with Dan Sawyer on recording, producing and distributing audio.
But that's not the end of it – multiply that by
- Country/ Territory – if your book is in English, your market is not just US and UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. There are actually twice as many English speakers in India than there are in the UK. There are, in fact, more English speakers in India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and the Philippines than there are in the UK. Those are the educated and growing middle class of those countries and while Amazon has just moved into India, you can bet some of the other countries are coming next. The US may now be a ‘mature' ebook market, the UK/Canada/Aus/NZ are adolescent, but the rest of the world has barely even started yet. The market for your books is barely established, so think bigger picture about your rights. And if you are negotiating rights, try not to sell World English 🙂 but focus on territories where that publisher can exploit those rights. Otherwise, you may be able to DIY. If you've already sold some rights, maybe it's time to check what you own as other markets are opening up every month.
- Language – Germany looks like the next country where ebooks and self-publishing will take off. The Frankfurt Book Fair is dominated by sessions on it and ebook readers are becoming more common. I'm currently working with a German translator in a joint venture royalty split deal, and Pentecost will be out in German in early 2014. Spanish language for the US, Europe and South America is perhaps the most obvious translation choice, and perhaps Portuguese as Amazon has opened in Brazil and their economy is booming. I predict an ACX-style translator marketplace in the next year, where authors can make JV deals rather than pay upfront for translation. Savvy translators – start pitching authors you want to work with!
Add all the subsidiary rights around film/TV, multimedia, short story, anthology and all the rest (although these are harder for indies right now).
If you have a non-fiction book, you can also create multimedia courses around the topic of your work, consulting and all kinds of additional products.
Now you might start to see how one book can turn into all these streams of income. And what if you have 5 books … or 20 books, or 53 (like Bob Mayer's recent post!).
Creativity does not mean poverty, and the internet means that indies have a chance to reach readers in so many more ways than the old world. Yes, I am SUPER EXCITED about this! I hope you are too.
Lesson 2: Time in the market and patience are key
I had drinks with a friend of mine yesterday. She's visiting from Australia and we first met during the IT job that finally broke me back in 2007. She helped me write the first iteration of ‘Career Change‘ and made supportive noises as I talked about becoming an author before I had much of a clue about anything, before this website, before writing fiction. It seems a long time ago, and yet, time has also flown by!
I haven't really changed my working practices much since then. I've just kept doing the same things (almost) every day. Writing, learning the craft and new tech/business skills, connecting with people in person and online, sharing what I'm learning with people who might be interested.
But in the last year, things have started to take off and that's not due to anything but consistent effort and time in the market. This site is almost 5 years old which means I am moving into the adolescent phase of a new career. Look at any job, and you know you're not worth much in the first few years. But after 5 years, you have some experience and people start to take you more seriously. I am learning my art and my craft, I am learning my business, I am attracting an audience for my work slowly.
Patience is important, because we can't all reach the top immediately. Lightning won't strike for most of us. But that's OK, because the work is its own reward. I love to write, I love my life as an author-entrepreneur and I have plenty more time in the market.
Lesson 3: Relationships are critical – for your mental health and business
More and more of our lives are online these days, and it is miraculous and amazing that we can reach readers globally and make income from around the world.
But as much as I love my life online, I have found that a physical network is critical for my sanity and also for improving my business. I talked about this last year, but I continue to think it is one of the main reasons I can do this job without going nuts! I also have an entirely new set of friends as an author-entrepreneur, and the ones I had as an IT consultant are mainly out of touch now. We live different lives and I am a changed person.
I know some people struggle with finding a community, but you can use MeetUp.com or CraigsList to find writer's groups, or start your own. Start a blog and actually attract potential peers. Go to conventions and actually make an effort to make friends, which, let's face it, is a bit like dating. You meet someone randomly in a workshop, and you have to suggest a coffee to see if you have anything in common. Then swap emails or twitter handles and go from there … it's worth it and so important if you want to do this as a career.
Lesson 4: Focus on what you love about writing and life
I find that all my (fiction) writing has some kind of theological/ spiritual / supernatural edge and features a lot of research. The books are set in places I have traveled to or will visit one day. The writing is also quite dark. I am finding my voice slowly.
Perhaps I would make more money if I wrote romance, but that's just not me. Perhaps I would make more money if I did less research, if I spent fewer hours lost in books at the library, or taking research trips to interesting places.
But as much as I AM commercially minded and business focused, I am also doing this to live the life I have always wanted.
I love to travel, I love to read and research, I love to fall down the rabbit hole of some unusual tidbit of information and delve into the supernatural. I love playing on the edge of what is physically real. I love the life that writing gives me and the whole point is to live in order to write, not just to write in order to live.
My plans for Author-Entrepreneur Year 3
I think I am finding my groove now and so the plans are basically to keep adding to the number of products and expanding into global markets.
- Increase my income by 50% and change the % split of income to be more on books and royalty payments, then speaking and then course sales. I am still aiming for 80% royalty income as my target.
- Increase the number of products I have for sale and the markets they are available in. For the next year I will be particularly focusing on Germany and India, and of course, I'll share what I learn along the way with you.
OK, another crazy big catch-up post but I know a lot of you have been following my journey for years and I am committed to sharing honestly here.
Please do let me know any comments or questions below. I'd also like to hear your lessons learned as a full-time author/entrepreneur.
Images: My own or Flickr Creative Commons Old Globe by Kenneth Lu, Time by Zorin Denu, Coffee cups by Digimist,
Maggie Katz says
Joanna, you’re always an inspiration! It’s wonderful to be able to learn from those authors that have gone before me and braved the wilderness! Here’s to a productive year ahead!
Michael Cairns says
Thanks so much, what a great post 🙂
Inspiring for someone like me, still early on a similar journey, not just because of the useful advice, but also your focus on patience and graft. I have no problem with either (fortunately) so hearing it from someone who, as you say, hasn’t had some crazy sales spike or bit of luck, is heartening.
Here’s to the next year 🙂
lyle nicholson says
Thanks for your great post. Your are right on about building your writing life slowly. I am just publishing my first novel this year, and have a Novella already out there. You need as you say, product out there to establish yourself. Good for you to set such a great example for he rest of us.
Angie Smith says
Amazing post, thank you so much for sharing all of this with us! Being an author must be such a difficult yet fulfilling career. I have a teenage daughter who wants to be a writer, so I’m definitely going to have to share this with her so she sees what the job is really like!
Becky Doughty says
Joanna, it’s posts like these that really set you apart, that really make me a happy follower. And the thing is, most of your posts are like these – honest, genuine, real. You’re where you are because you’ve done the possible so that God can do the impossible. I’m so happy for you and so grateful that you’ve gone ahead of us and are now reaching back for those of us who are walking in your footsteps. Thank you for sharing YOU.
Linda Fausnet says
Thanks so much for this post.I really find it inspiring. As a LONGTIME writer with many close calls with success, I confess that I have pretty much bought into the whole idea of starving writer. After “almost” getting a literary agent (they said YES, then they said NO, they were too busy to represent me after all. I think that was one writing heartbreak too many…”) and two screenplays “almost” getting made, I’m finally ready to do the self-publishing thing. This summer, after 20 years of writing, I will be self-publishing my first novel. I also plan to self-publish a nonfiction book that relates to my platform and website wannabepride (for wannabe writers).
Your post gives me hope that maybe it is possible to make a living what I’ve been doing for free all these years or at least supplement my income. I definitely have the patience and persistence – always have- and I’m excited to see where it takes me.
Joanna Penn says
Fantastic Linda, and I really encourage you to give self-publishing a go. You’ll find it very rewarding and empowering to be in charge of your own success, and not waiting for others to pick you after this time. All the best with it!
Felipe Adan Lerma says
one of the more encouraging articles i’ve come across yet, thank you so much!
of several one (or two) liners i really liked, will settle for :
“the whole point is to live in order to write, not just to write in order to live.”
even, approaching 63 this month, or maybe more so, as you say earlier in your piece, not being in a hurry…
very much appreciate your link to your rights article, will read that next (off to a quarterly high school graduates get together from my old hs in houston of folks living in austin)
liked your info about ACX (just getting started with them, just approved my first completed project this morning) and the possibility of a an ACX like exchange for translations (esp royalty splits)
and finally, yes you hit the momma lode with me with this article 😉 was the notion of adding physical company to one’s online friends, such as via meetup; i literally, not exaggerating, signed up for a group this morning after finding out about them via a google search; serendipity must have raised its friendly face to me this morning 😉
best wishes joanna, a pleasure reading your article today!
Joanna Penn says
Hi Felipe, I am thrilled that this article resonates with you and also that you have found a community. The internet truly means we never have to feel we’re in this alone. 63 is really the new 40 🙂
Thank you Joanna. Fabulous article. I appreciate your transparency. There are many extreme views in the world: either the starving artist or the success-in-6-months model. Thanks for plotting out your steady course for those of us who want to do the same. AND, thanks for wearing “indie author” so proudly. That is what I’ve done and what I will continue to do. I’m excited about the possibilities and opportunities!
VM Sawh says
Thanks so much for writing this article. I have found your site to be a constant source of inspiration, encouragement and great, practical advice. You’re a few years ahead of me on the journey, as I preparing my first short story for ebook publication, but its great to get a look at what road may lie ahead.
Echoing some of the other sentiments in the comments, yes thank you for wearing the ‘indie author’ label so well. You give us all a reason to hold our heads high.
Nur Costa says
This post is amazing.
I mean: your whole blog is. I accidentally found your blog via twitter because someone mentioned you. And I am more than glad that you have crossed my path right now… it’s a perfect moment for me to be able to read all your work through your blog.
Thanks for sharing what you’re doing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I will be the next 4 hours reading your posts…. 😉
Andrew Broderick says
I too am working on a career change from IT to self-published author. So, this is an inspiring read for me. My genre is science fiction, and I am working on my third book.