Ep 020: “The Business of Being An Author”

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Welcome to the 20th episode of The Author Hangout, a “Hangout on Air” designed to help authors, especially self-published and indie authors, with marketing their books and improving their author platform. Authors struggle with various aspects of marketing and we are here to help!

“Writing is one of these brilliant careers you can do until the day you die.”– Joanna Penn

The Business of Being An Author

Writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, uses one side of your brain. This helps you to create an awesome book. Unfortunately, you need to switch gears in order to start selling your book, and many authors struggle with the business side of things, especially marketing.

We were joined by Joanna Penn for a really great interview. She discussed her journey to becoming an author, including some of her failures that you can learn from, as well as get inspiration from. She also discussed the business side of being an author, and how you need to have a long-term view of your author business.

The Author Hangout – Episode 20: “The Business of Being An Author”

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Joanna Penn shared a little bit about who she is as an author, her podcasting, and more. She talks about how she got into being a self-published author, and her past jobs that are as far from being an author as possible.

Be sure to listen to the interview to learn more about Joanna.

How has coming from the corporate world applied to your author business?

“I think my natural tendency is to learn everything I can about stuff and then put it into practice, and so I’ve written How to Market a Book based on years of learning about book marketing. Like I say, I don’t have a degree in book marketing; I just learned it, and then I want to write about it. However, I do think – I feel this with fiction very much: it’s taken me really up until my book Desecration, I think, to find my voice. Which is something that everyone talks about with fiction and nobody really understands until you actually find it. And I think the problem with when you’re overeducated – so now I call myself “overeducated,” because I have too many degrees in things – you overanalyze things, you over-consult on things. So realistically, I have to shut down this big critical side of my head when I want to write fiction, and it’s something I’m exploring at the moment.”

How was Jack Canfield’s “The Success Principles” instrumental in you becoming a bestselling author?

In Joanna Penn’s first ever video on YouTube, she did a book review of Jack Canfield’s “The Success Principles“. We dove into this book more and how it helped her:

“I was at the point in my life where I was going, “Okay, so I’m a successful consultant; how did I get here?” This book made me confront the fact that I got there because every choice I made had led me to that moment. And I hadn’t made choices that would change my direction. So what I ended up doing was going “What choices do I need to make to change direction?” One of the big changes I made in my life was I went 4 days a week at work in order to write that first book. So I gave up essentially 20% of my income in order to make space for something else. And sometimes, we have to make space for something else in order for that something else to arrive. Often, there’s no time in our lives for coming up with new ideas or changing things. So that book – I reread it sometimes, actually, and I recommend it to everyone. It really helped me at a time when I just didn’t know what to do. But that “how to get from where you are to where you want to be” is also instrumental, because if you don’t know where you want to be, you can’t make the choices to get there.”

What are some of the failures you have had?

She first attacked this question about some of the failures of her past…

“I’m one of those people who believes that failure is important and we learn from it and everything. But I’ve had some big ones, like when I tried to start doing other businesses, I started a scuba diving business in New Zealand, which just had so many issues with it. I mean, the price of petrol would be one big issue, plus employees and insurance and marketing for luxury scuba diving, the weather – I mean, talk about business models. Being an author is so much better. So that business failed. I did property investment; that failed. My first marriage failed. We learn things from each of these experiences.”

She then pivoted to her failures as an author:

“When I did that first book, How to Enjoy Your Job, this was before the Kindle, 2007, 2008, just as the Kindle started in America, but I was in Australia. So I printed 2,000 copies of that book and had them in my house. So of course, that cost me probably around $6,000 Aussie dollars. Of course, then I realized that I didn’t know how to sell them, which was the thing that started my marketing journey. So that was a big mistake. Since then, I’ve really learned doing things digitally, print on demand.”

Joanna then shared some really great advice:

“Creatives should take more risks and not be afraid of failure. So this is something I really want to try and investigate. And try and write some books that are more edgy and less acceptable, perhaps.”

Why is it so hard for for authors to treat their book and brand as a business?

Joanne talked about why she wrote her new book, called Business for Authors:

“Most authors have a day job, and most authors, up until recently, have not been able to make a living from their writing. They’ve been freelance writers, they’ve been teachers, they’ve taught at universities or whatever, or had other jobs. But what’s happened in the last few years is it’s now possible to make a living from your writing self-publishing, or as I like to say, indie publishing or being an indie author. So my aim with this book, Business for Authors, was to try and educate people.”

She also dove right into how important it is to treat your brand as a business:

“For authors, a product is a book. There’s no difference between my business to a giant mining company; we all need customers, we need to pay people, vendors, we need money coming in, we have expenses, we have to do marketing. All these things. So what I wanted to do was kind of try and organize the job of an author if you want to do this full-time. And that’s the important distinction. A lot of people don’t want to do this full-time.”

How does an author go from being just an author to being an entrepreneur?

“I definitely think there is a mindset shift. Like we talked about, you have to decide where you want to get to. For me, it was very much when I decided to write fiction, for example, there were lots of things that I could’ve written, but I was like “I want to write something that is commercial.” Stuff that I love – I love action/adventure, I love explosions and action movies – but I’m not going to write literary fiction, for example. I’m going to write commercial fiction because it’s going to sell. So actually having an attitude of what will sell is important; however, not to write to the market, but actually just to be aware of what you love, what other people love. And if you want to make a living from it, you have to understand how the income model works and what expenses you’re going to have.”


“One of the things that annoys me, I think, is that people complain about spending money on an editor or a cover designer. If you start any business, you have to invest some money. For authors, that money is very small. Compared to my scuba diving business with a boat and all of that, it’s so cheap being an author. So if you invest in professional editing, professional cover design, etc.. you can start this business and you can take this very seriously. So I think for people to make it as an entrepreneur, you actually have to be thinking about these questions of money, which a lot of authors from the years of traditional publishing and this myth of creativity being kind of God-given, that has stopped people thinking this way. But I believe that there’s a change happening right now.”

What is the mindset authors need to have to be successful?

Here’s Joanna’s take on it:

“I think one of the biggest things is this long-term view that is really missing, I think, for a lot of people. There’s this myth in the publishing industry that you write a book and you make a million dollars, and that’s it, you can retire. Tada! But actually, that is a real myth. I mean, that rarely happens. Often the people whose first book does make them a million dollars, it’s not their first book anyway. They’ve got loads of books in a drawer, or they were a screenwriter. Lee Child, perfect example. First book, Jack Reacher book, makes him loads of money, and that’s it, that’s all he needs to write now. And I love Jack Reacher. But the fact is, Lee Child was in TV, a TV producer for like 30 years. So a story had become part of his consciousness before he started writing. So for the rest of us, this long-term view is so critical, because writing is one of these brilliant careers you can do until the day you die, and each of those books, fiction in particular, can earn you money until the day you die. It just keeps on earning.”

She also had a cool way of looking at the long-term view:

“For authors, I talk about the Olympic period, as in every Olympics is every 4 years, right? The big Olympics every 4 years. Between the – when I got married in 2008, during the 2008 Olympics, and I was an IT consultant; I had no books, I had no blog, I had no audience, I had no nothing – 4 years later, at the London Olympics, I was living on the other side of the world as a full-time author entrepreneur. I had books, I had an audience. My whole life had changed in 4 years. So I urge people to think in that 4-year period of decide what you want, actually act – don’t just do all that Law of Attraction stuff; you actually have to do something – but then think about a 4-year period and how much you can achieve in 4 years. Because 1 year is never enough, right?”

Indie Publishing vs Self-Publishing…Go

“I think there’s a big distinction… Creative expression is the reason you self-publish. But if you were doing this as a business, I don’t like the term self-publishing for if you’re doing this professionally. Some people call it professional self-publishing, but I like indie author, independent author, because I don’t have a publisher. I’m not beholden to anyone but my readers and my own drive. I have 11 freelancers that I pay on a regular basis. So I have a business, essentially.”

What are some of the challenges that you face as an author entrepreneur?

“The challenge that any author faces, which is actually writing. The funny thing is about writing, it’s simple, but it’s not easy. Like exercise and diet and all of those things you know you should be doing. For me, the challenge is – well, fiction is hard. It’s actually really hard to write fiction; it’s very rewarding, and I like to measure my life by what I create – that’s kind of what I feel is my life now. It’s what have I created? But it’s very difficult. So like I said, that kind of mindset is what I’m tackling. But the only way to do this is to write.”

She then made it personal with some great inspiration:

“I don’t feel I am successful yet. My definition of successful is – I’m not there. So I have another view of the next few years, which is where I get to where I want to be. But it’s funny, like that Jack Canfield book, you do keep moving the goalposts. First of all mine was “I’m going to be an author” and then it was “I’m going to be a full-time author,” and now it’s like I have the next goal, the next goal.”

What’s currently working for you with regards to marketing your fiction books?

“Oh, that’s a tough one. I think everyone will say that the only thing that is almost guaranteed to spike sales is an email list – either your own email list, which you’ve grown by having a signup at the back of your book and on your website, so you’ve grown your own list of readers; that’s really critical. But if you want to spike it even more, then paying for an email blast through a site like BookBub or FreeBooksy or – there’s loads of them. There’s loads of these sites at the moment. But if they have a targeted audience who open emails and buy books, that is probably the main way of spiking your sales.”

She also made a distinction between “spike marketing” (the big promotions), and long-term marketing:

“This long-term view, I think it’s so important. Everything we do – like this interview, right? People can find this in years’ time, and we will have moved on, things change, but these little breadcrumbs that we put around the internet I think are so important for this long-term effect. So that’s why I continue to do all this platform stuff, which is more long-term marketing, less spike marketing. Another brick in the wall, another day.”

How often are you looking at your business model and the changes?

Businesses change and grow. An author with 1 book will be focusing on other things than an author with 3 books. She provides some great tips for any author:

“Yeah. I’ve had a couple of big shifts. Like a couple of years ago when I was writing nonfiction, I never thought I would write fiction, so I was writing nonfiction and I was doing online courses – you know, multimedia courses, which are very popular amongst the blogging space. That was my business model. And I was speaking. And then as I started to learn about fiction, and I actually found I love this and now it’s really cool, I’ve switched my business model to trying to phase out the online courses and do more fiction and speaking as more. So that’s a change in my business model. What I’ve done with my – I actually have a business plan, and I know that’s scary for some people, but it doesn’t have to be. And I’ve got a template in that new book, Business for Authors. I revisit that business plan a couple of times a year, and I make sure I save a new version every time. Because it’s so interesting; we all change our minds, and then we justify it later. We just make some reason up as to why we’ve done stuff. So what I try and do is say ‘I’m doing this because of this. Because I think this.’ And then when I look at it another few months later, I can go ‘That’s what I thought then, but now I’ve changed my mind, so I’m going to reassess it.'”

What’s a tool an author can use to save time marketing?

“Well, then one of the things that I find really useful is Buffer app, which I use to schedule my social media. Which is brilliant, because Twitter is my main platform, and I’m very active on Twitter. Well, it looks like I’m very active on Twitter, because I schedule an awful lot of content through Buffer app. The smartphone would probably be my other thing, so I just have Feedly on my phone, and if I’m cooking or whatever, I’ll go in and schedule – it’s like a couple of clicks to schedule interesting content. And that’s become a bit of my brand, @thecreativepenn on Twitter, is interesting publishing, marketing, creative entrepreneurship stuff. So yeah, Buffer app for scheduling, because that means I don’t have to be there.”

Why is having a strategy so important?

“Yeah. Kind of like I said before, you have to decide what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. Very much this author brand thing is important. I think it’s important. Some people don’t think it’s important. The reason I separated J.F. Penn for my thrillers out from Joanna Penn is so that if people find – say people look at the Business for Authors book and then they click on my author name on Amazon or Kobo or whatever; they only get the books that are under Joanna Penn. So they get books for authors, pretty much, and self-help books, basically. And then under J.F. Penn, I have dark thrillers with a supernatural kind of suspense edge that I always find it difficult to explain why I write. Essentially – but it’s dark, and the branding is very different between the two sites. I think strategy – the other thing is, it all evolved. I started out writing fiction under Joanna Penn, and then it was only when I realized that realistically, I was looking at two different audiences that I stopped doing that. So I’ve got these two brands. Now, for me, I feel like I serve these two audiences. So my strategy is to serve them.”

She then wraps it up with this:

“A strategy is what you want to do and then what you’re going to say ‘no’ to.”

If you started today, what would you consider most essential?

She started with nonfiction:

“If it’s nonfiction, then I really would go hard on platform. And at this point, I would probably be doing video or podcasting rather than text-based. Although I’d probably do transcripts as well. So I would definitely go hard on platform as a nonfiction author, because generally if you’re a nonfiction author, you’re also a speaker, and you also have other products.”

Then talked about fiction:

“For a fiction author, I would go hard on writing a lot of shorter books, because one, you’ll develop your voice faster, and two, you’ll be able to get that shelf space much quicker. So I think that’s really important. And I think what can happen if you’re just starting out with fiction is you think you have to write some massive, massive book, and that takes a lot of work, a lot of editing. It’s hard to hold it all in your head. Whereas if you write novellas, which are like shorter books, which are popular right now – I wrote one earlier this year, Day of the Vikings; it was so much fun. It’s just really – it’s a Viking romp, and I blow up the British Museum and all this stuff, and it’s really fun. It was relaxing to write; I did it really fast. It’s about 28,000 words. Sells well. So I think if I was starting out again as a fiction author – and in fact, this is what I’m going to aim to do next year, is write more, shorter books.”

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