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

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

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

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

We tackle these questions and more:

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

Books and links we mention:

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Gina Kane also transcribed detailed notes on the show for your reference:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self Publishing and Publishing  (9:43)

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

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

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

Share: “What if you book is your business card?”

Marketing (15:50)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Email (22:29)

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

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

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

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

Crossover (26:59)

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

Share: “Fiction never ages. Nonfiction becomes obsolete.”

The Perfect Publisher (31:15)

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

Outsourcing (33:26)

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

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

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

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

Books Joanna Reads (36:54)

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

Eliot recommends:

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

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

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Children (42:03)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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