If you want to make a decent living with your writing, a business plan can help you strategize and organize the multiple aspects of the author’s life.
Peter Urpeth from XPO North interviews Joanna Penn about Your Author Business Plan in this interview with the full transcript and notes below.
You can watch/listen to the episode below or here on YouTube.
In this interview, we discuss:
- How the internet has empowered creators and transformed opportunities for writers
- Using blocks of time to support creative and business work
- Why your author brand matters
- The stages of an author career from a business perspective
- On the financial stability that independent publishing can create
- The importance of having a direct relationship with readers
- Why being savvy about intellectual property rights is so important
- On the growing audiobook market and ways to distribute audiobooks to the world
You can find Peter and XPO North at XPONorth.co.uk
Transcript of the interview with Joanna Penn
Peter: Hi and welcome to this XpoNorth session on business planning for authors. My name is Peter Urpeth and I am XPO North’s specialist advisor in the writing and publishing sector. And it’s my great pleasure to welcome back to XPO North international best-selling author and award-nominated author, Joanna Penn, who, many in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland will know.
Joanna has done a lot of work over the years for us in promoting professional skills and business skills within independent authorship. Joanna is indeed a pioneer of much of that, of those skills, a creative entrepreneur, and an internationally renowned professional speaker in this area. This session focuses on Joanna’s new book, Your Author Business Plan, which I’ve got paper copies of here.
The book comes also with a second volume, which is a companion workbook, which has lots of useful prompts. And you can at the end of this interview, there’s links as to how you can obtain copies of these books available in print and as digital copies of and indeed how to connect with Joanna.
So without any further delay, here is Your Author Business Plan. So just to start, can I ask you, what was your own personal journey to this? Obviously, you’ve made business plans, and now you’ve written a book about business plans for authors.
What was your personal journey to this business approach?
Joanna: Thanks for having me, Pete. And yes, in terms of business, I should say that I spent 13 years as a business consultant, implementing IT systems. I used to implement accounts payable into large corporates and also small and medium-sized companies. So I worked in business in the corporate world for 13 years.
I’ve always liked having money to spend. I like travel, when we can travel! When I started to get into the writing space, I really wanted to write a book, I wanted to change my career, I didn’t want to do accounts payable anymore, but I was never going to be the poor author in the garret.
From day one, when I first thought about writing a book, it was always, ‘How do I actually leave my job and do this full-time?’ And if I do it full-time, then it needs to be a good living. Even back then, this was for 2006, I started writing my first nonfiction book. And I was actually at the time looking at things like the Forbes Richest Author List and looking at the authors.
I was also in the National Speakers Association. I was surrounded by nonfiction, and I could see fiction authors who were making loads of money. And it was like, ‘Okay, well, what did they do?’ From the beginning, I always intended to make it a business.
So 2006, I started writing, and then 2007, 2008, of course, the ebook started to be a thing. And suddenly, this penny drops. There is still a video on my YouTube channel from 2009 I think it is, when I got the first international Kindle, I was living in Australia. And I say, ‘This is the way we can sell books to everyone in the world, first of all, the American market, which is huge.’
Once that happened, once that tipping point happened with ebooks, 2008, 2009, of course, we started getting the iPhone, I started a podcast, podcasting started to take off.
The whole internet business model shifted in favor of the creator. And that’s what I embraced over a decade ago.
Here we are in 2021 as we record this, and the opportunities just increase more and more over time. I’ve gone from that first $2 that I made online, to making multi-six-figures now through multiple streams of income, and we can come back to that if you like.
But that’s really important to me, it’s about so much more than just, ‘I’m going to write one book and get a traditional publishing deal and I’m set for life.’ That’s just not true anymore. If you have one book and an amazing publishing deal, that probably won’t set you up for life.
My mission now is to empower authors with the knowledge they need to make a living with their writing, but you’re right, you do have to have that business mindset. But you can learn that you can develop the skills in order to get deeper into this area.
Peter: It’s very interesting. Is it because in a way you were part of a first wave in a way, that there’s elements of pioneering going on here and of prototyping what works and doesn’t work and then these years later that gets distilled into a plan.
What was the interaction between the business side and the creative side, if they can be distinguished? Did you start writing a business plan, because The Creative Penn was so successful, and then you had to react to the situation you find yourself in? Or did your business plan and that opened up the progression and opened up the great opportunities and so on. Which way around was it?
What was the interaction between the business side and the creative side?
Joanna: I separate the two. I have two very different time blocks in my day now and I always have done since I had a day job. The morning, that used to be 5 till 6 a.m. now, it’s most of the morning, till lunchtime-ish is my creative time. And most of the time, I don’t think about business or money or anything, I just create stuff. Usually books, maybe podcasts, sometimes other things, but that’s my creative time.
And then the afternoon, we’re recording this in the afternoon, I do my podcasts, I do my business, I talk to my accountant, I do marketing. I have always separated the creative time and the business time.
But then in terms of what came first in The Creative Penn, which is my business, it was the idea of leaving my job. And this is the thing. If, people listening, if you love your work, then awesome, keep your job and just you can write for the love of it. It doesn’t matter.
I know you do a lot of music as well, you don’t need to make a living with what you love as your art. And it does put pressure on your art in order to try and make a living.
But I got to the point in my job where I was just crying at work, I was so miserable. I just hated it. I could not stand it any longer. I had to get out, I was sick. And I was like, ‘How do I combine my art with the internet in order to make a living?’
I did actually, my first business plan I mentioned this in the book is was a big A2, one piece of paper. And this is what I would say to people, ‘You don’t need to write a book in order to do a business plan.’ I had one piece of paper with The Creative Penn in the middle and some arrows out to things and it had ebooks, it had teaching, it had courses, it had merchandise, which is hilarious because I’ve never really done that.
But it had all these ideas, and then from there, what I did was investigate how to do each of these things. So I had get my book on the iPhone, which now, of course, is much easier than it was over a decade ago. But that’s how I started. It was I want to write, I’m a writer, but how do I actually also leave my job?
That was 2006, I first started writing. 2008 I started my website and my podcast. And then 2011 was when I left my job. But it wasn’t until 2015 when I made the same amount of money as what I had left behind. And now I make much more money than I ever did in a day job.
But just to give people this kind of timeframe it’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m going to leave my job, and next week I’ll be making tons of money.’ That is not the reality.
Peter: Sure. I think that in the book, it comes through very strongly that about how much of your approach to business planning is actually born out of the really hard experience and out of hard experience with the view that other people don’t necessarily have to follow that aspect of the journey.
Joanna: Hopefully not!
Peter: It’s a fantastic shortcut. I think that’s one of the whole beauties of the business plan is its dynamic and we can learn from each other, as well. I just to start with at the beginning of this, of your approach, which in many ways does look and feel like very standard business planning. It’s not actually that different from any kind of manufacturing business plan might be.
Obviously, the content is and the processes are different, but the sorts of things that need to be thought about. I think that’s really interesting in a project like this is that there is no separate magic for a business plan for a creative individual or a creative business.
It does look and feel, by necessity I think, the same as for any business plan. You’ve been in a corporate world. Did you borrow that from your previous experience?
Joanna: Yes, absolutely. I do have a much bigger book called Business For Authors, which goes into things like taxation and all that kind of thing. But this book was really trying to take it to a high level. But you’re absolutely right.
We might like to think we’re special snowflakes, or that we’re artists, so we must do things differently. But the reality is, we create a product. If you do it for the love, that’s fine. But if you’re going to run a business, a business plan is for a business, which aims to make money. That is the point of a business.
Yes, we want to put great art into the world but we also want to make bank!
When I thought about the business plan, you’re right. I even put the words production plan in the business plan, which I know is like, oh, my goodness, you mean like robots in a factory.
I talk about the factory I used to work in, and we need time, and we need inspiration, and we need research. And then we need to sit down and do the work, which is the production. And then we need the publishing if we’re independent, and the marketing and all this.
You do have to think about your process because at the end of the day, as an author, I have to produce books. That is my number one thing, my number one product. And then I also have to think about my customers. So the same as any business, I have a product, I have customers, I have vendors, people that I have to pay to help me.
A cover designer, an editor, for example, my accountant that I mentioned, and then you have to think about marketing, you have to think about your financial management. And so all of those things are absolutely no different. I’m a sole employee in my company. It’s exactly the same for, I used to work for one of the biggest mining companies in the world. And my chart of accounts doesn’t look that different to a mining company. It’s just the things in the buckets are different and the numbers, obviously.
I don’t want people to be put off by the idea that we’re just like any other business. In fact, it makes it easier because if you can separate that art from that business person, you can be like, ‘Okay. Well, how do I slot that into that area? How do I think about it differently?’
Some of this language also makes it less emotional, because we can get pretty emotional about our art. But it’s better to not be so emotional about our business, and to really think, ‘How do I serve my customer in the best way? How does my business serve my customer?’ Rather than, ‘How do I write my book over here?’ So it’s quite a different mindset.
Peter: I think emotionally it’s a good segue as a concept into some of the opening parts of this book in which you introduce by absolute necessity, I totally get that, the difficult concept of the author brand, difficult from the outside to see an author brand, but from the inside, I think this is an area of this approach that many writers really struggle with do they need to do it?
How do they do it? And, you know, why? What’s the benefit? But all business plans these days have sections like this, have a kind of a mission and values type statement, or a purpose or whatever language people like to put on it.
What would be your recommendations around the author brand? Why do we need to do this? And how do we get into that? How do people actually determine what are their core values?
Joanna: It is really hard. That’s the first thing to say upfront.
And what I would also say is, one of the things we talk about amongst authors is finding your author voice. When you’re a new author, this is complete mysticism you literally don’t understand what people are talking about. I still remember this going, ‘What are they talking about? What does author’s voice even mean?’
And then by about book five, you figure out your author’s voice and this is mainly with fiction, but in some ways nonfiction. But with fiction, I remember it, in my book Desecration I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve just found my voice. This is awesome.’ I think it’s the same with brand.
The brand is your promise to the reader.
And what do they expect from a brand? And do you deliver to that promise? For example, Stephen King, although perhaps he has not done this deliberately, most people are going to expect something dark. Whether it’s horror or sci-fi or whatever, it’s going to have some darkness, it probably has a high body count. His name is synonymous with horror, you pretty much know what you’re going to get.
I loved J.K. Rowling writing under Robert Galbraith. I actually love her books as Robert Galbraith. I much prefer them. That shift of brand was genius because the expectations of a J.K. Rowling book fell short when she did The Casual Vacancy, people were like, ‘This isn’t what I expected from Rowling.’
Whereas actually, that book is awesome. Do you see? The expectations of a brand are hugely important and what you want as a reader. James Patterson, one of the top-selling authors in the world, you know it’s a page-turner, somebody turns a page on a Patterson book every 10, every seconds or something ridiculous.
So you have to think about what is my promise to the reader? It’s unlikely to be obvious from day one. So that would be my tip, is you can feel your way into an author brand.
Where I am now, so again, I started writing in 2006. In 2012, I split my brand into two. I used to write my fiction under Joanna Penn. And then in 2012, I discovered that I was really mixing up my brand. Joanna Penn now writes nonfiction books to empower authors. And J.F. Penn, which is my thriller, and dark fantasy brand, writes thrillers dark fantasy adventure, with a strong sense of place so travel, and I have my Books and Travel Podcast.
I’ve slowly over the years built up J.F. Penn as a separate brand to Joanna Penn. And it has helped me so much because I know my Joanna Penn reader, is this person, and my J.F. Penn reader, is this person, how do I satisfy that promise?
It can be very hard for people if you’re trying to do everything under one brand. And of course, it’s much easier, I guess, as a business, XPONorth, you know what you do is that. Whereas Peter Urpeth does a lot of different things to that brand. So I would say that those are some of the main things.
Also, just to say a brand is not a logo. I feel like everyone goes, ‘Oh, it’s just a logo.’ No, it’s not a logo. It really is that promise to the reader and the expectations over time. Does that make sense?
Peter: Indeed it does now. I think there’s one thing here though that we…I asked the question, you talk a lot about the reader. Are reader requirements the driver of the brand? Are the issues around who I am or what I want to be, what I want to do, are they the driver of the brand? Or is that a false distinction?
Are reader requirements the driver of the brand?
Joanna: I think it’s probably a false distinction in that I, for Joanna Penn, I started sharing my journey on a blog and a podcast back before people, well, back when self-publishing was a dirty word basically. And so over the years, as I shared more and more people turned up, and started listening and started reading, started buying my books.
I have changed, obviously, but I didn’t change I’ve always been pro-independent, pro-author, all of these things. That was my core value as such.
Over time, you attract people who resonate with your values.
The fact is, there are so many voices out there in the world, you have to choose who you listen to. So you are attracted to people you resonate with.
I am consistent because that’s the way I am artistically, but people who have arrived because they resonate with that. And with my fiction, I have always written my novels based on my travels. I’m definitely a bit darker as J.F. Penn, I have a shadow side as we all do. But the people who are attracted to my J.F. Penn books resonate with a sense of place, maybe they like graveyards like I do, maybe they enjoy reading some Stephen King.
Again, I haven’t changed myself, I have just attracted a readership. So then that becomes a thing. I think the biggest problem if you try and write to market, which is a thing, and many people do it successfully, is can you sustain that over time? Does it make you happy over time?
At the end of the day, this is about meaning, not just about money.
And although I really like making money, I’m not going to change my artistic sense to try and attract a readership that won’t resonate with me.
Peter: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because when you look at it in that way, a mission, a brand with a mission that is to fulfill the needs of people who read the most popular fiction at any one time, or who, to always be on-trend with the global chart. That’s a nearly impossible job. No one can do that. Big publishing houses who publish hundreds of different authors might be able to make such an aspiration, but for a writer, this is born out of who you are, isn’t it? I think that is also what is doable in the end.
Joanna: Yes, and more important than that, we’re recording this during lockdown again, during the pandemic. And one of the silver linings is time to really think about what’s important in your life because time is really short. We all have face to face with mortality in a much more immediate way.
If it takes X amount of time to write a book, do you want to spend that time writing something that you’re not proud of? Or that you can’t say, ‘This is my book, it’s brilliant. I really love it.’ Or that it just is too short.
I’ve got on my wall here ‘Create a body of work I’m proud of,’ and that I think as artists should be the underlying thing. And then, yes, there’s lots of things you can do to make a living. For example, different formats, or even other things like teaching, speaking. We both have sponsorship and I have a Patreon. And there’s lots of ways you can make other streams of income that can supplement the money from just your book sales.
Peter: One final question around that. How much time do you think in terms of the overall amount of time that people might want to spend on putting a business plan together? Which I think is quite should be quite a time-consuming business and shouldn’t be rushed. This is a difficult section to complete, isn’t it? And it’s dynamic. I mean, you’re still changed. Did you settle on your brand statements and they’ve been like that now for five years?
Joanna: Oh, if you mean the brand statements that I wrote in the book, which they were written when I wrote the book. What I do with nonfiction, I think many nonfiction people do this is we write the book to articulate what we really think. And what I found in writing the Business Plan book was, ‘I really have to articulate this in a better way.’
I’ve had various iterations of things over the years as you do. But this is probably the thing with a business plan, it’s not static, you’re going to change things all the time. For example, I used to do a lot of webinars where I do joint venture activities with people, promoting various things that I used, and were good for my audience, it was always ethical affiliate marketing.
But it was always in the evening because of America, it always had to be in the evening. And I just decided I don’t want to do that anymore. So on my previous business plan of like, a couple of years ago, that was quite a large chunk; do one webinar a month was a thing, and it would add this much to my business. And I just took that all out. It was like, ‘Nope, that’s going.’
What can I do instead to bring other things into the void that has created? For example, I’m getting into a lot of Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain and the new economy of the next decade stuff. That has enabled me time to do it. My business plan for this year is actually quite different to how it’s been over the last few years. Although my underlying brand and mission statement stays the same for Joanna Penn and J.F. Penn, I am giving myself space and time to looking into these new things.
What I would say to people is, you asked about the amount of time you should spend. I would say, whatever amount of time that you have, that’s not scary.
As I said, if you’re literally going, ‘I am not doing that,’ then sit down with one A4 piece of paper and a pen and just draw something, circle in the middle, arrows. That’s your plan. And if you have a bit more time, then yeah, sure, go through these different sections, maybe create a document, we are writers after all!
I would challenge people to really only make it one or two pages, A4 pages of normal-sized text, none of this size eight font. Because the biggest problem, I think, with business plans is people try and do too much, too fast, and then go, ‘Oh, well, that all just failed.’
Whereas, for example, if you’re listening and you haven’t finished your first book yet, then that’s your business plan. It’s to finish the book. Literally, that’s all it needs to be. So you’re done. And if you’ve been going a while, then you can start thinking about the other different things that would come into it.
Peter: I think it sort of cuts to a part of the book right at the other end of it to that of branding is the way that you organize this there’s a chapter here that actually divides this journey into stages which I think well, probably the ones that you experience which I think are pretty much universal that’s what I mean.
I do a lot of talking to writers in terms of one-to-one support and consultation and it’s amazing how often these stages actually do arise and how people feel they’re stuck in one or they can’t move to another what’s the solution and so on. I think here’s something really, really realistic and tangible about the levels of these. And that stage three out of four is the one where you say you have a stable income as an author. This isn’t stage one.
I think here’s something really, really realistic and tangible about the levels and stages of the author journey.
Joanna: No. So just briefly for people, stage one is that startup mode, and generally, the money is flowing out. Because you’re, for example, writing a novel you don’t know how to write a novel until you do some training, you do some courses, you hire some editors, you do some writing.
My first novel I ended up doing like a course at a local library and all these things, and you buy a lot of books on writing. There are so many things in a startup mode that you need to think. For me, I guess that would have been between 2006 and 2011 was really learning, developing my craft, all these different things.
Stage two is that just scraping by, which is, ‘Oh, look, I’m making a little bit of profit. And okay, I need to spend that on some advertising.’ I probably can’t necessarily leave my job or, for example, we downsized so my, wonderful supportive husband agreed, because I was the main wage earner at the time, we sold our house, we sold the car, we pretty much downsized, got rid of our debt, so that we could scrape by.
I know that’s not possible for a lot of people, but in that phase of going back to basics a lot of authors will move somewhere cheaper. We’re now in the pandemic living in a world of working from home so that might actually be more possible for a lot of people. But as I said, I took a pay cut.
So between 2011 and 2015, it was just scraping by. And then if you have a partner who has a job, maybe that can help but that’s never my answer. It’s not you can’t depend on someone else, you can’t depend on the government because things change.
And then as you say, stage three is that stable income with a steady profit. I’ve got a book called How to Make a Living with Your Writing. And again, it is not a seven-figure book deal. Making a living is a long-term thing. I’m 45, I want to be making a living with my writing until I die and then also leave an estate.
A stable income with a steady profit is like a salary. So I pretty much know how much is coming into my bank account every month from all the vendors, my patrons, my sponsors all of that so. And actually, I remember, I was reading about Edinburgh book fair years ago, China Miéville, gave a talk on writers not making any money. And I was sitting there, I wasn’t sitting in Edinburgh, but I read about this later, and he said, ‘Writers need a salary.’
I read this and went, ‘Yes,’ and it’s called independent publishing. Because instead of the spike levels of money that arrive, when all the authors whose books got moved because of the pandemic, they didn’t get their payment on publication. Maybe they haven’t got it yet.
Whereas with indie I know if I sell and in fact, selling direct, the money’s in my bank account within minutes. And this is incredibly exciting, or with Amazon, Kobo, Apple, Ingram, all these different vendors, it might be 60 days, but it’s still I know exactly how much money is coming. So that’s stable income with steady profit is a living, and it can be long-term.
And then, of course, the final stage four, the wealthy author. I’m not putting myself in that bracket because to me, that’s a seven-figure thing, but I do know authors who make that and I feel it is attainable if you want to go that far. But for many people, a stable income with a steady profit for the rest of your life is quite good.
Peter: It’s interesting, as well because I think, since independent authors, when all of that started, I remember, listening, as well at book fairs, to some writers who would say that it isn’t, of course, just a straight diagonal line from nothing to well. It’s a series of plateaus.
I think one of the interesting things about a business plan is that it’s as much about consolidation as it is growth. It’s about how do you actually maintain this.
What’s the element of sustainability? And if you’re an author whose works are solely in the hands of publishers, I think that element of sustainability is that much more difficult because you don’t control the outcomes of those things. Everything a traditionally published author does for marketing and all the rest of it is tied to somebody else’s schedule.
Joanna: And their control. For example, I can do a price promotion, and some advertising and sell a ton of books. And I know pretty much how much money I’m going to make. If I send out an email, I know how much money I’m going to make. These are things that you can only do if you have control.
Now, I’m not knocking traditional publishing as one of the options that authors have. But the best of all worlds is having some books with traditional publishers, for whatever reason you decide is important. For example, awards, is a really good reason to want to be with a publisher or licensed specifically. So many of the wonderful Scottish publishing houses, for example, you could license your physical books to a Scottish publisher for print only in the UK, and you could self-publish your ebook in the rest of the world.
Many authors might have signed a contract for UK Commonwealth. Why not self-publish in America and the rest of the world? I’ve sold books in 158 countries or something ridiculous now. And that’s because they are distributed in all of these countries. And most authors’ books are not even there. Or, for example, other formats like audiobooks or print-on-demand or hardbacks or doing all these different kinds of things, turning it into an online course, if it’s nonfiction.
There are lots of ways to exploit your intellectual property assets for yourself.
I know you do a lot of education on this, but I feel like many authors forget that they’ve created an intellectual property asset. And that publishers are not charities. The reason they will give you money is so that they own and control that intellectual property asset.
If we do that for ourselves, then we can be empowered and we can make these multiple streams of income. But, of course, I do licensing deals. I just don’t do them for World English and the format’s that I like to do myself like eBook, audiobook, print-on-demand.
Peter: It’s fascinating, really, that sort of distinction so many years after the power of the ebook, the independent author emerged. Writers who look into the future will very much work in a mixed economy and they should know all sides of this.
And the business plan should actually encompass the whole of the mainstream industry which for me, includes independent authors, as professional writers, as career writers, as people who want to spend their life doing that and find a way of sustaining it.
I think another thing about that as well about business planning, is it enables you to understand why so-called traditional publishers may reject the work. They’ve gone through this process themselves.
Joanna: It’s so funny you say that, because I appreciate more and more every year, the difficult job that agents and publishers have, and amusingly people pitch me all the time with their books. And I’m like, ‘No, I’m an author. I don’t publish anyone, don’t pitch me, that’s pointless.’
Or I do get pitched from my podcast, for example, or interviews. And I would say, 95% of these pitches are appalling. They’re absolutely terrible. And let’s just put it out there. There’s a lot of books that are published that are terrible — that is in the self-publishing space, but that’s also in traditional publishing. Let’s face it, a lot of celebrity memoirs should just not be out there.
So let’s not say it’s about quality a lot of the time. Also remember that most successful publishers or niche publishers, they have specific tastes, they have a specific audience. That’s why we have imprints they’re sort of designed for specific groups of readers.
That’s kind of the same thing that we’ve got to think which is, I know that some people, if you like some of my J.F. Penn fiction, then awesome, you’re inside my brain. But I know that a lot of people listening might not be interested, it might not be their thing whereas they might be interested in my nonfiction.
So you have to think the same thing with publishers and agents; who is appropriate for my kind of book? If you’re looking to go that way. What do I want to achieve? This is a really important thing is your definition of success.
From day one, when I wanted to leave my job, that was my definition of success, leave my job. The next one was, make six-figures. And the next one was, make multi-six figures. And that’s where I am at the moment. But you have to decide.
Now I want to win a literary prize. So who knows what I might choose in order to achieve that goal. But it will be a different choice than I might have made towards some of the other goals. So that’s really important for people to keep in mind.
But as you say, with the business plan, you can write down the reasons behind your choices. Which I feel like many authors don’t think too hard about, they just follow the path they think is the path wthere are so many choices now that we can decide based on where we want to go.
The overarching thing is this idea of empowerment.
I want to pat everyone on the back and say, ‘Look, you’re an author, you’re a creator, you’re amazing. And your work is amazing or it can be amazing if you go through the right process. So please value your output, value your manuscript or your music or whatever you’re creating and then look for the best way to get that into the world and into the hands of people who are going to love it, and hopefully make you some money as well.’
Peter: I think that’s one of the things that indie authorship has done as well is close the gap between the writer and the reader. And I think that that’s a kind of a joyous phenomenon for those who have successfully done it. That was one of the things that traditional publishers used to own in this process what’s actually the relationship between the book and the reader.
Joanna: It’s funny, though, I disagree with that because actually most traditional publishers market directly to bookstores and distributors. And only in the last decade, have they actually started adding ‘Sign up for our email list here.’ I don’t actually think most publishers know who their readers are, they might have a nebulous idea, but most of them still don’t have great email lists.
A lot of traditional publishers come to me, authors come to me and say, ‘I had this really big success a decade ago, and now I don’t have an email list. How do I market myself? My publishers dumped me. What do I do?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, you kind of have to start from scratch, you have to start building your relationship with your readers.’
What’s interesting now is I read fiction on the Kindle. And now at the end of many of these books, there’s a publisher email list, but most of the time, they’re ridiculously large. Like, why would I sign up for Simon and Schuster’s email list? That is pointless. I don’t want to hear about all of their books.
Whereas an author, you’d be like, ‘I really like this author. I want to hear from them specifically.’ And, again, some of these imprints or niche publishers do a good job of this. But in general, I don’t think publishers have had that relationship, although they are now really wanting that, especially post-pandemic during the pandemic, when a lot of sales are digital.
Peter: I think those things that you say here, although they are I think largely, to some extent geared towards the indie author, they also apply actually to somebody who that is not their path.
There’s so many questions, the right question to ask this book, for anyone who wants to take any part in this, I think they need to know this. And I think they need to do it. It’s just the content of their product map and how they market and so on is going to be different. The other elements of that are going to remain largely the same whether you intend to be somebody who’s agented and published solely in the traditional thing.
Joanna: I actually think that the line is blurring, successful traditionally published authors are business savvy, they know about contracts. They know what the terms of the contract are, even if they work with agents, they go through their contracts with a toothcomb, they negotiate on rates, they know what they’ve licensed.
I really know the difference when I’m talking to traditionally published authors about who is business savvy, because the first thing I’ll say is, ‘So have you signed Worldwide English?’ And if they go, ‘Well, I don’t know, I don’t remember what was in my contract,’ that is very different, to the author who understands what that terminology means, who understands the format’s they might have signed.
We’ve just seen a brilliant example, on Kickstarter, I think I put this in the book, of Brandon Sanderson, who is obviously a multi-million bestseller, fantasy author with traditional publishing, all the success a traditionally published author could want. He did a Kickstarter just in December 2020 and raised 6.7 million US dollars or something for the reprints of The Way of Kings, his first novel.
This was a limited edition, hardback, reprint. And what he did as a very savvy author was retain the rights to special editions of his books. And $6.7 million, obviously he’s done, he’s paid a lot of artists for great art, he’s paid a specialist publisher to create these beautiful books. Plus, at the same time, he’s had incredible marketing and a really good payday.
He’s an example of a traditionally published author who specifically excluded special editions from his contract. Other people, for example, would make sure they sign UK Commonwealth instead of Worldwide English, or those who retain their audio rights.
There are lots of ways that a traditionally published author can be business savvy, and make sure they know what they’re doing for their future.
And then the beauty now is if you retain some of these rights, you can actually exploit them yourself, and can actually make an independent stream of income at the same time. So I would encourage people however you choose to publish, to think about these different things.
Peter: That’s such an important message that it’s not a series of oppositional things where you have to be this or that. The mindset carries across. I think business planning will carry you across and find a way to actually make all of this work and be consistent and give you other tools, other assets that you own, such as your email list. In the book, you highlight the email list as one of your key assets.
Joanna: It’s so important. Do you know what? We’re not going to go into politics at all, but what has happened with Donald Trump in the U.S., arguably one of the most powerful people in the world up until very recently, as we record this, was removed from Twitter, from Facebook, Amazon have removed another social network. Basically, his mouthpiece was removed. Now, whether or not you agree with that, it doesn’t matter. What matters is he relied on these companies to reach people and then they changed the rules on him.
We’ve had this as authors with Amazon changing the rules. So we have to pay for advertising and traditional publishing are discovering this. Facebook used to be an organic reach and now it’s pretty much paid for advertising.
The best asset after your book is going to be your email list because you can reach readers.
And again, as I said, I can send out an email and I’m going to sell books, make money, and I am independent of these platforms.
[You can find my tutorial on how to build your email list here.]
Now, this is another reason I don’t rely on Amazon for all my income. I’m very diverse with my income streams, because I’ve been doing this long enough now that I’ve seen these things come and go. When I started, MySpace was the thing. And who knows what it’s going to be in a decade, or even post big tech breakups, which might well happen, who knows what will happen? You never know when the rules are going to change, basically.
Peter: It was interesting with the Trump thing, they did actually have suddenly a Plan B, which was an old website, a sort of a user, sort of like a free WordPress type, and it had a news column that hadn’t been updated from about 2009.
Joanna: If you are a traditionally published author relying on your publisher to communicate, how many authors stay with the same publisher, or how many publishers retain authors? A lot of them are let go, or they part ways. So don’t rely on any of these places really, to manage your email. It’s really something that you want to manage yourself.
Peter: I think one of the really interesting things in this book is that you often use the phrase reader and listener interchangeably when it comes to things like product, and Intellectual Property.
How is the audio going for you? And how do you think the coming year is going to be in terms of the importance of audio for writers?
Joanna: Audio as we record this in the beginning of 2021, this year, I think will be another huge year for audio, we’re just going to have more and more options. There are rumors of Spotify coming into the audiobook market, which is going to be really interesting.
But the other thing, so we have the established players, obviously, here in the UK, Audible is one of the big ones, Apple Books is another one. But there’s also a whole load of library markets, for example, are expanding. My audiobooks are in libraries, as well as ebooks and some print books. Libraries are expanding their digital platforms because of the pandemic and whether that will continue post-pandemic as people have changed their behavior.
Through Findaway Voices, which is how I do my audiobooks now, you can get to 42 different retailers, including Storytel, which is in so many countries around the world. Any country that is not dominated by Amazon, Storytel is basically hoovering up that market. You’ve got Scribd, you’ve got lots of these services.
And then what is so exciting coming, I’ve only been doing it a couple of weeks is direct audio sales through BookFunnel – see my tutorial here.
BookFunnel has an app and I can now sell audio directly to an audio app. I’m selling lots of audio directly. Now, what this means is I’m getting 90% royalty on ebooks and audiobooks. And if you know about royalties, 90% is incredible. It’s the highest you can possibly get because there are always going to be fees and platform things.
For me, audio is a hugely important way of making money. It’s also an incredibly important way to reach people. I’m an audiobook listener. If you’re not marketing on podcasts, for example, I’m probably not going to hear about your book, because listening to podcasts is the way I consume, and then listening to nonfiction audiobooks is a primary way I read.
More and more people doing this, especially in the younger category this is very interesting. It used to be the audiobooks on tape, for older people, but its people under 40 is a huge part of the audio market. My brother said to me, ‘I’m not going to read your book until it’s available in audio. I don’t do anything but audio now.’
This is the thing. Having audiobooks is fantastic, and I wouldn’t say it’s easy to do, but for nonfiction like I narrate my own, I have an audio booth here in my corner, which is just some blankets over a frame. I record my own nonfiction. I work with professional narrators for my novels. And I work with Findaway Voices who helped me find those narrators and then help me do the production and all that.
You don’t need to be technical, really. And I’ve got a book, Audio For Authors if people are interested all about audiobooks, and podcasting, and voice tech, because that’s the other thing. Smartphones with voice search, Alexa, Google Home, Apple, HomePod, all these different things, and when people are in their cars, smart assistance with cars, Voice Search is a huge thing.
If people are doing a voice search, they want something in audio to be returned. So what I would say is if you are ignoring audio, you really need to stop ignoring it. It’s only going to get bigger. And actually, it changes your writing.
I’ve interviewed a Scottish author, Jules Horne, who’s written a book about writing for audio first, and it changes the way you write because it needs to be more lyrical, it needs to be smoother. You need to structure things differently. I found writing for audio and selling audio to be quite transformative really.
Peter: Thanks so much, Joanna. It’s all incredibly interesting, important stuff and it’s a great guide, I think, for authors as to how they should go about producing a business plan and importantly, why.
I have two copies of your books here. One is the guide to business planning itself and the other is a really useful workbook, which contains lots of really supportive information, and even further insights.
Where’s the best place where people can get hold of these books?
Joanna: If you come to thecreativepenn.com/books, there are links to all my books there. And of course, they’re on all the usual stores, or you can order them in your bookshop, if you’d like to. They should be on bookshop.org as well. And you can order them from your local bookseller they’re in all the catalogs, or you can buy direct from me. So essentially, they should be everywhere. But TheCreativePenn.com. And, of course, if you like podcasting or YouTube, I do have a YouTube channel, The Creative Penn and a podcast.
Peter: Well, thanks so much, Joanna. I’m very grateful for your time.
Joanna: Thanks for having me, Pete. This has been fun.
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Author: Joanna Penn