In this episode, I reflect on 15 years of TheCreative Penn, and outline how I will reposition myself for the next 15 years of being an author entrepreneur.
In the intro, We used to do that [Seth Godin]; Penguin Random House has acquired Hay House [Publishing Perspectives]; Business for Authors; Your Author Business Plan; OpenAI has announced a partnership with Axel Springer, the first publishing house globally to partner with them to integrate journalism with AI technologies.
This episode is supported by my Patreon community, who fund my future-focused thinking time. If you join the community, you get an extra solo Q&A show monthly, as well as behind-the-scenes videos on AI and creative business, plus, discounts, early access, and more. Join us for the price of a coffee a month at Patreon.com/thecreativepenn
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.
- From Joanna Penn to J.F. Penn
- From creating alone to the AI-Assisted Artisan Author
- From digital-focused to creating beautiful physical books
- From high-volume, low cost to premium products with higher Average Order Value
- From retailer-centric to direct first
- From distance to presence
- Pivoting a business is always a risk
- Will I still be here in another 15 years?
Let me know what you think. Are you pivoting your author business? What changes are you making to stay nimble in a fast-moving industry? Do you have any questions?
You can leave a comment below, or email me here.
On 8 December 2008, I published my first blog post on www.TheCreativePenn.com. I had already self-published a book earlier that year and wanted to share my lessons learned.
This is my third website.
The first was based on my first book, How to Enjoy Your Job or Find a New One (later rewritten and re-published as Career Change), and the second was on learning about money and investments. I abandoned both when I ran out of things to write about.
But 15 years later, I still haven’t run out of things to write about here!
I left my job to become a full-time author entrepreneur in 2011 and I’ve changed my business model several times over the years as technology, new service providers, and a growing market have expanded our options as indie authors.
I still love what I do. I measure my life by what I create.
I love holding my books in my hands and saying ‘I made this’.
But the pace of change is accelerating and I need to pivot and reinvent myself in order to keep creating and writing, as well as remain useful to my community and the wider indie author industry.
I also need to keep myself engaged.
I’m certainly not the same person I was when I started out, and the last few years in particular have been a period of personal change (as discussed in Pilgrimage and Writing the Shadow). So I found this quote useful from Barbara Bradley Hagerty in Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife,
“Pivoting on your strengths beats starting from scratch. Redefine success according to your values, not those of the rest of the world.”
I’m not going to burn it all down and start anew. I am pivoting!
From Joanna Penn to J.F. Penn
For the last 15 years, I’ve put my Joanna Penn brand first, writing useful books for authors as I’ve learned, and sharing my journey in order to help other authors along the way
Long-time listeners to the podcast and email subscribers will know that I’ve been talking about the Shadow book for almost the entire time, and in 2023, I finally wrote and published it.
Writing the Shadow: Turn Your Inner Darkness Into Words is the fulfillment of a long-term creative promise, and alongside How to Write a Novel, and How to Write Non-Fiction, it represents everything I have to share on craft — at least at the moment.
When I started out as an indie author, there were very few voices sharing the way ahead, and all the existing writing industry books were for traditionally published authors, so my books were needed.
But things have changed and there are many wonderful authors sharing tips and strategies and ‘how to’ information these days.
I also think the market for ‘how to’ nonfiction is shifting, which I discussed at length in last week’s episode on the impact of Generative AI Search, so have a listen or a read if you want to learn more.
All this means that I don’t plan to write any new ‘how to’ books for authors. I do intend to make my existing backlist more evergreen, so there will be future editions of some existing books, and I want to re-record some earlier audiobooks as (human) me, so expect those at some point.
Many of you have told me that you still find The Creative Penn Podcast useful and my Patron community and the download numbers support this. At the time of writing this, the show has had over 9.3 million downloads across 228 countries, primarily the US, UK, Australia, and Canada. Thank you for listening!
I considered shutting the show down a few years back as I was bored with the content — but then generative AI took off, and the rise of direct sales started, and now we have plenty to talk about again!
So I will continue The Creative Penn Podcast weekly, and share behind-the-scenes business, craft, and AI information and inspiration with my community at patreon.com/thecreativepenn
I’m currently rewriting and updating my Author Blueprint and email list autoresponders, and I will streamline TheCreativePenn.com website content. I will close down my evergreen courses in 2024, more on that below.
The main pivot is to flip the ratio of my time — from 75% on Joanna Penn, and only 25% on J.F. Penn, to the other way around.
I have so much I want to write as J.F. Penn, and it’s time to let my dark horse run! (More on that in Writing the Shadow.)
Of course, I’m not starting from zero with this brand.
I started writing my first novel during NaNoWriMo in 2009, and published Pentecost as Joanna Penn in 2011.
I rebranded and re-published it as Stone of Fire by J.F. Penn in 2015, and substantially re-edited the first three ARKANE books in the series in 2022.
In total, I’ve written 15 novels and co-written five more, as well as one memoir, five novellas, and nine short stories, some of which were commissioned and some of which have appeared in anthologies.
As J.F. Penn, I’ve sold over half a million fiction books across 179 countries (mostly in US, UK, and mostly in English).
I was an Award Finalist for Best Ebook Original at the International Thriller Awards in 2017 for Destroyer of Worlds.
As part of the Deadly Dozen box set in 2014, we hit the New York Times bestseller list (the box set included One Day in Budapest ), as well as the USA Today list.
In 2016, I hit the USA Today list as a single author with my ARKANE thriller boxset, containing Stone of Fire, Crypt of Bone, and Ark of Blood.
As J.F. Penn, I podcasted for several years on the Books And Travel Podcast as well as writing articles about my travels, and in early 2023, I published my first memoir, Pilgrimage. I also built my fiction first Shopify store, www.jfpennbooks.com
So, I haven’t done too badly even though J.F. Penn played second fiddle — but imagine what I could do if I spent the next 15 years giving her the time, energy, and investment she deserves?
It’s time to move J.F. Penn up to first place.
It’s time to let my shadow side flourish and get to all the books and stories that are in my queue, waiting to emerge!
There will be lots more fiction — books in my existing series as well as standalone, and short stories, but I will also write non-fiction under J.F. Penn too.
I’m planning a Gothic cathedral project in 2024, that resonates with Pilgrimage, launching on Kickstarter with a high-quality photo book and perhaps a mystery I have brewing about a stone mason with a deadly secret …
In terms of names, you can call me Joanna or Jo, whatever’s easiest!
From creating alone to the AI-Assisted Artisan Author
I love turning my thoughts into reality in the shape of a book. I love making things up, and researching, and working on book projects — and I love working (mostly) alone.
But in the last year, I’ve had so much fun collaborating with ChatGPT and Claude as my creative co-pilots. I laugh more, I spark off the conversations we have, my brain feels like it’s on fire with ideas and I have way more creativity than ever before.
I’ve outlined my perspective in The AI-Assisted Artisan Author, so I won’t go into detail here, but for the next 15 years, I see my use of AI tools expanding and changing, in the same way that the last 15 years have been shaped by our expanding use of the internet and the industry that has grown up around it.
From digital-focused to creating beautiful physical books
The launch of the Kindle and the iPhone in 2007 enabled the rise of the successful independent author because suddenly we could reach people all over the world with our ebooks.
The Kindle store back then was almost empty and so the first wave of indie authors were able to sell a lot of books at cheap prices and capitalise on being new in the store. I had only just started to write back then, so I wasn’t able to join that first gold rush, but some authors rode that wave to become the first Kindle millionaires.
Over the years, ebook publishing became easier, and a host of services as well as other retailers and distributors rose up to serve the industry, which soon spread further into more accessible print-on-demand options as well as audiobook narration and production.
As a reader, I only read fiction in ebook format, and I listen to a lot of non-fiction audiobooks, as well as buying hardback and paperback non-fiction. I belong to several subscription programs, and I both buy and borrow what I consume online and in physical bookstores.
As an author, I want to have my books and stories available in every format, wherever readers want to consume them, so I publish wide in all formats.
But digital media has become ubiquitous.
It is harder to stand out, especially as advertising has become more expensive and the market has become ever more crowded. With the rise of generative AI, it will become even more so, especially in the digital arena.
I will still publish wide in all formats, but in addition, I intend to focus on making beautiful physical editions of my books and working with premium printers and creators who work in the physical product industry.
I want to be as proud of the finished physical product as I am of my words, as well as associate my brand with high-quality books, plus I want to be able to stand out from digital-only creators — which leads to …
From high volume, low cost to premium products with higher Average Order Value
I also want to create high-quality premium physical products in order to keep making a living as a creator, which is becoming increasingly difficult in the digital arena.
Non-fiction genres are not so impacted as plenty of non-fiction readers are not price sensitive and so will buy ebooks at a higher price, and often buy multiple editions of a book that resonates.
But publishers, retailers —and authors — have spent the last 15 years driving down the price of fiction.
Paperbacks are cheap enough in the bookstores, but ebooks and audiobooks are offered at even lower prices, or as part of subscription programs for which the author gets a smaller amount each year.
Average Order Value is the amount a customer spends in one order with a particular merchant, and for fiction authors, it’s generally a pitiful sum considering the amount of work that goes into a book.
This has led to the rise of bundles and boxsets, as well as long immersive series where read-through is necessary to return an investment on advertising spend.
As much as we love to read and write it, fiction is a high-volume, low-cost game that is increasingly hard to play — which leads to …
From retailer-centric to direct first
I love Amazon, Kobo and Apple, Draft2Digital — plus all the other retailers and distributors — and all the companies that make it possible for me to make a living online. I’m a shareholder of Amazon and Apple, so I am literally invested in their success. I’m also a happy customer of many of these services. I want them to succeed.
But it is not the retailers’ job to make an author money.
It is not a publisher’s job, or a bookseller’s job either.
These companies make money for their shareholders, directors, and employees and pay authors to create content to help generate more income.
As authors, we need to look after our own interests first, which is why so many of us are moving to selling direct first.
Consider the pie of sales income for a particular book.
The direct first business model means you take the first bite of the pie — maybe through a Kickstarter campaign, or selling through your Shopify/WooCommerce store, or by doing a live event and selling in person.
The money comes to you first and you get a higher percentage of the sale, paid into your bank account much faster than any other method.
You can also connect with the customer directly as you have their data, which means the cost of the next sale goes down as you build your audience.
Once you have taken those first bites of the pie, you publish your books everywhere else. Retailers get their share and readers can purchase/borrow your book in the way they want.
I want readers to be able to get my books in whatever format they want, on whatever store they want, or to borrow from the library, or whatever. I will continue to publish wide so my books are eventually everywhere.
But I’d love readers to buy direct from me (and other authors!) if it’s possible to do so, because increasingly, this is the best way for creators to make a living and continue to write. [Here's more on why I'm launching on Kickstarter.]
If there are authors or small press publishers you want to support, consider checking their website for a direct sale link first, and join their email list so you hear about any crowdfunding projects or direct opportunities.
In this way, we can keep a thriving ecosystem of independent creators, alongside the dominance of the big retailers.
From distance to presence
As much as I love the ease of scalable, evergreen digital products, online courses and training are now a (very) crowded market. So I’m pivoting into much more personal contact, and up-to-date, shorter-form content.
I’ll retire my existing evergreen, self-paced courses in 2024. If you have bought a course from me, I’ll email separately about that.
Instead, I will speak in person at conferences and events, and online through live webinars and seminars, as well as sharing behind the scenes video and audio extras for my Patrons at patreon.com/thecreativepenn
Here's me with Patrons at 20BooksVegas (Nov 2023), and with Orna Ross and Sacha Black in Seville (April 2023).
In terms of social media, since the slow demise of Twitter, I have not found a new home. I rarely scroll social any more and I don’t monitor messages or DMs.
I am still on X @thecreativepenn but I use it mainly as an AI news feed.
I also still post sporadically onto Facebook @thecreativepenn
I am part of several groups on Facebook, but I’m not very active. I found that Threads turned toxic quite quickly, and I don’t even want to try any of the other platforms.
Instead, I will invest the resulting time with my community on Patreon, replying to comments and joining in conversations, and also improving email to those on my lists.
I intend to improve my autoresponders as well as the frequency and content of my email updates.
Pivoting a business is always a risk
How will all this impact my business?
It’s hard to say.
But since change is inevitable, you either change by choice, or you will be forced into it by external forces.
I highly recommend Undisruptible:A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life by Aidan McCullen, which I have quoted from several times before on the podcast as it is so useful.
In phase six of his framework, McCullen talks about ‘jumping the S curve’ as one business model starts to die and another starts to rise, “a transition from the success you have achieved today … to possible success tomorrow.” It can sometimes look like a step backwards, but “even if you don’t succeed, you will certainly develop capability in your attempt.”
He also recommends building capability before you need it, so even if you don’t need to pivot your business right now, consider developing skills you could use later when things change.
My business pivot will definitely shift the percentage split in terms of my multiple streams of income, but I am confident that I have enough variability in place that I can adjust as I go.
The Creative Penn Limited primary income streams are:
- Book sales and intellectual property rights licensing as Joanna Penn and J.F. Penn in all formats on all stores and retailers, as well as selling direct
- Affiliate income, primarily driven by Joanna Penn books, the website, and the podcast
- Podcast sponsorship from Patreon supporters and corporate advertisers
- Speaking, course sales, webinars, in-person events
These will all continue to a varying degree, but the amount in each bucket and under each brand will change over time, for example, more from J.F. Penn books, and more from live events rather than courses.
Will I still be here in another 15 years?
The years fly by indeed.
In 2008, Jonathan and I were living in Brisbane, Australia. We’d just married, and we had a cat, Shmi. I was an IT consultant implementing SAP Financials in a mining company, and Jonathan was a chiropractor studying for a degree in Statistics.
I had a plan to leave my job somehow and write books, but I didn’t know how my author career would shake out.
I just kept learning and taking the next step. I kept writing and publishing, podcasting and blogging, connecting and building my author network.
In 2023, Jonathan and I have been happily married 15 years, and we live in Bath, England. Shmi had a lovely life after we left Australia with his adopted family although he’s gone now, and in turn, we adopted Cashew and Noisette, our two British shorthair cats (who often feature on my Instagram @jfpennauthor!).
I am an author entrepreneur running my multi-six figure, one-person company, The Creative Penn Limited. Jonathan is a Senior Manager in a pharmaceutical company.
I don’t know how the next 15 years will shake out, but I will keep writing and publishing, podcasting, connecting with my community, and building my author network. I will just keep learning and taking the next step.
In 2038, I will be 63 and (hopefully) celebrating 30 years of happy marriage as well as writing and publishing. I know authors in the industry with that many years experience, so I know it’s possible, and I can’t think of anything else I want to do with my time. After all, I measure my life by what I create.
So much has changed since I started in 2008. So much will change between now and 2038.
What doesn’t change is my desire to write, to learn new skills, to create beautiful books in the world, to share stories with readers, to inspire and educate and entertain, and to help other authors on the journey.
I’m looking forward to the next 15 years, but let’s just count them one by one! I hope you will join me in the years ahead.
I’d love you to join the conversation and let me know any comments or questions. Are you pivoting your author business? What changes are you making to stay nimble in a fast-moving industry?