Seven 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 – and remember, I started out by writing my first book with no audience back in 2006! But with time and continued effort, everything is possible.
Here are some of my lessons this year.
(1) What's your zone of genius? Say ‘no' to good in order to say ‘yes' to great
When you're starting out, you feel like no one knows who you are. You despair of ever selling any books. You struggle to get your first readers, your first followers, your first dollars.
But trust me, over time, if you keep producing and keep connecting, you will start to attract attention.
Then, suddenly, there are so many opportunities in this incredible new world for writers that it can be tempting to jump into everything. I've certainly jumped into way too much over the years!
The danger then is to end up with a lot of ‘good,' but not enough time for ‘great.' Gay Hendricks talks about this in The Big Leap (thanks to my friend and creative coach, Mark McGuinness, for recommending this book).
In the book, Hendricks mentions four zones:
- Zone of Incompetence – things we're not good at and don't want to do
- Zone of Competence – things we're good at but don't really enjoy
- Zone of Excellence – things we're good at, sometimes enjoy, but are not fulfilling our life purpose
- Zone of Genius – things we're good at (or want to be), things we enjoy, and our unique ability, things that fulfil the reason we were put on this earth
So many of the tasks of the writing life can sit within the first three zones and you can feel as if you're accomplishing a lot if you remain within Competence or Excellence – but another day ticks past and you are no closer to creating the body of work that you will be proud of on your death bed.
The Zone of Genius is a challenge – but it's where we find our real art, the books that only we can write.
Like Desecration, the book that helped me stop self-censoring and where I found my author voice.
Maybe that is hyperbole, but it's easy to get distracted some days and this year I have relearned the importance of getting back on track with what I intend to be my zone of genius – writing the stories that only I can write, in the voice that only I can write in.
[More on how to re-focus your writing priorities here.]
(2) Building multiple author brands is hard work. Focus on building your body of work for the long-term.
This links into the lesson above.
In the last year, I built a third author brand by co-writing sweet romance with my Mum under Penny Appleton.
After 3 books, we called it quits, as discussed in this frank and personal recent interview.
It was challenging creatively and emotionally, but also I just didn't have the bandwidth or energy to market under another brand. I don't have a massive company – it's still mainly me running the business with Jonathan (my husband), Alexandra (my VA), Dan (on audio) and a number of freelancers for editing, cover design etc – a third brand in a new genre was just too much.
Managing two brands is hard enough, but I'm still happy with my decision to keep my J.F.Penn thrillers and dark fantasy separate from my non-fiction. But that's it! No more! Do not let me write under another name again!
If you're considering multiple brands, consider the work involved over the long term and how it can split your focus. Check out Kris Rusch's book on Creating your Author Brand, and also my interview with her here.
(3) Content marketing rocks for long-term sustainable income. Time to try it (seriously) for fiction.
Over the last 10 years, I've built a multiple-six-figure business off the back of this website using content marketing – blogging, podcasting, and social media – to sell my books, courses and affiliate offerings.
Things have changed since I started this site in December 2008, but a lot hasn't.
Paid traffic has always been a part of marketing non-fiction, and now that has spread into fiction with BookBub ads, Amazon Ads and Facebook advertising. Content marketing has always been used to sell non-fiction – even some popular TV programs were made to sell associated products.
It's becoming clear to me that the same principles should be applied to fiction – and it needs to be a long-term plan. Because paid ads are such a pain in the ass 🙂
You have to research, set them up, tweak them, monitor them, keep an eye on the budget and generally make them a daily part of your life in order to be successful.
I do my fair share of paid ads for fiction, but barely ever for my non-fiction, because I don't have to. My content marketing continues to sell the books for me, and organic search + personal and social media recommendations (thank you!) bring people to the site every day.
Yes, I have paid for it in time over the years, but I find that creating content is inherently rewarding for me, as well as useful and inspirational for others. It is not just ‘marketing,' it is also something new in the world that stands alone. I can't say the same for paid ads.
I'm doing a talk on content marketing for fiction at the Novelists INC conference in late September so I'll share my thoughts in detail after that, but I'm starting to put together a content strategy for J.F.Penn that I hope will pay the same dividends in 10 years time as this site has created since 2008.
(4) Personal branding will only become more important as AI, algorithms and big data become more prominent
I'm currently reading (and listening to) 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. His previous books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, are stunning in their scope and I recommend them to anyone interested in where humanity has come from and where we are going.
This latest book postulates the changes that will come due to developments in infotech and biotech, giving an overview of some of the things already happening in the political sphere and economic sphere, but as ever, I am particularly interested in how technology might impact our lives as creatives.
AIs already write music, they create portraits sold as art at Christie's, they win chess matches, they write non-fiction journalism, they write novels that almost win awards.
And we're only at the beginning of what they will be able to do. Like the internet 20 years ago, we can't see what changes will come.
If you think the Amazon store or the online space is crowded right now, then wait until AIs generate far more content than humans ever can. Wait until the scammers figure out how to use AIs to do whatever is necessary to manipulate KDP Select or Facebook algorithms.
That doesn't depress me (since my glass is always half-full!) as I am fully intending to use AI tools to help me create more.
But I do think we need to be prepared.
The only way to stand out is to create with your unique voice and connect with people in a personal way.
That's why I'm intending to start doing audio for my fiction, as well as continuing The Creative Penn Podcast. I'm also sharing more personal pictures on Instagram.com/jfpennauthor.
Yes, there are voice synth AIs, but this is a channel I control, and you can find the ‘real me' here and at JFPenn.com.
Inevitably, AIs will build their own brands too – are you sure Kim Kardashian is real?! – but if we create our own stories with our true voice and share authentically as a real person, we should still be able to attract those who want to read our books and continue to create a body of work over a happy, creative lifetime. That's certainly what I intend to do.
Onwards to another year! Happy writing!
Please do let me know any thoughts or questions in the comments.
Jane Steen says
I really like that “four zone” idea! It made me realize I’ve spent most of 2018 in my Zone of Competence (marketing) instead of my Zone of Genius (writing). I’ve sold a lot of books but I feel wrong. I’ve got a VA now to help me with the marketing but can’t relinquish control of it for a variety of reasons, and of course training her takes up a lot of time. Not quite sure what to do at this point…but I’ve downloaded Hendricks’ book to listen to. Thanks for the recommendation.
Joanna Penn says
We are very competent women, Jane 🙂 I’m glad you have realized why it feels “wrong” and can refocus on developing your zone of genius. That’s the most rewarding part!
J.P. Choquette says
This post was refreshing and this in particular resonated with me:
“Yes, I have paid for it in time over the years, but I find that creating content is inherently rewarding for me, as well as useful and inspirational for others. It is not just ‘marketing,’ it is also something new in the world that stands alone. I can’t say the same for paid ads.”
I too, enjoy the connection with others–online through my blog/website/social media–and in-person through teaching writing classes, etc. I’m dabbling in paid ads but so far am not impressed.
Thanks for the book recommendations. I’m particularly intrigued by the one by Ms. Rusch. I’ll have to check that out…
Joanna Penn says
Thanks for picking out that quote – I need to keep returning to it and reminding myself 🙂
Murees Dupé says
I always learn so much from you and your journey. Thank you for always sharing your honest experiences with us.
It is scary how fast AI is developing. I’m still on book one. They might take over before I publish book two😋.
All the best Joanna.
Joanna Penn says
I think you’ll be okay 🙂
Jonathan Gunson says
“Personal branding will only become more important as AI, algorithms and big data become more prominent…” Best advice ever Joanna. 🙂
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Jonathan, I do believe AIs will end up with their own brands, in the same way that people anthropomorphize so many other things 🙂 but building brand loyalty over the long term seems to be the only way to continue to stand out 🙂
Heather Sunseri says
I’m looking forward to your talk at NINC, Joanna. Content marketing is a subject I’ve thought a lot about recently. I agree with what you’ve said about the high-maintenance aspect of paid advertising, and would love to build an audience by offering content.
I’m looking forward to meeting you. I’ve been a long-time fan of your podcast and long-time reader of this blog. Do you know when your talk at NINC is? I want to make sure I’m not on a panel or in a meeting at the same time. That would make me very sad.
Joanna Penn says
I still don’t know what the NINC schedule is, but I’m sure I will meet you at some of the social events. Please do say hi!
Hannah Ross says
Thank you for this informative and transparent post, Joanna. Certainly lots of food for thought here. Those links about AI kind of give me the chills, actually. It feels like we’re in a sci-fi novel. I personally want to keep reading real material written by real people I can connect with on a personal level, and I’m sure many, perhaps most, readers feel the same way.
Lorri Moulton says
Money is great, but being proud of your work and knowing it stands long after you’re gone….that’s the best reason to write.
Joanna Penn says
Both working together is even better 🙂
Linda Maye Adams says
Thank you for the book reference of The Big Leap. I think it was just what I needed.
I landed in StoryBundle and made more money than I ever have writing. I even had someone email me and tell me how good my book was and that it was like something Baen published. And I’ve written every day and struggled to produce anything. It hit me that I’ve seen some patterns from when I was growing (three I’ve found in the last few years–money, food, and clothes). But there’s another that I think is coming into play and is hitting me the more I push out to indie, and making money.
I want to write full time. I love writing. I grew up in a house where we were encouraged to do things like that…but there were additional messages. My father is a brilliant mathematician/programmer who worked in the day job and had his projects on the side, much like a novelist writing a book. He suggested to a doctor the technology for ultrasound and never followed up on it. And other projects seemed to be picked not for the best reasons, like fusion (a never ending forty year project) and mentoring someone (got him laid off. Company was very nervous about a man mentoring a woman).
Add to that an uncle who wrote during the pulp era and could not make a living off it. I was told I could not make money writing fiction. The resulting message seemed to be that you should do your side hustle for a labor of love and not expect to make money off it. Adding my mother into this mix, she one time made a comment to newly minted adult me about “that horrible Sharon McCall,” which was a girl detective character I wrote extensively on when I was growing up. Since she read all the stories, I’m wondering I picked up and didn’t realize it.
I’m going to have to do a lot of work to address all of his.
Joanna Penn says
Hi Linda, It sounds like you need to work on your mindset 🙂 Check out my book on How to Make a Living with your Writing – and also books by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith and you will see how those myths of the poor creator are so wrong, especially in the internet age!
Linda Maye Adams says
Joanna, I actually have hit all those resources and have soaked them up. Yet, this was a huge piece I was missing. Since I went indie, I’ve battled with productivity. I remember setting an aggressive goal of ten books in a year in one of Dean’s classes, and I did zero. I finished one book in six months and thought I could cut it down to one month. That book turned into a year.
And I thought setting a goal of just writing longer fiction to work those skills would help. I stalled out so completely that I was writing every day and still not managing to produce very much. While I could read the myths and say they are myths, the problem kept sneaking in and doing things to sabotage any success I was having.
Terry Tyler says
With you on Yuval NH’s books – Sapiens, in particular, helped me when I was writing my post apocalyptic series, because it brought together my thoughts about how we behave as a species. The AI thing is terrifying – but, like everything else, it is becoming part of our lives so gradually that we hardly notice it happening. I’m reading the 21st Lessons book while planning my new novel, set 12-15 years hence – but, as you say, we can’t know how the world will be, we can only guess. If someone had told us about social media, 20 years ago, we’d have thought it seemed most peculiar!!!
Harrison Greene says
If only we knew how to authentically identify our life’s mission! Any insights will be appreciated.
Joanna Penn says
Perhaps it is a lifetime’s work 🙂
But I guess for me, it’s something that has become more evident with every book. I love creating something original in the world and I can see myself doing this for the rest of my life. I’ve never felt that way with anything else.
Congrats Joanna. I would still like to think I am following a human brand but so would all those people who are following Kim K… and maybe they are not? Lol.
Ahmed Haikal says
Great! Do you know that you was the reason that i involved in this industry but for sorry I am new in the industry of self publishing i self published 5 books but i don’t know anything about promoting. The big problem is that I am not a fan for social media plus I have no time for it as my study takes a lot of my time also I have no money to spend on promoting sites . I am a medical student by the way.
I need some advice I don’t want to give up but that seems what will happen soon .
Any advance and i will be grateful! Thanks in advance.
Joanna Penn says
Lots of help on marketing here: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/marketing/
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks Joanna. I’m really interested to hear what you’ve got to say about content marketing for fiction. I feel as though there’s a way to make it work, but I certainly haven’t proven it myself — yet!!
Rosanne Bowman says
I love hearing what people have learned along the way! The 4 zones really resonated with me, and I have been looking at things this year to cut out. I have always had an issue of overbooking myself because I always underestimate how long things will take -maybe it is my optimism. 🙂 I am really looking forward to you sharing your info on content marketing for fiction. I”m working on my author website now, and I am doing some research as to SEO for middle-grade markets so I can have some useful content to draw people to my site. Can’t wait to read more! 🙂