Lessons Learned From 6 Years As An Author Entrepreneur

Six years ago, in Sept 2011, I left my day job to become a full-time author entrepreneur. Every year since I have reflected on the journey and what I learn along the way.

My challenges change and grow along with the business and you will likely be at a different stage, but I hope that you find my lessons learned useful along your own author path.

You can read all my lessons learned from previous years on my timeline so far – remember, I started out with writing my first book and no audience back in 2006!

Here are my lessons learned from the last year.

(1) More co-writing means more books and helps more people

As much as I’d love to be an author who writes a book a month, it’s just not me. I can manage a few a year, but there’s always more I want to write. In 2016, I started co-writing, and this year, I have taken it much further.

Co-writing for fun and travel.

Co-writing on the train to New Orleans

In May 2017, I took the train from Chicago to New Orleans along with J. Thorn, Lindsay Buroker, and Zach Bohannon. We co-wrote American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice which was a creative challenge and a fun adventure into a part of the US I’ve always wanted to visit. The book won’t make us millionaires but it was a lot of fun, plus it was tax-deductible travel, and we all learned from each other, so it was well worth it. Here’s a podcast about our lessons learned. Plus, J. and I updated our Co-Writing book afterwards if you'd like to learn how to effectively write with other authors.

Co-writing to help family and expand into new genres.

My Mum has just turned a sprightly and active 70 years old. She retired a while back and has been looking for what to do with the next part of her life. She’s an introvert, like me, she loves reading and has always written long letters and journals, so I suggested that maybe she might like to write a book. It took her a couple of years to get to a first draft of what turned out to be a sweet romance … and it was pretty good!

Fast forward another year and we now co-write contemporary sweet romance together under a new (as yet unannounced) pen name. Our third book is coming out in the next month, and we’ll have a box-set and a Christmas special coming before the end of the year. She is loving it and is now making money from her writing. She does the first draft, I’m story-editor and then I rewrite the second draft, we use professional editors, and then I publish and market the books. I would never have written or published romance without her, so we are both benefitting from the experience, and she has a new career in the final third of her life. Happy times!

Co-writing to help more people.

I’m currently working on The Healthy Writer, which I am co-writing with a medical doctor, Euan Lawson. He came to me with the pitch and I jumped at the opportunity because it’s a topic that many writers struggle with. I wouldn’t write such a book on my own, but together, we can offer different perspectives and hopefully help more people.

How can you use co-writing or collaboration to reach more readers, help more people and make more money as an author?

[If you don’t want the hassle of splitting the money when co-writing, consider using BundleRabbit to manage the payment side. Here’s an interview with Chuck Heinzelman about it.]

(2) Embrace the continued demand for print

I only read fiction on my Kindle, but I have started to buy some non-fiction books in print. I’ve also noticed with my own non-fiction that I am getting more print and audio sales. The sweet romance is also selling surprisingly well in print, and we’ve even done a Large Print edition based on keyword analysis that demonstrated a market for it. Dean Wesley Smith wrote a great post recently on the value of a paperback, which is worth checking out if you haven't yet got into print.

Remember, you should use print-on-demand, rather than short print runs unless you have an established distribution mechanism.

In Jan 2017, we started Curl Up Press, a small press to publish print books under and potentially license to other countries and other publishers. We also expanded into using Ingram Spark as extended distribution, thus adding a new income stream as well as new discoverability channels. We haven’t done much in terms of exploiting these rights yet, but the set up is there for the long term. Here's more on the small press setup

I’ve recently used Vellum to format a print version of Successful Self-Publishing and used KDP Print as the distribution mechanism. I love having the transparency of the sales on Book Report and it was very easy to use, although doesn’t have as much functionality as Createspace or Ingram Spark.

How could you use print on demand to expand the reach of your books?

(3) Focus on what really matters. Don’t create another job. Say ‘no’ more.

This is what I should be doing!

The bigger your audience grows, the more opportunities will arise. Many of these are obviously not a good fit, but plenty will be and it’s too easy to say ‘yes’ to everything, especially when you are a people-pleaser, like me!

I want to help more people, I want to have relationships with my readers and my community, but it becomes unsustainable when the email and social media messaging becomes overwhelming and when I burn myself out from speaking too much.

I became a writer because I wanted a life of freedom – and this year, I realized that I am working more hours than I ever did in my day job. I also looked at doing a six-week walking trip, the Camino de Santiago, and realized that I can’t step away from the business for that long. It’s just not feasible right now, but I need to make that possible, or I have created myself another day job I can’t escape from.

So, in the last few months, I have been trying to hone down what’s really important and look at what I could eliminate or outsource vs. what is really unique about what I can offer the world.

There are really only two things I do that are uniquely me and that can’t be replicated by anyone else:

When I speak, people come up to me afterward and say, “I've been listening to your podcast and  wanted to come and meet you.” It’s rare that my live speaking alone makes a difference in people’s lives, but it’s usually the podcast or my books that lead them to come to events, so these are the things I need to focus on.

I have Deep Work by Cal Newport on my desk now, a constant reminder to focus on the core aspects of what I can uniquely do in the world. The elimination and outsourcing of other tasks are an ongoing project!

(4) Investing for longer term streams of income

The first few years of being an author are lean years, for sure!

You are learning how to write, as well as how to publish (if you’re indie), and how to market your books. You’re building up a backlist, growing an email list, attracting readers who love your work. Perhaps you’re also learning how to speak in public, or how to blog or podcast, as well. Then you have to learn how to run a business and start to grow that too.

At some point, if you're persistent and productive, the money you make can overtake your old day job income. That happened to me in 2015, so I hired Jonathan, my husband, out of his day job to join me in the business. I started writing in 2006, so it took 9 years to get to that point. As I have said before, this is NOT a get rich quick scheme!

We are fortunate enough that the business is now generating enough that we can think about the future, not just our daily living costs. Those of you who have been following my journey for a while know that we downsized in 2011, selling our property and moving to a smaller flat. At this point, we could consider buying again, but one phrase sticks in my head from one of the many books I've been reading (although unfortunately, I can't remember which one!)

“You can always rent a house, but you can’t rent an income.”

So we’re now investing so that we can have another stream of income over time that is not dependent on my creative output or physical presence.

To be clear, the company has been paying our salary and pension for years now, but we’re ramping this up in order to build more of a financial investment portfolio for the future.

[Note: I am not a financial advisor or accountant and this is not financial advice.]

If you have a day job, then you should already have this sorted through your company pension/401k/superannuation/whatever they call it in your country. But if you are an author/freelancer and you are not putting money aside for the future, then maybe it’s time to consider it.

My recommended books on this are Unshakeable: Your Financial Freedom Playbook. Creating Peace of Mind in a World of Volatility by Tony Robbins and How to Own the World: A Plain English Guide to Thinking Globally and Investing Wisely by Andrew Craig.

Are you investing for the long term? Do you have a plan in case you don’t want to (or can’t) write anymore?

OK, that’s my lessons learned for the last year. Thanks for joining me as I head into year 7 🙂 Please do leave any answers to the questions above or any comments below. 

Joanna Penn:

View Comments (7)

  • Thank you for sharing Joanna, it was and always is insightful. While I have totes full of writing related pieces and journals...I waited to retire to start writing books, I have written articles in Canada and the US over the years...AND...I didn't plan to write fiction...but was moved to wright a 120,000 word novel I love the story off, in the 1980s, and the outlines for two sequels...plus three query packages and 79 rejections - which was all I could take. I'd put it off until retirement...and it is time. I can see several Novellas in each...thus a series. So I have bought over 20 paperback books on writing fiction and am learning...making notes, feel closer to getting at the first draft of the first Novella soon. I have enjoyed, and am grateful for your website and podcasts through the years. Thank you.

  • Sage advice, and from one so young. :) I used to be a teacher at a school where university entrance was success, so what could I say to the bottom set of year 11 (school leavers) who often felt they were neglected? I used to bring out an old copy of the Sunday Times Rich List and show them that ignoring inherited wealth, and sport and media stars, the really rich people were those like Alan Sugar. They had got rich by finding their 'thing' and concentrating on it and working very hard at it, and not by racking up a drawer full of qualifications. I used to tell them that the problem with intelligent people is they never concentrate for long enough on one thing to make a real success of it. This is similar to what you are saying, especially with the learning to say no. I am now applying this principle to my own writing life although it is hard to stop myself from getting involved in lots of new things. I have succumbed to an opportunity to go and write with Zach and J in New Orleans in November - looking forward to that, but it's going to take a lot of ironing and cooking and cleaning to pay wifey back for letting me go - she must love me :) .

    • Cool! You're going to really enjoy the train trip - I learned so much about creativity and co-writing on that journey!

  • For invesI can't say enough anout Millionaire Teacher by Andrew Halman, for many people learning about investing is as much fun as a trip to the dentist. But he makes that trip to the dentist fun!

    One thing that can help is finding a business coach or mentor. Running a business is a ton of hard work and what I found that while I have great skills in some areas there are a lot of areas I struggle in, like web design, not something I enjoy! A coach can help provide perspective

  • Joanna,
    Thank you! You are a GIFT! I’m a fellow writer/author/entrepreneur and I was so blessed to find you. I found you through Darren’s ProBlogger podcast.

    I gift for writing was recognized by the age of three and I’ve been writing since I was seven. It wasn’t until I was 40 that I began going public and I first published in 2015. However, I’ve been an RN for 14 years now and I’ve wanted out of the profession for at least five. How I’m going to make that happen seem insurmountable, and my career demands an extraordinary amount of time and energy.

    I started blogging in 2014 and I’ve written three books. However, I’ve sold very few because marketing is not my thing. I’m just horrible at it and I have no idea what I’m doing in that respect. So that is an area in crucial need of development if I’m going to succeed.

    I started my publishing company this year and I’m moving toward the same goal you outlined for yourself — quitting the day job and doing what I love — what I am actually called to do! So, your encouragement is invaluable to me. Your timeline is really helpful!

    I will be reading your books! I’m following your posts and I’m so encouraged by your progress! Congratulations in every way and I want to thank you so much for giving of yourself to your readers. How beautiful. The impact your life is making is much larger than you can possibly imagine, I’m sure. Many blessings to you!

    I just have one question if I may: Which book do you recommend I start with first?


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