I love the New Year! It really is my favorite time of the year and I kick up a notch in terms of getting new projects started as well as finishing up anything left over from last year. 2020 also feels special because it's the start of a new decade and I am truly excited about the opportunities ahead.
In this episode, I'll share my goals for the year ahead in the hope that it will help you decide on how to shape your year.
(1) Operation Evergreen
I'm 45 this year, and The Creative Penn business and website have been the core of my last decade. I left my consulting job in 2011 so the business has made it through the tough initial years to a point of maturation. It's time to take things to the next level as well as make sure the fundamentals remain intact so the business can continue successfully.
After a decade in any career, things can stagnate, so you have to change things up over time. You also have to set things in place for long-term success so you can see options for the future. Like any job, you have to put money away for the future, invest and make sure you have choices. Because change is inevitable.
Most of the people I have met along the creative journey so far have disappeared down other paths. There are few of us still going after more than a decade — and most of us have multiple streams of income. For some people that means a day job; for others, it means a huge backlist of books spread across multiple genres; and for me, it's making sure that no single company controls the income for my business.
I'm diversified in my income streams and also in my investments, plus I have an eye on the future in terms of what disruption lies ahead. I have managed to thrive in the last decade of upheaval to the indie author business model, and I intend to surf the wave, rather than drown in it in the years to come.
So, I've decided to make Operation Evergreen my main focus for 2020 because long-term thinking brings a perspective to my day to day work and impacts what I choose to spend my time on. (More on that in Productivity for Authors, which is mostly about choosing what is really important!)
Even after improving my working practices over the last decade and co-writing The Healthy Writer, I still managed to end up with chronic pain in my shoulder in 2019. The specialist told me it was postural, a result of 20+ years hunched over and I had to retrain my back muscles in order to avoid it happening again. I started working with a personal trainer twice a week and am now pain-free, as well as changing my diet to reduce inflammation (low sugar, low GI). I'm lifting weights and I love my workouts. I am a strong woman in my mid-40s and getting stronger!
I'm really happy with the results and it's only the beginning of this shift. I'm stronger and feel fantastic, and I want to be away from my desk a lot more, which can only be healthier for the long-term. That glimpse of chronic pain was enough to scare me into making health my #1 priority. It is the most evergreen thing I can focus on for long-term sustainability, so in 2020, I will continue with my personal trainer, and in my 45th year, I intend to be in the best physical shape of my life. I have booked to do the 100km Race to the Stones in July, so that will be a good comparison to when I did it in 2016. [Yes, I know I swore I'd never do it again, but it's a very good test of strength and stamina, so why not!]
ACTION: Continue 2 x weekly strength sessions + train for the Race to the Stones with longer walks + eat low GI. Pain-free and strong in 2020!
Evergreen creativity is all about filling the creative well, plus scheduling enough rest and recovery so you can keep producing for the long-term. I've been close to burn out several times in the last decade, but I have never subscribed to the ‘write fast' model, preferring my multiple streams of income approach, which is more suitable for the multi-passionate personality type.
ACTION: Schedule more time off. Block out time in the calendar for rest and holiday for its own sake, not just book research or work conferences and speaking.
When I left my job in 2011, I couldn't even see how I could make enough for us to live on, let alone have enough to invest in my future. But in 2015, when my husband, Jonathan, joined the company as Director of Strategy, he made me set aside money for our pension/superannuation as well as other tax-advantaged investments. [The various tools available for you will depend on your country, but we have SIPPs and ISAs in the UK.] We have been investing since then, but I want to take investing up a notch. I intend to be writing for the next half of my life and never ‘retire' but I also want to make sure I have choices in the future.
ACTION: Consistently invest in ISA and SIPP monthly and increase monthly payments in 2020 by at least 10%
[If you want to learn about money and investing, check out my recommended money books here.]
The Creative Penn Website:
For the last decade, content marketing was about creating lots of great content (text, audio, video) around specific keywords in a niche, but the Google BERT algorithm change in October 2019 made a clear shift. It is now about creating the best content to serve the search intent of the consumer and it has got a whole lot more granular with natural language processing. Content needs to be highly specific and basically, be the best answer to someone's search query in a certain context. With the rise of voice search, featured snippets will be more important but also people search differently with voice, so long-tail keywords are changing.
I've spent over a decade creating articles, video, and audio around keywords in the self-publishing niche, mainly as a natural extension to my own author journey, rather than a concerted SEO play, but the BERT update impacted my traffic. I've been blogging and podcasting since 2008 so there are many thousands of posts and pages. I've never done any clean-up so the site is pretty confusing to navigate and focuses on a lot of different things. It's time for an overhaul and a simplification of content so I can answer specific questions more quickly.
The podcast will remain the same structure — although I will do extra shows on specific questions — but I am doing a lot of work around cleaning years of content in order to streamline the site and surface content pages that answer questions. [If you also have an older site, check out the Content Audit that Todd Tresidder recommends, and also how authors, in particular, can reverse engineer content to bring people to their books.]
There will also be a redesign at some point in 2020, but I will still use a Studiopress theme. TheCreativePenn will no longer accept guest posts, although we will finish the ones we have in the queue so that will run until mid-year. Basically, I am future-proofing The Creative Penn and getting it ready for the rise of voice search, and also simplifying so I can better serve the author community.
This overhaul is well overdue as a lot of my older articles are out of date, so archiving them is a good idea.
ACTION: Finish content audit, simplification, and redesign of TheCreativePenn.com
Since most authors don't have sites as extensive and long-running as mine, it won't make much difference, so don't worry about BERT unless you have over a decade of content and thousands of articles on your site!
However, it has made me think about how the Amazon algorithm tends to follow Google over time. So, consider this for the long-term.
What if ‘lots of content' is no longer the most important thing? What if the Amazon algorithm changes so recency is less important and publishing more and faster is not the answer?
What if people's search behavior changes and Amazon finds a way to consider search intent, context, and the quality of the result? (in terms of how it serves the customer, not in terms of ‘quality' of literature). What impact would an Amazon ‘BERT' style change mean for indie authors?
Personally, I think it means overhauling content to make sure it is top quality and up-to-date (as I am doing with my backlist), making sure customers have access to whatever format they prefer, making it easy to navigate through the backlist (clear series and linking), and updating blurbs to include more long-tail descriptive keywords based on search intent. I'm not sure what that looks like for me yet, but it's something I am thinking a lot about! Let me know what you think in the comments.
(2) I create and maintain intellectual property assets
Operation Evergreen is about practices in my daily creative life, but I also want to reframe my goals around self-definition.
Yes, I'm an author and I write books — but the mindset shift around this sentence is important. An intellectual property asset is intangible (i.e. it might not exist in physical form like a house) but it produces value for the owner. Copyright is an intellectual property asset.
The books I have in mind for 2020 are:
- Audio for Authors: Audiobooks, Podcasting, and Voice Technologies — on pre-order for 6 March 2020
- Map of the Impossible, Mapwalker #3 — the first draft is started, so I expect to finish this in Q1. I'll also do a boxset later in the year for the full trilogy, and get the audiobooks sorted with a pro narrator.
- ARKANE #11, no working title as yet — research started around the Portuguese empire, so I have some ideas for the book.
- How to Write a Novel — I have a 90,000-word draft. I just need to wrangle it!
- Non-fiction travel book under J.F.Penn to go on Books and Travel — I have ideas for this but nothing concrete as yet
- In terms of the maintenance of assets, I am still working through the backlist and getting it into various formats. So I need to do more non-fiction in audio and more versions of the books in Large Print and Hardback editions.
ACTION: Schedule and block out time to write. I already do this most weekdays but I also need to manage bigger blocks of clear time as I get more fiction, in particular, done when I have fewer meetings. Get calendar organized so I do all meetings and interviews in alternate months.
But intellectual property assets are not just books. My podcasts are a part of my body of work, and they definitely generate income. So I am committing to continuing both shows in 2020: The Creative Penn Podcast and the Books and Travel Podcast.
This goal also impacts my behavior and my daily choices. For example, I want to spend less time on social media because it is a great way to connect but it does not feed into my goal of creating intellectual property assets.
(3) I license intellectual property assets
I dipped my toe into a number of different things in 2019, but I just don't have the time to do everything, so I need to get ruthless around what I want to achieve.
I will license books in translation. As much as I found the process of publishing 3 books for authors in German interesting, it took much more time than I expected and it's frustrating when you don't understand the language. So I will focus on licensing books in translation, and have a tentative plan to attend Frankfurt Book Fair as an exhibitor in 2020 as well as pitching foreign publishers with a catalog from Curl Up Press.
I will hire narrators and/ or license fiction audiobooks. I will continue to narrate my own non-fiction audiobooks, but fiction requires different skills. I've also discovered that my J.F.Penn persona is quiet. When I go to my audio booth, I just can't get into my J.F.Penn headspace, possibly because I do so much podcasting and non-fiction in there. So I will continue to work with pro fiction narrators and keep my time for narrating non-fiction and podcasting.
I will license for film/TV/gaming/other subsidiary rights. Yes, I know we all want this and it's impossible to make a definite plan to achieve it, as so much is out of our control. But you have to aim high 🙂
ACTION: Optimize Curl Up Press and pitch appropriate places with books, series, and ideas. Like many introvert writers, I'd prefer it if rights deals came to me, and some have over the years. But the authors who get more deals are the ones actively pitching. After all, publishers and agents are not just sitting around with nothing to do. They are dealing with pitches. Rejection is inevitable but the more you pitch, the more you learn.
(4) Embrace curiosity about the future of creativity
One of the things I've enjoyed the most in the last few years is delving into the realm of the ‘adjacent possible,' the possibilities that could occur if technology continues on its present trajectory.
The 2010s brought us mainstream digital publishing, podcasting, mobile and internet business, and all the tools to thrive as independent creatives. It has been a disruptive decade in many ways but the 2020s will be even more so.
Those of us who have done well in the last ten years have embraced the tools of the moment to expand our businesses, reach more readers, and make more money. In the last year, I've talked about how AI might impact authors and publishing, as well as the rise of voice-first, and I intend to continue learning more and sharing the journey with you.
ACTION: Attend events in AI and tech niches and continue to read books and listen to podcasts and audiobooks that are tangential for authors and the publishing industry. Share what I learn on The Creative Penn Podcast and also start a separate section on the site for AI-related topics.
OK, that's enough from me! Let me know what your goals are for 2020 in the comments or tweet me @thecreativepenn. Let's keep each other accountable in the year ahead.