Joanna Penn: Authors Should Be Entrepreneurs

Joanna Penn is here today with an important message. The self-publishing blogosphere usually focuses on making money from genre fiction, and tends to advise producing as much quality work as you can as quickly as possible, and then marketing it aggressively.

That’s not bad advice at all, but there are many other types of books, several different kinds of authors, and multiple ways you can approach making a living.

Joanna Penn (writing as JF Penn) has hit the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists with her fiction, but also has a popular blog and podcast aimed at writers, as well as several non-fiction books.

I invited her along today to talk about her latest – Business For Authors: How To Be An Author Entrepreneur – in which Joanna provides excellent advice on ALL the ways that authors can monetize both their work and their knowledge/skills. And it’s especially useful for those who don’t fit exactly into the “write genre fiction as fast as possible” model.

Before we dive into the Q&A, I should mention that Business for Authors is available in e-book, print, and audio. The above link goes to the e-book on Amazon US, but for links to all other retailers and formats, go to Joanna’s site.

Dave: Why are you so passionate about authors embracing the entrepreneurial side of things?

Joanna Penn: This site is all about empowering authors to choose themselves, to take their words out into the world and reach readers directly. It’s about the truly amazing opportunities that authors have when they take action on their dreams. I’m passionate about that too, and now I want to take it one step further.

At the very basic level, an entrepreneur creates value from ideas, which surely is the definition of an author! But more than that, an entrepreneurial author goes beyond just one book into the realm of running a viable business with their writing. So that means taking one manuscript and exploiting all the rights – having ebooks available worldwide, print on demand so anyone can buy the books anywhere, exploring audio options, considering translations, investigating direct sales, and collaborating with other creatives on new projects like graphic novels, even TV series as HM Ward has recently announced for her Ferro series. It might be deciding to sell some of those rights, working with agents or publishers if the creative project suits that approach, but it’s doing so with a definite business aim in mind.

We create art. We manifest our ideas in the world in glorious creative ways, but to be entrepreneurial is to care about the business side as well as the creation. It’s about being excited to generate something new and original, but also being enthusiastic about how the book will reach customers as well as the financial side.

Entrepreneurs don’t wait for permission.

They act, they experiment, they see what happens and then they pivot if necessary, adapting to the new situation. They are active, not passive, as protagonists are in the best stories. So writing and publishing are only some aspects of this new author life. To be entrepreneurial is to understand the rest of it and make conscious choices as to how you want to run your creative business.

Dave: What are the various business models for authors, and why is it important for authors to choose what’s best for them?

Joanna Penn: I get a lot of emails from people on the subject of ‘comparisonitis’ – comparing oneself, mostly unfavorably, to other authors who are perceived as more successful (however that is defined). This is where articulating your business model can help, because then you’re not comparing yourself to authors who run their businesses in a different way.
Here are the options as I see it, although you can mix and match as you like.

(1) High volume releases. This is the most common indie success story we hear about, where authors will publish books regularly and see fast sales and customer growth, culminating in high incomes. Examples include Bella Andre, Russell Blake, H M Ward and Steve Scott on the non-fiction side. This is not just an indie model of course – Isaac Asimov wrote over 500 books in his lifetime, RL Stine writes several books a month and Nora Roberts/JD Robb writes a book every 45 days in the traditional publishing space.

(2) Non-fiction books with products/consulting/speaking. This is the “book as business card” approach that many professional speakers, consultants and entrepreneurs use to drive people back to their website in order to purchase higher priced products. The book is never really considered a money-maker, it’s more about lead generation. Big name examples include US self-help guru Tony Robbins, but also include someone like Robert McKee, whose book Story, is famous in the screenwriting community, but whose online courses and live events earn him far more money. This model often includes other income streams like affiliate income, advertising, sponsorship and services.

(3) Sporadic books with teaching/ speaking/ freelance writing/ performance/ day job. This is the model of many literary writers, who put out books more slowly and earn money from freelance writing and teaching. It’s also the model of poets, or authors who don’t write in super popular genres.

Different business models will suit different temperaments, and your definition of success may be focused towards literary prizes, or changing people’s lives through events, rather than a volume or dollar figure from book income. There are no rules and there is no hierarchy. This is your creative life. You get to pick how you want to run it.

My own business model is a combination of all three at the moment, and although I am aiming to increase the volume of fiction I write, I also value my non-fiction audience and my professional speaking career in my definition of success. What about you?

Dave: Business for Authors has a large section on strategy and planning, as well as the long term perspective. Why is that so important for authors?

Joanna Penn: Let’s face it, writing books is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It is a labor of love and also a way of living and earning money until the day you die, and since copyright extends 50-70 years after the death of the author, your heirs can continue to earn from your estate.

You don’t write a book for next week’s sales spike; and there’s no point in jeopardising your long-term business over something ephemeral. The author-entrepreneur takes the long-term view, plans accordingly, and thinks ahead. For example, this is why I think relationships with other authors are so important. Some people consider social media a waste of time, but if you have a long term perspective, you know it’s not about this one tweet, or a single blog post, or this one podcast interview. It’s about building social karma over time, about generosity that comes back to you in unexpected ways, about making friends and supporting each other on the journey. None of that is possible with short term thinking.

Strategy is also something I’ve learned a lot about as I wrote this book. It’s as much about what you DON’T do, as what you do. As indies, we only have a certain amount of capacity. We have to make decisions about what we will spend our precious time on. Like many authors, I have a list of book ideas that I add to almost every day. I will never have the time to write everything I want to write. I have to choose, and having a strategy helps me. Here are some questions to consider in your strategy:

  • What do I want to be known as in 5 years time? When people say my author name, what images, words and emotions will be evoked?
  • Should I focus my books into one particular genre or sub-genre and try to dominate that? Or should I spread my bets and write across multiple genres and see what sticks?
  • Should I write in a series and try to attract readers who want to binge read multiple books? Or should I write stand-alone books that will enable me to explore my creativity?
  • Should I focus on one platform, utilising the tools available to develop a readership in one place, but risking one company owning all my sales? Or should I go wide, finding pockets of readers who wouldn’t know me otherwise, and spreading my income across multiple retailers?
  • Should I use my marketing time to network with other authors and look for collaborative possibilities? Or reach readers by discussing books on Facebook or Goodreads? Should I create a blog, or should I use video or audio to expand my reach?

None of these choices are inherently right or wrong, and each person chooses by book, by author name, by situation. But it’s easy to get swayed by the winds of opinion if you don’t pick your strategy and write down why you do what you do.

So choose, stick with it, re-evaluate a few times a year, and give it time. As an indie, you are the captain of your ship. You are empowered to make these choices. We definitely live in exciting times!

About Joanna Penn

Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur is out now in ebook, print and audio. Joanna Penn is an author, speaker and entrepreneur, voted as one of the Guardian UK Top 100 creative professionals 2013.

Joanna Penn’s website, is regularly named one of the top sites for authors and self-publishers. Writing as JF Penn, Joanna is also a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author. Connect on Twitter here.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

47 Replies to “Joanna Penn: Authors Should Be Entrepreneurs”

  1. Fabulous Write-up! Your inspiring words are well needed! So many of us writers get stuck in the “waiting to publish” mode. I am guilty… At least today there is a lot more opportunity to self publish compared to 10 years ago. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Thanks for posting this! I’m just starting out blogging and developing a novel I’ve had in the back of my head for months. I really appreciate it when people who’ve walked the walk and talked the talk leave practical tips for those that come after them!

  3. It took me so long before I was able to really see how I was an entrepreneur. I always thought that word was for people with MBAs and just generally people very different from me. But as I’ve learned and put into practice the business side of writing I realized that I really love it! It’s been a strange transition to acknowledge to myself that I am an entrepreneur!

  4. Thank you for the awesome article! I am in the non-fiction category. I was too impatient to wait for permission and choose to self-publish. What is really important to me is when someone says how much my eBooks helped them. If they choose to become a client that is a plus.

    My experience is social media is not a waste of time, Twitter is my favorite. Social media is a great way to form relationships with people around the world. I have meet wonderful people! And received opportunities that never would have occurred without Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I encourage all authors to join at least one.

  5. Thanks for the advice and exhortation! We as writers have to chart our own course and follow our dreams fearlessly. I shared this article with my readers.

  6. As a student and aspiring author I found this to be spot on in the spirit of today’s creative student. Traditional paths of accomplishing career goals feel limiting (even though it still may work for some), especially for creative artists who have ideas that seep into different genres.

  7. Thank you for this informative article. It hits home for me, as I am preparing to launch my first self-published children’s picture book. Instead of waiting until it is available for POD, I am trying to lay out the marketing groundwork before it comes out. By having my press release prepared and my book signing event scheduled, etc., I feel I can better hit the ground running when the book is available on Amazon.

    Thank you,

  8. I love Business For Authors. It has immense value for writers wanting to control their professional career and elevate it – yet it gives a peek of what’s possible for those testing the waters. Aside of the main content, there’s many resource downloads and connections. Joanna’s book is more than a blueprint for author business success. I found it downright motivational.

  9. Interesting but I think still too limiting a vision of the possibilities. It is possible to make a living in a less than top genre without publishing ;high volume publishing’ in the a book every month mode although it will certainly take longer to achieve. Still it’s great to people talk about that there are more ways than one to be successful.

    1. Sure, but this is a quick distillation of something the book goes into a lot more detail on.

      It’s certainly possible to make a living without being a speed demon, but there’s no denying that getting faster and producing quicker helps. I would agree with you that writers should be careful not to hold themselves to impossible standards. I’ll never write as fast as Asimov and I’ll never sell as many books as Bella Andre, but I can definitely write faster and sell more and the two will probably go hand-in-hand to a certain extent.

      There is a hard limit to how much faster you can get in historical fiction, unless you do a Louis L’Amour and churn out books with the same protag in the exact same setting ad infinitum. But, for me at least, there are ways I can stop fighting with one hand behind my back, the most obvious being to start a series, and construct it so that it’s open ended and I can write it for as long as I want to. Brainstorming that at the moment!

      My brain always wants to write standalones. It’s what I generally prefer reading. But I simple (and obvious in hindsight) realization unblocked me: I’m always drawn to having a real historical figure as a protag, and this wasn’t giving me enough narrative freedom to write a series – especially because of my tendency to gallop through the narrative and cover decades in one book. So: fictional protags + cover a year or two of the timeline per book instead of crowbarring it all into 100k = doubloon-raining series! Now I just have to write it…

    2. Exactly. For some it takes more time to build up the volume of work. But you make the decision to start and before you know it five years has gone by and you’ve got several books that help promote each other. You still get there. The great thing is that books don’t really go bad. I’m still selling books I published in 2009.

  10. I like the comparison you make between entrepreneurs and protagonists. It will stick in my mind. Your check-list on strategy is really thought-provoking. Looking forward to reading your book.

  11. Sounds like a good book that explores lots of the decisions we have to make as authors.

    Just a quick FYI — I clicked the post’s second book link (at the bottom, next to Joanna’s picture) and that link didn’t work.

  12. Thanks Joanna, for your encouraging advice.
    Writing can be a lonely endeavor and it helps to read a guest blog post like yours, which affirm and add to some of my thoughts on how to approach the indie publishing business.
    I am also so happy to hear another person express how exciting it is to be living at this special time. I’m always telling my friends that we are in a front row seat of the new Renaissance, embrace it and use the freedom it affords us creatively … Break the rules of industry publishing and do things you’ve always wanted to try.. the human mind hungers for the new.
    Thank you David, your posts are always supportive and extremely helpful.

    1. Thanks Alex, and if you’re finding writing lonely, then make sure you join in Twitter conversations and try to organize some tweet-ups. When I moved from Australia back to London after 11 years away, I had no friends at all – but my twitter mates soon became my in-person friends 🙂 Writing is no longer lonely 🙂

  13. Joanna, what you say about being an author-entrepreneur always makes sense to me. I’m glad you identify with the large number of writers who won’t (can’t?) be high volume producers and want to engage in the writing life in different ways. And I’m happy to see your long-term perspective on the business side of writing! I’m at the point where I’m putting in a lot of hard work for little financial return, and I think those of us at that early stage need as much if not more encouragement that writers who are just planning their first book. It helps to have role models who are ahead in the game.

    1. Hi Jane, I agree on the early stages of it all – it’s the same with any ‘new’ career. I say to people that none of us are valuable in the first 5 years of anything new, whether that be hairdressing, or IT consulting, or writing – it takes a while before we move to the point of being worth something. But if we put in the time and the effort, it will happen slowly. I like that with this new model, it can be a numbers game and is less about luck.

    2. Hi Jane, I feel your pain with regard to the pressure of becoming a high volume producer. Yes, it helps if you can write faster, and, yes, we can all probably look at our process and make improvements. But I don’t think it’s a good idea getting too worked up about it, or getting yourself down.

      I found this post very useful myself. It helped reinforce some decisions I had made. I don’t want to go the speaking/consulting route for all sorts of reasons (chiefly that I’m not half as organized as Joanna and I’d never get any fiction written!).

      But I do want to speed up on the fiction side. Non-fiction was always quick for me, but fiction is much more of a challenge and takes a lot longer. Partly because of genre (historical fiction requires tons of research). Partly because I’ve been writing standalones (so I don’t get to “recycle” any of that research). And partly because I’m still a baby writer part-way through my apprenticeship.

      So my plan at the moment is to get cracking on a series, get more experience, work on my craft, and speed up also. I’ve sped up quite a bit this year so I’m happy where I am right now, but I can improve further. One thing I’ve STOPPED doing is beating myself up about my pace. It’s good to be ambitious and to have goals, and to push yourself, but you shouldn’t let that flip to being a negative situation which can actually be counter-productive.

      I think one crucial way of avoiding that is to focus on goals rather than dreams – i.e. stuff that’s in your control (I will write for X hours every day, rather than I will sell X books this month). And one thing that helped me speed up in a non-pressurized way was the amazing Story Beat method from Write. Publish. Repeat. It turns out I’m a closet plotter!

      1. “One thing I’ve STOPPED doing is beating myself up about my pace”
        Excellent tip! I too have found this to be a key in being productive. I waste too much energy and time being upset with myself for not being faster!

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