Lessons Learned From A Decade Of Being A Full-time Author Entrepreneur

Ten 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, just like everyone else, I started out by writing my first book with no audience! But with time and continued effort, everything is possible.

(1) When you get bored or things feel a little stale, hang on a bit longer. Things will change, and you will, too.

The indie author business model, and the dominant formats and companies, have remained stable for a few years now. That is great for business because we know what we're doing, but as a change junkie and a futurist, I am always looking for what's coming next.

At the beginning of 2020, I was looking for a new direction and several times, I considered ending this site and starting something new. I'll always write books, but I considered just writing and publishing, rather than sharing the journey anymore.

But then the pandemic hit and accelerated a whole load of technologies that are transforming the digital landscape all over again. The opportunities for creatives keep expanding and I have a new world of possibility to explore — and I am super excited!

I've covered a lot of these topics in my futurist episodes in the last year — AI for writing, blockchain, web 3.0 and the metaverse, NFTs, and more. Plus, you can get my futurist book for an overview.

I'm also spending more time on my Books and Travel Podcast and travel writing, which feels like a new direction for me. Expect more of those books in the next year.

(2) You can keep a mature author business going with just a few consistent actions.

When you start out as a new author with one or just a few books, you have no audience, few sales and you don't know what you're doing in terms of book marketing. So you try everything and see what works and what you can stand doing for the long term.

If you keep going like this, you end up with lots of books and lots of different ways of marketing, and maybe several websites, and Facebook pages and social media handles … and you end up overwhelmed.

So you start to say ‘no' to things. You simplify.

I can sustain my income at a multi-six-figure level now by doing a few things consistently.

Writing books. I am not a fast writer, and 2021, in particular, has been difficult — for obvious reasons! But as long as I write and publish one non-fiction book and one fiction book per year, I'm happy and it keeps the backlist alive, too.

Podcasting. I love podcasting as a creative outlet in the audio form, and as a way to connect with other authors, help people — and make money through advertising, Patreon, affiliate income, and content marketing. I still podcast every Monday for The Creative Penn Podcast, and every second Thursday for Books and Travel.

Email marketing. I send emails out every two weeks to my Creative Penn list for non-fiction and my JFPenn list for fiction. Here's my tutorial on setting up your email list.

Paid ads. My non-fiction sales are primarily driven by content marketing on this site and the podcast, but I have also outsourced Amazon Ads for non-fiction through Reedsy. For my fiction, I haven't found that Amazon Ads work, so I do promotions every few months with Freebooksy, BargainBooksy, and BookBub ads, as well as my permafree first in series and email signup as evergreen marketing.

While this might sound a lot if you're new to the industry, I have cut back on so much in the last 18 months, that it feels like I have a lot more time.

It's also a really good thing that I cut out so many things and freed up my time. In July 2021, I caught Covid (despite vaccination, masking, etc) and as I write this almost two months later, I still have days of exhaustion when I can't do much. (This is normal post-viral fatigue and not long Covid as some people have asked.)

I'm so grateful that my business can make money without me. Not forever, of course, but enough that it takes the pressure off. It's also a good lesson in focusing on what moves the needle in terms of income and letting go of the extraneous stuff.

For more on keeping things simple, check out The Relaxed Author: Take The Pressure Off Your Art and Enjoy The Creative Journey.

(3) You don't have to grow your business.

I occasionally have periods of massive ambition when I want to win all the awards and make seven figures and generally do all the things.

Then I go for a long walk along the canal and consider the amount of work it would take to do that and how much I would need to change my business to make it happen.

I enjoy being a solopreneur. I love the freedom to create what I want, when I want. I like being a ‘not very well-known' multi-six-figure author! (as I discussed with Patricia McLinn earlier this year on the podcast).

Over the next year, I will focus on some projects that won't make money straight away but are personally meaningful. I'll also be taking some time off — shock horror! My business may financially shrink — and that's OK.

There are seasons for all things and after a decade full-time, it's about time for me to reassess my direction.

But don't worry, I'll still be sharing the journey with you here on my blog and in the podcast. Here's to another decade of full-time creative business!

Measure your life by what you create. Joanna Penn, letterpress, August 2021

What do you think? Do you have lessons learned from your years on the author journey? Please leave a comment, or if you've written about it elsewhere, feel free to share a link.

Joanna Penn:

View Comments (13)

  • After fifteen years as a published author (the past ten self-published), I feel the most important lesson I’ve learned is that I’ll never stop learning more about publishing and writing. As for marketing, I still feel like I’m just throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks.

  • Congratulations, Joanna, for toughing it out for an entire decade and inspiring so many of us along the way!

    I love what you say about occasionally feeling massively ambitious and having to step back and evaluate what that would mean in terms of effort and sacrifice. Thank you for articulating that. It makes me feel so much better about my own snail's pace of growth.

    I'm only at the beginning of my journey and when I look at the heights of success that's possible, it sometimes feel so distant and discouraging. Not to mention entirely uncertain! But when I aim for a more modest goal, it feels way more achievable and doesn't seem to kill the joy of writing. I can't wait to read The Relaxed Author.

  • I so relate to "You don't have to grow your business." I keep thinking I should create more products, fine tune my sales funnel, yada, yada...But I have a thriving referral business to editors and ghostwriters and I feel an urgency to put more energy into my own books. It's sometimes hard to go against conventional wisdom. A health crisis at the end of last year reminded me that self-care and health are the number one priority. So, for now, I'm giving myself permission to focus on writing and sharing my books, referring work to qualified colleagues and waiting before I jump into creating more courses. It's refreshing to read your advice, Joanna. And congratulations on all your well deserved success. By your Instagram I can see how much you are enjoying this period of renewal! And you are an inspiring photographer, among your many creative and business talents!

    • Thanks, Lisa, and I'm so glad it resonated with you. I feel like I have been working so hard since 2006 when I started writing, and then a decade full-time building the business. It's time for some focus on other things :) Like you, the baseline income is covered, so I can follow the muse creatively. All the best for your self-care!

  • I think you are amazingly honest in what you share on your podcast.Writing and growing a business is tough.But its wonderful if you plan the life you want and not just do stuff out of FOMO.

  • Well done on reaching your decade! And thanks for the lessons learned. I think it definitely marks the "mature" phase of the indie industry that so many authors are questioning the premise (yes, I love Becca Syme too) that we should be writing like maniacs and marketing on a grand scale. Once again you're channeling the zeitgeist . . . and I'm glad you're not giving up podcasting just yet. Many writer podcasts get stale after the first 3-5 years but yours hasn't.

    • Thanks, Jane! I definitely feel like things are changing again, which is a relief, as we hate to get bored, right?!
      The development of all these new technologies will take us into another decade, for sure. I hope to see you again in person along the way!

  • Hi Joanna, congratulations on completing a decade!

    Your post couldn’t have come at a right time. I read it yesterday when I was feeling overwhelmed by all the things I have done in the past two and half years of establishing myself as an author and the mountain of work that lay ahead of me. At age sixty I want my vocation to create stress for me. I want to enjoy when I am creating. Your words, “you can keep a mature author business growing with just a few consistent actions,” and “you don’t need to grow your business,” is what I needed to hear today. I know I am well on the path. I just need to take it easy now amd enjoy the journey. So thankyou for being the guiding star.

  • Hey Joanna, congrats on a decade as a full-time author entrepreneur! You've achieved so much. You're doing all the things I hope to do along my journey.

    I often feel overwhelmed by all the different opportunities and directions I could go in as a writer. It's also scary trying to find a space amongst so many other talented writers of fiction and non-fiction. I'm writing on Medium which I really enjoy, starting a Youtube channel, maybe Tiktok, and I've published 50 fiction shorts on Amazon so far. It's a grind though. I want to progress to writing novels next year to spread my authorly wings.

    I'm going to download the audio version of your new book tonight. I would love to be a relaxed author. I feel like the complete opposite at the moment lol. I just pubbed a non-fiction book called Amazon Categories Master List which I'm hoping helps people with their research. Would love to get some feedback on it.

    I like writing a mix of fiction and non-fiction because I find writing fiction emotionally draining, as much as I enjoy it, whereas non-fiction writing is more mechanical and straight-forward.

    Anyway, congrats on all your success so far. Here's to the next 10 years! I think I've been following you for almost as long! It's an exciting time to be a creative.

    • Thanks, Jenna, and I'm glad you're trying lots of different genres — and I hope you can become more relaxed about it all over time!

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