Joanna Penn is the author of more than two dozen books. Joanna knows from experience that writing books can change your life, but that experience comes from a lot of failed attempts, lost investments, and time spent. In order to help other writers, Joanna has turned her wins and losses into invaluable resources on her site, The Creative Penn.
In this episode, Joanna will share how you can make a living through self-publishing and marketing your books. If you’re a closet-writer stuck in another career, then this episode is a must listen.
Key Points From This Episode:
- How Joanna funded her new life as a full-time writer.
- Is a book really a passport to becoming a paid public speaker?
- Tips for how to effectively market a book, and much more.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Joanna Penn: I was one of those people—you know, angsty teenager, writing journals, writing poetry—but I never really considered that you might be able to make a career as a writer. I thought writers were up on this pedestal—god-like creatures where words just strung magically out of their hands.
I got a degree in theology and ended up working for a consultancy firm, and I ended up implementing accounts payable systems into large corporates, like mining companies, for 13 years. This is possibly one of the most boring and least creative things you can possibly do with your life.
“You end up falling into a career if you don’t actively choose it.”
That’s kind of what happened. Of course, once you do a career for five years and then 10 years and then 13 years—you end up being paid quite well. I ended up with this career that your parents think is great because you’ve got a house, you’ve got the right job, and you’re a consultant and you go to the right parties…and yet I was miserable.
You know, my life was good, but I had these golden handcuffs where you’re paid well but you just feel like your life is empty. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
The Four Hour Workweek was happening, as well as the early years of Gary Vaynerchuk. I was reading Tony Robbins and I started thinking about all the things that I could do.
I have had some other failures in my life in terms of businesses. I tried to run a scuba diving company and tried to do some things in property investment, but none of that made me happy, either.
What was it like writing your first book?
Joanna Penn: I thought, by writing the book, I would discover the sort of tips that I wanted to tell myself. I distilled all this self-help knowledge that I’d been reading, and it was probably a hundred books and audio courses.
Obviously, writing a book from your knowledge is really good, but you can also write a book by researching other people’s knowledge, and that’s important, too.
So I wrote that book, and about three years later, when I understood SEO or search engine optimization for book titles, I rewrote that book. We published it under Career Change, which is a much better book title, and it still sells.
Jack Henfield The Success Principles is probably the book that changed my life because the tagline is How To Get From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be.
“The first principle is to take a hundred percent responsibility for your life.”
I fell into a career, and I had to take responsibility for where I had ended up. I was implementing accounts payable in mining companies because all the little decisions I’d made along the way. The very first decision I had to make was, “Where do I want to be in another 10 years’ time? What do I want my life to look like in the future?”
So many people don’t define where they want to get to. They know where they are and they’re unhappy where they are, but they might not know they want to make a living with writing. And what does “a living” mean?
“‘I want to be a multi-six figure author,’ that was basically my goal.”
Jack Henfield, The Success Principles. The Last Lecture by Randy Pouch. He died of pancreatic cancer around then, and then the book came out and was about living every moment as if it were your last. Then, funnily enough, Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek—at the time it was like, “Okay, lifestyle design. You don’t have to have a job that you hate.” How do you want to live your life?
I love to travel. So I wrote down, “I want to travel, I want to read.” I love traveling and reading, so I want a career where I can travel and read. I’m an introvert. I don’t particularly like a lot of people.
Those are some books that really impacted me at the time [as I wrote my own]. The shocking thing when you publish a book and nobody knows you exist is something that many authors face and what was different back then in 2008. The Kindle had launched in America, but it hadn’t launched internationally.
It was just the cusp of ebooks starting to happen.
How long did it take you to figure out how to make an ebook?
I was one of the first people in Australia to get a Kindle, and I learned from people like John Locke who was right at the beginning there, Amanda Hawking, Joe Conrath—the very early years of self-publishing ebooks.
Back then, this was a new thing and people were still at that point of publishing PDFs on their website. Formatting was not such a big deal at that point.
I actually printed 2,000 copies of that book and then I had them in my house.
“This was the point that I realized, ‘Oh dear, no one knows who I am.'”
I didn’t have a website, I didn’t know anything. I did make it onto national TV and in the national newspapers, but often that doesn’t actually sell any books, and it didn’t sell any books for me. Sadly, there are even stories of people getting on Oprah and not selling any books.
That’s when I decided I was serious about this.
You know, I think writing a book can be done. Certainly writing a nonfiction book can be done, and it will be useful to some people and awesome. If you love it and you get the itch and you want to write more, you want to be an author who does this, you need to learn book marketing.
I started to learn publishing, and that’s when I started my website, The Creative Penn, which was basically trying to help people along the way by sharing my own journey.
“Sharing your own journey can be a very powerful tool.”
How did your journey as a self-published author unfold?
Joanna Penn: Back in 2006 I started writing, in 2008 I first published, and 2011 was when I left my job. I think many people, if they want to make a living with their writing, then the goal is to leave their job.
Now, many people don’t want to leave their job. But if you don’t enjoy your job like I didn’t, you might want to become a full-time writer or have written on the basis of what you do.
The Creative Penn was three years old. I had about six books at that point, and I was speaking. So this is really important: speaking is a great cashflow revenue stream, but it’s not scalable. Speaking is based on your time, so just while we’re speaking. But I was still working in a mining company.
“I said ‘Look, I need to give this a go.'”
I saved up some money and I said, “Look, six months, if it doesn’t work at all, I will just go back to my job.” Most people can leave a job for six months and go back with enough expertise.
What did your partner think of your career change?
He said, “Alright, let’s do it.” And it was going well, so we ended up downsizing.
This is another thing. In order to fund this new life, we sold our house, and we moved back to Britain. You don’t have to do that, but you know, I wanted to be somewhere that was creatively stimulating for me, and my fiction is based around my traveling and Europe, particularly.
I wanted to be back in Europe, and we downsized our life completely. That can be useful. If you want to downsize your income in order to change careers, then you might have to do something like move somewhere cheaper. You know, go to four days a week as I did before giving up your job, saving money, reducing debt.
All these practical things that sometimes people don’t talk about but I think are important. A lot of people say, “Yeah, I’d love to write a book or yeah, I’d love to be a writer,” but they don’t actually want to pay the price.
Essentially, in 2011, I left my job, took a massive pay cut, and in 2015, I hired my husband out of his day job to join the business because we were making multi-six-figures.
It basically took that nine years to go from writing that first book, to be able to live the life I wanted to.
How long were you totally focused on writing and publishing your own books?
Joanna Penn: It really was pretty much from 2008 onwards. When I published that first book, I got the bug and I went, “This is what I want to do.” I want to write books, I love holding that book in my hand and saying, “I made this.” It’s a very Seth Godin thing as well, “I made this.”
I’m addicted to that.
There’s a really funny picture that I have of me standing in front of 2,000 books—I don’t know what I’m doing, but my face is so happy. It’s that unconscious incompetence or whatever that first thing of the cycle is. But you can see I’ve got the bug. So I committed that day.
“It is the best time in history to be a writer.”
When did you feel like you’d made it?
Joanna Penn: I think there’s a couple of things. First of all, there’s the definition of success. Whenever anyone asks me about book marketing or publishing or anything, [I ask], “Well what is your definition of success?” Because if you want to have someone pat you on the back and say you are a good writer—which many novelists, in particular, want to do…
“The need for external validation may be keeping you back from different forms of success.”
What do you want? Do you want to win the Pulitzer prize or do you want EL James’ Fifty Shades Of Grey 120 million dollars—what do you want?
Do you want the prize and the critics saying that you’re brilliant? You know, you get $50 grand for winning The Man Booker prize. You and I know this is not very much money when you’ve spent 10 years writing books, which those people do.
No. I’m sorry, that’s terrible. Most prize-nominated books only sell around 5,000 copies. So you want that or do you want 115 million dollars? If you compare the reviews on Amazon for Fifty Shades of Grey to the last Pulitzer Prize-winning book, readers love Fifty Shades Of Grey. But most authors, particularly fiction authors, will say that they would rather have a literary prize and a critic tell them they are good.
“You have to treat this as a business.”
I’m always saying you have to wear two hats. You have to wear the artist’s hat, especially if you’re writing fiction. And you have to wear the business hat, and both of those have a place in a creative business.
Which of your books has the biggest place in your heart?
Joanna Penn: It’s funny, because the book that immediately came to my mind, it’s a supernatural crime thriller called Desecration. It was my fifth novel, and it was the book when I let go of self-censorship.
Now, not completely. But you’re talking to Joanna Penn, and Joanna Penn is upbeat and wears red, and she can do speaking and she can talk and go to parties and things. JF Penn, my fiction author self, likes to be on her own, she wears blue, she has a dark heart, she loves Stephen King.
I wanted to write about the meaning of the physical body after death.
The idea came from a medical specimen museum, where you go in and there are body parts in jars and I was like, “My goodness, what if these people were alive when they went in the jars?” Really dark ideas. So I had a murder in a medical specimen museum, and then a sort of the history of anatomy told in a murder mystery with a bit of a supernatural element.
That book comes to the heart of finding your voice, which is something that people don’t really get until it happens.
“By book five, I knew what I was doing.”
I knew how to write a novel, but I still hadn’t just let my inner self go. Write things where people would say, “Oh she might be a bit weird. That’s a bit dark.” It has not got swearing, it’s not got sex, but it’s got themes that are pretty dark. If people are into Stephen King, writing about death, writing about grief, these things are interesting but quite dark.
That book means a lot to me because I let go of—I guess that need for validation, that need for someone to tell me I’m a good girl and that I’ve done a good job and I’ve pleased people.
My mom stopped reading my books after that.
How do you connect with your audience?
Joanna Penn: I go to graveyards for fun, and I take pictures. In Europe, we have a lot of lovely gravestones and graveyards and churches and architecture. I share pictures of grave stains and graveyards and death culture on Twitter and Pinterest and all those.
The people who enjoy that too, the people who are not afraid to think about death, they are my audience for JF Penn. Now, they’re probably not the audience listening, but some people listening will go, “I like graveyards too, but I never tell people that because it’s something that people judge me for.”
“What do you think people are going to judge you for? That will be the thing that makes you stand out, because your audience is not everyone.”
I think it’s quite revolutionary, in your own life as well and certainly with fiction.
I now write an author’s note at the end like some authors do, and I bare my soul a little. After that book, Desecration, I talked to a lot about the physical body. The book after that, Delirium, was a lot of suicide and mental health. I wrote in my author’s note about some of my own mental health experiences over time.
The more personally we share our journey, people resonate with that.
What motivates you as an author?
Joanna Penn: Coming back to the writing and the validation, I was a finalist in a literary award as the International Thriller Writer’s Best Ebook Original for my book Destroyer of Worlds. I wrote a big blog post about it.
Big names like Clive Cussler and Lee Child—big names in the industry [were involved], and it meant so much to me. It surprised me because I thought I had gotten rid of that need for validation.
I did a podcast when I didn’t win. I talked about what it meant to me to be nominated, what it meant not to win. How annoying that was! This kind of the double standard that we have in our self. “Yay, I am independent” and then, “Please pick me, pick me.”
You know, we have to hold these tensions in our lives. On the one hand,“Yeah I’m going to make loads of money with my business,” and then the other hand we’re like, “But yes, I just want to stay home and be quiet,” or whatever. You know I want to speak, I want to be quiet. We have to hold these dichotomies in our life, and I don’t believe in balance.
“I don’t think there is any balance if you love what you are doing.”
But this seesaw is something that we’re constantly dealing with, this kind of roller coaster. I often talk about Plato’s chariots. I don’t know if you know the metaphor of the chariots, but there’s a dark horse and a white horse. To me, the dark horse is that shadow’s side.
The darker side, the quieter side—the Saturn and the winter and the white—is maybe the business side.
For me it’s Joanna Penn versus JF Penn. If they don’t run together, if you can’t manage the dichotomy of your deeper side with your more outer side, you won’t feel whole. You won’t feel real in your life. That might be one of my next books, I think.
What makes a great story?
Joanna Penn: It’s got to be a character.
Thinking about the bestseller novels, escapism is a really big part, too. So you’ll find that the biggest films, the biggest TV shows, the biggest books are all about escapism.
So even something like Titanic is a different time or it’s a different place, it’s a different world. Even some of the non-fiction like Shell’s Trade, With Wild, or Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, these take people to a different place where they are not. So that escapism I think is super important, and also they need to be into the character. They need to care about the character and you need a really good thing that’s stopping them to get what they want. J.K. Rowling obviously did that very well.
Sometimes it’s just timing, though, as someone who has written a number of novels, none of which have broken out. But I have my own small happy audience who love my novels, separate to my non-fiction audience. Because I don’t think you can think about that as a novelist. If you are writing a novel, you can’t engineer it.
“If you try to engineer a bestselling novel, it’s not going to work.”
You have to go with what you are doing and see what happens. If you are reading Angel by Jason Calacanis at the moment, about investing and founders: investing in a founder is like reading a character in a book. So if you want to go deep with a character, you’re going to read the book.
If you want to go deep into this business, it would be because of people.
You have to have stories about people or about you at the heart of it, because that’s how we learn as humans. So those would be some tips both for fiction and non-fiction. It’s got to be about character and some form of escapism.
Is a book a passport for speaking gigs?
Joanna Penn: It definitely can be. Many non-fiction authors make far more money from speaking and their book is like a business card. I thought I wanted to be a speaker, I actually saw myself more like Tony Robbins. I was like, “I am going to be the British Tony Robbins. I’m going to run self-help things and I’m going to write non-fiction and that’s going to be my future.”
But the reality of speaking for me—why I wrote Speaking For Introverts—is that introverts get energy from being alone and they are very tired when interacting with people. Many authors are introverts because if you do this a lot, you spend a lot of time on your own, in your own head and physically alone, and if you don’t enjoy that then again, why are you bothering? But public speaking as an introvert is very, very tiring.
If you haven’t read Quiet by Susan Cain, that is definitely a book I recommend to people. If you feel and you resonate with what I’m saying, but read anyway. Chances are if you’re an extrovert, people you know like one of your parents or your siblings or your child or your spouse will be an introvert. It’s like 50% of the population.
At the beginning I was like, “Yeah I’m doing lots of speaking!” But I was so tired and I just couldn’t work it out.
I was like, “What is going on with me? Am I ill?” I didn’t use the word introvert at the time until Susan Cain did Quiet, and then I realized that actually maybe that wasn’t the life I wanted. If it doesn’t suit you, then you need to pivot. So now, I only speak a couple of times a year wherever I want to network with people or I want to travel.
Coming right back to the business of this, speaking is also nonscalable. So unless you are going to film your event and then sell an online course that relates to that material, you’ll do that talk, you’ll pay for that talk, and you’ll never get that time back and you’ll never get that money again. Your time is gone.
“The book is the ultimate scalable product.”
A novel is scalable because you never have to update it, unlike non-fiction which most people have to rewrite non-fiction because it gets dated overtime, even if it’s you who’s dated. You’re like, “I am not that person anymore.”
Speaking was a kind of a transition from the day job because it’s good cash flow even if you have a small audience. Even if you run your own events in a local venue, you can make a thousand, $2,000 in a day just by charging a $100 a ticket for example. That’s a good return if you need some cash, but then as I said, if it’s exhausting you and you’re kind of broken, then maybe that is not for you.
How can authors land more speaking gigs?
Joanna Penn: If you wanted to be a speaker, once you have a book all I think you need to do is put it on your business card. Author-speaker-entrepreneur. Put it on your website—have a speaking page that’s front and center. And then people know that they can actually book you. Running your own events is really good, too. If you have expertise that other people want, that could be a good way to start.
If you don’t have a personal brand, you need to have a website because the first thing people do is check out your web presence. So you need at least a landing page for people.
I have actually never pitched for speaking in eight years of being a professional speaker. People have come to me because of my brand, and again, that suits introverts.
But if you want to pitch, then the best thing to do is to stalk the people who are running whatever it is. Stalk them into it. The reason I joined Twitter was basically so I could meet the people who make decisions about things, then retweet them, help them.
“Being useful is really good marketing in general. Pitch something appropriate.”
People are like, “Oh can I come on your podcast? I help people with mortgages.” I’m like, “Well no, why would you come on my show and talk about that?” I talk to writers and artists and things. When you are pitching, you really need to make sure that what you are talking about fits what they want. So I have spoken at things like real estate shows but on things like building a personal brand, because that can go across multiple niches.
But yeah, definitely targeting, getting to know people, being useful. My ultimate thing is: go and build a person or a brand. Start a podcast or start blogging or write a Medium or build an audience and people will come to you, which is kind of awesome.
What do authors need to know about book marketing?
Again, I want to come back to know yourself and be honest with yourself. For example, if you are an extrovert, you love meeting people, speaking and speaking at events—going to live events can be very effective. When you meet people in person, you’re far more likely to make relationships that can lead to opportunities to speak at things.
Now, again, this is something that I’m not so keen on. That’s something I kind of shy away from, whereas what I chose to do that suits my personality is content marketing, which is online. That’s why I started a podcast, that’s why I’ve been blogging three times a week for eight years, that’s why I got on Twitter. To be useful and attract people. I learned from Copy Blogger back in the day, and Pro Blogger which is still fantastic sites for learning about blogging. I don’t think blogging is over, by any means.
“Some people say blogging is dead, but it’s not.”
It’s still SEO. My traffic still goes up every month, and most of my income is affiliate income and book sales and stuff related to my website.
Building content is fantastic marketing, but it can take quite a long time. The other thing is, you can use paid traffic, Facebook ads—obviously brilliant for books right now: Amazon advertising. Amazon advertising is the big thing right now
Would you recommend Facebook ads for book marketing?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, especially if you have a book on sale, if you’re on KDP Select. Obviously you have to decide your definition of success if you’re having a free run, or I did a post last year about ad stacking. So I hit the USA Today list last year, and I’ve hit both lists, but both of them with box sets on special, which I did with a Book Bub plus Facebook ads.
Yeah, Facebook ads are amazing. If you’re doing it for a specific spike promotion and you have a marketing budget, then you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to spend this money.”
“I pretty much broke even when I hit the list.”
But there’s a reason you do that versus the ongoing revenue from your book. Again, you have to decide, what is your definition of success for your marketing campaign and what are you going to do for the short term, like a price promotion and a Book Bub plus Facebook ads and Amazon ads, versus doing a podcast every week for eight years, versus loading up on Instagram.
You know, I think you need to do both but only—you do the long-term marketing if you are planning on doing this for the long term. Otherwise, yeah, sure, just do the short-term spike and then do something else.
Any parting advice?
Yeah, the most important thing to come back to is if you’ve resonated with some of the things we’ve talked about and you’re like, “Yeah, I really enjoy writing, I really enjoy being an author or I want to be an author,” then you need to do it.
I spent way too many years reading books on writing without actually writing or thinking, “I love novels, I think novelists are amazing,” without trying to write a novel. You know, I wish I got started earlier.
“We’re living in the best time in history to make a living from your writing—if you’re willing to be both the artist and the business person.”
Learn these new skills and get out there and do it. I mean, I’m still sharing everything on my blog and my podcast, TheCreativePenn.com. If people have any questions, I’m always happy to answer them.
But really, again, come back to thinking who am I, what do I want, where do I want to be in five, ten years time, and identify that and then go for it. Seriously, this is so much fun.