Award-nominated author, podcaster, and creative entrepreneur Joanna Penn is a force to be reckoned with in the world of writing and publishing. Writing under the name J. F. Penn, she’s a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Thrillers, Dark Fantasy, and Crime. Her popular ARKANE Action-Adventure Thrillers, Brooke & Daniel Psychological Thrillers, and Mapwalker Fantasy Adventures have earned her legions of fans. Beyond that, she’s a nonfiction author and writing coach, helping other authors grow their businesses to the same level of success. “I kind of think of myself as a sort of crash-test dummy for the indie author community,” Joanna says. “I’ll just give it a go, and then we’ll see what happens, and hopefully other people can learn from that.”
Joanna is also the host of the award-winning podcast, The Creative Penn. With new episodes airing every Monday, the show features interviews and insights on creativity, publishing options, book marketing, and creative entrepreneurship. The podcast has garnered over 8.4 million downloads across 228 countries since its launch in 2009.
As Joanna’s latest nonfiction book, Pilgrimage: Lessons Learned From Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways, wraps up its launch and as she prepares for the release of her stand-alone Dark Fantasy/Horror novel, Catacomb, IAM sat down with Joanna to discuss her journey as a creative entrepreneur and how she feels about emerging technologies.
The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.
In your career, you’ve been a fiction and nonfiction author; a public speaker; an entrepreneur; and, possibly most recognizably, the face of The Creative Penn. Tell us how you started down this path.
Well, back in 2007, I turned thirty. And as we all do when we hit a milestone birthday, I was like, “What the hell am I doing with my life?” I was working as a business consultant at the time, and I was highly paid—like six figures. But I was just miserable. So I started to try and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve always been a reader, so I started reading all the books on career change and thus wrote my first book, which was called How to Enjoy Your Job or Find a New One—which I later rewrote under the title Career Change. That introduced me to writing, and then I looked at the publishing industry. I discovered it would take a couple of years to get an agent or to get a publisher, and I thought there must be an easier way. Plus, I was a businesswoman. And I thought, “Well, I want to leave my job. So how do I make this a career?”
That was in late 2007, when the iPhone was launched and when the Kindle was launched, and so it was precisely the right time to decide to move into self-publishing. I self-published in early 2008 and did a print run back in the day. Print-on-demand was not a thing, you know. Smashwords was the main way to get into places, and then later the international Kindle allowed international authors to publish, and that was off to the races. So 2008, I first published. In 2009, I started The Creative Penn podcast—so it has been going a very long time now. In 2011, I wrote my first novel, and I started to make enough money to leave my job. In 2015, I made more money than I had in my job and have done ever since.
I’ve been doing this now for fifteen years, but I’m still writing and publishing. I have around forty books now across various brands. And I love what I do.
In what genres do you write other than self-help?
As Joanna Pen, I write self-help, authorship, and entrepreneurship. And then, as J. F. Penn, I write Action-Adventure Thrillers, Dark Fantasy, Crime, Horror, and now travel memoir. I have a bit of a popcorn brain. I always want to be doing different things and writing in different genres. I know some people can stick to just one thing, but I can’t.
The advice I give to many people, if you want to sell a lot of books, is to write a series in a genre. But equally, if you want a long-term career, then you have to allow your creativity and your muse to sometimes suggest books that perhaps might not make business sense but that you really want to write, like my pilgrimage book. I mean, seriously, it’s a book about solo midlife walking pilgrimages, which doesn’t fit any of my existing brands or audiences. But it’s actually doing quite well anyway, because a lot of people want to walk the Camino de Santiago, and that’s one of the walks I did.
I understand you were formerly in IT. How did your background help you as a writer and as an entrepreneur?
I think the term IT can mean many things to many people. But I have degrees in theology and also psychology. So I don’t come from a technical background, but then my first job was implementing software.
Like many people, when you leave university, you need to pay your debts and you need to make a living. And I went into consulting, and then I just learned the systems and ended up specializing in implementing accounts payable software, even though I’m not an accountant and I didn’t have any financial background. It’s kind of crazy, but many of us with day jobs end up taking steps that ten years later, we’re like, “How on Earth did I get here?” And so that’s what happened to me. But in terms of how it helped, it forced me into learning about business. It was also a project-based job, where I would go into a company, I would implement a system, and we would have a deadline date. Everything had to be done by that date. So having that project approach was very helpful.
I also learned about computer systems and not being scared of them, and I think this is something that a lot of authors need to do. Essentially, you have to just play. You have to understand that doing a course or anything like that is no replacement for actually getting on whatever system you’re trying to do, whether it’s uploading your book to KDP or doing a Facebook Ad for the first time or trying AI writing software. These are things that you have to try, and then you’ll figure it out.
Also, know how fast technology changes. I did that job for thirteen years, and much of what I implemented disappeared because technology changes every year. Everything I did disappeared. Something new came along, and something new came along, so that’s another thing we need to keep in mind—technology moves on, and things that we did a decade ago, or in my case fifteen years ago when I started, have moved on, and we have to keep updating our skills as time goes by.
You have so many proverbial irons in the fire, and you do a number of in-person and virtual events. How do you balance your business life? Your time management system must be phenomenal.
I have a couple of things. The first is a sort of broad plan, which is that mornings are creative time and afternoons are marketing time or business time. We’re recording this in my afternoon, and I do my podcast interviews in the afternoon. I do accounting stuff and business stuff and ads and blah, blah, blah in the afternoon. In the morning, I create whatever is new in the world.
This sort of morning and afternoon split is something I’ve done since the beginning. Back when I started writing seriously, I got up at 5 a.m. and I wrote before work. Then I came home from work, and in the evening I learned. I did courses. I built my business. I started my podcast, and I did that from 2006 or 2007 to 2011. Even if you only have half an hour, you can still do it even if you’re working a full-time job.
But also I only work on one project at a time. There are some authors who can work on multiple projects, multiple books. But I can’t, so I pick whatever book I’m working on, and then I will work that through to the point of completion. And then I will start the next project.
How are you using artificial intelligence in your writing?
Obviously, all of us authors use AI. If you publish on Amazon, if you use Grammarly or ProWritingAid, if you use Google, if you use Facebook, if you use TikTok or Twitter or any of these things—we’re all using it. But what’s really changed in the last six months is the rise of generative AI, and that’s going to be inside things like Microsoft Word very soon.
Tools like Sudowrite, for example, are great for expanding your use of sensory description. You can use ChatGPT, for example, to help you write sales descriptions and to write ad copy. Grammarly and ProWritingAid now have generative text within them to help you edit your words in a much more effective fashion. So there are absolutely tons of tools that we can be playing with as authors. It’s just a case of deciding what you want to use and playing with them to see what works for you and your process.
I’ve built a business for the last fifteen years on the back of the technologies launched in 2007 and 2008, so I see myself now kind of relaunching my career on the back of the technologies that are going to take us into the next wave of our success as an industry. I’m determined to be on the vanguard of this, as I was on the vanguard of self-publishing and also podcasting in the early days—before it was even called podcasting, really.
I’m currently reading your book, The Relaxed Author: Take the Pressure Off Your Art and Enjoy the Creative Journey, which you co-authored with Mark Leslie Lefebvre. How do you relax?
We wrote that book because there seems to be a lot of stress in the author community, and we wanted to say, you know, chill out. This is a long-term game.
Personally, I walk every day. Sometimes, it’s ten thousand steps; sometimes it’s ten kilometers or twenty kilometers. Sometimes, I’ll go multi-day walking. My book Pilgrimage is about several multi-day pilgrimage walks. I live near a canal here in Bath in the southwest of the UK, so I like to go down and see nature.
I also work out. I lift weights, which as a woman in midlife is very important. I really enjoy weight training, so that is good for physical health but also mental health.
I read every day. I read all kinds of fiction and nonfiction. I read fiction every night in bed before I go to sleep. Also, we live in a golden age of TV, so I do watch quite a bit of TV. As we record this, it is season four of Succession, which I’m definitely watching. I like all kinds of things as long as there are explosions.
And then also traveling, I guess, when I go on holiday. I think all of those things help. I certainly try and get out of the house every day. I think since the pandemic, everyone has worked from home a lot more, and it is really important to leave the house.
Expanding on the relaxation question, what stresses you out about business, and how do you deal with it?
I’m a people pleaser. I want people to like me, and so fear of judgment and fear of criticism is something that I have—and obviously a lot of writers have it. It’s not just the one-star review; it might be the social media comments, or it might be emails. I mean, with my fiction, when I put out my book Desecration, I was kind of petrified that people would judge me for writing something darker.
On my podcast, I often talk about things much earlier than the community is ready for it, so even with self-publishing back in 2008 and 2009, when I started podcasting, when I started blogging, I had to deal with it. People would be like, “Oh, self-publishing is only for people who are terrible at writing. It’s just a pile of crap. You’re going to damage your career, and it’s really bad.” And now it’s seen as a positive choice for business-minded authors who want to create what they want and make a living how they like. Although there are people who are still nay-saying about self-publishing or people who might not know enough about it.
Similarly, now I’m experimenting with AI writing tools, and some people are going, “Oh no, that’s terrible. It’s only for people whose writing is crap. It’s going to destroy your career.” But again, I think it is a positive choice for business-minded and career authors who want to create more, so I deal with this criticism and this issue by focusing on the positive—the positive reviews, the positive emails for my podcast, for my Patreon supporters, for the people who email me and say that it’s really important to talk about these things, for my friends who write this way, and that kind of thing.
Nobody can write something that pleases everyone, and yet I find this difficult because I really want to please everyone; so that’s definitely something that I come up against all the time.
What do you see as the next big thing in indie publishing?
Basically, what has been happening is a move into selling direct. As much as we like to focus on digital, most readers still want print books. Most of us offer print through print-on-demand through Amazon KDP, Draft2Digital, and Ingram, but the margins on print-on-demand, especially if we’re not using returns and all these kinds of things, can mean we’re not making much money with print.
But there’s been a rise in authors using Shopify, Kickstarter, and WooCommerce. Essentially, if you sell direct to your audience, you can make a higher percentage. This might be 95 percent of the sale price, and you’d actually get money the same day or within twenty-four hours. And while that speed of money is important, the customer relationship is also. When people buy from your store, you get to see who they are. You can create email relationships with them. You can offer them discounts. You’re essentially creating your own store, and this brings down the cost of marketing, which is something that is becoming more and more of an overhead for authors. You can also do merchandise. I was talking to a Cozy Mystery author who writes in the knitting subgenre of Cozy Mystery. And she was like, “Oh, wow, I can do patterns. I can do branded knitting needles. I can do bags that go with my series of cozy mystery knitting books.” I’m like, “Yeah, this is amazing.” The idea is that you can create your branded site and just essentially have people come there, and there’s nobody else advertising their books on your book.
What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out?
I think the most important thing is to keep a long-term view. There’s no need to rush. Focus on finishing that first book. Many writers start a book and never finish it, and so this would be the real tip: you must finish that book, even if you don’t go forward and publish it. What you learn from finishing a complete book and then going through the editing process is really about the craft, whether that’s fiction or nonfiction.
Also, don’t overwhelm yourself too early with too much information. I often get emails from authors, or people ask me at events things like, “How do I use Facebook ads to market?” And I’m like, “Where are you with your writing?” And they say, “Oh, I’m still writing my first draft.” I tell them, “Well, you probably don’t need to think about marketing now. You could just finish that first book and maybe the next book as well before you think about something like marketing.”
That’s true even for self-publishing because everything changes. Let’s say you’re writing your first book now. In a year’s time, the tools may well be different. The techniques will be different; there’ll be something new on the block. When I started, MySpace was the social media site. Twitter was very, very new. Facebook was new. Since then, we’ve seen loads of things come and go. Right now, as we speak, TikTok is the thing de jour, and who knows where that’s going?
What you have to think is, “Okay. Things change. What does it come back to?” It comes back to your writing because we are authors. And it is also thinking long term because, if you want a career this way, it’s not just one book. You need to think about what genre that’s going to be in. You need to consider those aspects of reaching readers, but by thinking long term, that will really help you kind of settle in to learning what you need to learn along the way.
Is there anything else you’d like Indie Author Magazine readers to know?
Every year I would say this, but it really is the best time to be an author and a creator. We mentioned the AI stuff earlier, but I feel like we are at the beginning of another flowering, as we were fifteen years ago, which kind of kick-started a whole generation of indie authors. This is the next wave. And I’m pretty excited to be part of that.