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is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date.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
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Today's podcast features me as a guest, which makes a change! It's an in-depth interview ranging through my fiction writing and branding, to the aspects of making a living as a writer.
In the introduction, I talk about achievements of 2014, goals for 2015 and my take on the recent posts about falling income and what you can do about it.
I also mention the launch of my new book, Gates of Hell, available now on all ebook platforms. Plus speaking at the Pubsense Summit in Charleston, South Carolina in March if you'd like to come and say hi.
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.
Kobo’s financial support pays for the hosting and transcription, and if you enjoy the show, you can now support my time on Patreon. Thank you for your support!
This interview is a discussion between me and Mark McGuinness, poet, non-fiction author, creative coach, professional speaker and entrepreneur. You can watch it on YouTube here, or listen above or on the podcast feed here, on iTunes or Stitcher. Full transcript below.
How to make a living as an author. Mark McGuinness interviews Joanna Penn
Mark: Hello, everybody, welcome to LateralAction.com. This is Mark McGuinness, and I’m very pleased to welcome Joanna Penn. Hi, Jo, how are you doing?
Joanna: Hi, Mark, thanks so much for having me on!
Mark: Well, it’s a real pleasure. Many of you will know Joanna already, but for those of you who are new to her work, she leads a double life, firstly as J.F.Penn, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of, you call them ‘thrillers with an edge.’
Can you just explain what exactly they are? What kind of an edge is it?
Joanna: It was funny, because you don’t need a tagline as a fiction author, but my friend, C.J. Lyons, who you’ve had on Lateral Action, who’s brilliant, she has a great one: ‘Thrillers with heart,’ and I was thinking, so, what do I write?
And I write action adventure, but I also write supernatural things, and I write on the edge of horror, on the edge of action, on the edge of paranormal, supernatural and religious. So, this edge for me is the edge that you walk in this world, I guess, between what could be of one genre or another; what could be faithless, as science; what could be spirituality versus religion. That’s my edge; I feel like most books I write, I’m walking some kind of edge.
Mark: There’s quite a few edges in there. That’s by day: and then also by day, but maybe also other times as well, you are Joanna Penn, host of The Creative Penn podcast and blog, and author of an ever-expanding series of non-fiction books for creatives on topics like presentation skills, and marketing books. And the reason we’re talking today is that Jo’s written a really great book. It’s called “Business for Authors.” Have I got the title right?
Joanna: Yes. “Business for Authors: How to be an Author-Entrepreneur.”
Mark: That’s right. Long-time readers and listeners at Lateral Action will know that one of the big things I’ve been trying to encourage people to do is to stop thinking like needy artists or freelancers living hand to mouth, and start thinking and acting like creative entrepreneurs, so, take your art, your creativity, and unlock some of the value of the intellectual property that you’re creating each time you create a piece of art, and start to create a thriving business around that. And Jo is one of the exemplars of this. She’s one of the people I say, “Look at Jo, look at what she’s doing.”
I think it’s a really great book, and I want to say up front, although obviously it’s called “Business for Authors,” a lot of the content is relevant whether you’re a writer or you’re a designer or you’re another kind of creative.
Some of it is obviously specific, but the fundamentals, I think, are going to be very relevant. So, so don’t think, “Oh no, I’m not an author, this isn’t going to be relevant for me”: trust me, there’s going to be a lot in what Jo says that will touch a chord if you’re self-employed as a creative.
Joanna: It’s funny you say that, actually, because I started out as “How to be a Creative Entrepreneur”: the first draft, I had a whole section for Etsy people and designers, and I had some for sculptors and artists, because you’re right, pretty much everything in here, it’s how to run a small business.
But as we know, you can’t write a book that’s really wide, and how to run a small business is just way too wide. So, in the same way that my “How to Market a Book” is essentially the principles of how to market anything, with a couple of chapters about Amazon, thank you for saying that, because I agree, it really is a business book for creatives.
Mark: Logically, you’re right, it is how to run a small business. And yet the emotional side, I think, is so critical, and what I really like, particularly at the beginning, where you address the whole mind-set issue, and the resistance that a lot of us have, I certainly did, to anything to do with the very idea of business, it seemed to be the work of the Devil. I love the way you reframe that, well, give us the answer that you give in the book.
What do you say to the creative person who says, “I’m just not interested in running a business at all”?
Joanna: Well, I think there’s two ways to look at it. The one person who really just isn’t interested in business and is just doing this for a creative reason, that’s like helping my dad publish his book for his 65th birthday: that was just a creative project, something to say, “I’ve done this.” It was never going to be a commercial project. But what’s so funny is so many people say, “Oh, I’m not worried about business, I don’t care about the money,” and then they get all angsty when they don’t sell any books!
Mark: Something’s not quite matched up there, is it.
Joanna: No, it’s not, and I think this is the big thing for creative professionals, and the biggest thing, if you want to get out of your job, if you want to actually make a living as an author or as a creative professional, you have to think about this other side of things, and if you have an agent or a publisher, and you just leave it to other people, things may well get out of control, and there’s been a lot of cases of people losing control of their money.
Harper Lee, with “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the saddest thing: her suing her agent after 50 years, the only book that she ever wrote, this masterpiece, and she’s at her age having to sue someone. So, I think if people don’t look after their own business, you can lose touch with all of that.
And the other thing is that if you think about it at a basic level, creating a business is one of the most creative things you can do.
I work with eleven other professionals in my work, I collaborate with other authors—creating a business, creating wealth, creating something new in the world is just fantastic. And so I think when people use the word ‘business,’ it can bring up pinstripe suits and things in the brain, but actually, it’s all the exciting things about creating value from ideas, which is essentially what an entrepreneur is.
So I am trying to reframe this as ‘the most creative thing you can do is to be a businessperson’!
Mark: Well, you’re preaching to the converted here; Everyone’s at their own stage of this journey, so I really wanted to bring this up right at the beginning, for those of you who are thinking, “I want to do my own thing, but maybe it’s not even that I don’t like the idea of doing business, but I’m not even sure I could do it.” That, for me, was a huge thing at the beginning, just having the confidence to think that I could do the business stuff.
Also, there is a very author-specific version of the question which is the authors who say, “Well, I like the idea of self-publishing, it sounds great, but it also sounds like a lot of work. I would rather just have a publisher who does all the business stuff for me; all the marketing, all the distribution, and I just write my books.”
What would you say to an author who’s coming from that place?
Joanna: Well, the world has changed quite a lot to what it used to be, and for one, a lot of publishers want authors who already have books that have been edited professionally; they want authors who already have a marketing platform, maybe a blog, an email list; they want authors who are already in a network with other professionals. So you may well have had to start building all of this stuff already.
You and I know, building a website at the beginning can be very daunting, in the same way as writing a book, at the beginning, can be very daunting, but over time, these things grow. So it’s definitely a journey.
But even if you get a publisher, let’s just take the basics. You still have to think about income!
Authors often just assume that as soon as you get an agent or a publishing deal, the money just starts rolling in. Yes, you laugh, I laugh. But realistically, there are lots of things about that, for example, most advances, if you get an advance, are split into percentages, so you might get one on signing, one on when the manuscript is finalized, and one on publication, which could be two years later! And then that’s split between all different kinds of people. So, even just doing the basic math, if you have a publisher, is something you need to think about.
And then things like caring about your contracts.
For example, I have a terrible example of a friend of mine who signed a contract in New Zealand for full worldwide rights, all formats, and they only ended up publishing her book in New Zealand, in print format, and I’m like, “But you signed away everything and they’re not even going to exploit all of those rights.”
I think what I’m trying to do with this book, and in general, is trying to educate authors and creatives to think about how much their work is worth, and then think about all the stages of the journey, which also, for us go for the rest of our lives. So, having to think about the longer-term ramifications of signing away the rights, for your whole life. I mean, you’ve got kids, right? Your kids can benefit from your books. That’s amazing! But only if you set it up right. I know this topic’s kind of not sexy, but it’s so important!
Mark: Well, it is if you get it right, yes: it is sexy if you get it right, and if you get it wrong, then it’s profoundly unsexy.
Joanna: Yes, we’re the ones rolling in the Cristal!
Mark: I think for anybody who’s watching the video version, we might have to edit the Cristal in.
Alright, so that’s the big picture of the whys.
Maybe you could actually tell us a bit about your journey from writer to author-entrepreneur?
And talk about what prompted you, what motivated you to go on that journey, and how you found it.
Joanna: I did Theology at university, which is a kind of random degree, and then I became an IT consultant: really, you know, a mismatch immediately! And I then spent 13 years working as an IT consultant, implementing accounts payable into large corporates: possibly one of the most boring things you could ever do! But very well-paid; I traveled a lot, traveled around Europe and the US and the Asia-Pacific, so I had this kind of great traveling life, but my daily work was a) boring and b) kind of soul-destroying for somebody who had thought when they were younger I was creative, and every day this was bogging me down.
So, I spent 13 years trying to escape my job!
And I tried various things: I ran a scuba diving business in New Zealand, and I did property investment, and none of that worked for me. And I just couldn't figure out, how did I end up with a house and a husband and a car, and a great job, good money—all the things you’re meant to want in life, and not be happy.
So, I started to write a book, I started to read a lot of self-help, and then write self-help for myself. This was 2006. And essentially, that first book, I wrote it, and then I started to learn about the publishing industry, discovered how long it would take to get a book deal, decided I was not interested in waiting, or asking permission to do anything; I started to learn about self-publishing, started blogging, and that kind of started me on the journey of writing. So, at that point, I was a writer.
But just going back, like you say, about the mindset: back in 2006, I had an affirmation, which was “I am an author, I am creative,” and I couldn’t even say, “I am creative” out loud, back then. I couldn’t even say it, because I did not believe it.
To say, “I am an author” as an affirmation, I couldn’t even imagine it at that point. I started off saying it in my head, and then eventually, I managed to say it out loud, and that was a mindset shift that started me into starting a blog, starting The Creative Penn, which at the time seemed really, really arrogant!
And then, from there, it’s pretty much been I’ve just written more books. And then I had another shift in 2009, when I did a podcast interview with a friend, Tom Evans, about writer’s block, and I said something like, “I could never write fiction,” and he said, “Well, why not?” and I said, “Well, I would have to write something like Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose,’ or it would have to win, the Pulitzer Prize, because I went to Oxford, my mum’s an English literature professor: I can only write that kind of book and be acceptable.” And he really changed my mind, and then I went on to start writing thrillers, and then here I am now!
So it’s kind of a crazy journey, but I wanted to point out the number of years: we’re in 2014, so this is six years from my first book, and I guess eight years since I had that affirmation.
Mark: Right, so it doesn’t happen overnight, it’s like writing a book itself.
Joanna: Exactly, it really is. And I want to stress that this book, “Business for Authors,” contains everything I’ve learned from 13 years as a business consultant and 6 years as an author, and for most people, if you’re at the point of saying, “I want to write a book,” and that’s as far as you are, you haven’t written your first book yet, there’s a whole lot of things to be thinking about, before you have a business. But I hope that some people will actually want to do this as a career now, because it is viable, that’s what’s so exciting now: it is a viable business now, to be an author.
Mark: So you were learning your craft as a writer, at what stage did you say, “OK, but I need to start building a business around this”? Did you do one then the other, or did you do them more in tandem?
Joanna: I learned about blogging, you and I both know Copyblogger, and I was reading blogs like that. I think that’s when I first came across you: I think I did one of your courses that you did with, Brian Clark, and met people like Johnny B. Truant, who now is also a fiction author. It’s this crazy space we’re in.
But I started learning about blogging, and I thought, “OK, I’m going to become a blogger,” because I knew I wanted to get out of my day job, so I thought, “I’ll be a blogger, I’ll write non-fiction books, and I’ll be a professional speaker.” So I started to train up as a professional speaker and started speaking for income. So I knew I was going to get out of my day job somehow: I knew I could not implement any more accounts payable systems!
So, I had this goal of getting out of my day job, but I started writing fiction, and I started selling courses to authors, so I did sort of veer into the non-fiction, blogging, professional speaking angle, then I started writing fiction.
I left my day job three years ago, September 2011, and at that point, I was making probably 90% of my income—which was a lot less than as an IT consultant—from non-fiction, professional speaking, and blogging-related courses. But then in the last couple of years, I’ve been writing more and more fiction, my income split has really shifted, so it’s now up to about 45% fiction income, and still professional speaking, I’ve been in Stockholm recently, I’m off to Frankfurt next week, so that’s still a big part of it. And then I also still blog, I podcast.
So like yourself, this is why I use the word ‘entrepreneur’: most people in our space don’t have just one income stream.
If they did, that would be like a day job! I really don’t believe in having one income stream, I think it’s super-dangerous.
So that’s kind of where I am now, and even if I end up 100% fiction, I still have lots of different books—and non-fiction, I suppose—and also I sell on all the different platforms as well as from my own website. So, basically, my business now is a kind of conglomeration of all of these different things, to make up a very good full-time income.
Mark: I’d like to pick up on what you said just now about it’s now a viable career to be an author, because as well as your own personal journey over these past few years, there’s been big changes in the whole publishing industry. And I can relate to what you’re saying. I mean, I started off, in terms of the writing aspect to my business, blogging was a big part of that. And I was offered several book deals by publishers, and I always looked at it and thought, “How can I afford to write that?” because the terms on offer were just so unenticing. But, of course, in those days, you would write a book as a business card in order to generate money for income. But my blog was kind of doing that for me.
But it’s really through your enthusiasm and C.J.’s as well, the whole self-publishing revolution got up to the point where I realized, “Oh, OK, now I can write a book.”
So just maybe talk us through that whole change in the publishing landscape, and critically, why it makes it much more viable to make your money, or a significant part of it, as an author.
Joanna: When I first started doing this, there was no Kindle. This is what’s so crazy. Five years ago, there was no international Kindle; authors couldn’t self-publish onto the Kindle; there wasn’t even such a thing as Kobo, which is really big in Canada and here in England; we couldn’t do audiobooks; we couldn’t do easy print-on-demand. It’s kind of just crazy how things have shifted. You wouldn’t be reading books on your cellphone, whereas now we see them, them everywhere.
So what’s happened with this technology shift, America first, UK, Australia, Canada are the markets that have really moved, and we’re still seeing it, Germany’s just starting to move; we’re still seeing the kind of emergence of this in the rest of the world. But what it’s meant to authors is, you can now self-publish. Now, I don’t like the term ‘self-publishing,’ I like ‘independent author,’ because, professional self-publishers use other professionals, like professional editors and cover designers, so we don’t do it by ourselves, as such.
But essentially, the financial shift is, instead of like you mentioned getting between 15, well even 7.5 to 20% royalty on, on a book, which is what you would generally get from traditional publishing, you can make 70, seven zero, per cent from Amazon.
So that means, when I sell an ebook at $4.99, I make $4, which is just crazy!
And I can do print-on-demand, for people who don’t know, I upload a couple of pdf files, a cover and my interior, up to Amazon’s CreateSpace, and then if someone goes onto Amazon today, they can order a print book, one copy is printed and sent to them, and if you’re on Amazon Prime in America or the UK, you get it on the same day! It’s just absolutely crazy.
Or if you look for my audiobooks on Audible, they’re there as well, I did a joint venture with a narrator. I’ve also done translation joint ventures.
So, basically, I’m running a global multimedia empire, as an individual!
And it’s cost me not very much money, because I pay editors, I pay cover designers, but it’s free to self-publish! I speak to publishers, and they just can’t believe it. They can’t believe what we have now as authors.
I know people listening might be saying, “Oh, but isn’t it a load of crap,?” which is the classic thing, but the main thing is that readers are not stupid.
Readers will not buy a crap book.
Reviews will get you, or it just won’t sell at all, or it won’t get noticed, and if people download a sample and it’s not very good, then they’re not going to buy the book. So I don’t think quality is an issue at all, anymore.
So, essentially, the technology has enabled us to get our books out there and make more money per book.
We can also sell direct from our websites if we do blogging and things like you and I do. And the other thing I want to challenge people on is, if you think about the books you love, just hold those in your head, now say who published those books. And I bet you that most people can’t name the publisher of those books.
Most people don’t shop by publisher: they shop by author name, or they shop by title, because they’re looking for something specific.
So, if somebody wants to deal with rejection and criticism, they might find your book, because that’s what they’re typing in to Amazon. If they’re looking for how to market a book, they might find my book.
So, people want their questions answered, they want education, they want inspiration, they want escape and entertainment: they’re not necessarily buying by publisher.
The other exciting thing for authors is you get a monthly income, that actually comes direct to your bank account, and you have cash flow monitoring, because you know how much you’re going to earn, 60 days later. So the business is revolutionized in terms of business.
Mark: I’ll just second that: it is incredible, the tools that are available. If you look at the quality of a CreateSpace paperback, or a Lightning Source, which is another system you can use, if you’ve got a good designer, you need a really good cover, but you can stick that next to a paperback from one of the big five, and I’ve had clients who are designers say, “I didn’t realize it was self-published.”
The flip side of this is that we are being judged next to the offerings from the big five, so as Jo says, if the writing’s not good, if the formatting’s not good, if the cover’s not good, readers are going to move on. But fortunately, anybody listening to this has got high aspirations of professionalism!
Joanna: Just to put it another way, I say to people now, “Do you go to a farmer’s market at the weekend, do you buy vegetables? Do you buy clothes from a vintage store or a market, I go to Spitalfields and buy stuff. Do you watch indie documentaries on iTunes? Do you buy your gifts on Etsy or Not on the High Street instead of going to a chain store?”
What’s happening in the world is that there’s a shift to buying from creators.
People want to buy local, buy from the author. They want to support creatives directly.
Look at Kickstarter, look at Patreon, which I’m now using for my podcast, people actually want to support creative industries. I put direct sales of my, my fiction on my website, and my non-fiction, only a few months ago, which is odd, considering how long we’ve been selling courses directly from our websites, but to my surprise, people would like to buy my ebooks from my website, because they don’t want to give the money to Amazon or Apple or the middle-men.
So, it’s so interesting, this shift in the public’s perception of indie and artisan. Guy Kawasaki, he wrote a book called, “Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur,” uses the word ‘artisanal publishing,’ that we, that we actually care more, because they are our books, than a big five publisher who publishes millions of books. They don’t really care. But we care, because we’re doing it individually and carefully.
So, I think if you shift it to that way round, it’s like, “Well, of course you want to do it yourself: you’re a creative.”
Mark: There was a really cool story a few months ago, in fact it might have been on your podcast, Jo. There was some book fair, and they were interviewing teenagers queuing outside, and they said, “Who are you here to see?” and they said, “We want to see the indie authors,” because that’s who they wanted to be when they left school. And it’s just so great that it’s now starting to become something to aspire to and there’s a really nice part in the book where you talk about looking at your young cousins, who are very creative, and wanting to inspire them and say, you can choose a creative career if you want to do it, and these are some of the tools to help you do it.
Joanna: Obviously, we’re not saying that you have to earn loads of money being a creative, but your kids, you would like them to be able to do whatever they want to do in their life, and having a really good income actually really helps!
Mark: There’s not so many drawbacks as the other way round, at least!
Joanna: Exactly, and I really feel this. I think it annoys me, the myth of the starving artist in the garret, and that to be a good writer, you should be poor! It’s kind of a crazy thing.
You and I both live in the abundance mentality of the Internet, and generosity and the ever-growing pie, and when you start thinking that way around books and writing and creativity, the whole thing, it’s so exciting. Every day I’m just thrilled to be part of this world.
And the indie community is so generous, as well. Everyone’s always sharing what they know, mostly for free or in a $5 ebook.
You can find out what any of us know, there are no secrets, everyone’s helping, it’s a great time to be an author.
Mark: So, let’s suppose we’re sold on that idea and we say, “OK, what do I need to do?” Let’s say I’m starting out. Because another nice thing in the book is you’ve got the arc of the developing author business and what we should focus on at different stages. So let’s say I’m a complete beginner.
Maybe I’ve written my first book or I’m on the way to getting that done. What are the things I need to be focusing on, on the business side?
Joanna: I think if you haven’t finished the book yet, if you haven’t even got a book out in the world, I would start by finishing the book! I actually think that a lot of people will write one book, but a lot of people will stop at that point and realize that this isn’t what they want to do. Obviously, a lot of people will never even write one book, but you’ve got the bug as well, haven’t you, now.
Mark: Well, I’ve just finished my second book, last week, so, yes, I know how you feel.
Joanna: And I’ve just launched, today, and tomorrow I’m back in the library starting on the next book. This is once you get the bug, but the thing is, you don’t know if you’ve got the bug until you’ve finished the first book.
So I think don’t be too distracted if you haven’t finished even one book yet: that would probably be my main thing. And especially looking at working with editors, getting the basics of finishing a product. I guess probably the main thing to think about when you’re doing this, is if you want to do this as a business later on, you do have to be thinking around marketing stuff: maybe you’ve started a blog, maybe you’re thinking about what you want to do with your business, understanding professional editing, professional design, all of the fundamentals that go into making a book, that’s kind of the important thing. Because that’s going to be your primary product.
And if people listening are not authors, then that’s really the thing for any creative business: you need a product, whether your product is, as you have, coaching, you can’t just start coaching tomorrow, from nothing. That’s the developing the craft and the experience type of thing.
But then I think, once you’ve actually got the book done, then your big challenge is realizing that nobody cares! Do you think that’s right?
Mark: Yes, there’s the great cartoon that Hugh Mcleod did on Gaping Void that is the classic town sign welcoming you to the town, and it says, “Welcome to Nobody Cares, population 6 billion”! And that’s really tough, because when we’ve put all the love and the energy and care into creating something, you look out there and guess what? There’s a load of others who’ve done just the same. So what, now then, the question is, what do I do to actually get people to care?
Joanna: Yes, and this is where you realize that you haven’t made a million dollars from one book, and you actually have to learn about marketing. Or, if you’ve been published by a publisher, you generally find that everyone doesn’t celebrate it-
Mark: You have to learn about marketing!
Joanna: Basically you have to learn about marketing! And it’s interesting, when you talk to agents and publishers and you read publishing industry blogs, they say the most disappointed person is the author whose book has been published, 6 weeks after publication, because that initial launch fun has worn off, the book has dropped down the charts, and now the publisher’s moved on to the next author. And that’s it. There’s this disappointment.
And I think there is a psychological shift, you have to go, “OK, so it’s up to me, then,” regardless of how the book is published, or whatever your business is, “now I have to start to learn marketing.”
And that happened to me when I printed 2,000 copies of my first book, and they sat in my house in Australia! This was before the Kindle, and I didn’t know about print-on-demand. I printed 2,000 copies, and then went, “OK, how do I sell these?” And I ended up putting most of them in the landfill, because I discovered print-on-demand. And, but it was a great lesson: I’ll never forget that one.
Essentially, at that point, you have to learn about marketing.
Then you make another decision, there are decision points all the way: do I enjoy this enough that I want to go through it again? Because it’s not just writing the book, it’s then the marketing side. And, like us, you go, “This is marketing, you and me having a chat is marketing.” This is the thing: if you reframe marketing into something fun. Both of us like writing, so we blog, both of us enjoy Twitter, we like going to events, we both speak: these are things that we do, and other people can do, and they are ‘marketing.’
So you have to find the marketing that you enjoy, and then you essentially can consider what you want to do next. Are you going to go deeper into one genre, are you going to switch, what are you going to do with your creative products that work into some kind of business model?
Mark: And what are the things I should be looking out for? Let’s assume I’m not making a million dollars with my first book in six weeks. But what are the things I should be tracking that let me know, “OK, I’m going in the right direction,” that what I’m doing now is going to grow the business for the long term.
What are some of the indicators I should look for?
Joanna: Well, I think again, like any small business, you should have a website and an email list sign-up, because what will happen with your first book is, it’s unlikely you’re going to have an email list of lots of people. I mean, everybody starts with zero.
But if you start an email list off the back of your first book, by the time you have your second book, you should have 10, 100, 1,000 people on that list who will be ready for the next book.
So that’s a really sensible thing to do, is make sure at the back of the first book, it says, “If you enjoyed this, sign up here to get something else for free, and be on my list for your next book.”
[See Nick Stephenson’s free video series – Your First 10,000 Readers for more on email marketing]
That’s one thing to do.
And then the next thing is to start writing another book, whatever that is, or, if you’re going to use that as part of your business, create a workshop out of that book, or however you’re going to repackage it. But essentially, as we said at the beginning, one income stream is dangerous: you’re never going to make a living from one product. It just doesn’t happen, at all. So you have to think about what are the other products I’m going to create?
And then in terms of measuring, for fiction writers, we often do measure word count. I don’t think it’s so common within other industries. But I say now, “I measure my life by what I create,” so if I’m not creating regularly–and by creating I mean “Here is a finished book”—then I’m not doing my job properly. So, it’s really tracking that.
You could track word count, you could track chapters by the end of the month or something so you know you’re ticking towards your goal.
And at this point, you probably have another day job or another income stream, because, as I said, it’s not a full-time income.
Mark: I’d like to just reiterate what Jo’s said about the importance of an email list, because if you’re looking around thinking, “Should I blog, should I Tweet, should I have a Facebook page or a podcast,” all of those things are kind of nice if you enjoy them, and they can all be done really effectively, but none of them—certainly in my experience and most people I talk to—will have the impact of an email list. And if you think about your own experience, you don’t see every Facebook update, it’s a stream. You don’t see everything that goes in your Twitter stream. But you probably see just about every email that hits your inbox, and that’s the reason why email is so powerful.
So, one metric you can start tracking from Day One is “How many subscribers am I getting?” And even if it’s only the tens, tens or scores, or one, that’s another potential reader for the next book, which is a huge asset that you’re building for the business.
Joanna: And the other thing is, we’ve got to think about future-proofing. There are some people who believe you should go all-in on Amazon, but I saw a documentary with Jeff Bezos and Charlie Rose, last year, and Jeff said, “Amazon will be disrupted, in the same way that Amazon has disrupted other industries.” It will be disrupted. We’ve just seen the Alibaba IPO come out, and people going, “Ooh, this is new, this is something interesting.”
And I think if you own your website and you pay for hosting, you own your own email list, you own the rights to your products. nobody can take this business away from you, ever, because you own that stuff.
And if all of this goes wrong, if Facebook disappears, if Amazon disappears, if everything else goes, you’ll still have your products, the rights you own, the website and an email list. S I think I’m a bit gun-shy, because in 2008, 400 of us, including me, got laid off on one day during the global financial crisis, and at the time, that was my one income stream. And when I got laid off—along with everyone else—I swore I would never rely on one thing again!
Mark: Right. So, if there’s one part of this recording that I could highlight with a yellow highlighter, it would be this!
Build your own assets, folks.
More product, that is, more books, that’s intellectual property—maybe we can talk about the rights that can come out of that—more your own website, so you’ve got your own property online, and your own mailing list, which gives you a hotline to your own readers. Now, those three things give you the foundation, and when people say to me, “Isn’t it, a bit risky being self-employed?” I say, “Well, no one can sack me!”
Joanna: Yes, and if you have an email list, if you create something they want, you can make money from selling people what they want.
Joanna: That’s how it works. I know, where we are, both you and I have been doing this a number of years now, and maybe we sound a bit blasé, but at the beginning, we were both scared, and it was difficult, and when I gave up my job to do this full time, there was a big self-esteem drop. People look at you funny and treat you funny when you don’t have a ‘proper job’!
Mark: Again, it’s not Land of Milk and Honey, at least not straight away. Look, no Cristal here! It’s hard work. And it makes sense, obviously, not to be relying on that one book to be paying all the bills to begin with. But the joy of what Jo is describing here is you’re building something.
You’re building your artistic oeuvre, your body of work. You’re building your mailing list, your intellectual property, your web presence.
If you do this right and you even just track it: this month compared to last month. If you sold one more book than last month, got one more subscriber than last month, it’s growing.
Joanna: I tell people to measure this in Olympic periods. Because in one year, you can feel like you haven’t really got very far. But if you try and think about like where you were during the London Olympics, and then before that, the Beijing Olympics, and then if you think where you’re going to be during the Rio Olympics, every four years, things can really, really change.
Between Beijing and London, I had become a fiction author, I’d left my job, loads of big shifts had happened over four years. So, people, you can definitely achieve this, if you want this, but it takes time, and it takes effort, consistently.
It’s like diet and exercise. You know what to do but it’s one of those, it’s simple but it’s not easy type of things.
Mark: OK, so back to our imaginary author. She’s written the first book. She’s building the mailing list, she’s getting the first sales, the first reviews of the book, building the next one.
What’s the next phase of the journey?
Joanna: Realistically, the next bit is when you have a couple of books. I think there’s a jump at three, if three is within the same genre, or as you are non-fiction, three to the same audience. If you can sell one, they’re likely to buy two or three. So, there’s a jump at three, there’s a jump at five, and then things become more regular. When you’ve only got one book, some months you might not earn any money at all from that book, but since I’ve had three books, I’ve earned money every month, and since I’ve had five, it’s jumped up.
So, I interview people, and again, this might sound crazy, but there are people who are making very, very good money who have over 15 books. C.J. Lyons would be somebody, in that group. I interviewed Steve Scott, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him?
Mark: Yes, he does non-fiction short books.
Joanna: He does non-fiction, yes, and he’s got 42 books! They’re all very short, though: I would say that. But, the thing is, there is a business, you’ve got to think about your business model.
When you want to go full time, when you’ve got maybe three to five books, you’re really thinking, “Am I going to be able to leave my day job? Can I make this a full-time career?” So you have to make some decisions around what you’re going to do next, and start thinking about your strategy.
So, for example, getting clear on your brand: that’s when I really thought about, “OK, I’m going to be J.F. Penn for my thrillers, because I’m not this shiny, happy person all the time, I’m also this dark little twisted thing.
It’s The Shadow: you know all about The Shadow! That’s my shadow side, and so I wanted to split my brand. That was a decision you make when you’ve done a couple of books, because we’re all a work in progress, but it helps to have that.
And then maybe you’re writing a series, maybe you decide, my business model is going to be, like yours is, speaking, coaching, and books are a small part, or like me, I’ve decided I want my speaking to be 20% of my income; I want my books to be 80%. So I’m working towards that.
Think about scalable income.
I’m sure you’ve talked about this, but scalable income is you create it once, it can earn you money forever, which is a book, whereas speaking or coaching, you do it and that time is gone.
So, thinking about how your business model’s going to work, and establish your criteria for going full time. That’s what I did, so I had said, “I have to be making this amount of money before I give up my job,” so I went to part-time work, I was doing evenings, weekends, before work, until I was earning x amount. Then I could give up my job, with the knowledge that I would have to go back to it if I couldn’t sustain an income.
So, I think when you’ve got three to five books, you’re really thinking about those types of issues.
Mark: Yes. And note, Jo is not saying, “Leap and a net will appear. Quit your job overnight.”
Joanna: No: I’m saying it took me pretty much three years of working part time to do this.
And in fact, I’ll tell this story, because this is really important. Back in 2002-2004, a while back, I’d just got divorced, my first marriage—I’m happily married now!—but at the time, I’d just got divorced, I was miserable, and I quit everything: I sold my house at that time, quit everything in order to write the Great Novel, as you do. Three months later, having written nothing except a few poems, angsty divorce poems, I went back to my day job, full of, “I can’t do this, I could just never do this, this is not me,” my self-esteem crushed. And I didn’t write again for another four or five years.
So, I would say to people that you do not need to leave your job to write a book.
In fact, it’s better to “write at the edges of the day,” as Toni Morrison said. So, I would get up at 5 and write for an hour before work; in the evenings I would blog and do social networking, at the weekends I would write. I think it’s better to do that, work part time, and only give up your job when you’re really certain, and when you have money coming in.
Mark: That’s a great example, Jo, of what we were talking about right back at the beginning, the value of the business really is that it will support your creativity.
At that stage, you didn’t have a business model and the infrastructure around you that would support you, and it’s a pretty soul-crushing experience to go through. So, again, if anybody is thinking that there has to be a fundamental conflict between business and creativity, what we’re describing is that actually, one supports the other.
Joanna: Oh, definitely, definitely. And, now, even when you’re a full-time creative, you still have to do all the other stuff, so it will always be a mutually supportive kind of side. And, I hope you agree, you can’t be ‘creative’ all hours of the day. You have that well every day, and then, you do something else.
But what I think I would also say to people: remember when I said I couldn’t even say, “I am creative” out loud: I didn’t used to have ideas, and now I’m just overflowing with ideas, and that’s something that happens more and more. It’s like a muscle, isn’t it: you exercise that creative muscle, and over time, and now, I just have lists and lists of books that I’m going to write, and that only happens over time, basically.
So, be easy on yourself, people: be nice to yourself!
Mark: Maybe we could finish up by looking at a later stage in the business. Our imaginary author’s got a few books out, she’s making significant income every month; maybe she’s even left her job.
What are some of the things that she needs to be doing to really maximize the value of her work, and to accelerate the growth of the business?
Joanna: Writing this book helped me shift phase from being a businesswoman and an author to “I am CEO of my creative company,” and you only feel like a CEO when you know what you’re doing, and writing this book helped me understand how it all worked.
So, one, you want to exploit your rights.
We talked a bit before about one manuscript is an ebook, a print book, an audio book, in English; those three products can be sold all over the world in English, indies can sell in 170 countries now, and I have personally sold in 58 countries. So that’s three products in English multipled by 58.
Then you can start looking at translations, so I’m collaborating with seven translators now. I know, it’s going off! I’ve got books in German, Spanish, Italian, I’ve just signed Portuguese for Brazil, Brazilian Portuguese.
All of those are joint venture partnerships, 50-50 royalty splits, so I’m not even paying them up front, which is crazy, because translators are creative people too, and they want to do this stuff. I really believe that collaboration is the future of, of creative business.
So that’s one thing, taking that one product, if there’s a book, and turning it into multiple income streams. And if you think that I’ve now got 12 books: each of those can become all of those multiple income streams, you can see how this is a valid business model, because it really is endless and limitless how many things you can turn these things into.
So, that’s one thing. And then you have to be considering things like your processes.
So, when you first self-publish a book, it’s a bit complicated, in the same way as when you first use WordPress as a blogger, it’s a bit complicated. You have to go through the process a few times. So, for me, now, as I said, I have 11 contractors, I have my editors, I have my cover designer, I have a bookkeeper, I’m doing my accounts right now. You have to put your processes in place as you develop your business properly.
Then I have to mention it, because I think it’s really important if you want to expand, is the production plan. So the production plan, which you think of in a factory, it’s more like a promise. You can say it’s like a part of your business plan, maybe writing a business plan is a good idea, but a production plan is, “I will be writing this in this month, and therefore I can book my editor for this month, I can book my cover designer. I can see that I’m going to create three products next year, that’s going to give me this type of cash flow.”
When you actually start planning and forecasting and thinking about strategy, these are words that businesspeople use. I love just the general, “Let’s just be creative and make stuff” attitude, but then you almost need to put on your other hat, if you want to expand your business.
I think I’m really talking to those people who are ambitious, who want to earn really good money, of which I am one, and I think you are, as well. We come from this side where we don’t see these things as being mutually exclusive.
This is what’s so great—my friends in this industry, many of them are making six and seven figures from their fiction and their books, which to me is truly exciting!
So, I think if you consider those type of things, actually get your financials sorted. I’m amazed at how many creatives don’t have a bookkeeper. I can’t stand entering my receipts into QuickBooks or whatever, so I love paying my bookkeeper.
And then, looking at the longer-term view. There’s been a good book recently, “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy,” by a guy called Richard Rumelt, which I really enjoyed, and was basically strategy is what you don’t do as much as what you do.
And that really helped me, and I’ve written about it in the book, to say what I have to say no to, because you spend so much time when you’re growing your business saying “yes” all the time, and then suddenly you have to start saying “no” to everything!
Mark: Yes, and it’s really scary when you first start doing it, isn’t it.
Joanna: Yes, and I still struggle, and then I regret it later. I’m, “Oh, why did I say yes to that?” and often, you know how it is as a speaker, people will ask you for stuff, and then you’ll be, “Oh, no, why did I do that?” I think this goes in the business plan as well: “What I am,” so for me, I am an author. I’m an author, a speaker and an entrepreneur, and that’s the order they’re in.
So every day, I should be working around my author business, my speaker business is secondary, and the entrepreneur is kind of over-arching, but I used to sell courses, and I’m selling them less and less now, and focusing more on books.
So, knowing what you can say no to is really important as you become the CEO of your creative company.
Mark: Excellent. Well, thank you, Jo. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground here, from the little acorn of the first few words of the first book, to this huge, spreading oak tree of your multinational, multimedia empire. And because we’ve been in touch for a few years, and I’ve seen your journey, I’ve seen your business grow, and the catalog grow, it really is inspiring to see this.
And also, the thing I really want to underline is, Jo works insanely hard. Like, really, really hard. There’s a reason why you’ve got, what, 11 books or something?
Mark: Twelve books in six years. I mean, that’s a pretty impressive production rate. So, thank you for your generosity. Honestly, I heartily recommend the book, and like I said, even if you are not an author, I would recommend you check this out. It’s what, $5? I mean, you will get way more than $5’s value, even if you’re not an author. If you are an author, and you’re serious about making this a career, you really should read it, it’s great. So, presumably it’s on Amazon. Where do people go to get the book; where’s the best place?
Joanna: It’s available now as an ebook on all platforms, as a print book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and also an audiobook, if you go to thecreativepenn.com/businessbook, all the links are there.
Thanks so much for having me, Mark, it was great to talk to you, and you continue to inspire me as a creative businessman, as well!
Mark: Well, thank you, Jo. The other thing I want to point people to is you’ve got a great blog at thecreativepenn.com, and also, Jo’s podcast I listen to every week, and it’s really one of the very best ways of getting to know what’s going on in the publishing industry. You always have amazing guests on, you learn all kinds of stuff. So, again, if you’re really interested in writing, publishing your own books, have a listen to The Creative Penn, and within a few weeks, you will be an expert in the current state of self-publishing.
Joanna: Ah, well thank you, thanks for having me, Mark!
Mark: My pleasure. Thanks, everybody!
Henry Hyde says
Top performance as ever, Joanna. Your boundless enthusiasm always revives this weary creative! The book, of course, is also magnificent and my constant companion next to my Mac along with a select few others.
As someone who has run a creative business in various forms since 1991, I can certainly see the parallels with growing a presence as an author-entrepreneur, so it’s no longer scary to me. Your story of having a garage full of unsold books reminds me of when I first bought a (at that time) horrendously expensive Apple Mac back in 1991 and imagined that design clients would flock to my door. You learn to market and sell yourself quickly, or you go under! There’s no use for talent if nobody knows about it.
Good luck with your plans for 2015!
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Henry – it’s good to hear so many of these experiences are universal – however, it begs the question whether we can actually learn from any of these non-fiction books 🙂 We all seem to repeat the same mistakes!
I’ve recently listened to a whole bunch (let’s not say, “all”) your podcasts and I have to admit that this one really said a lot of things very clearly for me.
“If you don’t have a book, focus on finishing the book.” That’s one of those things that I feel I really needed to hear. I’ve been getting ahead of myself, trying to get all my ducks in order, but I haven’t finished a real product yet. So why am I looking into applying for an EIN right now?
Thank you for that wake-up call!
Also, you’re enthusiasm for the whole business is amazing and is sure to motivate me.
Joanna Penn says
I’m glad it helped and that ‘arc’ idea is so important – we all need different things at different points in the journey, but nothing matters if you don’t have a book!
Mé Chelle Vermeulen says
I am sitting in front of my computer typing away and listening to your podcast on “How to make a living as an Author’, in particular the blurb for your new book ‘Gates of Hell’. I listened to it twice, it was so good! Gave me goosebumps. The cover’s amazing!! Congratulations and good luck!
Lots of love from New Zealand
Joanna Penn says
Thanks so much Mé Chelle – I really appreciate that 🙂 I love the cover too! Happy 2015!
Annie Caldwell says
Thanks for the shout out, Joanna! Great podcast. Your last two podcasts helped me immensely, and also kept me safe while driving home in the middle of the night from a convention in Vegas. Keep up the good work!
Joanna Penn says
Super 🙂 I hope to make it to Vegas at some point!
Richard Keller says
Joanna, I get re-energized every time I hear one of your podcasts. My small press is a year old, and I continue to learn how to do business and make it work for you. My goal is to get out of my IT daytime job within five years; however, I’d like to do it sooner. Thanks for everything.
Joanna Penn says
I’m so glad you enjoy the show 🙂
I did 3 years part-time while continuing with my IT job – and then left, taking a significant pay cut – which I am still clawing my way back to. I should surpass it in year 5 fulltime though! It’s worth it!
Rich Keller says
My situation is slightly different from you. I have five kids and some debt. I’d love to go part-time but the debt needs to be paid off first before I do that. This is why I have Red Bull injected directly into my bloodstream. 🙂 Should you ever want to speak to an independent author and small press owner who does it by juggling many hats, I’m your person.
Linda Fausnet says
I really enjoyed listening to this. After spending 20 years on the endless query cycle, both as a screenwriter and a novelist, the freedom of indie publishing is nothing short of exhilarating. I’m still new to the process, having published one book so far, but I’m so eager to learn as much as possible.
Right now, all I want is to have enough money to publish my next book (my first book was about LGBT equality and I’m donating all the proceeds to the Harvey Milk Foundation)
Thanks so much for all your enthusiasm and advice. After going down so many blind alleys in the traditional world (including an agent who agreed to represent me – then changed her mind, saying her workload was too heavy…..) it’s hard for me to believe that making money as a writer is actually possible. Thanks for helping me and countless others keep the faith!