Editor’s Note: I’m pleased to feature this interview with author Joanna Penn as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.
Penn is the author of action-adventure thriller novels Pentecost and Prophecy in the ARKANE series. Her site TheCreativePenn.com helps people write, publish and market their books and has been voted one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers two years running.
Follow Penn on Twitter: @thecreativepenn
Matt Gartland: You have become a loyally followed, deeply loved and successful indie author. What helped galvanize your rise that surprised you the most? And how do you continue to win the hearts and minds of your readers, legacy and new?
Joanna Penn: That’s lovely of you to say, as it’s certainly something I wouldn’t claim for myself yet! We all have different definitions of success.
I started my indie author career four years ago with non-fiction. I made many mistakes that cost me time, money and heartache. Those experiences led me to start TheCreativePenn.com, where I share my lessons learned so other writers wouldn’t have to make the same mistakes. For example, I didn’t know about print on demand when I started and thus spent money on a print run at a time I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t know anything about marketing either, so those books didn’t sell. That was me four years ago!
My readers appreciate that level of continued honesty, so I continue to share my actual sales figures and marketing experiences. As a principle, I keep everything transparent. I am also consistent, posting every 2-3 days on my blog for over three years and several times a day on Twitter with useful information for writers. Consistency over time with writing as well as marketing will get everyone somewhere!
For my fiction, I write books I love to read myself, action adventure thrillers at the crossroads of psychology, religion and travel. That hybrid-genre has found a certain readership and I am excited to continue my journey as a novelist, a road I have only just begun. I am 37 now with two novels completed, and my role models are authors like Margaret Atwood (aged 72) and P.D. James (aged 91). I hope to have such a long career ahead.
MG: You said in a recent interview, “It’s the writer’s responsibility (and joy) to investigate the things at the edge of what’s acceptable in society.” Why is this such an imperative for writers (especially in fiction), and how does it influence the power of your storytelling?
JP: It’s fantastic you picked this up as this theme is something I think about a lot.
Honesty is one of my core values. I constantly strive for it, even though it’s difficult. Writers invent narrative and in doing so, they reveal aspects of life that many avoid. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas is one such brave book, which repels in its honesty but also challenges in how it reveals character and motivation. I want to write in that kind of style. I have started, but it will deepen over time. We must challenge ourselves to go deeper into topics that may be taboo. People don’t want to think or talk about these things but we are also drawn to them.
A couple of other books that have fascinated me recently are Martin Lastrapes’ Inside the Outside, about an American cannibal cult and what happens when one girl escapes. Also, The Summoner by Layton Green, which is about Nigerian voodoo. These books make you want to look away, but we turn from what disturbs, and that can sometimes be the most interesting. After all, if you bore the reader, it’s all over.
MG: The term “author-entrepreneur” is quite popular. Do you self-identify with that archetype? And how do you balance your creative skills development along side your business skills development?
JP: I have two almost completely different audiences as an author-entrepreneur.
First, my fiction is written for readers of thrillers and action-adventure, with Amazon as my primary marketing vehicle. I also have a fiction blog at JoannaPenn.com, where I mainly sell to people who don’t know who I am which.
Second, my blogging and international speaking on writing, digital publishing and book marketing is born from my business TheCreativePenn.com. In October 2011, I gave up my day job as an IT consultant to pursue entrepreneurship full-time. So yes, I definitely identify with that label as it is now my reality. My income comes from fiction but also from speaking and sales of my online multi-media courses.
Balance is something I have been thinking about lately. I have become quite militant with the diarizing of my time between fiction and entrepreneurship. On fiction days, I leave the house and go to the London Library, where Agatha Christie and other greats have worked. I lose myself in research and characters and crazy adventures. When I am at my home office I work on interviews, creating new products and preparing for workshops as well as blogging and social media – the business building and entrepreneurship side of TheCreativePenn.com.
I also schedule development time for both sides of my life. I am loving the balance so far, although it can be a daily juggling act.
MG: In addition to your popular fiction books, such as your latest – Prophecy: An ARKANE Thriller – you offer several product “ebooks” for authors, such as 21 Ways To Sell More Fiction Online. How do the products compare to the fiction books in terms of creative interest and business revenue (generally speaking)?
JP: I sell comprehensive multi-media mini-courses from TheCreativePenn.com that contain video, audio and PDF material. None of that content is offered in ebook only format on Amazon or elsewhere. It is premium content for people who want to go deeper into the subjects of being a digital, indie author. The mini-courses are priced between $20 – $99. I also offer 1:1 consulting (not coaching), which is higher priced. Finally, I am a professional speaker doing keynotes, half day and full day workshops.
At the moment, the non-fiction:fiction split is about 60:40 in terms of revenue. I have only been full-time with the business for four months. I have six month targets as well as one and three year targets to drive both sides of my work to higher levels. As a former contract IT consultant, I clearly took a pay-cut to become a full-time author-entrepreneur. But I am absolutely loving what I do now!
As an entrepreneur and as an author, I think you need to take the longer view on things. Every time I write a book or create a multi-media product, it must be scalable. That way, the time I invest is the same whether I sell 1 book or 100,000. My goal is to make 80% scalable income and have that grow over time.
MG: What’s the #1 piece of actionable advice you’d give to writers looking for their first solid foothold in self-publishing and the new book economy?
JP: Spend some serious time thinking about your writing career goals, including your book’s specific goals. Then take directed action to achieve them.
There is a boom in self-publishing right now. Lots of people are jumping in without considering what they really want. My personal goal is to make writing my lifetime career. I want to become a brand-name fiction author. That’s my big goal, which will take time and lots of books. It motivates continuous improvement in my writing, which gives me smaller goals to concentrate on.
For Pentecost, my first novel, I wanted to rank as an Amazon bestseller and make more than a standard advance for a first novel (around $5,000 USD). I achieved both of those goals within six months of publishing. If you don’t know your goals, how will you be able to tell whether you are successful? So that’s my advice; work out what you want and then you have something to aim for.
Images provided by and used with permission from the interviewee.