A glass-half-full attitude—the Joanna Penn interview

Joanna Penn owns The Creative Penn blog, where she teaches everything from how to take a self-published book to market to what to do with it once it’s there. Last winter, as part of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers exchange, she and I traded guests posts, her 7 Ways to Attract Attention to Your Book Sales Page here and my Beyond the Most Common Fiction Mistakes over on Joanna’s site. Since then, her self-published debut novel Pentecost, a religious thriller, has sold over 13,000 copies, and she’s expanded her site to include the author blog Joanna Penn for her fiction readers and Mystery Thriller TV for those of us who just love those genres.

And today she’s going to talk to us about why the glass is always half-full.

V: Joanna, you put so much great information about how to self-publish on your blog, I’m not going to ask you to re-explain it all here, but just ask: how do you break down all that information into its basic components? And why?

J: It’s funny how the blog has developed over almost three years. When I started I just wanted to share what I had learned through my own experience. I wanted to save people time, money and heartache in their own writing and publishing journey. Back in 2008, I self-published my first non-fiction book, How to Enjoy Your Job…Or Find A New One after being rejected by traditional publishing. So I had material first on writing non-fiction and then about print-on-demand. I also discovered the hard way that you need to know about marketing in order to actually sell books. I experimented with old-style marketing and only sold a few books even with national TV, and then I discovered blogging and online media, which is how The Creative Penn really got started.

So that all breaks down into what the blog covers now—basically, writing, publishing options and marketing, which I think form the basis of what writers need to know.

V: I love your sense of organization. Simple and yet comprehensive. And you have a couple of other options you offer writers, too, don’t you?

J: I formed the concept of Author 2.0 around the idea that publishing has changed and authors can’t behave how they used to. Writing is not the only thing anymore. You have to have an author platform, whether you want traditional publishing or to self-publish. The Author 2.0 Blueprint was formed as way to encapsulate all that.

I have also always loved listening to audio, on my commute, at the gym or doing housework. I was devouring as much content as I could in order to learn from people who had been there and done that, so I started my own podcast as a way to learn myself and also share with others. The podcast has turned into something I consider critical to my own personal journey as well as a way I network with other great people in the industry. There’s over fifty hours now of free audio interviews with people on writing, publishing and marketing that people can download.

V: And I will be joining you on November 3rd! I’m limbering up my voice already.

J: The Creative Penn continues to evolve, and I try to help other people by allowing guest posts for blog tours and other promotion, plus I am trying to grow my own author services with webinars and digital products that help authors with their journeys. I have had my own consulting business for years so I bring an entrepreneurial head to this creative community, but ninety percent of the content is free so everyone can benefit.

V: And that’s the entrepreneurialism that really determines self-publishing in today’s climate. An amazing open door—but you do have to have an entrepreneur mindset. So let’s talk about your own self-published fiction. You’ve self-published your thriller, Pentecost, this year, and the skuttlebut is that it’s already sold over 10,000 copies. Can you tell us that story?

J: I always wanted to write fiction and early on decided that I wanted to write something like The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. This style of literary fiction pretty much blocked me for years, as it wasn’t a style I was comfortable with, and ‘real life’ got in the way as well as my own mindset, which was more comfortable with non-fiction writing. Later on, Dan Brown showed me that religion can be woven into thriller and mystery and more importantly has a market. I have a Masters in Theology and also a degree in psychology and wanted to blend those interests into a fiction series that would be like Da Vinci Code in the scale, brilliant locations and religious ideology but with a kick-ass female heroine like Lara Croft.

In 2009, I did NaNoWriMo and wrote the first 20,000 words of Pentecost. It has been a big journey and an amazing learning curve, as writing fiction is a whole different skill set. I have been sharing the journey along the way so others could also learn as I went.

It took another year to write, edit and then look at publishing Pentecost, and it was launched in February 2011. Seven months on, it has now sold nearly 13,000 copies, averaging 1500-1800 per month. It’s stayed in the Amazon bestseller rankings for Action Adventure and Religious Fiction since the launch, which is pretty exciting.

V: Oh, congratulations. What a thrill! Was it hard to choose between pursuing traditional publishing and heading into publication on your own?

J: I never considered pitching it to traditional publishing because I felt that a first time novelist would get nowhere. I’d rather “do an Amanda Hocking” and sell lots on the Kindle and later on get picked up with a better deal because I have proven sales and a bigger backlist. I think a series is also the best way to establish a career in fiction and has been proven to be the best way for most authors to make a decent living.

V: I think so. I analyzed the Publishers Weekly best seller list a couple of years ago, and it was all about thrillers and serial protagonists. Readers buy authors rather than books.

J: I am ever the business-woman and don’t believe in the starving artist myth. We can all be creative as well as business-people, so I am writing for the love of it, but also I want to make a good income.

Pentecost is the first in the ARKANE series, and Prophecy comes out in early 2012. There are at least seven books planned in the series, each investigating a new mystery around religion and psychology.

V: So you’re poised! Now, you’ve talked a little on your blog about how you got into the world of self-publishing and online marketing, a world in which you sound really happy and extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities. Can you tell us about this–about how you see the publishing industry right now and where you see it going? What makes you so enthusiastic?

J: I am a naturally enthusiastic person, and I think that you attract the energy you put out. I have found the online writing community to be amazing, supportive and generous, and I want to give back as much as I take in. So enthusiasm is my default position. If I’m not passionate about it, why do it?

But I also love writing and publishing in all its myriad forms! I am enthusiastic about publishers who are embracing new ways of disseminating content and also about gorgeous limited edition print books that use the physical book form to express in new ways. Think Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes.

I see these as a dichotomy of creativity that we can all be a a part of. Cory Doctorow is probably the ultimate example of this. He is published traditionally yet all his books are also licensed under Creative Commons. He gives away content for free but also produces hand-tooled limited-edition print works selling for almost $300.

NY Times bestseller Scott Sigler is also blending traditionally-published thrillers with indie publishing for his more unusual books that his fans flock to buy.

V: Fascinating—thank you for all the links! Really, it is such an extraordinary time for writers and publication.

J: I think it is exciting if you consider the possibilities and the blended publishing deals that people are doing now. I would still love a big book deal with movie tie-ins while Angelina Jolie can still play action heroines!

V: [Laughing]

J: But in the meantime, the new ways of publishing and marketing mean authors with great books and a DIY attitude can actually sell books, build relationships with fans and have a writing career. I personally believe the big break is more likely to come if you write lots of good books that people want to read and you get them into people’s hands. It is a time of opportunity, but perhaps only if you have the glass-half-full attitude.

V: Yes. And yet, do you see any downside?

J: I personally cannot see the downside of the current market. I am a bibliophile and a passionate reader. I believe that you and I and people reading this will continue to buy books in all their forms. The industry will have to change, as all industries are in the face of technology, but stories and books will continue to thrive in all their variation. I know I read three times as much fiction on my Kindle as I did in print, so I believe the technology is actually a positive force for authors.

V: What are the hidden complexities that writers might not be aware of?

J: The complexities of these new publishing models are that you clearly need to run your own business to do this properly, and many people don’t want to do that side of the equation. They would rather have someone else do it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You can trade control and indeed income for a quieter life. I personally embrace control of my income and choices!

V: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about the current state of publishing?

J: In terms of what I have learned recently, the biggest thing is that ebook sales can be amazing. I am getting a decent cheque from Amazon every month, and I understand how Hocking, Konrath and Locke can be making an excellent income by having these sales with multiple books. I only have one and need to get on with my backlist so I can progress towards the Kindle millionaire status. (See you in a few years!) I have also sold ninety-eight percent ebooks, which actually makes print publishing vanity publishing for me. I will continue to use print-on-demand, but basically the sales for indies must primarily be ebooks. Exciting times!

Joanna Penn is the author of Amazon bestseller Pentecost, an action-adventure thriller, and three other books. Her blog, TheCreativePenn.com offers articles, audio and video to help you write, publish and sell your book. Joanna is on Twitter @thecreativepenn.

8 thoughts on “A glass-half-full attitude—the Joanna Penn interview

  1. Lisa says:

    Great interview. I even went on her website and watched her video as well. She is very informative and makes a intimidating process more simplified and author friendly.

    1. Joanna Penn says:

      Thanks Lisa – I do love our online author community – there are lots of friendly people who make writing and publishing an easier process! Thanks, Joanna

  2. Great to see you and Victoria ‘meeting’ on line, Joanna – I’m sure her readers will find a lot of encouragement and support from your journey.

  3. Dean Mayes says:

    Joanna you remain, in my mind, the gold standard fo all that is good about publishing today. This was a great article that all aspiring authors should take the time to read.

    1. Joanna Penn says:

      Dean, you’re a sweetie! I think I’m just a positive person and I love the fact we have this great community to share our journeys along the way – shame the inns aren’t a bit closer so we can drink to success! Love to down under.

  4. M.E. Anders says:

    Thanks for this interview, Victoria. I really enjoy all of Joanna’s podcasts, YouTube clips, and blog interviews. She has established an amazing following with her hard work.

    1. Joanna Penn says:

      Thanks M.E. I do see you around a lot as well 🙂 I think it’s just consistent work over the long haul. Luckily writers are used to the long game…

  5. Victoria says:

    By the way, whoever’s spamming my comments every day, I take your spam down the minute it goes up, so you might as well knock it off and save us both the trouble. If you had a brain in your little tiny head you’d notice none of your previous spams are here.

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