Today we are bringing you an interview with Joanna Penn, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. Penn got her start in nonfiction after making a dramatic change from her successful corporate career, then began writing fiction under alias J.F. Penn. She is the author of eleven self-help books geared towards career changers, writers, and self-publishers, along with seventeen dark thrillers and fantasy novels. She also has a popular podcast on book marketing and entrepreneurship. We feel very fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to meet with her, and I know that you will all benefit from her insight. Read the interview below or listen to the full recording.
Note: Interview text has been edited for concision and clarity. Timestamps may vary slightly.
|Pierce Press||Hello, this is Charlotte Pierce. I’m the publisher of Pierce Press [this site], former president of the Independent Publishers of New England, and a contributing editor of Fictional Cafe. We are here today with Joanna Penn. If you are an independent publisher or author, you probably already know who she is because she’s one of the gurus in our field. We are thrilled to have you here, Joanna. Thank you for coming.
Recording timestamp 00:00
|Joanna Penn||Oh, thanks a lot Charlotte, it’s great to talk to you.|
|Pierce Press||I thought we could focus today on making that leap from being an independent or solo writer to having a publishing business. I know that’s a lot of territory to cover, but maybe you can give us some of the basic strategies you used.
Recording timestamp 00:52
|Joanna Penn||Sure, so I started writing my first nonfiction book back in 2006 when I was working as a business consultant. I used to implement accounts payable into large corporations, which can be boring – corporate cubicle slave, you know, highly paid six-figure consultant traveling around the world. I was doing all the things you’re meant to do. I had the house and the mortgage and blah blah blah. And I was just so miserable. I was like, what am I doing with my life?
So, I started writing a book about career change because I didn’t know what I wanted to do and a lot of people have that issue. I’d always journaled, and I finally decided to write a self-help book. I was reading a lot of self-help, people like Tony Robbins, Jack Canfield. In the process of writing I wrote this career-change book and publishing it myself I decided that I wanted to write. From there, I started writing more nonfiction and then later went into fiction. I left my day job in 2011 to do this full time and now I have a multi six-figure business and 26 books. It’s much bigger than my day job ever was, and I feel much more fulfilled.
Recording timestamp 01:18
|Joanna Penn||So that’s some encouragement for people; wherever you are on the journey, you have to decide what you want. I mentioned Jack Canfield. His book, The Success Principles, is about how to get from where you are to where you want to be, and back in 2006-2008 I realized I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t want to be just a writer, I wanted to make a good living as a writer, and that’s a big difference.
Recording timestamp 02:57
|Pierce Press||When you started that career change, you wrote nonfiction before you started your fiction writing?
Recording timestamp 03:29
|Joanna Penn||Yes, I did three nonfiction before I started writing a novel. I really only started writing a novel because I had a blog and a podcast by then and I realized there was this whole side of writing I hadn’t tried, so I did National Novel Writing Month in 2011, and it was just amazing. 20,000 words a month became the seed of my first novel, which I eventually published, and now I have more novels than nonfiction.
Recording timestamp 3:35
|Pierce Press||I bought one of your novels earlier yesterday to see what your fiction writing was like and it’s not a genre that I normally read, but I was like, wow, you know, this is pretty gripping.
Recording timestamp 4:12
|Joanna Penn||Oh, well thank you. Yeah, this is a really important point as well. I write under different names because I feel like they’re different parts of my personality, so I write thrillers under JF Penn and nonfiction under Joanna Penn. That’s one of the freedoms we have as creatives; we can have multiple pen names that help us express different things.
Recording timestamp 4:30
|Pierce Press||I was wondering about that. After you started out as Joanna Penn, how did you leverage that platform over to your fiction without telling everyone that you’re Joanna Penn? Or did that matter?
Recording timestamp 4:51
|Joanna Penn||Oh, well that depends whether you’re keeping it quiet. I’ve never kept mine quiet. There are people who want to keep it secret and that’s not a problem. What I would also say is the audience is very different, so probably only five percent of my nonfiction audience will like my fiction.
Recording timestamp 5:03
|Pierce Press||Yes, of course. So, in the Independent Publishers of New England, we deal with a lot of people who are kind of sitting with a book, trying to figure out how to turn it into a business. I personally would like to continue to grow my independent publishing as a business, and I’m wondering if you have some tips for that. You’re sitting here, you’re a solo author and I know you probably have employees now, but how do you build a team?
Recording timestamp 5:35
|Joanna Penn||There are a few things. First of all, I don’t have employees. It’s just me and my husband vending the business and working with a lot of freelancers. So obviously if you have employees in a business that adds a whole layer of overheads to your stuff, but I work with virtual assistants. We’re very lucky in this era because there are virtual assistants to help you with all kinds of things. I work with different professional editors for each genre. I work with cover designers, I work with technical people, I have a bookkeeper, an accountant…I have all the different roles that you would need to run a business, but they are all freelancers and they work on an hourly rate. In fact, going back to when we went full time, the first person I hired was a bookkeeper.
Recording timestamp 7:10
|Pierce Press||I did that too. It’s a huge peace of mind thing.|
|Joanna Penn||This is important if you are going to shift your mindset to running a business: you don’t have to set up a company. You do have to do certain things to report at a company level. For example, one very important thing is separating your accounts. Even if you’re not going to set up a company account, you still need a separate bank account so you can track the money going in and the money coming out and you can then see what you’re spending and what you’re getting. Then you can hire important professionals like editors and cover designers over time. I have links on my site for recommendations.
The other thing I would say is one book is never enough. As I said, I have 26 at this point. I didn’t start making a living until I had about seven books and it wasn’t even just from that, it was from speaking, blogging, and freelance work. So if you want to run a business as a writer you have to have multiple streams of income. But certainly, collaborating with other creatives and doing freelance work are really important.
Recording timestamp 8:16
|Pierce Press||And developing a good relationship with the people you hire, because with lead time juggling all these people on their own schedules is a little dicey.
Recording timestamp 9:40
|Joanna Penn||Of course. Hiring people by the hour or by the project means that it doesn’t matter if you don’t have work for them right away but it helps to give them a heads-up. Obviously if you’re going to hire an editor, you don’t finish your book draft and then go saying I need an editor today; that won’t happen. You need to build in some lead time when you book an editor, you can keep them up to date with any movement in the schedule.
And you also need to be a good client. For example, I pay on receipt of a PayPal invoice. So I’ll receive an invoice and I will pay it as soon as I see that email and that’s how I treat my freelance people. They never have to chase me for money, I never have to chase them for work. I did have some rough experiences with an early virtual assistant who I had to get rid of, but this is the thing: if you’re hiring freelancers, you have to try them out and see if you can work together and make sure it’s worth the money. So, for example, hiring people to do your social media when you’ve got one book is completely pointless.
Recording timestamp 9:57
|Pierce Press||Exactly. I gave a workshop a few months ago that was at a bookstore and a bunch of people came and I said, who hates social media? And like half of the people raised their hand and I said, well get over it because that’s one of the things you can leverage to make it happen for you. So, you know, there are so many people that just want to be a writer and they want to publish a book, but they can’t. You have to be your own best salesman
Recording timestamp 11:11
|Joanna Penn||Yeah, that’s another thing about running a business. You have to work in your business as a writer but also on your business. You can’t be a successful entrepreneur or a business person unless you are willing to learn the necessary skills. I have a degree in theology, I have another degree in psychology. I have no qualifications in creative writing, publishing, or marketing. My job was in accounts payable, you know, on an obscure system. So everything I do now is being learned. We learn how to do podcasting, we learn how to do videos, and everything changes anyway. I got on Twitter back in 2009, but now I’m really getting into Instagram.
Recording timestamp 11:51
|Pierce Press||Yeah, exactly. And I think when I got on Twitter originally it was the place to be and now I know things have changed. I still think it’s a great place to be, but I’m being much more personal on Instagram. So you have to change things up over time as well. And people think, well there are like 50 social media sites out there, I can’t do them all. But you don’t do them all. You just do three or four.
Recording timestamp 12:54
|Joanna Penn||Yeah, I would say you need to at least to have a profile. So for example, Facebook. I don’t like Facebook, I don’t spend much time on Facebook, but I have pages and I run ads. And if people are feeling overwhelmed… you just have to focus on what is the next step that is going to move you towards your goal, which is why you need to know what your goal is.
Recording timestamp 13:18
|Pierce Press||Right. And you know, the big thing that we’re talking about here in the States with the IBPA– which is the Independent Book Publishers Association, the New England one is an affiliate of it– is hybrid publishing. I don’t publish my own writing because I don’t enjoy doing that, but I like to make other people’s dreams come true. Do you have a lot of that in the UK, where you become a collaborator or partner with the author? Or do you just do your own books?
Recording timestamp 13:53
|Joanna Penn||I just do my own books. I don’t want to work with authors. I do have a publishing company. I have an imprint, Curl Up Press, but I don’t want to be a publisher, I want to write my own books and publish my own books. But we do have what you call hybrid publishers. The difficulty, I think, comes from the fact that there are some excellent companies that will pay part of the costs and give you a better percentage, and there are some companies that are awful, taking authors for a ride. You know, I’ve heard stories of authors paying 20 grand to get one book full of typos and are just desperate, desperately ripped off. Now, the difficulty I think for your group is how do you make sure you are seen as one of the good guys.
What I do – because I get pitched daily by publishing companies who want me to endorse them – is I send them to the Alliance of Independent Authors who have a watchdog service and a list. And I’m like, look, if you can get listed on the Alliance website as an approved partner, then I’ll send people in your direction. But if you can’t then I won’t because there are so many companies popping up every day; imprints, sometimes imprints of things that have shut down basically. So this is the issue. I don’t have any problem with ethical publishers who co-publish with other authors, I just don’t like those ones on that end of the scale.
Recording timestamp 14:40
|Pierce Press||Yeah. So, just in the course of my 10 years with the Independent Publishers of New England, I’ve seen so many people who just do not know how to get their book or manuscript to the next level. What I try and counsel them sometimes is to have a street team, people that take your book and become your evangelists. I know you’re beyond that level now, but are there some specific steps that you could recommend for building a group of people who can get your message out?
Recording timestamp 16:59
|Joanna Penn||I think there’s a couple of different ways. One is to consistently put out good content. In my nonfiction, I have a weekly podcast every Monday. I’ve done that regularly for nine years now and people share it because they find it useful and that in turn spreads the message of my nonfiction persona. For my fiction the situation is quite different, because at the moment what’s moving the needle is paid advertising; Facebook and so forth.
But in terms of street team, I do it in a very relaxed way: I build an email list. At JF Penn.com, you can get a free book if you sign up with your email. When never I’m about to release a book, I invite people who enjoy my work to join my Penn Friends. My Penn Friends are a subset of readers who get the book before release. Most of them like it and buy it themselves, and then they will do a review at the [official] release.
Recording timestamp 17:48
|Joanna Penn||So you can do that too. Or you can do it in a really passive way. Maybe just in your email sequence, the 10th email that goes out to subscribers says something like “If you enjoy my books, you can sign up here to get the next one early.” Or you can be more proactive, with a company like Book Funnel. Book Funnel is a fantastic way to give away books. This is where you have to decide how you’re going to spend your time. Because if want to spend one hour a day on getting your book out there, you can’t do everything. So what are you going to do? Are you going to research and pitch some podcasters? Are you going to research and pitch some book bloggers? Are you going to do social media? Are you going to do paid advertising?
Recording timestamp 19:08
|Joanna Penn||That hour a day will disappear when you do paid ads. But to be fair, you also have to decide what your advertising personality is. I prefer content marketing. I like doing my podcast. I like being helpful. That’s just me; other people want to sit there with spreadsheets and analyze numbers.
Recording timestamp 20:18
|Pierce Press||I did the Google hangouts show for several years for our Peeragogy project, which is about collaborative learning and teamwork. We created a book that was about creating and doing collaborative work in peer learning and peer production environments, and it was a wonderful experience.
One thing that people worry about in our [IPNE] group is, “I don’t want to put my stuff out there because somebody is going to steal it.” Is that a concern? Is that something we should worry about?
|Joanna Penn||I don’t worry about it. The most pirated books out there are like JK Rowling, you know, the [mega] bestselling books. There are quotes by people like Paulo Coelho, Neil Gaiman, and Cory Doctorow, I think it was Doctorow who said something like, “you shouldn’t fear piracy as much as obscurity.” Piracy happens, but our readers are not the pirates. I’m a massive reader; I probably read five books a week. I buy them all, you know, I buy them online and I’m surrounded by books. I don’t look for pirated books. If somebody is getting pirated books, there are a couple of reasons; one, they are a bad person, but that’s not usually it. It is usually because they are in a territory where the book is not available.
Recording timestamp 20:39
|Joanna Penn||The only time I ever thought about pirating, was when I was living in Australia and a book came out in America and I couldn’t get it for a year. So the best thing you can do for this reason is put your book out worldwide. As independents, we own 100 percent of our rights to all markets. So when I publish, I publish in 190 countries. I just go for it and I get the book out everywhere in the world. And then why would someone pirate it? I have sold books in 89 countries.
Recording timestamp 22:31
|Pierce Press||It’s kind of like planting your flag on the moon, if you do it first and you do it well.
Recording timestamp 23:35
|Joanna Penn||Yes. There are barriers to getting into certain countries. I get emails from all over the place, people who buy their books on Kobo because it’s DRM-free in Sub Saharan Africa for example. I mean that’s really exciting. So I would advise people not to worry about piracy, just make sure that when you publish and when you market, you are available around the world. If you have licensed rights to one market and you have not published these books in the UK or you do not have licenses to Australia, then get on and do that because you could be making money in those other markets.
Recording timestamp 23:46
|Pierce Press||So say I have a fiction book and it’s really good and everybody loves it and I’m getting it through production processes. Are there are some places where I can put chapters out and get some feedback? Is a platform like Wattpad a good way to get the word out? What other tools have you used?
Recording timestamp 25:11
|Joanna Penn||Well, Wattpad is a very specific site. Its predominant market is young women, so if you have young adult books, young adult does very well on Wattpad. So I have a couple of books on Wattpad but it’s not something I use much. It’s a social network, not a distributor. If you’re going to use something like Wattpad, then you have to actually be there and chat and comment. So I think Wattpad is a choice that people make and then you really need to go hard into it. If you have a novel that is just out and you don’t already have an email list, obviously you should be building an email list
Recording timestamp 25:32
|Joanna Penn||But, as I mentioned, what’s moving the needle on book sales is Amazon ads, Facebook ads, paid advertising. And then in order to get the bigger advertising platforms like Bookbub to be interested, you need a lot of reviews. You could pitch book bloggers who liked books in your niche, you can give away books. The best and fastest way to get reviews on your book is to make your eBook available for free and then advertise it. But most new authors don’t want to do that, so it will depend on where you are in your journey.
I put things out, spend a whole load of money in the first week on ads, and then I wait till I’ve got reviews. Then I will pitch for something like a Bookbub ad. And then once you get Bookbub, that becomes the tent pole and around that you can use sites like Bargain Booksy. There are tons and tons of sites where you can get email lists and marketing and then add your Facebook ads and your Amazon ads onto that. That advertising campaign will push your book up the charts, or at least help you break even, but it works best for a series. The next 10 books in a series are much easier to market because you can just market book one. If people like it, they’re going to go through the other books, and then you can sell box sets.
Recording timestamp 26:26
|Joanna Penn||I do print as well, but an ebook boxed set is a really good value. I sell on Kobo and something like 70 percent of my revenue is from box sets. In general, it’s all about multiple streams of income. For example, my last book, How to Write a Nonfiction Book, is available in eBook on all the platforms, print, audio book, large print, workbook, and the course. So I have lots of streams of income from just the one book.
Recording timestamp 28:25
|Pierce Press||That was one of the things I wanted to touch upon; the diversification, you know, within your field. One fiction author I know, Kathleen Colvin, writes classics based in Greek and Roman times, and she’ll blog about the habits and fashions in Rome. It’s a good lesson in going with your genre or passion and expanding to other areas.
Recording timestamp 29:09
|Joanna Penn||Yes, definitely. Another form of income now, which is really quite new, is Patreon. I used Patreon for my podcast, but there are lots of authors now doing Patreon for short stories and novels, who are basically bypassing the big platforms and even the publishers. For example, Sean Mcguire-who is really famous to begin with-she’s getting over 10 grand per short story, which is much higher than average.
Try that stuff. All of this helps you attract an audience. Whatever you write, you attract people who like your genre. Once people know who you are and what you write, then over time things will grow. And sort of circling back again, the important thing is consistency over time and regular output overtime. You have to be prolific. You have to be writing a lot of books. If it’s going to be your income, you have to also work for it.
Recording timestamp 29:51
|Pierce Press||But like your colleague Nick Stephenson said in a recent webinar, you can’t just put them out there and hope for the best.
Recording timestamp 31:13
|Joanna Penn||Right, you have to attract people by doing various things. But what you choose has to fit your personality. I do so much online and that works for me because I’m an introvert. You know, so many writers are introverts, and online marketing is actually really good because, you know, you and I are actually alone here, you’re talking to me over the internet and this could go out to, we don’t know how many people. And it’s done on our own time and it’s not threatening, it’s not crowded like large events. So I tend to avoid large events and I prefer this kind of thing. But some authors are extroverts. They want to get out there, they want to do speaking or conventions– everyone’s different. You have to find the best way for you.
Recording timestamp 31:21
|Pierce Press||Well, this has been really helpful and I know we have to wrap it up pretty soon, but do you have any other gurus or collaborators that you really turn to for advice?
Recording timestamp 32:17
|Joanna Penn||Well, I think the people who I looked to are the people whose careers I wanted to emulate. Dean Wesley Smith and Christine Catherine Rush, who are American authors, have something like 400 novels between them. They are these incredibly prolific authors and now they put out nonfiction. There are the bloggers at kriswrites.com. They are kind of my mentors in learning the craft and the business. I’m always doing courses, I go to their events in America, and then in my Twitter stream @thecreativepenn I share a lot of content from other people. The people you admire are going to be based on what your goals are.
Recording timestamp 32:26
|Pierce Press||I just started following your blog and podcasts, and I just wish I had done it a long time ago.
Recording timestamp 34:17
|Joanna Penn||You’re in luck, I’m not going anywhere!
Recording timestamp 34:29
|Pierce Press||f you’re ever in the States, we’re in the Boston area and we have this thriving group of authors and publishers called the Metro Boston Independent Publishers group that we would love to have you visit. And then the Independent Publishers of New England has a conference on November 17 in New Hampshire.
Recording timestamp 34:36
|Joanna Penn||I’m speaking at the BookBaby conference in Philadelphia at the beginning of November, first weekend in November, so I will be in Philadelphia but not further north. But yes, I think what’s interesting is we are in this global market now. What I like about online stuff is we can be everywhere. People can look at this from all over the world.
Recording timestamp 35:06
|Pierce Press||I think this will be really valuable for people and we just scratched the surface of course, but we would love to have you back.|
|Joanna Penn||Oh, thank you so much. If people want to find out more, I’m at thecreativepenn.com and the Creative Penn podcast is every Monday. So if people want audio, more English accent…you never know.
Recording timestamp 35:55
|Pierce Press||Well, thank you again, you were very kind to take the time to talk with us.|
|Joanna Penn||Thanks for having me.|