Joanna Penn is a major force on the international self-publishing scene.
Starting off as a professional speaker and non-fiction author she quickly moved into writing fiction and continued to speak and write advice books for self-published authors. Referred to as “the Engergizer Bunny” of self-publishing, she writes intelligently and coherently on subjects such as how to leverage Amazon to make your book sell well and public speaking for authors. We came across Joanna on our own research into improving the lot of self-published authors and she was nice enough to give us an interview.
indieberlin: You’ve built up quite a career in balancing fiction and non-fiction writing, podcasting, speaking and giving advice to authors…which bits do you enjoy the most, which the least, and do you find that the different activities hamper or help each other?
I learned what I love and what I don’t enjoy about work, and then I designed my current business and my life based on that
Joanna Penn: Prior to this author-entrepreneur life, I spent 13 years as a business consultant implementing Accounts Payable systems into many different companies across Europe, Australia and New Zealand. I spent 12 of those years trying to find out what I really wanted to do with my life, with forays into running a scuba diving business and property renovation. Through those ups and downs, I learned what I love and what I don’t enjoy about work, and then I designed my current business and my life based on that. The short answer is that I enjoy everything I do – from the research and finding ideas for stories, through the writing, publishing and marketing sides of running a business as an author.
My main challenge is balancing my energy across the various aspects, for example, being alone and writing recharges me but if I do that for too long, I can go a bit strange! I love speaking, but too much of that exhausts me. I will also look to outsource anything I don’t enjoy e.g. formatting print files, or can’t do, like book cover design.
I try to bring my business experience to this world of creativity, which is quite an unusual approach
indieberlin: I think it’s quite unusual how you started with speaking and non-fiction writing and then segued into fiction writing. Do you speak publicly/professionally about your fiction, or is it more in terms of author advice and so on?
Joanna Penn: When I speak, my audience is usually made up of a mix of fiction and non-fiction authors, and I bring my own work into every talk as an example. I only preach what I practice! But my professional (paid) speaking events are usually around self-publishing, book marketing, making a living from writing and other aspects of business for authors. There are plenty of people teaching the craft of writing, so I try to bring my business experience to this world of creativity, which is quite an unusual approach.
indieberlin: I understand you’re translating your book about book marketing into German at the moment. Any idea when it’ll be out? And will that be released through your website and Amazon, or…?
Joanna Penn: How To Market A Book should be out in German by mid 2015 and will be available in ebook and print through Amazon, Thalia and all the other online stores. Self-publishing is really taking off in Germany, so hopefully it will be useful for authors.
Don’t compare yourself to other authors. No journey is the same
indieberlin: Quick advice to new authors: Three do’s, three don’t’s.
Joanna Penn: Do write a lot. Even if it’s not for publication.
Don’t compare yourself to other authors. No journey is the same.
Do learn about the business of being an author. Your books are assets and your creative work is valuable.
Don’t wait to be chosen. Choose yourself.
Do start building an email list of people who read your work as soon as possible, so you’re not reliant on another company for income in the future.
Don’t get lonely. There are lots of indie authors globally now, so come join us!
indieberlin: You’ve been described as an Energizer Bunny. How does that feel?
Joanna Penn: It’s funny really, because I’m an introvert and need to spend a lot of time alone and quiet. I even wear earplugs in the library where I go to write! But when I speak, I am very energetic and enthusiastic. I can’t help but be passionate about how amazing it is to be an author at this time in history, when we have unprecedented opportunities to reach readers across the world with our words.
indieberlin: You talk a lot about the importance of authors developing multiple streams of income. You for example speak professionally a lot. What other ways would you suggest for authors who don’t feel comfortable with public speaking?
Once you understand the magic of how rights work in publishing, you can see how many income streams an author can generate
Joanna Penn: Speaking is actually a minor part of my business and I generally only do one talk a month. It is only around 10% of my income – my main focus is on writing and selling books.
Multiple streams of income can just be around your books, for example:
• Format – have your books in ebook, print, audiobook formats
• Platform – have your books available on all online stores and not exclusive to one so you are paid by multiple companies (if you self-publish)
• Genre/topic – write multiple books, write different series, write non-fiction if you write fiction and vice versa
• Country – make sure your book is available globally. My own books have now sold in 64 countries through Amazon, Kobo and iBooks.
Once you understand the magic of how rights work in publishing, you can see how many income streams an author can generate.
You can also consider other income opportunities, for example, sponsorship or affiliate income if you have a blog or podcast, or selling your own products and courses either on your site or Udemy. None of these require public speaking!
Joanna Penn: I’m getting to realise that book sales revolve very much around conducting readings. Authors of course are classically people who like to sit in a room by themselves for long stretches of time. Can you suggest ideas of how authors could prepare themselves for doing readings?
I focus almost entirely on global sales and online marketing, rather than locally and I wouldn’t recommend readings as a marketing strategy
I disagree! I’ve only ever done a public reading of my fiction once so I’m not someone who can comment on preparing in the best way. For me, book sales have primarily been online through optimizing the bookseller website metadata e.g. choosing the right categories and keywords on Amazon, as well as building a platform online through my blog, podcast and relationships built with other authors through social media like Twitter. I focus almost entirely on global sales and online marketing, rather than locally and I wouldn’t recommend readings as a marketing strategy.
indieberlin: You’ve spoken before about the difference between introversion and shyness, which I’ve never heard before. Can you just explain that difference again here briefly?
Joanna Penn: The best book to read on this is Quiet by Susan Cain, which has been a life-changing book for me and many others. Basically, introverts get their energy from being alone, and extroverts get their energy from being with people. Shyness is another scale entirely, and, of course, everything is a continuum. I’m certainly not shy, but I need a lot of alone time to refresh and maintain my energy levels, as do many writers. I need to be with people sometimes, and I love events, but they can be exhausting!
There are lots of us who share our experiences for free online, so you can learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before
indieberlin: Self-publishing (or indie authorship) seems to be coming into its own right now, and it’s a very exciting time to be involved in writing and indie literature. If someone wants to set up a publishing interest that is adapted to the new challenges and possibilities, what would you suggest they do?
Joanna Penn: Learning how to become a successful indie author is a lot like growing any small business – you have to learn the business side as well as the creative side of things.
There are lots of us who share our experiences for free online, so you can learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before. My Author 2.0 Blueprint is a start and covers all the various options for self-publishing these days. I’d recommend spending a decent amount of time researching the best practices and that will save you time, money and heartache along the way.
You can also join an organization like the Alliance of Independent Authors, which has education, community and also lobbies for the rights of indie authors with the media. We have a great Facebook group where people can ask questions, as well as online and live hangouts.
Successful indie authors have a lot in common with the start-up culture, sharing a ‘can-do’ attitude and willingness to learn new things
indieberlin: What can a publisher provide to writers these days that they can’t do for themselves?
Joanna Penn: Successful indie authors have a lot in common with the start-up culture, sharing a ‘can-do’ attitude and willingness to learn new things as well as persistence and an entrepreneurial spirit. This can all be learned, but if an author doesn’t see themselves in this way, then a publisher might be better placed to provide the services they need. For example, I have several professional editors and a cover designer who I hire to help me with publishing a professional product.
I also compile my own files and upload them to the publishing sites. None of this is too complicated once you know what you’re doing, but it’s a learning curve, like all new skills and some people prefer to have someone else do it for them. Basically, the balance of income sits with the person who takes the risk – as an indie, I get 70% royalty; if you’re traditionally published, you’re likely to get 10-25% as the publisher is taking the risk.
One of the main reasons an author will often want a publisher is to get them into physical bookstores. You have to decide what you really want, and for me, I’m happy selling my books (in ebook, print and audio) globally online, rather than in my local bookstore. Authors will also say that they want a publisher for marketing reasons, but most authors have to do their own marketing regardless of the way they publish.
Many successful indie authors are now ‘hybrid’
Many successful indie authors are now ‘hybrid,’ in that they use traditional publishers for some projects and self-publish other works. Hugh Howey, author of the bestselling WOOL sold his print rights only as well as many translation rights and has a film option from Ridley Scott. On a smaller scale, I am using a traditional publisher, Ullstein Midnight, for my book Desecration-Verletzung.
indieberlin: What are you working on right now? A non-fiction book or a fiction book? And do you find it possible to work on more than one project – or more than one book – at a time?
Joanna Penn: I’m in the final stages of editing One Day in New York. I’m also researching and plotting Deviance, the next in the London Psychic series, and I am in the first draft of a non-fiction book on mindset for authors. This is about as much as I can cope with at one time! All three are at different stages so they get different parts of my brain, but I do only ever have one first draft going per fiction project. Things get complicated otherwise!
J.F.Penn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the ARKANE and London Psychic series. She has two novels available in German: Pentecost and Desecration-Verletzung.
As Joanna Penn at TheCreativePenn.com, she is also an award winning blogger, professional speaker and creative entrepreneur. Connect on twitter @thecreativepenn
Joanna Penn was interviewed by Noel Maurice, author of The Berlin Diaries