Are you just starting out with self-publishing? In this interview, Grant Faulkner from NaNoWriMo interviews me about how to discover what publishing path is right for you, some tips for getting started and some of the practicalities of being a successful independent author.
You can watch the video below on here on YouTube. There are show notes with time-stamps and a transcript below.
The interview covers the following questions at the specific time-stamps if you want to jump through:
- [02:58] Did NaNoWriMo influence Joanna's entrepreneurial spirit?
- [04:15] How to determine which publishing path is right for you – check out the pros and cons of traditional vs self-publishing here
- [07:55] The speed of self-publishing
- [09:53] Does self-publishing eliminate the chances for publishing traditionally? [No, it doesn't. Listen to the interview with literary agent, Barbara Poelle, where we also discuss this issue.]
- [12:08] What happens after an indie author writes a book — and before they publish? [More on what happens after the first draft including editing here.]
- [16:00] When do you know your book is ready for an editor?
- [19:48] The stages of writing and finishing a project
- [21:52] What to expect to pay an editor – find my list of recommended editors here
- [25:30] What formats should authors consider publishing in? – find my formatting help here
- [29:15] Tips about book cover design – find my list of book cover designers here
- [32:55] When and how to create a publishing imprint. You don't need one, but here's how I created Curl Up Press
- [36:44] How do indie authors distribute their books? [More on publishing options here]
- [38:30] Tips on publishing books written by children – check out this interview with children's author and publisher, Karen Inglis
- [41:00] Advice on when to start marketing a book [More on book marketing here.]
- [43:30] How to develop a writing community
- [45:08] Thoughts on online writing communities like Wattpad
- [48:04] Bouncing back after a ‘failed' book — what is your definition of success?
- [52:15] What does it cost to publish an audiobook? [More on audiobooks in my new book, Audio for Authors.]
- [54:34] How to price your book
- [56:08] Giving books away to hook readers as a marketing strategy
- [57:10] Motivation for young writers
Transcript of the interview with Joanna Penn
Grant: Hello NaNoWriMo. I am Grant Faulkner, executive of NaNoWriMo. Thank you so much for joining us today for this discussion about this wonderful but intimidating next step of the creative journey publishing, and self-publishing in particular.
For me, it's intimidating, because you have to shift out of that role of being an author into being what our guest Joanna Penn calls an authorpreneur. You have to think about managing a book editor and a book cover designer, a book formatter, and think about where you must publish and print your book and sell it, all those kinds of things.
So it's a lot to learn definitely and the landscape keeps shifting, but fortunately, we have our guest who is going to make it all less daunting for us, more friendly. She's super friendly and she's a whirlwind of energy.
There are hundreds of things to know about Joanna, I'm just going to read a handful of them, all very impressive.
Joanna has written 30+ books and sold over 500,000 copies in 86 countries, which is amazing. Some of those books are great writer guides such as Successful Self-Publishing to complement this webinar, as well as The Successful Author Mindset, and Business for Authors: How To Be An Author Entrepreneur.
She writes thrillers too. She's published under the name of J.F.Penn, and one of those thrillers was actually written in NaNoWriMo way back in 2009. And, although, she only wrote 20,000 words, that's what happens when you do NaNoWriMo. She wrote 20,000 words that year, but that became her first published novel.
Joanna is one of the most entrepreneurial authors I know. Check out her site, TheCreativePenn.com, which has been voted in the top 100 sites for writers by ‘Writer's Digest'. She also hosts the very popular podcast, The Creative Penn Podcast, which includes weekly interviews and information on writing and creativity, publishing options, and book marketing. Welcome, Joanna.
Joanna: Thanks for having me, Grant. I'm excited to be here and answer the questions.
Grant: Absolutely. I can't wait to dive in and learn a lot myself. I want to tell people who are viewing us that I'll interview Joanna for 20, 30 minutes, and we are also going to open it up to questions from you.
Joanna, just to start, one thing about NaNoWriMo, I think of NaNoWriMo writers is being entrepreneurial in their DNA in a way. I say that because NaNoWriMo encourages a DIY mindset, do it yourself mindset. Because we think that the best way to learn to write a novel is to actually do it, just to dive in, and learn by doing.
Self-publishing is different, but it still has that entrepreneurial, can-do spirit.
Did your experience with NaNoWriMo influence your entrepreneurial spirit at all or were you just a born entrepreneur?
Joanna: I don't know think anyone's born anything. I think we have to learn everything. I had been running businesses for about a decade before I did that first NaNoWriMo. And I'd only written three nonfiction books before I wrote that first novel.
What NaNoWriMo helped me do more than anything was get over a mental block about writing fiction. Because I was very happy being an entrepreneur around nonfiction, I was a speaker, I was doing consulting. I was doing all these different things.
But I was petrified of fiction, and I couldn't see why fiction could fit into my creative life, also in my business life. So that's what that first NaNoWriMo did for me. It blew away my blocks around writing fiction.
Grant: That's great to hear. That's what we're about, blowing away those obstacles, so great to hear.
One of the questions I hear most frequently from NaNo authors is they get to the stage where they've written a novel, they've revised their novel, and are ready to think about publishing. And, of course, there's this question, do you publish traditionally or whether you self-publish? They're vastly different or they have significant differences, so it's a big decision.
How would you go about figuring out what publishing route is best for you?
Joanna: What I would say is stop and think. This is very hard because I know everyone's like, ‘Oh, oh, quick, I need the next step.'
But you need to stop and think about what you want to achieve.
That is a really big question, and that will also change over your author journey. Many of us write a lot of books, so you don't have to think that that one book is everything.
But, let's assume it is your first book, and you're thinking, okay what do I want with this? If you want to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, or the Man Booker Prize, or a literary prize in general, then I would suggest you definitely look at traditional publishing. Because most prizes are actually closed to self-published writers. So that would be one extreme, I want to have critical acclaim, that is my goal.
And on the other side of the spectrum is the I want to make money with my book. I actually would like to make money in my pocket next month. Now, that is actually possible with self-publishing.
Obviously, there are lots of steps, and you may make 99 cents, or you might make more than that. So both of those extremes, obviously there are gradations in the middle, but you also have to think about who you are as a personality.
As I said, I'd been running projects, I'd been running my own business, I know how to run projects. And to be a successful self-publisher, you need to know how to do that, and you need to be happy with marketing or at least learn how to do marketing, and we can all learn how to do these things.
Whereas, if you get a publisher, you will get a lot more help with doing that kind of thing. Although, to be honest, these days most traditional publishers want authors who know how to market. So a lot of this will be to do with confidence, and as we all know you're not usually very confident at the beginning. In fact, many of us, we all still suffer from self-doubt every single day, so that never goes away.
But as you said about the ‘try it' process, if you are someone who's happy to jump in and do NaNoWriMo, it may be that you are the type of personality who will enjoy self-publishing.
What I would say is ask those two questions: what do you want to achieve with that book, and also, who are you as a personality, what do you enjoy doing? Do you have an audience already? Maybe you're on Instagram all the time, maybe you have a podcast, maybe you have a YouTube channel already. In that case, you have a lot of the things already built-in that might help you succeed with self-publishing.
Those are questions to consider. But the main thing is shifting your mind from me, me, me, to the reader, the reader, the reader, and the agent and the publisher, if you're going that way. Because you have to now switch your brain around, and it's very difficult to do, but you have to pitch, either pitch to an agent and a publisher, or pitch to a reader. And that is the switch from you internally to you externally.
Grant: That's really interesting. One thing I always think about with self-publishing is that it has come a long way in the last 10 years. I just read, I think it's 1.7 million books were self-published last year, so there's a lot of books.
I always tell people that part of the path is, if you're looking for an agent and looking for that traditional publishing journey, which is great, it takes a long time, you have to be very patient. You might get an agent right away, but it still takes a long time after you find that agent to sell the book and publish it.
Whereas, you can self-publish more quickly. You can keep up with your output. And I always say that that's something to consider.
What do you think about speed of publishing?
Joanna: Speed is definitely a thing. And, obviously, NaNoWriMo is fiction, but if you're writing nonfiction I often think it's people who write nonfiction want to get their books out faster because a lot of the work is time-specific. Whereas, novels and stories have more longevity around the material.
So timing is definitely one thing, although we'll talk about some of the prerequisites, but it does take time to edit and as we always say, don't upload your book straight after NaNo, do some editing.
Timing is definitely one thing, but the biggest benefit cited by people is control. And this is an important point, many professional authors now are choosing to self-publish, to go indie, as well as work with traditional publishing. Because they have more control over their creative output.
They might do one series under one name with a publisher and another series under another name as an indie or do a different series under the same name or come in later and do a different book. We're in a mix and match environment really.
So after that first book, and you're starting to write more, if you want to do this for your career for a living or just because you want to write a lot of books, then time is one, control is another, speed.
And as I said, also money, because if you are successful self-publishing, the type of numbers you have to sell as an independent are a lot lower than what a traditional publisher will expect a book to sell in order to be a success. And that definition of success is super different for everyone, and in every genre, and in every country. But everyone has a number in their mind.
Grant: You have to set your own number in a way, but your publisher will set one for you definitely.
People worry that if they take the self-publishing route that that automatically closes the door on traditional publishing. Is that the case?
Joanna: Definitely not for a career. But what I would say is, there was a time about seven, eight years ago when if a book did well as an indie book, publishers picked it up.
The most famous example, of course, is Fifty Shades of Grey, which did go on and become this huge success. There are still books that this happens to. There were lots of books, this still happens.
But mainly what I see is a shift in that if an author breaks out as an indie, often what will happen is a publisher will want something new from them. So there is a cult of the new, although there are also now deals with authors for their entire backlist. I'm also seeing this with publishing deals going, ‘Okay, you're successful, you've got the series, we'll just buy everything.'
We're definitely not in a binary world of self-publishing versus indie.
We're definitely much more in a mixed, it's called hybrid publishing these days, one of the terms that you use.
But what you've got to remember is that publishers and agents are business people. Their aim is, yes, they love books, and they love literature and culture, but they're also out to make money. And so if a book is doing well, if an author is savvy and knows what they're doing, then the publisher is going to approach them.
For example, I've sold books in foreign rights deals. I do my own books in English, but in foreign rights, I'm happy to license. And there are authors, for example, a friend of mine, Mark Dawson, who's just licensed his print books here in the UK, whereas he self-publishes all his e-books, and audio…oh no, he's got some audio deals as well.
You can mix and match by book, by series, by format, by country, which is called territory in publishing, there are different territories. So, no, it's not at all like that anymore.
Grant: Interesting. You mentioned earlier that you want to dispel that notion that people right after writing their books, they should upload it and publish it right away. There needs to be some work done after writing the book definitely.
I'm curious what your take is on getting your book edited before self-publishing it. How do you get your novel edited?
Joanna: I think what we've also got to look at is the different scales of what people call self-publishing. So I don't actually call myself a self-published author, I call myself an independent author, an indie author, because I work with about 13 different professionals in my multi-six figure business as a creative entrepreneur.
I basically run a small press. I have a small press called Curl Up Press. It's got its own website. I have my own ISBNs, all of that.
But some people just have one book and they want to put it out there, and they just want to say, ‘I made this.' And that is entirely valid as well.
So what we're saying here is if you want to have a career really as an author, if you want to take this further, if you want to say ‘I made this' and I'm investing in that, because it is an investment to hire an editor. These are specialist people who will help your book become better.
I use an editor on every book. I have a different editor for fiction than nonfiction. I also use a proofreader. I've had structural edits. So basically, these are professionals who can make your product the best it can be.
It's a bit like dating, because the person you might hire for your first book probably isn't the person you're going to end up with as a long-term editor.
One of the nice things about being indie, because we pay editors directly, is you can hold on to an editor for the long-term, whereas many authors find in publishing companies that their editor moves companies and they end up orphaned, as it's known.
Whereas, I've kept my fiction editor now for nearly a decade, which is great.
So what I would say is, there are lots of organizations that can help you find editors, and authors will recommend them. Obviously, you can look at the back of people's books. I have a page on my website for professional editors, it is also in the free Successful Self-Publishing e-book.
Essentially, then you can check out their website, really important, again, a bit like dating, you want to see that they like the same things you do. So please, do not send your paranormal romance to a literary editor, you will get slammed! But if you send it to a paranormal romance editor, they may well love it and help you make it the best paranormal romance possible.
Whereas, if you've written a literary novel, sure, send it to a literary editor. Now, the cost of that is going to depend on how long your book is, but also the skill of the writer.
At the very beginning, we all have to admit this, you get better per book. So your first book, unfortunately, is going to need the most work. It means you have to invest a bit more at the beginning. But what else are you going to do? You start doing this as a hobby, and eventually, it might be professional if you want it to be.
Grant: Thanks for making that distinction that while we're talking a lot about the professional the author here, I also want to respect people who want to self-publish on a smaller, more intimate and more casual basis, which is great. I've actually done that myself just to get copies of my novel, and give them to friends and family. And it's very gratifying.
I'm curious, because for me, and I think for most people, hiring an editor is a big leap just in terms of well, mainly financially. So you want to make sure you get the right person, you also want to make sure you get the right person at the right time.
I have a novel now that I think I've reached the end, meaning final revision, at least three times. And I've gone back to it and revised it again. So I think as a writer, we can easily lose perspective or not know when the timing is right.
When do you know your book is ready for that next step?
Joanna: This is one of the problems with being an independent, because you don't have a deadline. So if you have signed a traditional publishing contract, you have a time when that book is due. But if you are an independent, you have to be someone who is project-centered.
I have 30 plus books because I am very good at projects. I'm good at starting, and I'm good at finishing. The middle bit's difficult (!) but I know how to finish and this is the issue.
Your question is a great question. I know authors who have 30 plus books and none of them are published, because they cannot get over that and that finishing energy moment. What I do is I do set a deadline.
With that first novel, I did NaNoWriMo in November 2009, and I realized I didn't know enough about writing a novel. So I then did Year of the Novel. I was living in Australia at the time. I spent 2010 writing and editing that book with the aim of publishing on my birthday in March 2011.
I set a goal from day one, and I worked towards that goal. Now, I know some people, type B people, I'm type A, so I'm goal-orientated, but I think you have to set your own deadline, you have to pretend you have a contract. So I was like, I want it by my birthday, which is mid-March, we're coming up to my birthday soon. But actually, I was a month late with that first book, but hey, I was a month late, and I still made it and then I've gone on to write way more books since then. [You can read the journey of my first novel here.]
If I hadn't set that goal, and I set a goal for every book and then I work backward. I'm like, ‘Okay, I have to finish the first draft by this date.' And then I do my own first edit. Then, if I feel my first full edit is good enough, which often for nonfiction particularly, I'm pretty slick on nonfiction, I will send that off.
But with my novels, I'd be like, ‘Okay, rest it a bit, then do another self-edit.' After my second self-edit, I would normally send it to my editor, or in some cases, I've sent it to her quite early when I'm like, ‘This isn't working, and I don't know how to fix it.'
That's another time where you might want an editor or structural edit. Then after I do my updates and things, my restructure or whatever, my line edits, I send it to the proofreader before I publish.
That would be my tip is you really do need to try and set a contract with yourself and set your timelines. Or 10 years will pass, which passes very quickly, and you still haven't got it out there.
So Grant, you're going to set a date for this book!
Grant: I have set dates that I've hit, it's all been that I've reached a point after what I consider the final revision where I realized that something relatively significant wasn't working.
I've been trying to get it traditionally published too. I've sent it out and faced rejection with it, and then gotten a new idea, and done a lot of work with it. I haven't hired an editor to look at it. So maybe I should have done that a draft or two ago and it would have made it all the easier, there are a lot of considerations with that.
Definitely I like the contract approach. We believe in goals and deadlines, that's at the heart of everything we do, but I think it's good to remember that it's not just about drafting when the goal and deadline work for you.
It's at all stages really, otherwise, you can just fritter away time.
Joanna: Definitely. There's a quote, I can't remember who said it, “Books are never finished, they're just abandoned” or poems or whatever it is about.
Stone of Fire, the book I started, that first NaNoWriMo, I did a re-edit on that in 2014. And it had been out five years. And in 2014, the box set hit ‘The New York Times' and the ‘USA Today' bestseller list with an ARKANE book in, and Stone of Fire hit the USA Today list in my own boxset in 2016.
Now we never think our books are good enough. And I go back now and I'm like, ‘Oh, I'd really like to redo that.' And I'm like, seriously, you can't go back and redo every single book, because what is the point?
If you look at your reviews as well, particularly as an independent, you're like, ‘Okay, I think that's good enough to go,' and then you see reviews. And you're like, ‘Okay, I guess it's still good enough.' Then that's a good measure, obviously, you don't get that to you put it out there.
But the other thing to come back to, why I wrote the book on the author mindset is because it never feels good enough. And that's why we write another book. It's like, ‘Okay, I did the best I can at that moment, and now I'm moving on to this next story, and I'll do better at dialogue, or I'll do better at character, or I'll do better at setting.'
I think that's another tip is just let things go as a part of life, there are more words, you know this, there are more words. There are never ending number of ideas.
I like moving and being in the stream. I think there's a lot of energy comes from moving. And that's why I've never actually queried, certainly my fiction, I queried non-fiction 15 years ago. But I like the energy of putting things out there and starting anew and just moving.
Grant: That's great advice. I love that. And you've renewed my commitment that this is indeed my final revision. I actually have tired of it. That's one sign that you're done is that you're just kind of exhausted. Thanks for that.
I'm curious, because I know you said that good editors, it depends on the novel and how long it is and a lot of conditions with who the editors are in terms of what they'll charge. I wouldn't know, I'd be throwing a dart against the wall of different figures if I want to hire an editor.
What's a good ballpark figure when hiring an editor?
Joanna: To be honest, if any editors listening, they would kill me for trying to come up with a number because it will very definitely depend on many things. But you're going to be looking anywhere between let's say $500 and $2,000, possibly more.
If someone's sitting there with a 200,000 word first draft fantasy novel that they're going to send to an editor, that is clearly going to be more expensive than one of my 60,000 words dark fantasy thrillers from an author who's written 17 novels. It's going to be a much easier job for an editor to work on my book than it is to work on their book.
And that word count is one thing. Obviously, it's hard to wrangle a 200,000-word manuscript, but we know people come out of NaNoWriMo with manuscripts that long.
Grant: Absolutely. Written in a week.
Joanna: Exactly. If people listening are new authors, new writers, I know people worry. They're like, ‘Oh, if I send it to an editor, they're going to steal my work.' It's just not going to happen. To be blunt, your work is probably not that brilliant yet anyway. It can be polished. But also that's the editor's job, that's their reputation.
That's why you want other authors to recommend editors, and to check their references. I interview lots of editors on my podcast. Most editors have got very clear guidelines.
Often they will do a test edit as well. You can send a sample, and you'll get a quote. Some of them can talk to you or however, I'm an introvert, and I have talked to one of my editors now on Skype but generally, it's all done over email.
I would say structural edits can be different, or it might be called a manuscript assessment. Some editors will do that, or a structural edit will be like a report, so they might read your whole book and then give you a report on what needs to be improved. That can be very helpful, but, of course, that doesn't give you a line by line analysis, which is the very expensive edit, but very well worthwhile edit.
Now, the other thing is what I would say to people is, this is an investment in your writing craft. And this is why I continue to pay editors.
Every time I get a book back, I learn something that I feed into my craft, my writing craft brain, so that next time I don't make that same mistake.
I'm not talking about commas or grammar issues here. I'm talking about character issues or plot or pacing, lots of different things that go into the crafting of a novel. So if you want to do this for the long-term, it's all about improving.
I don't believe in this one magnum opus. I just think that's not the reality of being a professional writer. Look at the best-loved most high-earning authors in the world, Nora Roberts, Stephen King, James Patterson, these guys write 10 books a year. There's a rumor about Stephen King that for every book he publishes, there's one in a drawer, because he actually writes so fast, but he's still traditionally published.
Grant: If he writes 2,000 words a day, then you just have to do the math on that. He probably has several books in a drawer!
This is a nitty-gritty question, but I think if you're serious about self-publishing, obviously, you have to consider it. It seems like formats for books and reading, there's a new format every day. That's not true exactly, but there's like paperback, print, hardback, e-book, audio. I don't know if there are other things as well, but that's kind of overwhelming certainly for a first-time author.
What formatting considerations are there? How would you guide people?
Joanna: Assuming your book is narrative prose without lots of illustrations and tables and things, because obviously that needs some more professional layout for a print book. But you and I both use Macs. And there is a wonderful program called Vellum which I use and many of us use.
I've got a tutorial on my website. That's what I use for all my e-book formatting. It also does print, it also does large print.
Vellum does have a one-time fee. So the question is whether or not that's worthwhile purchasing, it's a couple of hundred dollars. And what it does mean is you are in control.
Now, there will be a typo in your book. If you publish, even if you use four or five editors and beta readers, there will be a typo in your finished book! We find them in traditionally published books all the time. This is not just an indie thing. If you want to fix that typo and you do your own formatting, you can fix it really easily and just upload a new book.
I personally still format my e-books myself. I actually really enjoy it, Vellum is very enjoyable. It is Mac only, but there are workarounds for PC using MacInCloud, which people can look up later. So that's e-book.
You can also hire formatters. You can use free formatting tools. Lots of the self-publishing sites have free formatting tools. Kindle has its own free formatting tool for e-books. Draft2Digital, have a whole load of free formatting tools, Reedsy has formatting tools and they also have editors and things like that.
So there are lots of places you can get free options, then you get the premium options like Vellum, then you can also pay professional formatters. It might cost you between $50 and $200 to get an e-book formatted.
Obviously you need book cover design, again, all these freelancers are hireable and authors recommend them. It is not hard to find these people now. Good people, excellent people, many of whom actually design for traditional publishing as well.
I have worked with a professional formatter for my print books, which if you're on the video you can see behind me. So I like to have a professional do that, because mainly, I just don't care about things like where the page number is and what little filigree thing goes on this page. Some people really care, and my designer cares, so I like her to do my print formats, because I like them to look nice.
But you can do your own in Vellum as I said. So there are lots of ways, it depends on your personality, depends on how techie you are, if you want to do it yourself, or you can just hire someone, so it's all good.
Grant: Thanks for mentioning that you have those free resources on your site. I know Kathryn's going to put those links in the chat but I'll just read your site too. It's TheCreativePenn.com. And I know it's a site rich in resources, so definitely guide people there.
I love that you format your own books, that's inspiring. The only book I've self-published I actually hired someone to do it as an e-book. But that was a long time ago.
One of the raps on self-published books is that you can tell a self-published book often by the cover design. Good cover design is a real art. It might look easy, but it's a real art.
What advice do you have for people with their book cover design?
Joanna: Hire a professional. I'm sure you remember there was a culling in the traditional publishing world a few years back, they laid off a lot of their full-time designers, full-time editors, which is why we can now hire them.
You can hire a professional cover designer, and that is the best way. Again, it's going to cost you a few hundred dollars to get someone. You can buy off-the-shelf covers actually now, some of the designers will design a whole load of them within certain genres, and it can actually be a really good way to get ideas for titles and stuff like that and ideas for books.
So, yeah, pre-made covers would be one, e-book only covers. You can also get on canva.com, for free, e-book only covers. And they've got some pretty nice covers on Canva. But, as I said, if you are ready to invest and get a really nice professional cover, then you will need to spend a bit of money.
The other thing with all these professionals is that you do need to book them in advance. So don't just go, ‘Oh, I'm going to publish tomorrow, so I guess I'll send it to my editor today and ask this cover designer.' No. You're going to need some lead time on this.
One of the wonderful things about being indie is that you can change your covers. You can change anything as you have control.
You can redo the book, you can unpublish the book, you can re-edit the book, and upload it later. You have the freedom to do all that, you are in control.
My NaNoWriMo book that year was called Pentecost, and I wrote Prophecy and Exodus were the first three books in my ARKANE series. Then in 2015, so like three years later after I'd finished them, I re-edited, re-covered, re-published with new titles.
Now they're Stone of Fire, Crypt of Bone, and Ark of Blood, which are much more thrillery-action-adventure-Dan Brown-y type titles, which is what the books are. [Click here to read how I changed my titles and covers.]
When we start out, we don't know the publishing industry. We're writing a novel because that's what we want to do.
But if you're going to be a successful independent publisher, you also need to learn how to publish and how to market.
That book packaging is so important, but why I say this is because it's very hard to do yourself. It is very hard. But don't worry if you get it wrong, you can just sort it out later, so no worries.
Grant: That's inspiring that you can change things. And definitely, that you don't have to know everything yourself, you just have to know who to go to and how to find them, and then how to work with them, right?
Joanna: Yes. I pretty much have everything on my website for free these days, so you can go there find it all out. Because one of my goals when I first started doing this was to help a million books be born in the world. I'm just really keen for people to get their work out there.
Putting your book out into the world will change your life.
It may not sell millions, my first book did not. It really did not do that. But it changed my life, and set me on a new course, in a new direction. And that's what I think writing a book does. It may not change the world, but it will certainly change you.
Grant: That's great to hear. That's what we want to do with NaNoWriMo as well. We share missions.
I'm going to ask one more question and we've got a bunch of questions that are streaming in from the chat window. But oftentimes, when I go check out a book, an indie book on Amazon, I'll see the publisher listed as CreateSpace, the self-publishing company. And I know that it's so easy that you can just create your own imprint out of your imagination. You can just choose a word. It's that easy, right?
What would your advice be to people for creating their own imprint?
Joanna: First, CreateSpace is no longer, it is now KDP Print, in case people are wondering. But two, I don't believe most people are like you Grant, I don't believe most people shop by publisher.
Joanna: This is the most important thing, it really doesn't matter. I know traditionally published authors who've self-published and they haven't put anything in that field and it will say KDP Print. I don't think readers care.
If your book looks professional, and it's good and it's great for the reader, then they don't care. The reason to consider an imprint, I believe, is if you want bookstores, libraries, literary festivals, foreign rights publishers, if you want to take things to the next level, having an imprint gives you a publisher and rights holder.
We don't really have the time to go into intellectual property rights, which is the heart of a business, but what we do with licensing is we license those rights. I set up Curl Up Press in 2015 so, seven years after I self-published my first book. Because I decided I wanted that professional publishing arm, where I now reach out to bookstores, libraries, universities, etc. Some of my books are stocked in all those places.
But that's certainly a more advanced tactic and not something you need to worry about. You also don't need to start a business to self-publish a book. You don't have to use your real name if you self-publish. There are all these different fields, you can keep your legal name separate to your author name, so you can do pseudonyms, that kind of thing.
I want people to feel like you have many choices, but also you can change things later.
You can change all of these things later, and learn as you go. So please don't think you need to know everything right now, you just need to take that first step.
For most people, it's going to be about getting an editor, as you said, and then decide if they want to go indie or be traditionally published. And then there might be the ebook, the print book, and then there might be the library, and then there might be the audiobook. And then it goes on and on.
This is a wonderful career, you can do all these things. But please, start where you are.
Start at the beginning, and learn as you go. Don't try to do it all at once.
Grant: Good reminder, because there's so much to know that can easily create an obstacle for yourself.
Joanna: Yes, a block. We're not having any blocks around here!
Grant: Definitely. You do become a type of publishing house unto yourself once you become a person like you. But to get there, like that was 11 years ago that you first published your, or longer I guess, when you first published your first book, so it's a long time to learn about things.
Joanna: Yes, exactly. I started writing properly in 2006, I put my first book out 2008 before the Kindle, if you can believe it. I got so many things wrong, most of my books ended up in a landfill!
But the lessons I learned at that point are the things that have enabled me to get to where I am now. And I left my day job in 2011. Next year, I'll be a decade as a full-time writer. [Click here for my author entrepreneur timeline.]
So it can certainly be done, but, yes, you just have to learn along the way.
Grant: Congratulations on that. I'm going to start with some questions from our attendees. Carla H. asks the big question:
How do you get distribution as an indie author?
Joanna: You basically just have to upload your book to the various sites. So e-books, obviously Amazon, you just upload to Amazon, then you can use distributors. I go direct to Kobo, I also go direct to Apple, but you can use distributors like Draft2Digital, Smashwords, PublishDrive to get to e-book retailers all over the world.
For print books, you use KDP Print or Amazon Print. So you can order my books on Amazon. And then you can use IngramSpark for distribution to bookstores, libraries, universities. They have 39,000 outlets around the world.
And then for audiobooks, I use acx.com, and findawayvoices.com, again, to get global distribution. So my books are in 190 countries at this point and as Grant said, I have sold in 86.
[Successful Self-Publishing has all of this in detail.]
The point with being an indie is that we are not printing them and putting them in warehouses. That's not the business model. The business model is we do print-on-demand for print, which is we upload our files, then if a customer orders and that customer might be a bookstore, I had some orders in Michigan the other day or it might be someone on Amazon, and then the books are printed and shipped directly to the customer.
It is the most environmentally friendly way of publishing. It also means you don't have to pay anything upfront, you just get money later. So it's a very good business model. But you have to think about distribution entirely differently than you would as a traditional publisher.
Grant: Sarah Lyle asks any advice for publishing a set of novels written by students? I think this would be on a smaller scale, not for a blockbuster bestseller novel but something that students could have and maybe give for their family.
Any advice for publishing a set of novels written by students?
Joanna: I don't know how old these students are. I mentioned intellectual property rights before. And there is a reason that there are contracts for a publishing contract.
If you're publishing other people's work under your own name, then I would suggest you at least have something in writing. Because what's going to happen if you do it for profit, this is the other question, is it for profit, are you just doing it for cost?
For example, if you just wanted to load up some students books and get them printed, you could just use a local printer for that. You don't need to sell books on Amazon.
But if you want to sell those books on Amazon and there will be money received, then I would say you need some kind of contract, even like a basic email that is in agreement, especially in America, people. But don't let that stop you, but I just want you to consider what being a publisher and putting that through your own account might mean.
I have helped schoolchildren, my niece, particularly do a book on Blurb.com. They actually have a whole area for children's publishing and charity publishing. So they may have options there for that kind of situation.
But, what you don't want for example is for the book to become a runaway success and for you to get a million dollars in your bank account and then get sued by some parent in the school.
Grant: Could happen these days.
Joanna: It can happen, absolutely.
Grant: One of those kids just might be a YouTube celebrity.
Joanna: Exactly. So just be aware of what you're doing when you publish. This is true for anything. Once you upload your book, anyone in the world can buy it. And it might be, as you say, a runaway success, or no one will find it at all.
Grant: Thank you for mentioning Blurb and I say that, because we actually have a partnership with Blurb, where they give discounts for exactly those teachers helping students publish their books. You can find more about that discount on our Young Writers Program site. So just Google Young Writers Program NaNoWriMo, and you'll find it on the site.
This next question, people are interested in marketing issues which we haven't talked about.
If you're self-publishing, how early do you need to start marketing your book? After writing it, or midway through it?
Joanna: This really depends on what kind of book it is, on what your plans are, what your goals are.
For example, if you are writing a nonfiction book and you have a podcast, talk about it as soon as you have an idea. Nonfiction is much, much easier to market, because it's very clear what benefit it has for the reader.
If I'm writing a book on career change, my first book was on career change, I started a blog on career change while I was writing the book. So when the book came out, there were some people who could buy the book.
But if you're writing a novel, especially your first novel, in fact, I reckon until book five, I didn't know what I was doing. And, in fact, at book five, I changed my author name. So again, you can change all these things. I changed genres, I changed covers, I changed everything.
For me with fiction, I don't think you necessarily know what that book is going to be until it's ready. So I normally say to writers, writing their first novel, don't do anything until you finished the first draft. If you haven't finished the first draft, just forget publishing and marketing, literally forget about it. Because most writers will never finish the first draft, I mean seriously this is the truth, people.
Finishing the first draft means someone could sit down and read it end-to-end. And it's a book. It might need some work, but it's end-to-end. Most people never get to that point. So why would you bother marketing anything? And there is an obsession with marketing.
But look, to be honest, like I said, I hit ‘The New York Times' and ‘USA Today' five years after that first book was published with that book, because it's much easier to do marketing once your book has reviews on it.
The question can't really be answered specifically, because everyone is in a different position. But if you're just starting to write, don't worry about it now. But if you're working through your final drafts with an editor then I would be looking at starting to figure out your marketing.
But also understand that marketing one book is incredibly difficult, and most of us write in series, because it's much easier to market a series. And it all compounds. So again, you can learn this over time.
Grant: The next question is NaNoWriMo is great as a community to connect writers.
Do you have any communities within the self-publishing or indie author community to recommend, and how can people find other indie publishers to learn from?
Joanna: Obviously, there are tons of Facebook groups. I'm personally in the Alliance of Independent Authors, which is a professional membership, has an amateur membership, if you haven't published yet. But the Alliance of Independent Authors, we have a Facebook group where you can ask questions and there are lots of indies in there from all over the world. So that's a really good one.
I'll recommend 20 Books to 50K on Facebook. Now that is very much for genre fiction and is highly focused on money and Amazon. So I'm less involved with that because I publish wide. I like money, but I don't write fast. There are some people in there writing a book a month or more so that's quite a high volume for self-publishing. And that is one of the business models, but there are many business models of indie.
Self Publishing Formula, which is a podcast, a self-publishing show, they have a forum. There's lots of sites now that have groups and courses and things. We really are in this heyday of indie. For me, it's the Alliance of Independent Authors.
Grant: The next question is interesting because we haven't talked about these platforms.
What do you feel about online serial publishers like Wattpad Paid Stories, and Radish who pay per read? Do you consider this real publishing?
Joanna: As soon as you put your words in the world, you are ‘real' publishing. We are on ‘TV' right now, we are real publishing. So, yes, as soon as you put your words out into the world where someone else can read them, you are real publishing. You don't have a book. Some people use the word author when it comes to an actual finished book, but you're certainly publishing.
Now I know Wattpad and I have books on Wattpad, it's an extremely good community, but it's a community, a bit like YouTube, where this is going out. It is a social site and you get a lot of feedback. And the people who do best on Wattpad are in the community, they're chatting, they're networking, they're writing with other writers.
I feel it skews younger, YA, although they have 10s of millions of people on there. It's a wonderful platform. They also have a publishing arm, and they work with Hollywood studios now. So Wattpad certainly I know is fantastic. And you can publish your book separately.
Wattpad is not a publishing platform as it doesn't compete with Amazon. You're not selling your books on Wattpad, whereas something like Radish, I believe, I haven't used it myself. But, as you said, if you're paid per page, that's more like a subscription, which is what sites like Scribd, KDP, Kindle Unlimited, there are lots of these subscription programs.
But anytime you are publishing your writing on a platform, you're going to click a button with terms and services. Now, I mentioned contracts before and you need to read that contract if you click it online just as much as if you were signing it a piece of paper. Because those terms and conditions will tell you what you are agreeing to.
I can't personally recommend that you use any of those sites, because I haven't seen those terms and conditions recently. But what I would do is check what are they actually asking for? If you publish your work on this site, do they own it? Can they put it in a book and sell it without your permission?
please just check the terms and conditions. I can vouch for Wattpad, but I'm not sure about the others, because I haven't used them.
Grant: I was going to say Wattpad, I know people have also developed a community or platform through platforms like that. So while they might not be getting paid, they are developing a lot of readers who are interested in their work and what they have to say.
This next question, I know the answer to this, I believe, but I'm curious to hear yours.
Is it easier to come back from a failed book that you've self-published or one that has been traditionally published?
Joanna: First of all, the definition of failure is a personal one. If you are an indie, you could say that my first book ‘failed' miserably. I printed 1000 books, sold 200 of them to people I physically met and the rest went in a landfill. You could say that's a failure. I spent thousands on that. And I got ripped off, and all the bad things happened.
And yet, that book turned into the thing that got me where I am today. So failure is a lesson learned.
What I will say about traditional publishing is that this is where the number of books sold can be very important. So there are people who get a big advance, they don't earn out and they have a death spiral where their next book doesn't get bought or their advances lower and then it becomes difficult.
And then, what sometimes happens is those authors re-launch under another name. I know a lot of professional authors who are on their third pen name, because the other one's death spiraled, so they've tried again with another name. This is very common in traditional publishing.
In fact, Girl on the Train was billed as a debut, but she had written three books under another name (Amy Silver) before that, just in a different genre. So the failure can be rectified by changing your name and doing it again. Not a problem.
What you have to think is do I love this enough, and what can I learn from this so I don't end up in that situation next time? Is that what you were going to say, Grant?
Grant: Essentially. You said it much better than I would have said it, so I was so happy you said it.
I do think that the traditional publishing, those numbers, the sales of your first book or your book can really determine your fate with a particular publisher and in the industry these days. Because they can look up how many books you sold. And that will determine your advance or they might decline it because of that. So, I think it's tricky sometimes.
There's a lot of pressure on the book, depending on what the publisher put or didn't put behind it. That's not an excuse, like you can say, ‘Oh, it didn't sell well, because you didn't put much marketing behind it.' But that doesn't really matter. They're looking at the end sale.
So it's just a different landscape to navigate. And authors should know that going in that they really need to make that book a success. They need to help hustle as much as any indie author.
I love your perspective really in the end about failure being on a spectrum and it's subjective, and you need to decide what failure or success is. And again, this is the thing about creativity. Creativity's success relies on failures, or ‘failures' with quotes around it.
You've got to take risks, you've got to put yourself out there.
And those supposed failures might be the most important thing you do along the way.
Joanna: And we're all learning. I really want to keep stressing that we're all learning and learning new skills all the time.
I'm looking at writing an audio drama at the moment. The first draft is appalling. I know this, but I have to give it a go because I really want to do an audio drama. And this is why I love being a writer. There's always something new to learn. So that's why I want people to reframe failure.
And also what I love about being an indie is the empowerment.
I know everything is in my control. I have no one to blame except myself. So I make sure I do the things that I care about and spend time on the things I want to write and then I publish and then I market.
I get my stuff out there, but from everything I hear about traditional publishing, so much of it is out of your control. As you say, if your book death spirals, it might not be your fault but that is against your brand in that situation whereas I know, everything I do is up to me.
Grant: That's a great point. As you mentioned, audiobooks, Bad Advocate asks, how expensive is it to publish an audiobook?
We were talking about this before we came on, just how audiobooks are becoming so popular and emerging every year the sales go up tremendously. But we were also saying that an audiobook isn't necessarily the first thing an author needs to learn about as well.
What does it cost to publish an audiobook?
Joanna: What I would say is that for an audiobook you can do royalty split deals with narrators, but what I would say is most narrators now will only do that if they are new narrators. So you'll be new together, and you'll split the royalties but it might not end up making money for anyone.
Really you only do an audiobook if you have more of an established brand or if you have a way to market that audiobook, for example, you're going on podcasts or you have a podcast. If you're doing any kind of audio marketing, then having an audiobook is a really good idea.
But in terms of the cost, it's free if you do a royalty split. So the royalty split means the narrator does it for free, but you sign a contract for seven years and the money is split between you. You can do that on ACX and on FindawayVoices.com.
If you pay outright, it can be anything between $100 to say $500 per finished hour. And it's around 9000 words per hour. So what's great about nonfiction, for example, a short nonfiction book might be only three or four hours, it won't cost you too much money.
And yet, I find personally nonfiction sells really well, mainly because I have a podcast that markets it. Whereas my fiction costs more money to create and sells less well, because I don't really have a way to market those so much.
So just be aware that the success of audio depends on a lot of different things and the money will depend on how long it is, and what kind of deal you do. Again, a lot of this is about contracts.
Grant: Become a contract specialist.
Joanna: Definitely. If you want to be a successful author, yes, you do need to read and understand your contracts.
Grant: It's just horrible reading, I have to say.
Joanna: I love them.
Grant: You love them?
Joanna: I'm going to reframe that and say…it's wonderful reading because that is your money.
Grant: Okay, good. That's the motivation.
This next question, we haven't talked about this, pricing of books.
What would you price for print and e-book debut YA fantasy novel?
Joanna: I can't comment on that particular genre. What I suggest you do is go to that genre on Amazon and have a look at what the top-selling books are doing as indies, if you're publishing indie.
Also, for e-books, you can price between $2.99 and $9.99 and get your 70% royalty. But if you go outside of that, you'll get 30%, 35%, whatever it is. So there is a cap within Amazon on e-book pricing.
Print pricing will depend on how long the book is, and you upload your book and then they will tell you how much it will cost. And then you add your profit onto that.
What I normally do is just I make sure I make $2 or £2 or $3 for every book sold, just because I like getting paid, but you can decide that as well.
So, yes, you get to set your pricing, but for e-books, certainly I would look at other books in your niche. Then also consider promotional pricing, so for example, if you price it higher, let's say you go with $5.99, or something, or $4.99, then you can do a 99 cent deal a month later or something, and you can do good marketing that way. So that pricing is a marketing strategy as well as your income, and it's pretty complicated. But, again, you can change it, and you have control of your price as an indie, so you can switch it up.
Grant: Now I know some indie authors, they give away books, right? They give away books to get people hooked, like their first book in a series might be free. How does that exactly work, how do you do that, because you mentioned the whole royalty structure?
Joanna: On every other site except Amazon, you can price free. So my book Stone of Fire, that first novel is free on every platform as an e-book. And you can just make it a zero on every site except Amazon, but what Amazon does is price match.
Amazon will price match your zero, and thus the book is free on Amazon. If you are in KDP Select you also get 5 free days every 90-day period. You can put books to free on Amazon for a short amount of time or you can use the price match thing if you go wide.
Grant: Right. Well, we're running out of time here. So I'm going to open it up to one question I think that's just a big good question for us all to ponder.
What would you say to an aspiring teen writer who wants to publish?
Joanna: I'm so pleased we have a teen writer. I would say, awesome, totally go for it. And please don't let anything stop you. We're in this wonderful environment. I would suggest Wattpad actually, go and have a look at Wattpad.
The NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program. What it would say is…I will get a bit tearful here, because when I was a teenager, someone told me that my writing wasn't good enough, and I shouldn't write. And I wrote a horror story at my school. I was about 14, 15, and I wrote a horror thing, and they said it wasn't what I should be writing. And I didn't write fiction for 20 years.
So please, don't let that happen to you. Please, whatever you are writing, if it's horrible, if it's violent, if it's things that people don't think are good enough, please write anyway. In fact, even if you're not a teenager, please write what you want.
Because we all feel fear of judgment, we feel fear of failure, we all feel these things, but we are writers, this is what we do. And if you feel the urge to write, then please, please get your words out there. We are all supporting you out here, and we want your book in the world.
If you're not getting support from home, try your teachers, try online communities that are safe for people. And, please do write.
Grant: That was said so eloquently. Perfectly said, Joanna.
I want to echo everything Joanna said. That story that you related, unfortunately, every writer I know has gone through a moment like that where somebody has just torn them down unnecessarily. That's happened to me as well. And it doesn't matter if you're a teen or an adult, it's likely to happen.
But you gave the perfect words is just put that…try to get over it as much as hard as that is, and keep writing and believe in yourself as a writer, because that's really important.
I don't want to plug products here, but we do have a book called Brave the Page that just came out in 2019, and it's specifically for teen writers. So we hope that everyone will brave the page, whether they read the book or not.
Thank you, Joanna, for helping us brave the page and also for braving the world beyond the page, for getting the book out in the world and sharing it. Which I also think if that's what you want to do, it's a wonderful thing to have someone read your work and respond to it. I think it's so valuable. So thank you so much.
Joanna: Thanks so much for having me. I'm at TheCreativePenn.com and my podcast is The Creative Penn Podcast. And the Successful Self-Publishing e-book is free on all platforms. People can go check that out as well if you want to have a look at these next steps.
Thanks so much, and I really wish everyone the best with their writing.
Grant: Thanks so much Joanna, bye-bye. Good luck everyone. Keep writing.