Creative Business Review Of 2020 And Lessons Learned From A Pandemic Year With Joanna Penn

Every year, I set creative, financial and health goals and share them on the blog and the podcast. It helps keep me accountable and focused, although, inevitably things change over the year — this year, things changed across the whole world in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic and we all had to pivot to a new way of living, let alone a new way of creating.

In this episode, I round up my year in creative business and also reflect on my lessons learned from this very strange year. Here are the things I’m celebrating and you’re welcome to leave your thoughts and accomplishments in the comments.

Surviving the pandemic (so far!)

I decided to make this the first thing on my list and if you’re reading/listening to this, then you can also celebrate this milestone! It’s been a hell of a year, that’s for sure.

My (super-fit) cousin got COVID early and ended up in a coma for five weeks. (He’s now well on the way to recovery.) I had a conversation with my Mum about whether ventilation was something she wanted, or might not even have the choice to receive. One of my best friends was badly ill (she recovered), another was trapped in Peru, unable to get home. (She made it back). I wrote about the importance of home in difficult times, and the challenges of having a multi-cultural family with loved ones all over the globe at a time when travel is impossible (or ill-advised).

I considered what I would be angry about if I died right now and what I really want out of the next half of my life. I thought deeply about how I want to spend the short, precious years we have in this life, and what I no longer wanted to do. I shared some of that on the podcast and some of it remains locked in my journals in the emotional angst of a rollercoaster year.

Walking along the canal keeps me sane …

There have been moments of fear, panic, and anxiety, as well as grief, sadness, and depression. Plus, a heavy dose of boredom, frustration, anger, and pretty much everything else on the emotional spectrum. Sometimes in the same day as the news cycle amped up everything to the max.

One big lesson learned is to avoid the news as much as possible — although of course, we all want to stay informed. I haven’t watched TV news for years but I found myself reading multiple newspapers on my phone every day — definitely doomscrolling!

Unsurprisingly, I found peace of mind when walking the canal, out in nature away from screens. I tackled my fernweh (longing for far-off places) by going for a six-day pilgrimage in October, walking the Pilgrims’ Way from Southwark in London to Canterbury Cathedral.

In the early days of the pandemic, I went through a creative ‘freeze’ when I wondered if I would be able to write again. Talking to Mark McGuinness about creating in difficult times (episode 484) helped unlock me and I ended up having the most creative year ever in terms of my written (and spoken) output. It’s amazing what you can do when everything gets canceled and the only thing to do is work!

I felt deeply grateful for the simple things I take for granted and really want back in my life:

  • Spending time with my family and cuddling my little nieces — since I am the eldest of five siblings, we have only been able to catch up once this year in the summer between lockdowns
  • Going out for drinks in a crowded bar with friends, or dinner in a busy restaurant, or live music or theatre — without wearing a mask or sanitizing
  • Visiting a museum, art gallery, or any other cultural place anytime I like, in pretty much any European city I like, at short notice
  • Travel!!! Even conferences where I can hang out with other people. I never thought I would miss other people this much, but I do!
  • Writing in my local cafe, busy with people going about their lives with no thought of disease

Longer walks are even better for mental health!

Thriving in the pandemic: The global, digital, scalable business model comes of age

Many news articles are reporting that this pandemic year has accelerated digital transformation in almost every sector. A McKinsey report even notes that “Businesses that once mapped digital strategy in one- to three-year phases must now scale their initiatives in a matter of days or weeks.” The ramifications of this will continue to ripple out in the years to come, but for those of us who have been working online for a decade, it was business as usual.

I designed my creative business to be digital-first, location-independent, global, and scalable back in 2008, but the business model has truly come of age in 2020. While physical businesses have struggled, digital businesses have thrived and from anecdotal evidence across the independent author community, it has been a very good year for many and certainly has been so for me.

Many book lovers moved to ebooks and digital audiobooks when they couldn’t get print — and those who love print bought more of their books online. I attended the FutureBook online conference in November 2020, and many of the traditional publishers noted that they were pivoting some of their business to the model that indie authors have been running for over a decade.

My most significant business assets are my intellectual property rights, my email list, podcast, and my website — all of which I own and control, and once again, they have proved their worth. I can send out an email and make money. As I increasingly sell ebooks and digital audiobooks direct to customers through, I can also have that money in my bank account in a few hours, rather than days or months or even years, as many authors experience. This has been a great comfort, especially during the early days of the pandemic when I wondered whether my income was about to drop off a cliff. It didn’t, but this year has proved that direct sales is a critical part of my author eco-system.

My main goal for 2020 was ‘Operation Evergreen,’ a long-term perspective that focused on embedding practices to sustain and grow my mature author business. I have definitely doubled down on that and increasingly let go of the things that will not last.

Digital-first is a resilient strategy and the pandemic has proved its worth. Multiple streams of income from intellectual property assets that you own and control is a great way to ride out the ups and downs.

Of course, there will now be more competition online as all those who shunned it will now be arriving on the scene! So, how can you design your author business to be more resilient for the future?

The Creative Penn non-fiction for authors

A big part of my ‘Operation Evergreen’ goal was to focus on building more intellectual property assets — while also overhauling my existing platform.

I’ve written and published 3 non-fiction books.

The last two were unexpected and both written in the second UK lockdown in November after my pilgrimage. I reflect on why that time off was so important in my personal episode on Books and Travel.

I did have a goal to “Finish the content audit, simplification, and redesign of” I decided against a redesign but I did spend a lot of time archiving content, and I no longer accept guest posts. I’m not doing webinars any more either, and I’m barely on social media anymore. My focus has been to keep simplifying and only creating things that only I can create and that my community finds useful — which is basically my books and my podcast.

It’s been another year of The Creative Penn Podcast!

Including landmark episode 500, Writing and Business Lessons from 500 episodes, and 11 years of The Creative Penn Podcast. The show has now surpassed 5.1 million downloads across 223 countries.

Thank you for listening and a special thank you to my Patrons for supporting the show, and to Kobo Writing Life, Draft2Digital, Ingram Spark, Findaway Voices, and Pro Writing Aid for continuing to sponsor the show.

I developed some new mini-courses for Authors: Multiple Streams of Income, Turn What You Know Into An Online Course, Co-writing a Book, and Your Author Business Plan.

Professional speaking

I spoke at the Self Publishing Show Live, March 2020, just a few days before the first lockdown.

All other events got canceled, but I did speak at a LOT of online summits over the summer until I got ‘zoomed out’ like so many others! Surprisingly, it is just as tiring to present on zoom as it is in person, without the benefit of travel and in-person networking. I generally say no to these now unless there is a significant audience or payment or it’s a topic I want to speak on (like AI and the future of publishing).

Joanna Penn keynote on Multiple Streams of Income at Self Publishing Show Live, March 2020

J.F. Penn Thrillers and Dark Fantasy

I’ve also written two novels and completed the Mapwalker trilogy for audio.

Mapwalker fantasy trilogy by J.F.Penn

  • Map of the Impossible, Mapwalker #3. Published in ebook, paperback, hardback, large print, and audiobook editions.
  • Tree of Life, ARKANE #11. Published in ebook, paperback, hardback, large print. Audiobook currently in production.
  • The Mapwalker Trilogy completed in audiobook editions, narrated by Charlie Sanderson. Published through FindawayVoices, currently filtering through the various audio eco-systems. Available to buy direct from me, delivered by Bookfunnel audio at
  • Rebranded my Brooke and Daniel thrillers with new covers and new metadata

Covers by (the wonderful) JD Smith Design

In April 2020, I decided to reboot my fiction income after discussing it with (the wonderful) Michaelbrent Collings. I was able to 10x my monthly J.F. Penn fiction revenue with a combination of Amazon Ads, Facebook Ads, and BookBub Ads as well as email blasts and other marketing — but I hated spending time on it and resented every minute, so I stopped a few months later.

The revenue dropped, but life is too short to do things that make you miserable — another lesson from the pandemic! I’d go back to my day job if I wanted to do that!

What would it look like if this was easy?

My author business is about giving me the freedom to choose what I create and how I spend my time. I love researching and writing fiction, and I am very proud of the books I create. I also love content marketing (see below section on Books and Travel!) but I really hate the time spent on paid ads. So I considered what would make it easy and sustainable for me.

J.F. Penn with Tree of Life, an ARKANE thriller #11

I’ve had Stone of Fire, ARKANE thriller #1 as permafree for 6 years now and it continues to bring people into that series (now 11 books) and it’s easy to promote with Freebooksy and BookBub Ads. I decided to do something similar for Map of Shadows and Desecration, which each have a trilogy at the moment.

I put them both at 99c/99p and now all I do is run BookBub Ads (see David Gaughran’s BookBub Ads Expert and my interview with him here), and use Freebooksy/Bargainbooksy on those first in series books. I also apply for Kobo Writing Life promotions every 3 weeks and email my list every couple of weeks with specials.

This is a very low maintenance schedule and I don’t need to do daily or even weekly monitoring, so I can relax and get on with creating which is what I love best!

Books and Travel

Clearly, it was not a great year for travel! But I managed to do a few things to keep my wanderlust at bay. (You can always follow my travels on Instagram @jfpennauthor)

I also recorded and published my Books and Travel Podcast every two weeks with interviews from Namibia to Iceland, from Mumbai to the vineyards of France, and many more, which helped me travel virtually at least!

I also did several solo shows: Druids, Freemasons, and Frankenstein: The Darker Side of Bath, England; as well as one on The Importance of Home in Difficult Times, Walk Your Own Race (from the 50k walk), and my personal experience on the Pilgrims’ Way.

I love doing this podcast and as it enters the third year of production, I have lots more to share personally as well as many more interviews on the way. You can subscribe to Books and Travel on your favorite podcast app, and find all the links here.


One of my goals for 2020 was, “in my 45th year, I intend to be in the best physical shape of my life,” and on my wall, I have an affirmation, “Fit at 45 for 2020!” I have indeed achieved this and I’m pretty thrilled about it!

I started out well, working out twice a week with my personal trainer in the gym. When the pandemic hit, I had a few wobbly months of over-indulgence to cope with the stress (like many people!), but then I pulled myself together. I’m healthier now than I have been in a long time, thanks to a few things.

Twice weekly weight training and workout with my personal trainer, Dan. I’ve recounted my various stories of pain and physical issues in The Healthy Writer, and after some acute shoulder problems in September 2019, I started working with Dan for shoulder rehab and postural change to correct decades of deskwork. Before we had to leave the gym in March, I dead-lifted a personal best weight of 80kg. Then we went to zoom or social distancing in person in between lockdowns. I love my workouts and I consider them fundamental to my physical and mental health.

Walking (almost) every day. During the two lockdowns (so far), I’ve walked pretty much every day, generally for 8-10 km a day, but often for 15-20km, plus some longer walks including a 50km ultra-marathon in a day, and a 6-day pilgrimage. Walking has been critical for my mental health and I’ve shared lots of pictures from my canal wanderings on Instagram @jfpennauthor this year.

Walking the Pilgrims’ Way, October 2020

Time off. I did have a goal of ‘Schedule more time off. Block out time in the calendar for rest and holiday for its own sake, not just book research or work conferences and speaking.’ In a way, the pandemic has changed our idea of what ‘time off’ is. By staying home, I have actually worked more hours than ever before, but equally, I have walked more and had time to think. I’ve slept a lot and certainly been able to prioritize my health and fitness.

Intermittent fasting (IF). I‘m not a doctor and this is not health advice. Please do your own investigation and see a professional about your health. This is just my opinion and experience.

IF has probably been the most transformative thing for my body shape. Like many people, I’ve spent much of my adult life worrying about my weight and yo-yo-ing up and down at various stages, trying to give up types of food, trying fad diets, and generally failing miserably to stop the pounds creeping on. I enjoy my food and I love a drink or two (or three) with friends, so I was never going to stay on any kind of restrictive regime for long.

But after much reading and investigation, I started intermittent fasting on 25 July 2020, and after 5 months, I am down two dress sizes and feeling great, as well as being able to do my ultras with very little inflammation.

Jonathan started a few weeks after me and has also dropped several sizes as well as reducing gut issues. We love this way of eating and feel fantastic on it. We mainly have a 20:4 regime, eating between 4/5 pm – 8 pm every day, sometimes with a longer window, 16:8, when we feel especially hungry. IF is mainly about ‘when’ you eat, as opposed to ‘what’ you eat.

Eating, body size, and weight are emotional subjects — but they are also fundamental to our health. If you’re interested in delving more deeply into this, check out these books and podcasts:

Please don’t ask me any specific questions about IF. It’s a personal journey, so please go down the rabbit hole of research for yourself.

For me, it’s no longer a ‘diet,’ it’s a lifestyle and I intend to continue eating this way. As Gin Stephens says, “People come to IF for the weight loss, and stay for the health benefits.”

Business and finances

As in the above section, Thriving in the pandemic, the digital-first business model came of age in 2020 and my business is a lot more profitable than in 2019. I’ve made more revenue and have also spent less on things like travel and research trips — which I intend to remedy next year! I’ve saved and invested more, and given away more, and will pay more tax — which is great because we’re going to have to pay for all this somehow!

We also had time to think about where the business is going. Things are so smooth now that business as usual doesn’t take much to run and I am very happy being an independent creative with no need to grow the business in size. I don’t want employees. I don’t want to publish other people. In short, this business is pretty boring unless you’re the one doing the creating!

Work is not just about money, it’s also about meaning. So in August 2020, Jonathan left The Creative Penn Limited to go back into the pharmaceutical industry as a Senior Statistician and programmer. Let’s face it, pharma needs all the help it can get right now! He is still a company Director but I am now the sole employee. It’s great to see him loving his career and stepping into new things. Given that the business has been our sole income for the last five years, it’s definitely lifted the pressure I have felt around bringing in money. I am still an ambitious creative with goals around financial independence, but it’s good to have another stream of income.

My main financial goal was to: Consistently invest in ISA (like a US IRA) and SIPP (superannuation/pension/401K) monthly and increase monthly payments in 2020 by at least 10%. With little to spend on, we more than exceeded this goal and certainly intend to keep investing at this higher level next year.

“Embrace curiosity about the future of creativity.”

This was one of my goals for 2020, and I have certainly done that, reporting on the changes in exponential technologies in my futurist segment on the podcast every few weeks, and producing a small book in December 2020, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, and Virtual Worlds: The Impact of Emerging Technologies on Authors and the Publishing Industry, that encapsulates a lot of my thoughts on this fast-moving topic.

I am really proud of this, especially as it hit #1 in the AI category on, the first time I have written a more technical book. It also marks a new phase for me as I focus on making sure we can surf the technological changes that are fast approaching. More on that in my 2021 goals tomorrow!

As every year, there are things I did not achieve — licensing my works in translation, and a book on How to Write a Novel are the biggest. But hey, plans change and I am far happier with my year than I expected.

Despite the trials of the pandemic, I am ever optimistic about the years ahead and there is hope in the air as the vaccines are rolled out around the world. Yes, I want some of my old life back (travel, in particular!), but I also intend to learn from this year and focus on what really matters.

How did you do in 2020? Please share what you achieved in terms of your goals for the year in the comments.

The post Creative Business Review Of 2020 And Lessons Learned From A Pandemic Year With Joanna Penn first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • December 30, 2020