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.
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.
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.
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.