Tuesday, 6 August 2013

In Conversation with Joanna Penn

by Gillian Hamer

Joanna Penn is a self-styled entrepreneur who has taken every opportunity that has come her way and is making a name for herself in a multitude of avenues within today’s fast-moving world of publishing. She’s the author of a number of self-help books aimed at guiding writers through the shark-infested waters of self-publishing and has also taken her own advice onboard and published a series of crime thrillers.

In her latest non-fiction guide, she discusses the murky world of marketing and explains, in simple terms, the dos and do nots of successful marketing. I found the book clear, concise and the step-by-step advice invaluable to even the least-savvy author. (For more details, please see my review in the Reviews section of Words with JAM.)

So, in her own words, does Joanna practice what she preaches and how do you keep one step ahead in a fast-changing world?

What are the reasons behind your decision to write How to Market Your Book?

I know what it's like to have no clue about marketing and I wanted to put everything I have learned in one place! My story is like many other authors. Back in 2008 I self-published my first book and was so excited to finally hold the book of my heart in my hands. I had 2000 copies printed (big mistake!) and I had high hopes of changing people's lives as well as making an income. But those boxes didn't shift at all and I sold less than 100 books. I finally realized that I needed to learn about marketing. I tried traditional media and direct sales and then discovered blogging, social, podcasting and all the online tools that suited me much better as an introvert author. Five years later, I am a full-time author, speaker and entrepreneur, mainly down to the marketing skills I have learned since those early days. I hope that this book will also help educate people and save them time on the journey. 

It's clear from reading the book, you relish having so many strings to your bow and spend a lot of time on research, but why do you enjoy passing on your knowledge, advising and helping other writers so much?

I used to be miserable in my job and felt my life was going nowhere, and so I read a lot of self-help books to help me change things. My mentors have been the authors of non-fiction books who offered specific advice, and I have put a lot of it into practice. So, because of that, I always wanted to be the British Tony Robbins! A self-help author who changes people's lives and writing non-fiction helps me with that goal (although I will never have those teeth!). My book 'Career Change' is precious to me and I love to hear of people who are helped to new careers through that, and now I hope this new book will help authors with marketing. I want to write other non-fiction books as well, in between my fiction. The next one may well be on public speaking for introverts. Basically, I think helping people and passing on knowledge is incredibly important and also fulfilling on a personal level.

A lot of your advice concentrates on author reputation and good karma. How important is image to an author today, particularly online?

A number of authors definitely sell books purely on the distributor sites without worrying at all about reputation. But if you want to build more of an ongoing brand, and if you want to be seen in the same bracket as traditionally published authors, then you have to look the part. 'Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,' as the old career advice goes. For example, if you use Twitter or any social site, there is a bio and a link to your website. If you want opportunities to come to you, optimizing that website and how you portray yourself online will make a huge difference. Once you have made a decision to be a pro writer, then you need to act the part until you become it.

I also talk about 'social karma' because generosity is so important online and if you help others first, you will find marvelous things happen over time from the connections you make that way. Connections I've made through Twitter, blogging and my podcast have brought me international speaking events, an intro to my NY agent, commissioned writing pieces and a great deal of publicity and marketing over the years. Not just that, but I have made amazing friends all over the world. I couldn't have changed my life and become a fulltime author-entrepreneur without these fundamentals. Plus, my life is a lot more fun because of them! 

You give a lot of personal insights and information about your own journey, right down to facts and figures. Do you never worry about giving away your secrets to success?

Not at all, and it's also important to remember that anecdotes are not evidence! Generosity and sharing of knowledge is what makes the indie author community so brilliant to be a part of. We help each other, we promote each other's work and together, we can all succeed. This is not a zero sum game. Readers are voracious and with the growth in global sales, we can all reach more people. I also talk about 'co-opetition', promoting books similar to your own, because buyers will always purchase more books in the same niche.

Marketing is a scary, black hole to many writers, why do you think it is so vital in today's market?

I think we have to reframe marketing in order to make it less scary. Marketing is sharing what you love with people who will appreciate hearing about it. So it doesn't have to be scammy or sucky. It can just be you enthusing about the aspects around your book and attracting people who might be interested.
Understanding marketing skills is vital because there is a lot of 'noise' online and so many more books being published these days, so you have to have a way to stand out. If you want a traditional deal, the publisher will only help with the launch period so you need to know about marketing to keep the book selling as an ongoing project. If you're indie, you need to do it all yourself. But it can be fun (honestly!) if you come at it from the right angle.

If pushed, what would be your top three marketing tips for fiction authors just starting out?

a) Sort out your book fundamentals first. Pro-editing, pro cover design, good sales description, correct categories on the book sites. All these things will ensure your book has the best chance of sales.

b) Get a professional author website with a list-building mechanism so you can capture the emails of people who want your book, even if it is only by including a link at the back of the book. This means you will be able to sell regardless of what happens with the online distributors and next time you launch, you'll have people ready to buy. I recommend using Wordpress.org and Aweber/Mailchimp for the email.

c) Choose one method of connection because that's how oppportunities arise. That might be blogging, or a social site, or podcasting or video. Start with one thing and see how that goes before jumping into everything. But the main focus should be connection and developing a network, not sales initially. That will come in time!

Another of your talents is a recent move from non-fiction into crime fiction. Which gives you the most personal pleasure, and why?

I love writing fiction because entertaining people and taking them out of their daily life for a few hours is also a privilege and a joy. When I was a miserable commuter I used thriller novels to escape the daily grind, and that's the market I aim to please now. I also love research, incorporating travel and interesting locations into my books. A trip last year to Budapest provided the setting and plotlines for my next novella, Relic, in the shadow of rising nationalism and anti-Semitism in the area. But I also love helping people, so I will continue to write non-fiction! I think there's room for both in my career and I have two brands if people prefer one or the other.

You mention one ambition is to be the first woman to write the script of a Bond film, what other ambitions do you want to achieve?

Oh yes, I would love to write Bond! My ARKANE thrillers have a female protagonist, Dr Morgan Sierra, who is kick-ass in her pursuit of the bad guys as well as defending her family. I think a female writer who has been accused of 'writing like a man' could definitely pull Bond off!

Other ambitions? On the writing side, of course, I want to be a NY Times bestselling author and see one or more books made into a film. I want to create a body of work I am proud of over my lifetime which means every book is a kind of ambition. I want to have my books in other languages and I am currently progressing German, with Spanish and Mandarin next on the list. I also love to travel so I want to live for a time in Jerusalem, a place I am passionate about, and also India. Basically, I am a terribly goal-focused person!

Having studied the markets in so much depth, do you think writers are in better or worse positions today in terms of publication, than a decade ago?

I think it is an incredible time to be a writer as we have so much opportunity and the gatekeepers are really a) yourself and b) the customer rather than the traditional industry. If you have a great story or can help people, and you believe in yourself, you can reach people through so many mediums. Not just in your city or country, but globally. That is just phenomenal! You can make a living from your creativity and so many more authors are nowadays, at least those who are grasping the opportunity with both hands.

Where do you see yourself and your career in ten years time?

It's interesting because I spent 13 years as a management consultant working in large corporates installing financial systems (ouch!). I was a cubicle slave climbing a ladder against the wrong wall and I hated my day job, so my main goal was to get out. After a lot of experimentation, I think I have finally found the right wall as an author, speaker and entrepreneur and now I do this full-time. So the next ten years, I will be climbing that ladder - writing more fiction and non-fiction, playing with creativity as well as speaking all over the world and becoming more well known for my writing. Who knows where the technology will be or how the publishing industry will have changed in ten years? But I will certainly be amongst those authors who are grasping every possible opportunity, and loving it!

Joanna Penn is the author of 'Career Change' as well as 'How to Market A Book'. She also writes the bestselling ARKANE thrillers under J.F.Penn. Joanna’s site for writers www.TheCreativePenn.com has been voted one of the Top 10 Blogs for writers 3 years running and offers articles, audio and video on writing, publishing and book marketing. Connect with Joanna on twitter @thecreativepenn


  1. Great to see you feature Joanna here. I've followed her podcast from the early days and have learned such a lot from it. I've also come from a background where I had certain expertise I could share, and it's a pleasure to do that to repay the people whose experience I've learned from elsewhere. As Joanna says, by sharing we all benefit; we all make our lives better and take control of our creative identities.

  2. I recently finished Joanna's How To Market A Book and would highly recommend it. There is much I was doing already - but also much food for thought to add to the 'action list'! And with my day job (extremely fussy!) 'copywriter' hat on I can vouch that it is a good/easy plain English read!