Entrepreneurship in books, business, and life | Joanna Penn Interview

How can artists and authors make a living off of their creative work? What does it mean to self-publish your own books? How do readers discover new books and how can new authors reach them? If you're both a writer and the CEO of your own publishing company, how do you stay focused and build a successful business for yourself? How does being an entrepreneur impact the rest of your personal life? What does it mean for your loved ones, spouse, etc.?

Joanna Penn is a New York Time and USA Today bestselling author of supernatural thrillers and nonfiction for authors. She's also a professional speaker and was voted as one of The Guardian UK 100 creative professionals 2013. Her Creative Penn blog and podcast have some of the most insightful and respected pieces on indie publishing out there today.

I was absolutely delighted to talk to Joanna. She's humble, brilliant, and down-to-Earth. The conversation went deep. We wrestled the serious impacts that entrepreneurship has on founders' personal lives and how to move through those obstacles. I think you'll really enjoy what she has to say.

We tackle these questions and more:
  • What are the biggest mistakes that first-time authors make? 
  • What's the most counter-intuitive thing you've learned about writing? If you could go back and give yourself advice on day one, what would that be?
  • How can first timers go about finding their first true fans?
  • How do you balance your content creation between fiction, non-fiction, podcasts, speaking, etc.? How do you make sure you continue to delight your true fans? 
  • What does book discoverability mean? How is it different for fiction and non-fiction? Why is discoverability for fiction broken? What does this mean for readers and writers?
  • What's something about publishing or storytelling that you believe in but most people disagree with?
  • What have you learned as an author that informs your work as an entrepreneur and vis versa? What are the deepest doubts and fears that keep you up at night as an artist and business person?
  • What's your creative process like behind-the-scenes? 
  • What are the best books you’ve read recently?
  • What’s the most important question I’m not asking?
Books and links we mention:
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Gina Kane also transcribed detailed notes on the show for your reference:


To any cubicle slaves out there; Joanna spent 13 years working as a business consultant in large corporates across Europe and Asia Pacific.  She did a stint implementing accounts payable into big companies. She was never happy doing that.

She, like many entrepreneurs started a scuba diving business in New Zealand. She started property investing before the crash and she has a masters degree in Theology from Oxford. It comes very much into her fiction. She writes a bit like; Dan Brown.

Joanna has been a full time entrepreneur for about 3 years and just made her 200th podcast episode!

What Was It Like To Be A Full Time Author?  (3:11)

Joanna was earning very good money.  After 3 years, she is not making as much as she was. She thought of it as she had climbed one ladder for 13 years, she was starting to climb another ladder.
She hated working and would cry, so her and her husband  sold everything. They put things in place so she could be a writer.

It is difficult to go from the top of one ladder to the bottom of the next ladder; your self esteem drops, your income and the way people perceive you. It was a difficult shift, and the best thing she ever did. Now she writes, sells books, speaks internationally and loves it.

She thinks there is a personality type that suites entrepreneurship. You have to have an underlying independence and dislike people telling you what to do.

What Are The Similarities To Writing and Running a Scuba Diving Business? (7:15)

She tells us, thankfully not very much. To own the business you have to own things, be in one physical location, have employees and be at others beckon call.

It taught her, she doesn’t want to be location and weather dependant and all for very low margins.
Now, her cost is her time and her profit margin is much higher with publishing directly. She publishes in 58 countries.

Self Publishing and Publishing  (9:43)

Prior to the influx of kindle, any author, such as Cory, are very happy having someone publish for them. The people that are not selling well or have not built up an audience yet, Self Publish.
We have x amount of hours in our day. Someone such as Cory can use that time to have someone do it all for him, in exchange for money.

Once Joanna gets to the point the publishers are coming to her and offering her good money, she may very well take it. She thinks it is best to learn how the business works. You get designs, template and upload it, and then you realize that nobody cares.

What if the real challenge is learning marketing and deciding what to do with your life?

Share: "What if you book is your business card?"

Marketing (15:50)

She writes both fiction, (under a pen name),  and non-fiction as Joanna Penn. You market them differently. When you write non-fiction it is much easier. You can use social media, blog and all the entrepreneur tools.  Joanna wrote a book, How To Market A Book, and it comes up #1 in Amazon if you type in How To Market A Book, and she did keyword research to achieve this.

She changed the name on a book based on SEO and then sold 10 x’s as many books.
Amazon is the number 1 or 2 search engine, and it is very key in selling books. If your keywords don’t drop down, then no one is searching for those things.

You can read her blog,  http://www.thecreativepenn.com/. She had a podcast, youtube channel, and she talks about the topics that go into her book. They relate to her platform and sells those books.

Fiction, is harder and easier. It is pluming hard to build up an audience because you can’t use key words. The categories are often filled with famous authors. You can do giveaways, but you go up and then back down.

Two things that work are; write more books and start an email list. She has found most of the other techniques that work for nonfiction do not sell fiction.

You need two or three books, so you can put the first on promotion. Once they like you, it gets easier. As Joanna wrote more fiction, her writing became darker. She is influenced by Steven King, and she is finding her voice and getting into her stride.

Eliot shares a helpful tip, that email is an open door on communication and a way to let people know when a new book is out.

Share: "What if you write a book and no one cares?"

Email (22:29)

Fiction writers struggle with this. With Joanna Penn’s fiction list, she sends a monthly. It has a nice banner for brand management and her author picture. It includes a more personal touch, she will share research. Recently she was in Barcelona doing research. She shared pictures, excluding her husband in the newsletter. This gives more of a personal connection to her as a writer.

She uses it for giveaways. She does author interviews, with authors that her fans may like. She hopes they will share the interview as they are in similar categories.

She sends a separate email for new books to a street team of super fans. They will do reviews for you if you ask them to. It is really important to have reviews for your book, as it gives you visibility. You give your street team free copies of your book, and they will post reviews within the first week.

She has a smaller list of about 50, she uses to communicate with, and they share pictures and more personal details with her.

Crossover (26:59)

Only about 5% of her fiction fans crossed over to her nonfiction. She recommends you decide what you are going to write about, because you need different platforms for each. She markets differently and makes money from different sources.

Share: "Fiction never ages. Nonfiction becomes obsolete."

The Perfect Publisher (31:15)

She would give up her rights for print as well as her foreign rights, but she will keep her ebook rights in English. She went to a film and screenwriters festival, and would take an option deal on her film and screen rights. She would be interested in looking into options for gaming rights.

Outsourcing (33:26)

You need to decide what you really love to do. She loves the speed of digital publishing. She can upload it to Amazon and it is for sale in 4 hours; she is paid in 60 days. There are options to get paid for having it made into an audiobook as well.

Most people don’t believe that authors should or can be entrepreneurs. She doesn’t call herself a, “self-published author”, but an “indie author”. She has 11 contractors, so she is not doing this alone.

She only needs her readers to tell her she is doing well, and doesn’t think all these things are rocket science.

Share: "Decide what you want out of life, take control, and say no to the rest."

Books Joanna Reads (36:54)

She reads an awful lot. She finished Stephen King’s It. He wrote it in 1982 and is still loving it, fiction never ages. Nonfiction becomes obsolete as things change. She reads a lot of business books and listens to a lot of podcasts.

Eliot recommends:

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Children (42:03)

Joanna chooses to be without children. You may want to listen to hear all the conversation about this. She recommends:

Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur by Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor

Joanna Penn shares a very intimate detail, that she was married once before. She shares that all the stress from running the scuba diving business, and many reasons,  broke them up. Her husband now is very supportive, as she quit her high paying job to be a writer.

She tells us to decide what you want out of life, take control and say no to the rest.

Decide what you want for your whole life. Most people gloss over that. Think about where you want to live, who you want to do it with, and think about, what can I do towards my body of work today? Be generous and helpful, it is also being a part in the community; reach out and make connections!


Website: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/thecreativepenn

For more interviews with top entrepreneurs, creators, and investors, join the 700+ friends in my Inner Circle by entering your email below. I'll also hook you up with reading recommendations, startup tips, and book updates.

You sent Uncommon Stock to #1 on Amazon!

Wow! I mean, I was excited for launch day but... seriously?! I've got a crazy story for you. But before we dive in...

Today is the last day to grab your free copy of Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 on Amazon, click here to get it.

Uncommon Stock: Power Play released on Wednesday has a 4.9 star average rating on a base of 34 reviews. If you haven't yet, click here to snag a copy. I'll follow up with a full launch report later but we had a ton of fun press coverage and the book immediately shot into the top 100 technothrillers and top 10 hot new releases on Amazon. That's especially cool because it's a sequel. New readers need to start with the first book, Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0.

And that's where the plot thickened. We decided to make Version 1.0 free on Amazon yesterday and today only to celebrate Power Play's release. That way, readers new to the series can take the story for a test drive. Yesterday we watched with baited breath as Version 1.0 climbed the Amazon charts. #35. #17. #9. #6. #4. #3... #1!!!!!

Version 1.0 is the #1 bestselling technothriller on Amazon's Kindle Free Store. Not only that, it's #50 overall in the entire Kindle Store. That means thousands and thousands of new readers are joining Mara and James on their adventure of a lifetime.

Power Play continues that adventure and I'm humbled by how folks are describing it:

"The perfect book for anyone who wants a thrill ride through the world of tech startups."
-David Cohen, Founder and Managing Partner at Techstars

"It's rare that a sequel really ratchets up the story and takes the things you loved about the first book to a whole new level. Power Play does so brilliantly!"
-Josh Anon, founder and CEO at Visioneer Studios

"Must read. But be prepared to stay awake until finished. Eliot's first book was a one-session page-turner, now this second installment is, if anything, even better. Somebody should pick up the rights and turn this into a House of Cards style series."
-Keith Teare, founder at Chat Center, Partner at Archimedes Labs, co-founder at TechCrunch

I can't wait to hear what you think of Power Play. If you haven't started the series yet, grab that free copy of Version 1.0. Oh, and let your friends know this is the last day to get it for free!

You guys, my friends and readers, are the people who sent the books to the top of the lists. I couldn't be more surprised or grateful.

Want to to be on the VIP list to be the first to know about my next book? Join the 700+ friends in my Inner Circle by entering your email below. I'll also hook you up with reading recommendations, startup tips, and fascinating interviews with entrepreneurs, investors, and artists.

Uncommon Stock: Power Play launches today!

I can't believe the day is finally here. I'm scared, excited, and slept badly last night. When you pour so much of yourself into something, there's really no way not to stick your neck out. So here we go:

Uncommon Stock: Power Play launches today!

The story survived the roller coaster of the rough draft, the red ink of editorial, the vagaries of design, and the pressures of production. The writing process is pretty solitary but many hands have already helped along the way: my editors, beta readers, the team at FG Press, and more.

When I said I plan to publish two books a year for the next ten years, people told me I was crazy. Well, here's my second book in 2014. Power Play is the sequel to Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 and I hope to close out the trilogy next summer. The stakes are rising higher and higher for Mozaik. Mara and James are hitting a serious startup growth curve and getting ever more tangled in the dark conspiracy that seems to shadow them everywhere. Jeremy Shure summed it up nicely in the first press review of Power Play yesterday:

"I read Uncommon Stock: Power Play in one sitting. Actually, three sittings because I needed bathroom breaks, diaper changes, and coffee. Shady venture capitalists? Desperate founders? World-changing technology? The entrepreneurial roller coaster threw flaws into sharp relief and left no character's life untouched. I highly recommend it."
-Huff Post Books

Authors may inhabit the ivory tower (or, in my case, the Craigslist-furnished home office) but books don't launch alone. As a new author with an indie publishing house, I don't get a stretch limo or a black AmEx. There won't be any TV ads, international book tours, or magazine spreads. But that's all okay with me. Why? Because I have you: my friends and readers.

I need your help. Books thrive on word of mouth. I read dozens of books a year and almost every single one I find because a friend recommended it, not because I saw an ad somewhere. Word of mouth is entirely grassroots. But how does that word of mouth engine get started? How does the proverbial grass find fertile ground to spread its roots?

That's where you come in. So, how can you help?

1. Click here to grab a copy of Power Play on Amazon and start reading it today. Miss Cyber Monday? Gift it to a friend or stuff it in a stocking. Books that start with strong launch day sales get featured in "hot new release" lists that help introduce new people to the story. If you email me a copy of your launch day Amazon receipt, I'll randomly select one winner to get a free limited edition signed copy of both Version 1.0 and Power Play, plus a coffee mug from the infamous Laughing Goat cafe in Boulder.

Haven't read Version 1.0 yet? No problem, we're running a limited giveaway on Amazon tomorrow and Friday to celebrate Power Play's launch. Click here to get your free digital copy tomorrow or Friday.

2. Share it with your friends. This could be over a seasonal latte, a craft cocktail, or after a yoga workout. Recommendations from friends and fans are how good books find new readers. It may sound silly but it really moves the needle. You can start simple by letting folks know on your favorite social network and directing them to this link: http://amzn.to/1vizliS

E.g. "Can't wait to dive into the new tech startup thriller Uncommon Stock: Power Play! Late night binge reading ahead...  http://amzn.to/1vizliS"

3. Once you've read the story, let me know what you think in a review on Amazon or wherever you discover books. Reviews make a huge difference. I always read them before choosing to purchase a book. Plus, I'm right at the beginning of my writing career and have a lot to learn in terms of craft. I read every single review and take your feedback extremely seriously.

Letting a new book into the wild is a crazy feeling for any author. Reading and writing are intimate acts. It's pretty much the closest thing to mind melding we've got. I'm not going to lie, it's scary. But it's also exhilarating. I got an email two days ago from a stranger in Ireland who reached out just to let me know how much the story meant to him. Those are the special moments that get me so excited to get up in the morning and write.

I'm no literary master. The Uncommon Series is meant to be a fast-paced adventure chock full of entertainment value. You'll get a taste of what it's like for tech startup founders struggling to achieve success against all odds (and, in this case, against organized crime as well). Hopefully the books will make you think and the characters will make you feel.

At the end of the day, storytelling is a simple craft. I like to imagine myself telling a tale to my Inner Circle around a campfire. You are the people I'm writing for. You are the person I'm writing for.

Thank you for all your help, support, and inspiration along the way. Now, I have work to do. Book three won't write itself after all...