Turn Your Author Failures, Setbacks, And Mistakes Into Success With Joanna Penn And Orna Ross

We all experience failures, setbacks, and mistakes on the author journey — but if we learn from them, they can be the basis for our greatest success. In this episode, Orna Ross and Joanna Penn share their biggest mistakes, failures, and setbacks as well as lessons learned.

Turn Failure To Success

This interview originally went out on the Ask ALLi Podcast on 11 December 2020.

In the intro, #1 NY Times bestselling urban fantasy author, Ilona Andrews, shares why going indie is such a good idea; Wattpad has been bought by South Korean company Naver [The New Publishing Standard]; US publishing had its best year in a decade in 2020 according to NPD Bookscan and Overdrive [The Hotsheet] and why we should not feel guilty about a good year of book sales revenue. ACX will be sharing returns data, paying royalties on certain returns, and making opt-out of contracts more flexible, but this does not go far enough according to Susan May and the Fair Deal for Rightsholders and Narrators Group.

Please take my survey on author income streams (by 31 March 2021); What to do if you’re not making a profit from your books [6 Figure Authors]; and 9 Characteristics of a Successful Self-Publishing Mindset [Ask ALLi]

Plus, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without a Sense of Direction with Roz Morris on Books and Travel, photos of Bath in the snow, and how awesome is The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman.

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Orna Ross and Joanna Penn at London Book Fair, 2018 — one of my favorite pictures of us!

Orna Ross is an award-winning and bestselling indie novelist, poet, and founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), the global non-profit association for self-publishing authors. This advocacy work has seen her named “one of the 100 most influential people in publishing” by UK publishing trade magazine, The Bookseller.

Joanna Penn writes non-fiction for authors and is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author as J.F.Penn. She’s also an award-winning podcaster, creative entrepreneur, and international professional speaker.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • What are author setbacks, failures, and mistakes?
  • How epic fails can lead to great successes — if you learn from them.
  • Freezing is a response to fear, and we all have to find ways to get beyond that — especially in these pandemic times
  • Common indie author mistakes — paying for a print run, not learning marketing, hiring the wrong people, undervaluing editing, working with bad companies and getting ripped off, the wrong book cover, build a website around your first book
  • When it’s not a mistake but you need to give it up anyway — co-writing with family, overwork, projects you don’t want to do anymore
  • Reframing difficult times

You can find the Ask ALLi podcast on your favorite podcast app, and lots more help at SelfPublishingAdvice.org

Joanna and Orna do a monthly Advanced Self-Publishing Salon, and Orna does other shows weekly with different co-hosts. You can find Orna Ross at www.OrnaRoss.com and on Twitter @ornaross and Instagram @ornaross.poetry

Transcript of the discussion

What do we mean by author setbacks, failures, and mistakes?

Joanna Penn: Let’s start with some definitions. So, Orna, what do you mean by these words?

Orna Ross: Well, a failure, I think, a creative failure is when you set a goal or creative intention and it doesn’t actually go the way you intended it to go, and that can be through a setback or a mistake.

So, for example, your first book doesn’t make you a millionaire, which, you know, you’ll be shocked by how many authors think it will. Or you read back your book and you’re shocked to find that it’s full of errors, maybe your editor wasn’t a good hire. This is mine; you think a series will take a year to do, and five years later, it still hasn’t arrived. So, that’s failures.

Setbacks are when you expect something to happen, and it doesn’t, but for outside reasons or a change to your conditions. So, COVID would be the perfect example, obviously this year and all that happened, stops your travels, can’t do what you normally do, an unexpected death or illness in the family, something, you’ve a business partner who lets you down, that will be a setback. So, the idea is it’s outside of you, it’s other people.

Mistakes are something you do yourself, comes from inside you, could be conscious or unconscious, but essentially, you do something that you really shouldn’t have done, and you have to drop or reverse your original intention.

So, choosing the wrong tool or tech, doing an ad campaign that leaves you out of pocket, you know, a bad hire, those kinds of things, they’re mistakes, and I think the most important thing to say about all of the above is that they are learning fuel.

Joanna Penn: I like the way you’ve defined these things, because I don’t even like the word failure. I feel like failure is a bad thing, has negative connotations, and at the time all of these things can feel awful. And we’ve all been through many of these things. And, you know, certainly, we all, the COVID panic, that fear we all felt earlier in the year that kind of dulls a little over time, but we all go through these things, but I don’t like the word failure because it sounds so negative.

Whereas I try and reframe all of these things as, how can I learn and move forward and do better in the future, because we only progress by learning and we can do all the podcasts we do, and all the books we do, but people still make the same mistakes we do. And we continue to make the same mistakes, so that’s just life.

Orna Ross: Yes, I think that is the most important point, that creative failure becomes fodder for success. So, the creative way to deal with failure is, what can I learn from this? Where did it go wrong specifically? How do I make sure, especially the ones that we keep making over and over and, you know, there comes a point, and the sooner that point comes, the better. And sometimes we just do keep making the same mistakes again, and in order to develop your creative business, in order to develop your books, as well, and how you write and what you write, you need to grow as a person.

And that’s the role of these mistakes and failures, you know, they often come as little kind of pebbles, first of all, and then if you don’t listen, it becomes like a big stone, and then it’s a rock, and then it’s a great big boulder, and at some point, you have to take the learning.

So, you know, if you can do it while it’s still a pebble, that’s good. You can’t always though, but you’ve got to kind of take it and not allow yourself to be crushed by it, that’s the point. Don’t let it bleed, you reshape and reframe it, and it is in the act of doing that, that you grow as a person, as a writer, as a publisher, and as a business owner.

That’s why it’s so very important, and I think it’s why we’re doing this show, and why it’s really important for us as authors to share our failures and our mistakes because there’s so much smoke and mirrors in publishing. You see the success, you see the person who’s done really well, and people don’t tend to talk enough, I think, about the things that go wrong in the background. So that’s what we’re here to do.

Joanna Penn: Absolutely, and I think just on the lessons then, it comes down to sort of that Know Thyself, from the Greek temple of Delphi, every single mistake you make, if you can learn something more about yourself, it’s going to help you next time.

Epic fails can lead to epic success

Joanna Penn:  So, we’re going to talk about some of the big stuff like the really big epic fails. Let’s just call them epic fails, and then we’ll get into some of them more granular stuff, which people might definitely recognize.

I’m going to start because, I have a particularly epic fail on both a business level, a financial level and a personal level. So, back in, I can’t remember what year it wasn’t, like 2002, I was living in New Zealand. I was married, for the first time, to a scuba diving instructor and a boat skipper, and I was an IT consultant, and basically, I was like, let’s start a scuba diving business, what a great idea, that’ll be good thing to do. And without knowing anything about it all, I’m an action oriented person, you know this, so as soon as I have an idea, I’m like, right, do it.

Joanna Penn, 2002. Northland, New Zealand

We set up hiring a boat, scuba diving equipment, insurance, marketing stuff, divemasters, fuel, the cost of fuel! and New Zealand weather is really up and down. So, essentially, we did have a business for about a month, which was incredibly expensive. And also, then, my husband left me — there’s no blame, we’re not going to go into marriage issues!

But the fact is that this failure of knowing myself, in so many ways led to costing me in so many ways, but the positive and upside of this failure is what I learned is, I never want to have a business that is dependent on weather, is dependent on the price of fuel, the vagaries of employees, on my husband not being reliable, on high fixed costs, and crazy variable costs, and risk.

I mean, scuba diving is a risky business. It was dependent on a physical location, and everything about my business now, which is actually a highly successful business, is due to that failure.

I learned that I wanted to have low costs, low fixed, low variable costs, I wanted to be location independent. I wanted to have no employees, no physical assets. I didn’t need to insure a boat or people potentially dying.

And so, that epic failure shaped my business now. And the failure of my first marriage led to my wonderful second marriage to Jonathan, and the lessons I learned about myself in that marriage helped me with this one.

So, I am grateful for those mistakes and what I learned has meant that I’m more successful now, because of learning these lessons. And I don’t talk about this stuff that much, but I wanted to, before we get into like, oh, my cover design was a bit crap, I wanted to kind of go with the biggest epic fail that led to possibly my biggest success.

Orna Ross: Fantastic. I think that was quick learning because I’ve heard so many people say that it’s on their third business that things actually go, you know, it often takes number three. And that whole thing of third time lucky.

I too had an epic business fail, back in the early 2000s, but I’m not going to repeat that because it was, in many ways, similar sorts of lessons that you’re talking about. Mine was within publishing and the failure was because of the business partner arrangement that didn’t work out, but I learned a huge amount in that also about what I did and did not want from a business. At the time, the kinds of things that I said I wanted weren’t even really available, and it was the want, and the desire came before the means, of which only really came with digital self-publishing. My biggest mistake, I think, is one that I still wanted to talk about, you know, it’s a mistake that there is a tendency to keep on making. And for me, it would be a tendency to overwork, and that led me, in my forties, into burnout, really.

Not that I felt I was burnt out, but I hit a cancer wall, which a lot of people who overwork do, it’s a common, kind of, personality sort of thing and, are they related? Who knows? You can’t say for sure, but certainly what I do know, that the lessons that I learned then, I carried forward hugely.

And connected to overwork, I always think, is an undervaluing of the self, and I think we see that hugely in the author community where we undervalue our work, we don’t read contracts, we give ourselves away, we don’t charge appropriately, we don’t set up the business in a way that’s actually going to be profitable. There are so many ways in which we can undervalue ourselves, and I think that’s very related to this tendency.

So, it basically comes down to, you know, the idea of net worth and self-worth being in some way equivalent. And for me, coming out of that was very much, it’s why I invest so much time still in the whole idea of planning and creative planning, the kind of planning that works for me, because I can’t do very rigid, mechanized, you know, what normally people think of when they think of planning. And I think that’s why I’m still so connected to it, because it is very connected to those mistakes that I tended to make. So, now I have it much more ordered and, you know, I understand the value of creative rest, and creative play and how vital they are, not just to the job and to the work, but to having a good life and all of that.

Joanna Penn: Well, just to come back on that, because I think, also, we can learn from each other because, we’re very different people. Like, we’re good friends, but we’re very different people and we do things in very different ways and even like last week when clearly, I’ve been overworking, I really have been, I did a hundred-hour week or something, and I got to that point where I just wanted to throw everything in. And I’ve talked to you about this many times over the years, and you said to me many times, well, you just rest, duh, you don’t have to cancel everything and just burn the whole bridges down, you can just take a rest. So I sleep a lot.

So, I have been sleeping like 10 or 11 hours a night for the last few days, but I hear you talking to me in my head, obviously, when I hit these points, because of the lesson you learned. So, I definitely had reached burnout in my corporate job, back in the year 2000. So, I have experienced that, but I feel like, we can learn these lessons from each other and in the community, we can share these lessons and hopefully avoid, like, I hope I don’t have to learn that same lesson again, as you did, I mean, obviously.

Orna Ross: Exactly, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? If you don’t give yourself the time to actually observe what’s going on with the mistake, if you just kind of recoil, and you throw yourself into action again, without absorbing what it actually means, there is a danger in that.

Orna Ross: And then there’s the opposite, I think, mistake, if it can be called that, it doesn’t really fall into failure or mistake, as such, but it is something that happens, which is that you can’t, it’s the opposite to overwork, it’s that you can’t get going; you’re overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that’s coming at you and you can’t integrate it, or you just can’t get going.

The inability to work, paralysis maybe, or just, that feeling of being caught in the headlights and not being able to do anything. And I think the recipe is actually quite similar, it is still to rest and play, step away, and then absorb what’s being said and what is actually going on for you. Because I think we talk a huge amount in the indie community about the outer surface stuff, you know, the sales, and what’s going on when it’s going well, or even if it’s not going well, or I didn’t get my words out, you know, it’s very often at that level of production that we’re talking and thinking, but there is all that deeper stuff that we tend to connect just with our writing, but it’s actually very connected to our publishing and our business as well.

And the more you can get to know yourself in whatever activity you’re doing that you’re not happy about it, it’s that inner voice that tells you, I’m overworking, or the business partner isn’t really working, but you just ignore it, and you keep on going, and that’s where the mistake turns into the epic fail.

Joanna Penn: On setbacks, since you mentioned that freezing, I would say that paralysis, I definitely experienced that this year with COVID, and I think a lot of people have, and I know people who are still in paralysis, in that freeze mode, which has a lot to do with, obviously, the fear and very valid health concerns that people have.

Freezing is a response to fear, and we all have to find ways to get beyond that.

I think, for me, it was March/April, and I talked to our mutual friend, Mark McGuinness, who really helped me shift my mindset because that’s what it was for me.

how to stay creative in difficult times

It was shifting my mindset to move out of that fear and freeze mode back into action. But I learned a lot about myself through that, because I never thought I was that person who would be stopped by fear, and I was, and so I’ve now experienced that. So, if anyone else is feeling that setback, there are ways to get through that, like there are any of these things, and I guess, as you’re saying, the first thing is to be gentle with yourself, and take that step back and learn things, and then move back into it.

Orna Ross: I think fear is really it. This is the core thing for everything we’re talking about here.

Almost all the mistakes we make are a result of being afraid of something, afraid that we won’t get the book out in time, afraid that we’ll look like an idiot if such and such doesn’t, you know, it is some kind of fear that is generally driving us to make a mistake.

And then, with the setbacks, the stuff that comes from outside, it’s the fear of that, and the sense that it has more power than you have. And I think you said the most important thing of all actually there when you spoke about talking to Mark, is get help. Talk to somebody who can actually help you. Don’t just sit there feeling that it is inevitable or, you know, we can be really brilliant at creating excuses and explanations and causes and reasons as to why we are where we are, we can be intensely creative about that, rather than getting our creative juices going on the books.

So yes, getting help, the help you need and the right kind of help, I think, is really important.

Common indie author mistakes

Joanna Penn: Absolutely. All right. Well, let’s talk about some more common, although I think all those things are common, but these are super common things that people do in self-publishing, and these are definitely mistakes.

So, I’m going start with one of my biggest mistakes, again, on the small scale, my biggest little mistakes, and that is, I wrote my first non-fiction book when I was living in Australia. This was between 2006-2008. So, this was before the Kindle went mainstream. Smashwords was around but, you know, you could only publish in the US on the Kindle, and so I decided to self-publish. I was in the speaking community and everyone did it in the speaking community.

So, I wrote the book and I worked with a local printer and I paid upfront for 2000 copies of my book which was called, How to Enjoy Your Job or Find a New One. My catchy title for my first book, and there’s a picture I have of me standing there in front of all these boxes in our living room, like, I’m so proud of this, look at all this.

Joanna Penn with the first edition of what became Career Change. Most of those boxes went to the landfill!

It was about 15 minutes before I realized that I had 2000 books in my living room, and my wonderful husband was very supportive, but of course what I realized, after about 15 minutes was, how do I get them out of my living room into the hands of other people? Like, how do you do that?

The classic mistake of thinking that you publish it, and they will come, and this is something we see every single day in the author community.

And all authors, in fact, think that writing the book is the end of it. And, in fact, it’s just the beginning. So, I did, and then I was like, right, I must get in the paper and get on TV. And thus, I did those things. I was on national TV in Australia. I was in the papers all over the country, and I sold 200 copies of my book, and 1800 copies went to the landfill about a year later, because then I learned about digital publishing, I learned about blogging, online marketing. So again, that mistake, which cost me, probably, let’s say about 5,000 Aussie dollars, plus the design and stuff like that.

Author on Channel 9 TV

Joanna Penn at the Channel 9 studios, Brisbane, Australia about to go on TV

But again, that mistake led me into learning about blogging, podcasting, online publishing, online marketing, and has underpinned making way more money than I ever spent. So again, that mistake led to success.

Orna Ross: Brilliant. Personally, I think you should have kept the 1800. They could be collector’s item now; you could flog them-

Joanna Penn: Well, they’re all still secondhand on Amazon.

Orna Ross: Yes, of course, very good. I think, linked into that, an important thing that I see all the time, and that I tried myself when I started out with this, was the idea that you could get somebody else to market your book for you.

It’s the question I’m probably asked most often every week is, you know, who does book marketing for you? And that’s not something that an indie author can do, until you know how to do it yourself, then you’re in a position to hire somebody else.

When you don’t know how to market books, trying to hire somebody doesn’t work out.

And I know that because I tried to hire a few people along the way, and it just was an absolute complete waste of money. So yes, that’s just coming in on the back of yours there a little bit.

Orna Ross:  My mistake, that I wanted to talk about was, I know a lot of authors have previously published work, you know, so people who have already published with another publisher, an indie publisher, a trade publisher, somewhere along the line, and then, you know, you get your files back and you put it back out there again, and you think it’s fine, but on the way, you make a few little changes. So, that’s what I did with mine. I thought, well, it’s been edited already and, you know, I just made some small changes, it’s fine.

And I put it back out and, of course, the changes I made hadn’t been edited, and the reviews are there and will be there until my dying day. So, I think that was a big mistake and I think undervaluing editing, that’s why I’m bringing this one up.

I think undervaluing editing is a mistake that every single author makes at the start.

You don’t understand how important it is to get a professional edit. You’re too close to it, you think you’re good on the grammar and you’re good on this and that, it’s all completely irrelevant. Every single author needs, and I know it’s expensive when you’re starting out and all of that, but I just wanted to double, triple underline that one.

It’s always a mistake to forego the editing, and it’s always a good thing to get the best editing you can afford.

Joanna Penn: Absolutely. And unfortunately, you know, well, no, maybe not always, but you will often spend the most money on editing at the beginning. I think I hired four different editors for my first novel, Pentecost, which became Stone of Fire, because you just learn so much. But yes, we still, both of us, use editors and they’re just fantastic, and we just get better every time.

Joanna Penn: Okay. So, I’ve got another one, which is rip-offs. So, again, when nobody knows who you are. So, you know, winding back again to 2008, I had no website, no audience, no online sales, there was no Amazon KDP print, you know, CreateSpace, I think, hadn’t been bought yet, it was still a separate company, all of this stuff, and I was like, okay, well, how do I get people to notice this book? So it was, along with doing the PR and stuff, I paid for a chapter in a compilation book, and this scam is still around now.

Now, it is not a scam to have a chapter in a book that is a good book, let’s put it that way. I mean, there were lots of anthologies. I mean, I’ve got short stories in anthologies. I’ve written essays for non-fiction books. That’s not what I mean. This was a classic, you know, pay $3,000 and we’ll just put your chapter into this book, and we’ll put a famous name on the front, who they just got a chapter from them too.

And I’m not going to mention names, this was over a decade ago, but I still see these things out now. And again, what was the point? And then, of course, the deal is that you end up buying 500 copies of that book. So, it looks like it’s successful, whereas actually all the people in the book bought the book and then try and flog it. And again, they end up in the landfill.

And also, I paid for review, and this is again, a site that is still reputable (Kirkus reviews). But again, what does that do? That does absolutely nothing.

So, you end up paying these chunks of money, like hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars, pounds, for things that don’t actually get you anywhere.

Whereas, what you should be doing is paying for better book cover design, better editing. Those are the things to pay for, not paid reviews or paid compilation books.

Orna Ross: Yes, and I’d like to say that a lot of ALLi’s work goes into pointing out good services and bad services, and when you start out at the beginning, you can’t actually tell the difference. You just don’t know. And as you say, there are some big brand names that are associated with some services that are really not great.

So, if you are in doubt, and especially if you’re at the beginning, and you’re not sure what’s a good service, what’s a bad service, John Doppler’s book, Choosing the Best Self-Publishing Services, is an ALLi guide that will help you.

Choose the best Self Publishing Service

If you’re a member of ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors, you can download the eBook version free in the member zone, just go to guidebooks. It’s really important, that guide will also teach you how to evaluate a service, so you know whether it is a decent service or not, because at the beginning, it’s impossible actually, because Google as well really doesn’t help, because most of the services that are popping up on top of your search engine are actually not great. I mean, not all, but certainly there are some terrible services that will come up if you Google self-publishing advice. So, be careful.

Joanna Penn: Can I just add on that, the date on your search is really important, to always use the date. I mean, people could listen to conversations with you and I from, even three years ago, even one year ago.

And there are companies, who a year ago we would have been like, yay, great. And now we’re like, caution, caution. So, this is the thing, if there are companies that we would have talked about personally years ago, on my website, or on the ALLi website, you know, we cannot police our history on the internet a lot of the time.

So, please, everyone check that it is a recent thing that people are using. Also, people will regularly use quotes from me and my book, and probably you as well, on their websites, even when we’ve got nothing to do with it. And again, we might not know. So, both of us welcome emails saying, just checking, did you really recommend that service? Do you still recommend that service? Because I think that’s important to, isn’t it? Things change and what was great suddenly might not be great.

Orna Ross: Absolutely, and some of those rogue services are pretty unscrupulous. So, ALLi approved partner badges turn up all over the internet, on services that are absolutely appalling. So, always check our actual listings to make sure that somebody is an approved service because, yeah, you can’t be sure.

Joanna Penn: That can happen! Right, tell us about your book cover disaster.

Orna Ross: Oh yes, my book cover. Now, I’ve changed my covers lots, on lots of my books across the years. I’m not talking about when you’re due a refresh, or when your branding changes, or when everything begins to look different, I’m just talking about just getting it wrong because, and this is the mistake that I made.

Book covers. I see people making too literal about what’s in the book, rather than trying to convey the emotion of the book.

So, it was Blue Mercy, one of my standalone novels, and it’s a mother-daughter story. I went for a picture of the mother and the daughter on the book, and the daughter in my book is overweight and kind of surly, and all of that. And I went for somebody who kind of looked, you know, Jane, my brilliant cover designer, who works with you as well, did everything that I asked for, and gave me exactly what I wanted, and it was terrible. It was a terrible cover, in terms of it did not sell because no one-

Joanna Penn: Such a good book, by the way. Great book, terrible cover. I remember it well.

Blue Mercy Old And New Covers

Orna Ross: It was just, nobody wants a book with an unattractive surly person on the front of it, on that kind of book. So, Jane did a redo for me, and it just has this woman tastefully disappearing into the rain, with an umbrella over her, conveying the emotional tenor of the book. So, that is the mistake. With your book, don’t worry if you’re heroine, on her big night out, has a blue dress, and the cover has a lady in a red dress, that’s not important.

Does it actually get the emotional feeding of the book, and does it match the genre? Is it contemporary? Will it look right when set beside comparable books?

They’re the things to think about, yes. So, that mistake didn’t last long as I watched the sales plummet.

Joanna Penn: But what’s great about that issue is that it’s easily fixed. Although, we say easily fixed, both of us, you know, I’ve got there, Desecration, that’s my fourth group of covers for those books. I still don’t really understand what those books are as they are cross-genre — crime thriller, psychological thriller, an edge of horror and the supernatural.

So, it’s really difficult sometimes, especially as independent authors, but don’t think that traditional publishing gets it right, I mean, there’s frequent recovering of books and re-titling and re-author naming. So, it’s not just us. This is a regular and you know, let’s call it, yeah, it’s like a little mistake that’s easily fixed.

Joanna Penn:  And related to that, another issue around branding. And this is perhaps again, not valuing ourselves enough, or not thinking big enough, but I, inevitably, set up a website called howtoenjoyyourjob dot com, which I don’t own anymore, don’t go there! It’s a Chinese site now.

But setting up a website around your first book is another classic mistake.

So, you think, oh, I just need to set up the URL for my book and like, miraculously, that’s going to mean anything these days with multi-millions of websites out there. It really doesn’t matter that much, you do SEO, search engine optimization, in other ways. But, actually, what you have to do is think bigger.

So, it took me three more websites before I settled on TheCreativePenn.com. And, of course, I own tons of websites now, because I have loads of them, but it’s thinking about branding around your theme, like thecreativepenn, but it’s also my name, Penn. And you’ve got ornaross.com and, you know, in the end, most of us settle on branding by name. So jfpenn.com, my fiction name, because inevitably, you end up writing more books, and if you only have one book, then you’re just not going to do this, generally. You’re not going to do this as a career, or you’ve got other things like speaking or other things. So, what I would say is, that’s the mistake. The mistake is building a website on the name of your first book.

Orna Ross: Very common, and Facebook pages also. People do that, and then they end up with, you know, three or four Facebook pages, one for each book, and their audience is completely dispersed. So, yes, getting the name at first.

And then another one, another mistake that I have made, that I see other people making is bad hires. So, not being careful enough, being in a hurry, again, afraid it won’t come out. So, you know, that fear that, oh, it won’t be done in time.

So, just going on Upwork, or wherever, and just getting somebody that seems, I mean, Upwork is great, if you take the time.

The mistake is hiring without due diligence, without really taking your time, and working out, you will save so much time in the end, rather than hiring somebody who is not great.

Now sometimes, there’s nothing you can do upfront, but the mistake I’m talking about that I have made, and that I’ve seen many people make, is taking on an editor too quickly. Taking on, you know, any hire and not really going into it. Chris Ducker’s book, Virtual Freedom: How to work with virtual staff to buy more time, become more productive and build your dream business, is good on this.

Virtual Freedom by Chris Ducker

Joanna Penn: I think you’re right, and actually I learned from Chris there, the classic mistake, I just want another me, just give me one person who can be me, and I can give them stuff, but that’s not how it works. You have to have lots of people doing their individual things. And I think that bad hire, you almost have to do one because you have to learn how to let someone go, and that’s awful, but you have to do it and you end up going, oh, I’m really sorry, I’m so sorry, it’s my fault.

[Check out my interview with Chris Ducker on working with virtual assistants here.]

I did all of that and now, I’m a lot harder about, this is exactly what I want. And we have a trial period and, you know, I’m doing it right now, actually, with somebody new and, you know, just said, look, nothing personal, we just have a trial period and then see how it goes, you know, friendly, happy.

Orna Ross: It’s really important because sometimes it’s not even about the skills, it’s about the fit.

So, somebody that I had to part ways with, she was really good at her job, but every time I got an email from her, I was feeling tense and anxious because she was, kind of, the boss of me. I felt I was running around to give her things, and she kept coming up with suggestions and stuff like that, so she was actually overqualified for the job, which is something, also, you find a lot in publishing people, and also people who want to be writers who are not actually devoted and dedicated to what they actually do.

They’re writers who are doing something, there are people who both write and provide a service, and they’re excellent, but there are also people who really want to be writers and who are doing a bit of editing on the side, and who aren’t fully qualified, who think, because they have written a book, that it gives them the skills to be an editor, and it doesn’t, and so on, all the way through. So, the only way is to make that mistake and find out, if you can.

Joanna Penn: Great. I have another one.

Sometimes it might not even be a mistake, but it’s something that we need to stop doing and give up.

So, I’m going to say, for me, I co-wrote three sweet romance books with my mum, as Penny Appleton, and I really, really wanted to help my mum start a new career. I did it with the best intentions.

I did help her co-write those three books of which, you know, we are proud, but at the end of the day, Orna will remember this, I’m like, I hate this, I’m not sweet romance. I like dark fantasy, graveyards and stuff. We’re just so different, me and my mum, in that way. We’re very similar in other ways. And it was terrible conversation, I felt I had all the heart palpitations, I had to go to her and say, mum, I can’t do this anymore. I cannot write this, it’s not my thing.

But, in the end, we had a really good conversation and we now think about it, she’s been on my podcast and we talked about it in public, if anyone wants to hear that conversation. So, now she’s written two more, entirely on her own, and she’s now off riding her own bike. You know, I helped her onto the tandem for a bit, and now she’s off riding her bike.

Co writing with family

But I had to let that go. It wasn’t a mistake, it was just that I had to stop doing it, for my own mental health and before we killed each other! So, that was one of those things. What about you?

Orna Ross: Mine is a more generic thing of a project that just didn’t come together. And again, it was born out of that mistake I talked about earlier, of underestimating the time and undervaluing my own time, and all the other things I was doing and, you know, not planning it carefully enough and the tendency to take on too much.

So, I wanted to do a non-fiction series on the creative process, on how it is used, not just in writing, but in life, and how there is an equivalence there as sort of a uniform process of works throughout. And it came to me as a seven-book series, and I got the covers done and I put it out there and I thought, because it was all there and it still is all there, but for some reason, that series has just never come together for me. And the worst thing about it is it’s a terrible breach of trust with your readers who are interested and express their interest and sign up for your emails and all of that, and then you don’t deliver, and it’s horrible.

So, what I will say is, I kept on trying, I kept on trying, I kept on trying. And then, earlier this year you said to me, maybe just let it go. So, I did, and the relief, I cannot even begin to tell you. So, when you let something go that isn’t working, you know, I kept delaying, rather than deleting and when I press the delete button, it was such a relief.

Now, what I’ve done is taken a whole load of that stuff and put it in an author-based planning schedule which is all there and working really well for me, and I have a lovely creative planning workshop now set up with authors and I’m able to work on that and put it out there in that much smaller, more contained, tiny focused way, and that focus feels fabulous. I’m really absolutely loving it.

So, sometimes we tend to say, okay, I’ll delay it, I’ll do it later. But just deleting, I think, is a tremendous relief. And I think we’re all probably carrying projects around, pet projects, that maybe pressing delete might be a good thing to do.

Joanna Penn: Yes, and that circles right back to what we said at the beginning around knowing yourself and trusting that that intuition is right. And maybe sometimes it takes a friend to remind you of that. And you know, that can really help too.

So, people listening, think back over your author career, or even your personal life, if you want to take it, you know, in a bigger sense, take some time to reflect on mistakes, failures, setbacks, and consider what you learned from them, and how they’ve played a part in your success.

Even as we, I don’t know, I’m reframing the pandemic year. Obviously, some terrible things have happened and it’s still happening, but we can’t live in that depression all the time. It’s like, how can we reframe this? What are the brilliant things that are going to come out of this year? And there are so many things that are happening because of the pandemic.

So, I think that’s part of it too.

How can we reframe what might have been difficult at the time into something positive for our future?

Orna Ross: Just to finish on that. Michelle has given us a nice quote, and she thinks it’s Nelson Mandela, he said, I never lose. I either win or learn.

So, I think that’s kind of our theme. So, thank you to Michelle for that quote.

Joanna Penn: So, happy writing,

Orna Ross: and happy publishing. Bye-bye.

The post Turn Your Author Failures, Setbacks, And Mistakes Into Success With Joanna Penn And Orna Ross first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • January 24, 2021