I discovered Joanna's blog a few years ago and signed up for her newsletter recently, mostly to get my hands on her Author 2.0 Blueprint, an ebook aimed at helping indie authors publish and market their books - if publishing (indie or otherwise) is a dream for you, I suggest you have a look at it.
She is a great advocate for self-publishing - and yet recently signed with a literary agent for her novels. So, being the nosy type that I am, I thought I'd ask her why.
Allison Tait: You describe yourself as an author-entrepreneur and strongly promote the idea that authors should take up the reins of their own careers and incomes – what are your three top tips for helping to make that happen?
Joanna Penn: "Authors, like any creatives, need to get to grips with business if they want to make a decent living. Start by reframing business as creative, just as much as writing is. We take an idea and create money from it, just like taking a blank page and creating a book from it.
(1) Get educated
There are so many authors sharing their journeys online now so you can find out the best ways to publish and market as well as to write. Even if you want a traditional book deal, you still need to know a lot about contracts and the professional side of being an author. I especially recommend following Dean Wesley Smith’s Think like a Publisher series and Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Business Rusch for starters.
Relationships are critical. Firstly, as a writer, because our lives can become quite insular without like-minded friends who share the same challenges we do. If I didn’t have my writer friends and Twitter for global contacts, I would go crazy!
Secondly, authentic relationships with people all over the world will lead to opportunities you could never have dreamed of. Through Twitter, my podcast and my blog as well as my books, I have been asked to speak internationally, met my agent, got an audiobook deal and been interviewed on sites like this one!
(3) Be empowered
Don’t let anyone else have power and control over your business if you are serious about this as a profession. If you don’t understand how something works, then find out about it. Don’t leave it until it’s too late because every book you write has the potential to be income for you now until years after your death. The internet and online tools empower us to get our words out into the world but also to connect with people globally. Claim that power!"
You say on your site that you self-published your first non-fiction book and 'made a lot of mistakes', but have gone on to self-publish three novels and rewrite and re-release that first book. What was the biggest mistake you made with the non-fiction book – and what changes did you make before publishing the novels?
JP: "Back in early 2008 when I was self-publishing for the first time, there was no Kindle outside the US and e-books were only for techies. Blogging was very niche and social networks were only just beginning to go mainstream. It was a different world!
But the two biggest mistakes I made are still relevant:
(1) Doing a print run of several thousand books without having a distribution mechanism for them. This is a common mistake and I absolutely recommend people who want print books now to use print-on-demand unless they have some kind of guaranteed distribution, and definitely start with e-book first to test the market. Otherwise, like me, you may have some very expensive land-fill material.
(2) Knowing nothing about sales before publishing. Like many authors, I assumed that once my fantastic book was available, “everyone” would buy it. But of course, no one knew who I was and I sold very few books, even once I got the hang of traditional media marketing. Once I started learning about blogging, social networking, podcasting, video and content marketing, things started to take off and I’ve never looked back! I recently rewrote and republished Career Change and it sold more books in one month than it did over the first two years of the original version!"
While self-publishing is easier and more acceptable than ever, having your books stand out amidst the 'noise' is not. What, to you, is the key to building a successful author platform?
JP: "The most important thing is to get your book into the hands of readers who will be interested in reading it. So you have to understand your market in the first place, and where you fit in terms of the category on Amazon and other online bookstores. That means you do need to understand genre and not just say your book is original and can’t be categorized. That won’t help you!
"Make sure you optimise your book page on the retail sites as much as possible. This means ensuring the book is professionally edited, with a great title, description, use of keywords and correct category as well as a stunning sample that makes people want to buy.
"Next, make sure you have at least a static website and a way for people to sign up for your book. You can see how I do it for my fiction at www.JFPenn.com. At the very least, you should have a page at the back of your existing book asking fans to sign up. This will build the list for your next book.
"From there you can do anything else you like - blogging, podcasting, paid promotion, use of free pricing, social media, speaking, events - and you will always be collecting a list of eager readers ready to buy the next book. Remember, this is a long term game!"
In June 2012, you signed with a literary agent to pursue a traditional publishing deal for your fiction. Why did you do that when your self-published books were selling well?
JP: "I am a very happy indie author but I believe there are benefits to having one foot in big publishing and increasingly, successful self-published authors are going hybrid, with books spread across multiple modes of publishing. Digital Book World recently released a survey showing that hybrid authors earn more money and are the most entrepreneurial and with examples like CJ Lyons, Scott Sigler and now Hugh Howey and Colleen Hoover, I think it will become more common to do both.
"Here’s my full post on why I signed with an agent and why I will consider a publishing deal if offered one. But basically, I think that traditional publishers can still offer a quality print product and better print distribution as well as open up possibilities for new readers and different opportunities.
"However, I have researched contracts ad infinitum and so I know about protecting as well as exploiting my rights. I will only be signing a deal if it is truly mutually beneficial because at the rate the publishing industry changes right now, we all have to mind our own businesses!"
You're running a successful website, uploading new podcasts and ebooks constantly, writing fiction, consulting with authors… How do you make the time to fit everything in?
JP: "It was much harder when I had a day-job as an IT consultant but in September 2011 I gave that up to become a full-time author-entrepreneur so it is much easier now. Back then I would get up earlier every morning and work for an hour, plus every evening and weekend to get everything done. The process is still the same now - I chunk my time and make sure I concentrate primarily on production, rather than consumption.
"So every day I have a word count target of new writing and then I move into the other projects I have on the go, like preparing slides for a speaking engagement or doing some author consulting, or doing a podcast interview. I am a hardcore diariser and every day is scheduled, including my downtime! It’s the only way I can get everything done and have quality time with my husband.
"In the evenings, instead of watching TV for hours, I might watch one show on the laptop (I don’t even have an actual TV) and then spend the rest of the time doing an interview like this, editing the podcast, scheduling some tweets or responding to email from fans.
"If this sounds rigid, you have to remember that this is my fun, my passion and my life as well as my business and my “job”. I spent 13 years as a miserable IT consultant and this is my dream life - writing and travelling, speaking and networking. This is a serious career for me and I am driven to achieve, plus I love it!"
Visit Joanna at The Creative Penn or say hello on Twitter. You'll find more information about her novels at www.JFPenn.com. And give some thought to signing up for that newsletter. It's really worth handing over your email address.
What do you think of self-published books? Would you ever do it yourself?