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is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date.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
Today I’m answering some of your questions from The Creative Penn survey – talking about self doubt, what defines a good book, discipline and habits, ideal genres, editing and time spent on marketing.
In the intro, I mention the changes with Amazon Kindle Unlimited payments move to page reads as well as machine learning for reviews; Apple's change to pre-orders allowing up to a year in advance without metadata. I also mention the Facebook Ads for Authors course and Self Publishing Podcast #62 show on autoresponders.
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!
It's just me today! I'm assuming you know who I am – if not, check out the About Me page 🙂
- On self-doubt about our writing, how it continues to affect even well-established authors. Strategies for tackling that doubt, including working with editors, and getting on and publishing despite self-doubt.
- On why books sell and what defines a ‘good' book. The importance of emotional resonance in books, and the impact indie authors have had on traditional publishers around what readers want to read.
- Having the discipline to write and questioning if you need to write every day. Habits and their importance, your personal definition of success and why enjoying the act of writing matters so much.
- On ideal genres for books, including paying attention to what you read, to your Creative Muse and respecting your readers.
- On juggling work, life and writing. Can we have it all? And the importance of focusing on learning at the beginning of a writing career.
- The process for editing fiction and knowing when to draw a line in the sand and stop working on a book, including figuring out what you want for the book, cost vs. return and investing money in your author business. Also what to do when the first book is finished.
- On answering the question, “Who is your publisher?” and strategies for the reply, including comparisons to indie music and film.
- On how much time authors should spend on marketing, including examining where your writing career is now, what end game you have in mind for your books and your career, and balancing marketing vs. creation.
- Return on Investment for writers, examining the income return for the time you spend and how much being creative matters to you.
- And finally, on business training for authors. Is there a way to learn how to run the business of being a writer? (I didn't plant this question!) I've actually written a book on this. Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur. Available in ebook, print and audiobook.
OK, I'd love to know if you enjoy the Q&A format. Just leave a comment below or tweet me @thecreativepenn
Transcript of the Q&A section
Okay. So today, we're doing something a little bit different. I did a survey on thecreativepenn.com recently and had couple of thousand responses and there were lots of questions. There were three or four questions on each thing. So I have a lot of questions from reader and listeners of The Creative Penn site, and today I'm starting a new series of answering questions.
So I know Steve Scott, for example, has a daily show answering self-publishing questions and lots of people do that on individual shows but I'm just going to do occasional shows where I answer your questions in between the interviews. Not every month or anything, just kind of oddly.
But this is the first one and what's so great about getting questions, I think, is that partly, it's really good for me to reflect on my own process and also to realize how things have changed in my own life, I guess after years now of doing this. So this is quite fun.
So let's get on with it and I will read the question and then I'll answer each one.
So a question that came up quite often is:
How do I know I wrote something worth reading? How do I know that my book is good enough?
This is a great question. In the past with gatekeepers, essentially you would know you'd written something worth reading because an agent and a publisher picked it up so you could at least say, “Well, it must be worth reading because they bought it.” And then even if you never sold any books, you can say, “Well, somebody thought it was worth reading,” so that's brilliant.
But if you are in Indie, then my answer is, first of all, you might never ever feel your book is good enough. And I say that now and I've just finished the second draft of book number 16 or something. And I think there will always be self-doubt.
I talk to quite a lot of creatives. Obviously, a lot of my friends are creatives. I've read a lot of books, and even when people like Steven Pressfield, who in his 60s and written loads of books and super successful, people still have self-doubt. I just think that it's the life of being a creative.
So first of all, know that you may never feel that your book is good enough.
Secondly, get an editor and make it the best it can be. And for me, over the years, I've had a number of different editors. And with the first fiction in particular, I actually used about five different people because I know how to manuscript quickly. I had a structural review, I had a line edit, I had another line edit, I had a proofread and I paid a lot more money for that first novel than I do now because I became a better writer.
And the fact is unless you are paying professionals to help you, I don't believe you can get better. You can read all the books you want on self-editing or how to edit and that type of thing but you actually need other eyes on your work. And there eyes, in my opinion, should be professionals.
If you have a critique group, full of people who haven't been published or haven't finished a book, what good is their opinion really? In my opinion, you should have a professional read your book and help you make it better. I have a list, if you're interested, at thecreativepenn.com/editors. And that will help you with editing.
The third thing is just get on and publish it and you will soon find out in the reviews. This might be a little bit hardcore, especially if it's your first book, but many people seem to do it with confidence.
In this way, if you end up having one or two star reviews, you can just unpublish and then go back, delete it, get rid of that, do some rewrites and start again. And if it does really well, then super duper. That's brilliant.
So those are my tips for how do you know your book is good enough and making it better in general. It's actually a related question about why can so many Indie books sell so well? So I think this is related because the definition of “good” and “good enough” is totally subjective. So the question from this person is:
Why can so many indie books sell so well despite poor story structure, dialog, etc? My friends who read traditional books refuse to consider indie books because they are poorly written for the most part. What really matters?
And the question there is what really matters, story or…? Well, what really matters in general? I suppose. But in terms of why can so many Indie books sell so well, or let's just say why do some books sell better than others?
In America, I think it's the Snookie example. Traditional publishing publishes all of these famous people who just get a ghostwritten book.
And to be fair, the books are pretty awful and traditional publishing is responsible for publishing a lot of crap. So let's not blame that on Indie books.
Second thing is in terms of poor story structure, dialog etc – when you talk about the friends who read traditional books refusing Indie, this is just pure snobbery, basically.
Most people who shop on Amazon, for example, and Kobo and iBooks, don't look at the publisher. So most people will not even know who published the books.
But in terms of why some books sell so well, let's use the example of E.L. James' 50 Shades of Grey, which many of you bought. Let's say most people would not consider it great literature, but it actually has a good story and it has emotional resonance, and that's the thing.
That emotional resonance is usually the reason why books sell so well.
You have a lot of literary fiction, which is incredibly well-written with beautiful language and perfect structure, but it doesn't emotionally connect with the masses. So I really dislike the word “good”.
What is a good book? That is absolutely up to the reader.
Some readers will want to read Amish romance and there's a couple of Indies who do Amish romance and sell really well. Some readers will prefer Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, and that for them is a good book. Many people bought The Goldfinch and didn't read it. So I just want to encourage you to consider.
Really, a good book is considered good in the eyes of the reader, not you or literary critiques or anything.
What the Indie world has enabled is it's really shown publishers what readers want to read, rather than what they want to give readers. 50 Shades is a great example. It was self-published and then it did so well that it got picked up for a deal and then did even better. And it would not have got picked up for a deal unless it had shown publishers that it was popular, that it was a good book in terms of being a money maker.
So I hope that helps you. Basically, in order to have a book that sells well, the main thing is really to connect with readers on an emotional level. This is something I am trying to learn myself. I'm definitely from a, I guess, literary background. My mom was an English literature teacher. I went to Oxford and everything was very much about literary fiction and it took me a long, long, long time to write a thriller because I was stuck in that kind of groove of thinking that only literary fiction matters. But the most popular books are not literary fiction. They are emotionally resonant genre fiction so that is your challenge. You can of course write a well-written emotionally resonant book and that is what I hope for.
How do I discipline myself to sit down and write every day?
This is one of those evergreen questions and there's a couple of ways to unpack this.
First of all, why do you have to write every day? That would be my first question, and what is your definition of success back to you.
Say for example, I write something every day as in emails or something in my journal or whatever, but I don't write fiction or non-fiction every day. I tend to have first draft, binge periods, so I will spend some time researching whatever I'm doing and during that research time, there won't be words written in the document as such. There will be research words written but not actual draft words. Then when I'm ready, I will sit down and attempt a period where I do write every day or at least five days a week, and in that period, I get the first draft done.
So for me, I'm now in the middle of June. I just spent the last week or two not writing anything new but editing the work that I had written. So I'm not writing everyday as such, but I'm working on my business everyday or at least have a day off on Sunday. Although I say that, it is Sunday while I was recording this.
So that's the first bit. Do you really need to write every day?
The main thing is to actually make a plan for what you want to achieve.
So let's say you want to write your first novel in a year, within a year. I think that's a good framework. And then you should say, “Okay. Well, I'm going to allow myself a couple of months to research how to write a novel, do lots of research on my topics around my book, think about characters, blah blah blah, but on April 1, I'm going to start writing the first draft. April, May, June, I'm going to finish the first draft then I'm going to start the editing process.” That would be a way to do it. So actually, you only write everyday within that period.
Then the word discipline. I find this a difficult word as I think many of us do. I actually think a better word is to think about habits. So for example now, in order to get my first draft done, I go down the road to a café, plug in rain on repeat. Yes, I listen to rain and thunderstorms and spend a couple of hours in the café writing my first words.
So the habit is to go to the café, within this particular café in the morning between about 7:00 and 10:00 a.m. I write words and that's all I do there. I don't check the internet. I don't do emails. I don't write anything by hand. I just type words into my computer. So that is more of a habit than a discipline.
I also think discipline sounds more like you're forcing it. Although you do need to use some force to start a new habit, I think that for writing, if you're not enjoying this, seriously, why would you do it? You have to enjoy some of it. Otherwise, do something else with your life.
I spent so long doing a job I hated. I can't imagine now doing something that I don't enjoy. So obviously there are hard days, and this is what my friend, Alastair Humphreys, called “type one fun versus type two fun.”
Type one fun is having a drink with friends or going to a party or something that is obviously fun.
Type two fun is difficult at the time but it's fun when you look back on it, which I think mostly is what writing is.
So how do I discipline myself to sit down and write every day? I hope that answers that question. It's more about your definition of success, the deadlines you set when you're going to write and how you make a habit to do something that you ultimately enjoy.
How do you find your ideal genre as a writer, artistically and/or as a business question?
I think this is about what you read. So when I thought about writing a novel, I immediately thought I'm going to write an action-adventure thriller, because that's what I read. I don't think you can write in a genre unless you read in it. I mean, you can start writing in a new genre but spend a lot of time, read a couple of hundred of books in that genre.
Over my lifetime, and I'm 40, I have read thousands of thrillers. Seriously, thousands of thrillers. I am a thriller addict. I love the escape aspect. I love all the kind of the foreign places and I love the vicarious excitement of thrillers. So for me, I was always going to write what I read.
I also read a lot of self-help and wanted to be Tony Robbins. It's a help for my self-help book for authors.
So for me, the ideal genre as a writer is what you like to read. Because then you know your audience, you understand the conventions of the genre, and you love what you do. This is why I don't write romance. I have a romantic element to my thrillers. I might have sexual tension and that type of thing, but for me, the romance genre is not something I read, so even though it might make better business sense to write romance, I respect the romance writers enough to know I'm not writing them. I'm not writing it off forever, but I really think it's important to respect your readers and write in genres you know. So that was a quick answer.
Oh, and there's a follow-up question from somebody else that was similar.
Should I pay attention to those that say to write what is sold in great quantity or do I write what is my passion?
So this is, similar question. Again, romance sells in great quantity. Memoir doesn't, but many people write a memoir because it's their passion and also because writing a book teaches them something, changes their own life and it is a creative expression.
Basically, I think at least, all of us have certain books that we have to write. So for me, that book was Career Change. That was my first book. And certainly, Desecration was one of my novels. It's very much a book I really wanted to write.
You have to pay attention to The Creative Muse. But equally, if you want to make a living from this, you do have to do some research around quantity.
So hopefully, that helps that. And really again, it's always about what is your definition of success. Do you want to write about your own history, write a memoir or write something that will help you work out your own issues or do you want to write for readers in order to make a living? So that will really impact what you write, how you market, how you publish.
How do I write and publish quickly while working a full-time job and having some kind of life? Can a person have it all?
This is a great question. And my short answer is “No, you can't have it all, or at least not at the same time,” as the quote goes.
How do I write and publish quickly while working a full-time job? I don't know how you can. When I had a full-time job, I used to get up every morning at 5:00 a.m. and write before I went to work. I also worked in the evenings and the weekends, but I was learning. I mean, certainly when you first start writing, you have to learn all of this stuff. So I would write creatively in the morning and then I would work on my blog and I would actually learn the craft of writing. I took classes and all that kind of thing.
When I was working a full-time job and the money was being paid by the job, I was very much facing on the craft side and not writing and publishing quickly.
I was actually learning how to do this new thing. I didn't actually have much of a life because I was working all the time, and then on my job and writing as well. It was very difficult. We saw friends on a Saturday or whatever but I did cancel quite a lot of things in my life because I was very determined to change my own career and become a full-time blogger. So I don't know if you can do it at the same time.
Once you understand how to write a book, which is a task in itself, and how to publish, then yes, that's when you can speed up.
But I would think that you then have to swap out some time from your full-time job or your life in order to do that. We all have the same amount of time, but you have to decide what you want. Again, definition of success.
What is a good process to use to edit my fiction book?
I keep going back over the entire manuscript from start to finish. I've gone through eight times already and I see no end. Each time, I find issues that need to be rewritten. There can be a few issues with grammar but mainly are places I believe I should rewrite and improve.
Basically, this will always happen. If you read any book, you will find something you want to edit. Definitely, you need to get an editor.
If it's your first book, there will always be things that you could rewrite over and over again but you have to draw a line in the sand.
This person also says, “It is difficult for me to spend several thousand dollars only to end up with a book that might only sell a dozen copies.” So basically saying, the cost of a professional editor is too much and may not be justified by income.
Well, this is the point. What do you want for this book? Do you want to be able to get this book printed and say, “This is the best book that I could have possibly written and I've put some money into it.” Because basically, people put money into hobbies. This doesn't have to make money.
Most self publishers, most authors, don't make money. That's the truth of it. So think about any other hobby you have. Maybe you ride bikes. Maybe you do knitting. Maybe you do photography. Maybe you have a gym membership. Think about what people spend on a gym membership in a year. It's like $1,000.
You have to consider what money you would normally spend on hobbies or eating out or other things like that. If you spend that money on an editor, so you have a professional book and you actually learn the lessons of writing a novel or a non-fiction book, then that will help you move forward.
I absolutely think that everybody should save up the money for their first edit.
The first couple of years I did this, three and a half years I worked full-time and then going part-time so that I could leave my job. The money was put into the business before the money started coming out of the business. And that's true of any type of business.
We're very lucky with being authors that the money we put in is very small. I run a scuba diving company in New Zealand and we had a boat and the price of fuel and employees and dive gear and food. It's crazy how much money some businesses take up. Okay, so hopefully that answers that question.
What are the things you should never scrimp on?
I'm sure that you're now going to guess that I would say editing is the thing that you should never scrimp on, followed closely by book cover design. Those are the two things I believe you should pay money for. They are the two things that I pay money for and pretty much nothing else.
What should I do after the first book is finished?
The answer here is start the next book because one book will never be enough. Or if you don't want to write a book, then you probably don't want to be an author. That's not your thing.
For me, as soon as I finished the first book, I was like, “Right. I'm desperate to write another book,” and another one, and another one. I love writing books. It's like an addiction. So I think if you feel that, then awesome, get on with writing more books. If you don't, then obviously, get an editor and start editing.
Look at the publishing process. But certainly, you should be thinking about what you want to do with it next, and also thinking about marketing. But again, most of us find that one book is not really enough to make a big enough income so marketing with just one book can be quite frustrating. But you can look at things like BookBub once you have some reviews on it. That type of thing.
How can we answer the question, “Who is your publisher?” without allowing the person to make us feel somehow inferior?
It seems the less people know about the publishing industry, the more they think they know. I usually end up saying the name of my publishing company which I own, or I launch into an extended explanation of my research and subsequent decision to pursue self-publishing. There must be a better way.
This is a great question. Obviously, lots of people say “Well, who's your publisher?” But mostly, those are other authors or writers, and it really means absolutely nothing.
So there are a couple of ways, one is to say, “So who is your favorite author?” Let's say they say Stephen King. Then you say, “Well, who publishes Stephen King?” They are likely to say, “I don't know.” Thus proving that the name of the publisher is completely pointless. That's one thing.
The second one is to say, “Do you listen to Indie music? Do you watch Indie films? Do you buy things from Etsy? Do you drink Craft beer from small batch breweries?” That type of thing. “Do you buy vegetables at the farmer's market?”
Then say, “Well, that's why I now sell my own books, because readers like to buy directly from the artist, don't they?” That again reframes the idea of self-publishing from something that's negative to a positive Indie-minded way. Most people now will have bought from Etsy or they will have listened to Indie music or watched a film, that type of thing. That's what I do anyway.
How much time do I spend on marketing?
This is different depending on where you are with your career, and also once again, your definition of success. So obviously, the person is asking how much time I spend on marketing in terms of asking how much time they should spend on marketing. So the first thing is what is the definition of success? Because you only need to spend time on marketing if sales are important to you.
I come across a lot of people who are just mindlessly doing marketing things and spending money on marketing or time blogging or doing stuff. Then when you actually say, “What is your end game?”
Is your end game to leave your job and become a full-time author? Many people say no.
Is your end game to become a professional speaker? In which case, it's very important for you to have an online profile. They might say, “Well, no.”
So really, you have to look at what do you want the end point to be. If you do want to become a full-time author, for example, then realistically, the marketing you need to be doing is writing a lot of books within a popular genre, having professional editing, professional cover design and building an email list and all of that type of thing. Much of that time is spent on writing rather than things like building a twitter following, for example.
I am a confusing person because half of my income is from book sales. I only started writing fiction after I had been running the Creative Penn for a couple of years. So my original business model was non-fiction and professional speaking. Now, it's combined between 50% fiction sales, book sales, and the other half, non-fiction book sales, speaking fee, affiliate income based on the blog and the podcast sponsorship.
So if you want to have a non-fiction book speaking career podcast that pays you money, that type of thing, then sure, do what I do, which is blogging, podcasting, social media, all of that type of thing. And very much, non-fiction, that's brilliant.
If you are writing high volume fiction, many people who do that and make really good money only write lots of books and build an email list. They have maybe one social media account that they use to connect with readers.
You have to really decide what you want to do.
Now, in terms of how much time I spend on marketing, everyday, I make sure I create something new in the world. I also, everyday, focus on my business. That focusing on my business may include podcasts like this which is both marketing but also income-driven because my podcasts is sponsored. I also do emails, which again, you could consider that marketing as well as accounting and publishing tasks and all of that type of thing.
So I would say also marketing things like designing book covers and doing your back blurb. That type of thing. It might be going to event but there isn't really an exact split.
Let's take Twitter for an example. I love Twitter and it's my social life as well as a marketing channel for The Creative Penn. I would go on Twitter even if I didn't have a business. So is that marketing? How can I measure that over time? There is no exact split.
You've got to decide what your definition of success is, decide what your business goals are and what are the best ways to meet those goals.
This is something I think I've learned a lot in the last year in writing Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur really helped me. There's a section in there on strategy.
Strategy is what you do and also what you don't do.
This is very important. Too many people are running around doing when actually what you don't do is also important.
For example, I don't go to a writer's critique group. That's not something I want to spend my time doing. I do go to events and meet up with other entrepreneurial-minded authors. I don't do physical book signings, for example, but I do schedule content on Twitter. So you have to decide what you want to do with your time and what works for you and focus on that.
A related question:
How do I determine a return on investment for my time? Do I spend the time to write guest posts for my upcoming book launch or work on the next book?
I realized they are not mutually exclusive but the larger question is a methodology to balance marketing versus creation.
So that is pretty much related to what I just said. Every day, create something new. That would be my number one rule. That creating something new may be a podcast like this, and that is still marketing but working towards things you can sell. If your goal is to make a living as an author, you should be either writing words, doing research on the next book and researching your niche, that type of thing.
In terms of return on investment, it is very difficult to measure exactly obviously but return on investment is very much related to income. So what income do you get for the time that you spend?
Guest posts, for example, can be very, very good for non-fiction. I think they are completely useless for fiction as somebody who's done it for both. I don't do guest posts anymore really for fiction or non-fiction. I mainly do podcast because I think the guest posting market is overheated. But podcasting, even though it's growing massively, it's still easier to stand out.
So for my time, it's easier for me to spend half an hour on a podcast than come up with writing yet another article on something repetitive that may or may not get any traffic. So this is difficult. But again, you have to determine your own ROI. But for me, it's always about creating first.
If we look at what I did today, this morning I got up and I finished the edits on Deviance, my next book in a London Psychic series, finishing a trilogy. So editing, that was the first priority. Because by finishing that and sending it to my editor, I've made a very big tick in the book towards getting another product out of the door.
I've done emails, which are running the business/marketing.
Now, I'm recording a podcast which again is income-related but also marketing and helping people which is intrinsically rewarding. Those are some of the things and it's more about you finding your own balance.
But set your goals and deadlines. For example, if you said, “I'm going to finish my book in the next three months”, if you don't hit that target, you really have to stop doing the other things.
So maybe you spent an hour a night on Facebook when you should've been writing. Setting deadlines can really help you with everything we have been talking about. In that way, you can really measure what you're doing and what you're not doing. I will say get a day book now, which is really handy. It's just something I learned from Austin Kleon who wrote Show Your Work.
I've got a Moleskin but you can use whatever type you like. It has one page per day for the whole year. In the day book, I write down what I do on the day. Obviously, you might have a day job or childcare, but also you can write down 500 words or I've written down here “finished Deviance edits, send to editor, prepared my slides for a talk I'm doing next weekend.” Obviously now, I will be writing down recorded podcast questions. So I can already see today, I've achieved three things, one of which very much relates to the bottom line. Well two, which really also marketing activities. So that's, I guess, some things that could potentially help you.
The last question I'm going to do here:
Is there a place I can get training on the business side of things.
My very short answer here is that I've written a book called “Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur.” That is available in eBook, print and audio. I actually narrated the audio. You can get that on Audible, Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, iBooks, Nook, and all the rest. Yes, you can get training on the business side of being an author. That book is a good place to start.
All right, that will be the end of the questions. I hope you found that useful. You can tweet me @TheCreativePenn or email me, joanna@thecreativepenn. Let me know if you found that useful and I'll definitely do some more. Happy writing week!