Joanna Penn. More Than Just a Storyteller.
If you think being self-published is easy and you can do it overnight, think again. Joanna Penn is an example of a new breed of author who is a good storyteller, and applies a professional approach to book production, while training a canny eye on the rapidly shifting publishing market. Anyone who successfully self-publishes does work very hard. So if you are thinking of doing it yourself, let Joanna convince you it is not for the faint-hearted.
How did you become a writer?
I have a degree in theology from Oxford and also another degree in psychology. But I initially ended up working as an IT consultant for large corporate businesses, mainly in the financial areas. I did this for about 13 years, but felt pretty miserable because it wasn’t creative. I wasn’t really giving anything to the world and everything I did was overwritten very quickly.
So in 2007, I decided to change my life by trying to start other businesses which included things like scuba-diving and property investment. But couldn’t find what I was looking for. So in 2008 I decided to write myself a book called How to Enjoy Your Job, so I could learn how to change my career while I did it. I’d always wanted to write a book. (I thought I wanted to be a self-help author, a bit like Tony Robbins). I’ve since rewritten this book and re-released it, because I have now actually followed that path and been able to completely change my career.
I self-published this book in 2008, before the Kindle or any other e-book platform. I learnt as I blogged about the whole process of how to publish and gathered a bit of a following while I did it.
After I decided to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I came up with an idea for a novel. I never thought I could write a novel, but I thought I’d give it a go. About 14 months later I published Pentecost. In terms of fiction writing, I haven’t really looked back since then.
When you decided to make a career change and tried your hand at a range of different businesses, how did you know that writing was the right thing for you to do?
I’ve always written. I have a huge pile of 50 notebooks on my desk. I’ve written journals since I was about 15. I’ve always written things. Part of my job as an IT consultant was writing business papers. I never really did creative writing as such, but all my spare time is spent reading. Most of my income is spent on books. I read instead of watching TV.
After Dan Brown came out with ‘The Da Vinci Code’, I realised my psychology and theology background could actually be used in a fictional capacity, which was brilliant, because allowed me to let my imagination loose and get out there and write. So I think I’ve always been a writer and, for me, becoming a writer seemed a natural extension of that.
Do you think writing your original non-fiction book How to Enjoy Your Job was a useful reflective process that helped you to move into a new career?
Oh yes. My life changed course as I wrote it, because I came up with a whole load of questions that you have to ask yourself if you want to find out what you want to do. I think it was a case of what did you want to do when you were a child, when you didn’t have to think about making money.
All the photographs there are of me as a young girl are of me reading. So reading as a job and travelling and all the things I identified I wanted in life have fed into being a writer. I’m an introvert, I like spending time on my own, I like creating things and I like researching, so those things just fitted together. But it did take quite a long time to get to where I am now. It’s been a five-year journey and I’ve only been a full time writer since 2011.
What is the difference between writing a document and writing fiction?
There are so many differences. I’m actually thinking about writing a big post on this because, for example, the whole structure’s very different. For a non-fiction book you tend to come up with the topics, then you fill in the blanks, which is what a lot of people will do in their work anyway. In a novel each scene has to be constructed because there are characters, a world, a plot and dialogue.
Most non-fiction writers don’t write dialogue. So when you start writing dialogue you think, ‘Whoa, I never did this before.’ But trying to write a descriptive scene about Jerusalem, or somewhere like that, can be got from a travel book. You can write that in the same way you would non-fiction. But the minute you put a character in there, it changes the way you write.
One of the big differences between fiction and non-fiction is that whole character thing. Every fiction novel has to have a character. So you have to make up a person or people and put them in a situation. Which needs the imagination side of things and that takes time. You have to really allow yourself to let go and try not to censor yourself. I do struggle with that. I’ve written recently about the fear of judgement and how fiction bears the soul a lot more than most non-fiction, except for memoirs.
Because of the things that are in my books (which tip over into the horror genre), when people read them they wonder if I really think that way. So I think fiction writing does come from a deeper place.
Your first book How to Enjoy Your Job didn’t sell very well. Why was that?
Yes it didn’t sell well. I had a whole load of copies printed. I was in Australia at the time and I didn’t have any distribution network, I didn’t know anything about marketing, so I didn’t sell any. All my marketing knowledge is self-taught, from books and courses, but I’ve learnt a lot since I published my first book.
When I rewrote this book in 2012, I released it under a new title Career Change, and it’s doing really well. The difference is that I changed the title and I only needed to re-write 20% of it. It was always a good book, but because of the use of keywords, the change of title has meant that it now ranks number one on Amazon.com for ‘career change’ and sells really well every month.
In terms of the fiction, Pentecost was the first book I wrote, but I used three editors on it. So I worked incredibly hard on my book to make a high quality product. That sold immediately, but that’s because I’d learned about marketing.
So there are really two aspects to this, the product, which has to be good (because there are a lot of people out there who want to publish independently) and the marketing, because you won’t be able to sell your books unless people know about them. So if we start out from that point in Australia where you had the books physically published. How did you regroup and organise yourself to become a full time writer?
At that point I had a full time job, so I had some budget. I do talk openly about the fact that I paid AU$5000 to get the books printed and that I had them in my garage. I don’t even know why I thought they would sell. It’s funny now when I look back on it, because there are other writers out there who think exactly the same. Just because you have a book out there, doesn’t mean it’s going to sell.
At that point I started to learn about marketing. I assumed that, like many people do, the way to sell books is to get traditional media involved. So I set about getting myself on traditional media by doing press releases and making it onto national Australian TV, radio and newspapers. This managed to sell me about 20 books.
So I thought, ‘This is crazy. I’ve spent nine months learning about this sort of marketing and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.’
This is why, in 2008, I went on the Internet and discovered blogging. This is when I decided to give up on traditional media and go online, because I knew if I aimed at the American market (I was in Australia at that time), there was a much bigger market. By then the Kindle market had opened up as well. So I thought, ‘I’m going to learn about blogging.’
Essentially I never thought about giving up, that was never an option, because I was really enjoying everything and I always love learning. So when I discovered people blogging and actually making money doing this, it was a revelation to me. It’s what’s called scalable income, because you can create things and sell them multiple times. So that was the way I decided to make my living. ‘The CreativePenn’ blog documents that whole process. I was using Twitter, podcasts and videos. So I learnt all about online marketing, before I started writing my fiction.
What difference have platforms like WordPress made to being able to put your material out there?
I may have worked in IT but I’m not a programmer or a website designer. These types of platform make it easy for people like me who are not a ‘boxes and wires’ type of person. If you can use Microsoft Word, then you can pretty much use WordPress.
I couldn’t be a full time writer and entrepreneur without WordPress, PayPal, Amazon and Kobo, for example. This is definitely the change.
Why did you make the decision to be an independent author?
I self-published the first non-fiction book, because at that point I was in Australia and they really weren’t publishing many books anyway. By the time I’d written Pentecost, my first fiction novel, I looked at the market and how agents and publishers worked. I found it pretty much the same, in that it could take six months to 2 years to get an agent, then it can take 18 months to 3 years to get the book out. I thought, ‘That’s crazy. How can it take years for a book to go from query to the shelf? I’m not willing to wait that long.’
I had a blog by then as well as Twitter and had all those platforms to work with. So I thought, ‘I’m going to put it out on Kindle anyway.’ I never thought, at that point, writing was going become a living for me. It just thought, ‘Hey, I’ve written a book.’
I had Pentecost professionally edited and give it professional cover art. But I wasn’t taking it seriously like a career; that came later, once everything really took off.
So I think I decided mainly to become an independent author because of the speed as much as anything and the control. Now it’s partly that, plus the financial advantage. I do actually have some deals I’ve organised myself, for example I’ve arranged for Pentecost to be made into an audiobook.
However since the books have done so well, I’ve now got a New York agent. My agent has my next novel, called Desecration, which will be taken to publishing companies. But I will only do a deal if it’s something better than I can do myself.
I think being an independent author is very empowering. You must have heard about Hugh Howey and the Wool series and how amazing that deal’s been? Things are just changing every day, so authors have to be very careful what they sign away in this market.
Everyone I know who is doing well in the independent publishing market, is taking a very professional approach. They are, like you, hiring professional editors and getting professional book covers produced. So these sorts of expenses would seem to be a worthwhile investment.
It has to be done. It’s the only way to stand out from everyone else who’s self-published. This is why a lot of us are calling ourselves indie, rather then, self-published authors, because technically we’re not self-published. We don’t do it ourselves. I may write, but I now have two editors, a line editor and a proofreader. I also use a structural editor if I do a new series. So that’s about $2000 to start with. Then I have a cover designer for the e-book and the print book. That ranges from $200-$500, depending on who you use. Those two things are critical. I’ve also paid people to write my sales description. This is the back blurb on the book. That sales description is a key component of getting sales on Amazon. I’ve paid for promotional things like BookBub, which is fantastic and I’ll be blogging about how that’s gone recently. Paying for promotion is something that publishers do. So you have to do things professionally, in exactly the same way that you must do if you have a blog and want to be seen. If you’re doing this sort of thing online then you must have a professional looking blog.
If you come across as a professional, then people are more likely to notice you and give you a chance.
You also use feedback from beta readers?
I do have a panel of beta readers. I use five or six beta readers every time I’ve written a second or third draft of the book. They will comment on what’s going on. I have a lot of reading done of a book before I publish and I do make changes if more than one of my beta readers says the same thing.
It’s obvious from reading your ARKANE series that you were able to use your academic background in theology and psychology.
There are three books in the ARKANE series now, Pentecost, Prophecy and Exodus. So you can tell by the titles that they are all based on the Bible and open with a verse from the Bible. I take the verse from the Bible and make the story from it. So Exodus is about the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant, as the Middle East counts down to a religious war.
Basically all the books have a basis in my theological background. I love religion, spirituality, the supernatural and travelling. I’ve been to Israel and Egypt, and I’ve put many of the places I’ve travelled to in the books. I basically use my life as a backdrop and make up the kick ass action thriller to go on top of it, because I also like to read and watch kick ass thrillers. It’s a lot of fun. My next novella is going to be about Budapest and I took a trip specifically to Budapest to do research for the book. Doing and using my research is a great part of my life now. I travel now both for fun and work.
So my background does play a big part in my writing as well as my obsession with reading. I read a lot of psychology books and also books on religion. I’m also attracted to the type of book that I end up writing.
It does seem that you use psychology in your books.
Dr Morgan Sierra is a psychologist in the ARKANE series and there’s a lot of Carl Jung in Pentecost. Exodus includes Freudian ideas. I’m looking at journalism, the separation of physical body and the spiritual realm in Desecration. I specialised in psychology of religion, so I’m able to bring that aspect to Desecration. I’m certainly fascinated with paranormal psychology. I think the question I’m always asking (because I don’t personally believe in God) is, ‘Is there a supernatural realm? Could this be a spiritual happening or could this part of life we don’t understand be scientifically explained?’ That question underlies everything I write.
How do you go about research when you go on these trips?
I take a lot of pictures, but I’m a very atmospheric person and I always have to have places that resonate with me. Even if I haven’t been to those places, I can research them. One of the places in Prophecy is a place called Sedlec, which is a church made out of bones, in a place called Kutná Hora. There are altars, candelabras and chandeliers made out of bones. It’s amazing, so of course I had to set the scene there, because the writing is about the supernatural and on the edge of horror. Having a scene set there was awesome. So I’m always on the lookout for those sorts of places.
I went to the central basilica in Budapest. They have a 1000 year mummified hand of St Istvan, which is the symbol of Hungary. It was awesome that they had this kind of relic in the church.
Ideas come to me in places like that. A lot of the books have been based on trips that I took 15 years ago. I go through my memories and think, ‘That would be a great place to blow something up. Or write a scene.’ It’s a lot of fun.
The women in your books seem very independent and not waiting for a man to come and give them a hand.
Dr Morgan Sierra is ex-Israeli military and does Krav maga, their form of martial art. I also have female baddies, who are quite happy to do ritual murders. I think women can be just as evil as men.
They do say when a writer writes their first novel, it can be very autobiographical. I’m certainly not a secret agent, but there’s a lot of me in Morgan. I also compare her to Lara Croft, she’s kind of my model for Morgan.
How do you choreograph your fight scenes?
I’ve interviewed a lot of people for my blog, who do fight. One of my podcasts has an interview with Alan Baxter who’s written the book Write the Fight Right, which is excellent. The main thing to do is to write it as fast as possible and not do a blow by blow account. The emotions are more important. I’ve also watched YouTube quite a bit for the Krav maga moves. But I don’t have that many fight scenes, there’s only usually one or two in the book and they’re not very long. I think they are important because the thriller, action genre needs these elements in them for their audience and I find it satisfying too.
There are some female writers who can write some very violent scenes, because it’s often thought of as the preserve of male writers. How did you know how far to go with the scenes?
I would disagree that it’s a male preserve. I do think some of the most violent writers are women. I’m writing in the thriller genre and on the edge of horror and the supernatural. The violence is an important part of that. The people who like reading my books are people who read James Herbert, and don’t forget Dan Brown can be pretty violent. It’s important for me to have the violent scenes because you have to keep a sense of danger in the writing because of the thriller side of things. The reason is because the story needs to have a sense of the characters being in mortal danger. That’s important to me as a writer.
Thinking about the gender issue. I did change my name to JF Penn, instead of Joanna Penn, because of those types of reactions, which I just don’t want to get. So by using my initials, people are less likely to judge the gender of the author before they buy the book. I don’t know how much of a difference that has made, but it also gives me a good separation between my fiction and my non-fiction, which is under Joanna Penn. JK Rowling used JK, because fantasies are so often written by men.
My book covers are very dark and masculine. So I think you can overcome the stereotypes of what people think you are going to write, by the use of your name and the colours of your cover. Even my website to JF Penn uses grey, black and dark colours, so people know what kind of genre I write in.
You have to feed into what readers are expecting. This is really important. Readers’ expectations are critical and all writers have to remember that. The cover and the blurb have to resonate with what a reader of that genre would expect.
Your next project is Desecration, how are you dealing with this because you say you now you have an agent?
So far my agent hasn’t sold anything. I’ve given her Desecration for the moment and given her a deadline. So if it hasn’t sold as a good deal before Christmas, then I’ll independently publish it anyway. It’s difficult to decide what to do, because part of me wants to get on with it. Six months worth of income is a substantial amount of money. But I’m still interested in a kind of hybrid author style, because of the things that can happen, not just money, when you publish traditionally.
The book is part of a new series with completely new characters and is set in London. It’s more of a supernatural crime thriller, towards the end of the John Connolly range. There’s definitely more horror than the ARKANE series, with far less religion. So I’m going to see what happens with Desecration.
But before then, I’ve got a project, which I’m very excited about. It’s a collection of short stories that have been commissioned and are coming out very soon in May. Then I have the new novella called Relic, which will be about Budapest, and the relic is the hand of the mummy. So I’ve got quite a lot going on right now. I’m going to continue with the ARKANE series, which I’ll be publishing independently. It’s really starting to sell well now, so I’m not going to give that up.