In this solo episode, I talk about my lessons learned from 12 years as a full-time author entrepreneur. You can read/listen to previous updates at TheCreativePenn.com/timeline.
Today's show is sponsored by ProWritingAid, writing and editing software that goes way beyond just grammar and typo checking. With its detailed reports on how to improve your writing and integration with Scrivener, ProWritingAid will help you improve your book before you send it to an editor, agent or publisher. Check it out for free or get 25% off the premium edition at www.ProWritingAid.com/joanna
Joanna Penn writes non-fiction for authors and is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author as J.F. Penn. She’s also an award-winning podcaster, creative entrepreneur, and international professional speaker.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- Memoir is one of the hardest and most rewarding genres
- Disruption is inevitable. If you don't disrupt yourself, you will be disrupted.
- Disrupting my creative process with generative AI tools
- Disrupting my publishing and marketing process with Kickstarter and Shopify
- How much do I rely on Amazon for book sales and total business income?
Lessons Learned from 12 Years as an Author Entrepreneur
Twelve 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.
Lesson 1: Memoir is one of the hardest and most rewarding genres
I've been flirting with the idea of writing memoir for years. I've done many interviews on it (linked here), and I have reams of more personal writing in my journals and also in various draft Scrivener projects.
I have shared personal anecdotes in all my non-fiction books, but the closest I've come before to memoir-ish writing is The Successful Author Mindset, which is a very personal book in many ways.
But Pilgrimage: Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways is my first true memoir, combined with some practical lessons for solo walking, and tips for tackling multi-day pilgrimage walks.
That book was years in the making, and the draft was around 100K, so I cut over 50% of it in the end (as I discussed more with Marion Roach Smith in a recent interview).
I was so scared of publishing it and when I was about to hit Launch on the Kickstarter back in February, my heart was hammering. I was scared of judgment, I was scared of being ‘seen,' and also scared that no one would buy it, as it didn't fit with either of my brands and existing body of work.
But I am so glad I gave Pilgrimage the time it needed — the years of preparation, the years of writing, and also launching it in a way that honored the book, as well as the chance to make the physical product so beautiful.
It's been transformational to write and marks a new focus for my writing. It released me so I could finally write my ‘shadow' book which I've been talking about for years. Writing the Shadow: Turn Your Inner Darkness Into Words is with my editor and will launch on Kickstarter on 9 October — you can sign up for the pre-launch here.
It also made far more money than I expected. The Pilgrimage Kickstarter made £25,771 (around US$32K) and I've sold 1350 copies across all the stores so far (Mar -August 2023). It's an evergreen book so that's just the beginning.
The special hardback with color photos is selling well direct from my store, and given the title, you either know you want it, or it's not for you. This makes advertising it that much easier and cheaper, especially as it's not a ‘popular' genre crowded with advertisers.
Writing this memoir has been rewarding creatively, emotionally, and also financially.
If you have a book of your heart, a book you know only you can write, whatever the genre — please make the time to write it. You never know how it will turn out.
Lesson 2: Disruption is inevitable. If you don't disrupt yourself, you will be disrupted.
Back in 2013, I watched a clip of Jeff Bezos on a 60 Minutes special where he talked about Amazon being disrupted. [More recently cited in an Insider article]
“Companies have short lifespans… and Amazon will be disrupted one day … I don't worry about it because I know it's inevitable.”
I took note of that because I am always thinking ahead, sometimes years into the future, and preparing for what might come. (Yes, I have Futuristic in my Top 5 Clifton Strengths!)
In 2021, I read Aidan McCullen's excellent book, Undisruptible: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life. I've recommended it several times on my podcast, and do so again here.
He goes through different Phases of a company, and one section struck me in particular,
“Phase 5 is where organisations and individuals stagnate, decline and decay. They compete on marketing spend rather than product innovation. They compete on price rather than demand. They facilitate price cuts through job automation, optimisation, and ‘me too' propositions, where their products become generic. When threatened by start-ups and competitors, they resort to regulation and litigation rather than creativity and reinvention.”
Ring any bells?!
The indie author business model has been pretty similar since 2008 when Amazon launched the international Kindle.
New platforms and tools and tactics have emerged, but indie authors have mainly focused on publishing to retailers, and marketing that focuses on driving readers there.
15 years later, we are in the inevitable disruption. Here's how things have accelerated for me in the last year.
(a) I've disrupted my creative process with generative AI tools
We've all been using AI tools for a long time — Amazon, Google, Meta, Spotify, TikTok, as well as things like GPS — pretty much every tool we use online in some way incorporates AI.
But while I've been talking about AI tools specifically for creatives since 2016 (when AlphaGo beat Lee Sodol at Go with creative move 37), it's only in the last year that we've seen an explosion in usable generative AI options for the day-to-day activities of authors.
I'm using ChatGPT, Claude 2 (through Poe.com), and Sudowrite as creative collaborative co-pilot tools to:
- Brainstorm chapter topics for non-fiction, plot ideas for fiction, and come up with book title options. The models are particularly good for lists of things.
- Generate or improve book sales descriptions
- Generate or improve ad copy
- Generate character POV ideas for specific situations based on their expertise, e.g. how would an urbexer get out of this no-exit cave and use the language they would use to assess the options
- Get ideas for prompts I can use with AI image generation
I heavily edit anything from the models, but I find working ‘with' them to be transformative for my creative process. I am having the most fun time creating with them!
I'm using Midjourney (with a paid pro commercial license) as an AI image generator for:
- Fun! I log onto X most mornings and find an image prompt I like, then try it out as a way to expand my knowledge. I am an amateur photographer and I love visual images, so this really is fun for me. I prefer to create, rather than to scroll.
- Blog post header images. I used to use images from stock photo sites but now I use the Pro Midjourney account to generate a unique image per episode
- Book cover image elements, in the same way as I used stock photos, but instead of finding them, I generate them and send them to my (human) designer to incorporate as part of the cover.
- Inspiration for my characters and settings — see below, image of Sienna from Map of Shadows. I'm using these on my store, JFPennBooks.com
- Ad images, for more active and interesting ads
I've always disclosed my use of AI tools — on my podcast and blog, within my books in the Author's Note at the back, and also on the covers of the (few) AI-narrated audiobooks I've produced.
If you'd like to read/listen to more conversations on AI, check out my resources here.
(b) I have disrupted my publishing and marketing process with Kickstarter and Shopify
Back in 2008, I was laid off from my IT contract along with so many other people during the Global Financial Crisis. It was my only source of money, and I swore then that I would never let one company control my entire income again.
So I've never relied on Amazon as my primary source of total business income, but it's still been my primary source of book income. This was the year I decided to try and change that, or at least make a dent in it.
To be clear, I love Amazon. I am a shareholder, and I am a happy customer. I've also been publishing on KDP since 2008 and intend to continue. My books are still on Amazon in every format, and will continue to be — but it won't be my primary focus.
In last year's lessons, I talked about “my slow pivot to what may well be the next business model — direct to consumer first, and then wide publishing on the other platforms.”
I've taken that a lot further since then, with two more big moves:
My first Kickstarter for Pilgrimage: Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways. It raised £25,771 (around US$32K) and gave me the opportunity to create a beautiful hardback book with full-color photos. You can find my lessons learned here.
I'm really proud of the product and look forward to working with Bookvault.app to create more beautiful books in future.
My next Kickstarter will be Writing the Shadow: Turn Your Inner Darkness Into Words, available now to sign up for, and launching 9 October 2023.
It will be available from my CreativePennBooks.com store in December, and then on all other stores from Jan 2024.
I also built JFPennBooks.com as a fiction-first store, separating it from CreativePennBooks.com which is focused on the author space.
This separation allows me to more easily use the increasingly AI-powered marketing options through Meta and other stores, which find new customers based on conversion rates of others. You don't need to set any detailed targets, just give it a budget and a goal of conversion and set it running.
Have I been successful so far in this re-focus?
From 1 September 2022 to 31 August 2023, I made over six figures (£) in total book sales income. (No, I am not giving exact figures, as this only leads to comparisonitis!)
55% of that was from Amazon, and 45% of total book sales income from other sources.
But in the last month, I have cancelled most of my Amazon Ads, and am moving my ad spend to focus on the direct stores first, so I hope to change this split in the next year.
The split for Other book sales is as follows, with the main volume being Kickstarter and Shopify, followed by Kobo and Findaway Voices, then the rest of the wide vendors.
For Book Sales Income alone, I have not quite surpassed my Amazon income with other sources, but it gives me something to aim for in the next year.
But in terms of total business income, Amazon represents 21% which is much healthier. I certainly wouldn't want to lose it, but it wouldn't destroy my business as being laid off in the GFC did.
You can also see my other multiple streams of income above, with the most significant being The Creative Penn Podcast (21%) and Affiliate Income (19%) being the most significant.
Thanks to my podcast Patrons and corporate podcast sponsors, as well as my affiliate partners, as well as to all of you who buy my books, courses and live events.
After 12 years full-time, and almost 15 years blogging and podcasting here, I'm still writing, still publishing, still marketing, and still an author entrepreneur. I hope you'll join me as I continue on the author journey!
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.