EP54: The Mighty Joanna Penn

Only two weeks to go till the publication of our book Back To Reality, and we seek the advice of the amazing Joanna Penn, NY Times bestselling author, public speaker and podcaster…


In this episode you will discover…

  • The value of content marketing and how to make it work for you
  • When is it the right time to promote your book?
  • And why you should never just sign a contract!
  • The power of social proof and why there has never been a better time to be an author


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Episode Highlights:

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Only two weeks to go till the publication of our book Back To Reality, and we seek the advice of the amazing Joanna Penn, NY Times bestselling author, public speaker and podcaster…

How did you get started as a writer?

I was pretty miserable in my day job. I used to implement accounts payable into large corporates. Pretty boring job. I was living the cubicle dream, but it was a six-figure dream. They paid me well. Many people recognise this sort of golden handcuffs situation, and it was good money, I travelled a lot. It was it was all the things we’re meant to want when we hit thirty. You’re like yay, I’m responsible human being, but miserable and I got to the point where I actually was crying at work. And this was a big deal, I mean that’s just crazy. It was the existential pain that we get in the modern first world. I started reading Tony Robbins and the self-help gurus, which is not very British, really, but I was determined to change my life. At that point, I was living in Australia so I decided that I would write myself a self-help book, because that might help me, and change the world for other people, because that’s what we all think with our first book. So, I wrote that first book, which I rewrote and republished as Career Change later on. I self-published that in 2008, before the Kindle, before self publishing was trendy, before it was acceptable in any in any way. And the experience of self publishing in 2008 led me to start The Creative Penn.

In 2009 I started my podcast and did NaNoWriMo. You guys know, you’re British; we have quite a culture of snobbery around literature in Britain. And I think because I was living in Australia and mainly connecting with the American market I was able to shortcut that snobbery. That was really helpful to me because I went to Oxford, my mum was a literature teacher, so I have this huge deal about any novel I wrote had to win a Man Booker prize or a Pulitzer Prize. It had to be a literary, award-winning novel because that’s the only worthwhile thing to write. So I was crippled with this. I think that was a kind of block for me, like a self-doubt block. The other person who changed my life was Dan Brown because I realized that you could write a religious thriller and makes loads of money with it. I have a degree in theology, so that’s when I started writing fiction in 2009.

Did you start in nonfiction, or fiction? Because you do both, don’t you?

Yes, I started with nonfiction with that book on career change. It’s funny, because people say, ‘What would you do if you have to give one up?’ I couldn’t give either up. I love both of them. I write under two different names. I write fiction as J.F. Penn and nonfiction as Joanna Penn. If you Google The Creative Penn with one ’n’ it will say ‘Did you mean The Creative Penn with two ‘n’s?’ That’s the power of content marketing.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, content marketing is still huge and Google is still huge.


I now put content on my fiction site, as well, around the themes and the things that are in my books, like religious relics and graveyards, exciting books that I’ve read, content like that. And whatever your name is you can own that, too. The problem with your name, Mark Desvaux, is that that is hard to spell. I found that spelling J.F. Penn. I have to say ‘F for Frances’ because it might sound like ‘S’. I should have not used F. I should have used something like ‘JT’ which would have been easier to say out loud. If I was doing it again, I would not use initials. I would have gone with a gender-neutral name. I went with initials, obviously JK Rowling has got away with it very well. Like many in fantasy she used gender neutral initials. I write my action adventure series in a very male-dominated niche, people like Clive Cussler and James Patterson, and so I didn’t want to use my my female name. One of my first reviews on my thrillers was, ‘I can’t believe a woman wrote this,’ and I was like, ‘Okay then.’ I’m a feminist, I believe women should be equal in everything, but I didn’t want people to question my gender, and I know you guys thought about doing a female name as well, so it’s interesting what you consider.

My main tip would be; be able to say and spell it out loud.


You mentioned content marketing. Is that Facebook? Twitter?

I don’t put social media under content marketing. Two reasons; you don’t own it, and it’s ephemeral. It’s gone very very quickly. I think the half-life of a tweet is something like five minutes. It really does disappear very fast, and a Facebook post… I mean, how many of us scroll more than three or four times before like, yeah, okay that’s enough already? Instagram, the same.

Content marketing to me is primarily word-based content. The Google algorithm updates regularly, so if you update things regularly, if you put out a blog post every week, or a podcast every Monday, then they will start recognising that.


For my podcast I include a transcript every week for the people who like to read, but also for the Google SEO, or search engine optimisation. I do think that with the voice-to-text AI stuff that’s happening very soon they’ll be able to do the same with audio. But, as you guys know, if someone wants to find a comment that you made in the middle of a podcast, if you don’t have a transcript how are people going to find out unless they listen to the whole thing? The Creative Penn comes up whenever you search for author-related things. That’s because I’ve been posting three to five times a week since 2008. There are fifteen hundred articles on The Creative Penn that lead to that, as well as articles on other sites around the Internet. For nonfiction authors, for becoming an authority in your niche, then I think content marketing is still incredibly valuable, and it lasts. People will still find things later.

Many fiction authors listening will go, ‘Oh but a blog tour is completely pointless,’ and I agree to a point. What you have to do is look for websites that actually have decent traffic that are in your target niche. Let’s assume you have some virtual reality technology in the book; you might consider doing a blog post for a virtual reality website. Someone who’s really into virtual reality tech that ties into your book, and that will be much more powerful than doing a book review blog tour on book review sites, which are not highly trafficked.

For blog tours, aim to be on websites that have decent traffic, and if you’re writing fiction which most of the audience are, go for this sort of tangential approach of websites that overlap. For example I’ve been on podcasts and blogs about Jungian psychology, because I use aspects of that. I just did one on a death podcast about end of life and grief because I have a lot of death in my books. Think about the themes that are in your book, or the places, or the technology, or dragons.

We did have a question from one of our listeners Laura Edwards: What do you do if you only have one book to promote? Should I wait and promote it when I have a few books out? Or should I bring out the big guns for the first book?

There are two answers. Can you wait? And what is your personality like? When I wrote my first novel I was like, ‘I’m not waiting. I’m going to do everything I can to make this book sell loads of copies, I’m not going to wait.’ There is established wisdom in the indie community that you should write three books in a series before you promote it, and that’s all well and good if you’re going to write three books quite quickly, but if you’re a bit slower then maybe just go for it.

And what do you want to achieve? If you if you want to hit the Amazon bestseller lists, like you guys do, you want to get the little orange thing. That is your definition of success, which is fantastic by the way, it’s much better than saying, ‘I want to sell loads of books.’ I have no doubt you’ll get it because it’s not that big a deal, to be fair!

Change your category. Look at the category you are in, how many books, or what ranking does the book in your subcategory have, and if all the books in that category are in the top one hundred then you’re screwed, so don’t even bother. Look for the smaller categories, and then you decide the day you’re going to do your spike.

I don’t believe that your spike should be launch day.


For example, I hit the New York Times two years after the book came out, and I hit the USA Today list five years after the book came out. You can do relaunches whenever you like.

So, for Laura I would say decide what your definition of success is, decide what day you want to do that, and then look at how much money you have to spend.


That’s basically all you can do with one book. What do you want for the rest of your author life? Are you going to write more books under this author name? Are you writing more books in the series? Are you using that book to build an email list? Do you just need some reviews? So you need to look wider than just that orange flag.

For me, the goal was to leave my job, to replace my income, so I was never that bothered about spike sales. By the time I left my job in September 2011 I had six books, I think, but I was also doing other things, speaking and stuff like that, so you have to consider what your goal is and whether that’s an immediate goal, like the orange banner, or whether it’s a longer term goal, like I want to make a thousand pounds a month for the rest of my life, or I want to leave my job. Then you can start designing your marketing plan.

If you can’t make your book a bestseller, what’s a healthy ranking?

The rank moves every hour, so it’s not something that you can ever say much about. And it depends what country you’re aiming for. For example, eighty percent of my income is U.S. dollars, so I have always aimed to sell mainly in America. Canada’s only got about twenty five million people, Australia is twenty million, Britain sixty-eight million, America three hundred and eighty million. I was always aiming for America, so most indie marketing is on Amazon.com. Things like Amazon ads, which Mark Dawson might have talked about, is on Amazon.com. Ad-stacking with Bookbub helped me hit the USA Today list last year. If you want to hit the top one hundred in the U.S., it depends on when you do it. Now (September) is a great time, August is a great time to try and hit big lists because all the publishers are on holiday. That’s what I did. (Rank and chart) numbers are very hard, but because of the tiny little sub niches, especially in the U.K., you can probably get an orange flag for under a thousand copies.

Do you think it’s important to focus your advertising effort in one particular country?

You have to decide what’s important for you. You’ve been very U.K. focused, so I would think you would be aiming for the U.K. So you might spend more money on Facebook ads in the U.K., for example. If you put your book on KDP you are launching worldwide, and I absolutely think that people should always launch worldwide. Another thing with content marketing or social media or e-mail list is your audience is global. And this is one of the things that annoys me about traditional publishing. I know they’re very territorial, but it’s crazy in the world we’re living in. Often they will license world English rights from an author, and then they will not publish that book across the world because of the licensing agreement in these areas. My advice to authors who want a traditional publishing deal is to only license your rights within the territories where the publisher is going to publish you, and self publish in those other countries. There’s a lot of U.K. authors who no one’s ever heard of in America because their books either aren’t available or even if they got a US publisher they didn’t do anything. If it’s a deal you want, then go for it, but many authors don’t even think about this. They just sign whatever they are given.

The other thing authors have to understand about contracts is the contract you are given is just to be negotiated.


Sure, the publisher can have world English rights, but in two years’ time or three years’ time if they have not exploited the rights in a specific country, then those rights revert to me. Because the technologies are expanding every day right now. PublishDrive for example, I’ve just started putting my books on there. They’re doing huge things in Asia, China, it’s just incredible. Google launched a micro-payment app in India, which means the Indian market is going to open up. VR we mentioned. Off world rights is becoming a thing! Make sure the contracts you sign enable you to take advantage of things over time. J.K. Rowling is the most famous one. Pottermore is her basically self publishing her Harry Potter eBooks.

I’m a total futurist, so I’m always talking about this stuff. Audiobooks are huge, expanding market. Many publishers take all the rights and then don’t exploit them. And now you can do it yourself on ACX.

Don’t give away rights without making sure you can get them back if they’re not exploited.


I believe Virtual Reality is the next Internet. All three of us, instead of doing this on Skype, I believe we would do this in VR and we would have an audience who are, in quotation marks, live. For book launches, coming back to marketing, I would launch my next book in the catacombs under Paris in VR and people would come and join me. I see it more of an experiential thing. For example, I love scuba diving but you know I’m not going to go do something super dangerous, but I would love to do more scuba diving in VR. I do all my shopping on my phone, and I’d love to be doing that in VR. So I think it’s a much bigger change that’s coming.

You’ve recently relaunched one of your new nonfiction books. When when you go into the process of launching a book, do you have a tried and tested method?

It’s very different for your first book, in a new niche and a new name, compared to someone who has an audience. Circling back to the indie side of things, my business model is not based on spike launches. With traditional publishing, every month there’s a whole load of new authors coming along the conveyor belt, and bookstores mainly stock books for four to six weeks, or even less, and then they go back to the publisher. Physical book retail only has a certain amount of space, so your book comes out, it’s in the book store, the publisher does spike marketing, you sell some books, and then it’s time for the next author.

Whereas the indie business model is far more about sustaining those sales over time, and using the backlist to create a steady income.


The income model is more like a salary, because it’s more steady, every month. Whereas the traditional publishing income model for an author is three spikes: on signing, on manuscript, on launch. You might get four payments over two years, whereas an indie will get paid every month. So this is why the launch thing is quite different. When I’m launching either fiction or nonfiction, I will have been talking about it for quite a long time. I will be using Instagram and Pinterest for my fiction, and sharing pictures along the way. I have Facebook pages, I use Twitter, and I just share everything. If I go and do a research trip… I was in Italy a few weeks ago and I shared a picture of this really cool skeleton saint that I found in a church. Stuff that my fiction audience likes, and then I’ll say I’m doing research for this book and if we don’t have a title I just call it whatever the working title is.

Take a lot of pictures. I would recommend everyone take pictures all the time, because you can use them in the build-up to launch, but you can also use them after launch.


I resurrect pictures regularly on my social media. Here’s me in the Sagrada Familia in Spain, which I used in Gates of Hell. That’s the build up. That’s very soft, attraction-based marketing. And then I have an e-mail list. I know you’ve talked about this, but everyone should have an e-mail list. And this is much harder for traditionally published authors, because a publisher just doesn’t even bother, or is building their own email list. I give away free books on both my sites, and have built up a list of people there.

I set up longer preorders for nonfiction, because a lot of people buy that in print. As an indie you can do print preorders with Ingramspark. And then I use Createspace as well. And if you’re doing an audiobook, which with nonfiction is very lucrative, then you need a bit of a longer lead time. With fiction I do long preorders on Kobo and iBooks, because you can get some good promotions there, but with Amazon I just do it a week before, and then I send an email to my list, announce it on the podcast. I do some Facebook ads, Bookbub ads, Amazon ads. and they get some reviews.

The main thing is that the spike on launch is my audience. It is the people who already know who I am and for many authors that’s not very many people.


Everyone has to realise that if you go up the charts you don’t stay there. It goes up and then it will come down. Sit on the rankings about four to eight hours after you’re expecting people to buy. If I have a Bookbub, I get up about five am the following day in Britain, and there’s my spike, so I see myself in the rankings in the top one hundred, or the top couple hundred on Amazon. And that’s where you take your screen prints. It’s so very important to take screen prints!

Is there not a piece of software that does that?

No*. You have Amazon Author Central and there is a graph of your sales rank, but there isn’t the orange banner. So if you want that orange banner you have to take a screen print when it happens. Also, check your author rank. You can get some good screen prints there. I’ve got pictures of me above Stephen King, above Lee Child. You’re only there for an hour. Take screen prints of your book next to other books. These are all ego things that actually do not matter to anyone but you. But it’s social proof, which I think is quite useful.

*Ed’s note – there WAS a site called NovelRank, which tracked the main Kindle charts, not the genres.

What advice do you have for authors who don’t like the social bragging?

It’s going to depend what you want to achieve. The reason I send a bio with ‘New York Times and USA Today bestseller’ is I don’t want to tell you that. I want the host to read it. Because if I say it, it sounds like bragging, but I want people to know that and I put it on the front of my books, like many people do, because that’s a big deal.

Winding back to what I said about when I started; in 2008 I had two thousand books in my house and I suddenly realized that I didn’t know how to sell them. Thus began my journey of learning marketing! I’m an introvert, I’m an author, you know, like many people listening I don’t really like public things. I’ve been on T.V., I’ve been on radio, I haven’t really enjoyed it very much. I don’t like doing a lot of events, so you pick the things that work for your personality, and for me that has been content marketing podcasting. Attracting people by being useful, or by being entertaining with my fiction.

Marketing is sharing what you love and then you will attract people who love the same thing.


You don’t have to go around going, ‘Yeah, I’m amazing, buy my book!’ Like I said, write an article about amazing graveyards in Italy and you’ll attract people who are interested in that type of thing.

You talked about ‘Don’t do your spike on the day of launch…’

I know you guys are aware that you need reviews, you know social proof is good, it helps the algorithm. I think about it as like a little check mark that Amazon goes, oh yeah there’s another check mark, it must be a good book. But for the really big money-making platforms like Bookbub, you need to have at least twenty-five reviews to do something like that, and most of these email lists will not allow a new book. That’s why I was able to hit the USA Today last year with books that I published in 2011, because I had loads of reviews on those books. I got accepted for a Bookbub and then I put a ton of other ads on it, and was able to do the spike five years after launch. You will really only be able to sell to people who already know who you are on launch day.

When you’re an indie, selling primarily Kindle books, the main thing that moves the needle is email lists. And if you don’t have a big email list, you’re not going to be able to do too much yourself, so then it’s about the paid email list and they won’t accept you unless you have reviews.


Think about your launch period as a month, for example, and then also schedule in something for the quiet times. August being a good one, or March was when we hit the New York Times.

So getting those reviews will help you at the beginning and then you’ll be able to get those bigger email lists later on.


This is probably my biggest tip for marketing; you have to decide what you want. So, if you decide to hit the USA Today list, there is a way to do it, and there is a way to sell thousands of books. Publishers do this all the time, but you need to have a plan, you need to have a budget, you need email lists, whether they’re your own or with other authors. You need to have that definition of success in place, and then go for it.

It’s really important to remember that I started writing in 2006, so I’ve been doing this eleven years now. I left my job in 2011. Those spike moments mean a lot, but they don’t mean as much as the fact that I make a really good living as a writer, which is mainly to do with my monthly income based on twenty five books. A backlist of twenty five books, my podcast, all my writing together. That’s what I care about. It’s the ongoing thing. I don’t chase media like T.V., I don’t chase being in a physical store in the U.K. That might help my ego, but it doesn’t matter as much as making really good money.

You write nonfiction and fiction. How do you alternate between the two?

I’ve just finished the second draft of Map of Shadows, which is a fantasy novel. That’s with my editor and it might come out at Christmas, it might come out next year. It’s the first in a new series. I did that with mainly with dictation, so that’s another little productivity tip.

Now I’m actually working on a book called The Healthy Writer, which I’m co-writing with a medical doctor and that will be out in January 2018, and it’s basically because authors are really, really in a lot of pain. A lot of medical problems and mental health problems, and that goes along side my Successful Author Mindset books. I basically alternate between fiction and nonfiction as a kind of palate cleanser.

Nonfiction is much easier to write and it sells more in a sustained manner. Whereas fiction is much more exciting, much more fun, and is more like a lottery ticket. It might do really well and it might not.


Most of my revenue is from fiction, but one novel on its own wouldn’t make a dent. I have a nine book arcane series, I have a trilogy. And what’s exciting about fiction as opposed to nonfiction is the intellectual property asset point of view, because a story doesn’t age.

I just rewrote How to market a book, the third edition, because over four years things have changed. My first novel, Stone of Fire, hit the list last year, still sells. I’m working with a screenwriter at the moment, pitching a series based on my trilogy of of crime novels. Fiction has much more application in multiple ways of asset usage, whereas nonfiction is just less exciting, but can be a perennial seller. Christmas nonfiction sales in print are awesome. So we all look forward to January. August is terrible, so everyone’s looking forward to the Christmas boom.

How do you keep all these plates spinning?

I guess we have to circle back to what we started with, which was I was so unhappy in my job. I wanted to change my life, and eleven years on this is the life I’ve always wanted. I absolutely love being an author, and I make more money than I ever made before. I am a workaholic, but I love it. I have no work-life balance, all my travel is about writing, everything I do is because I love, love, love this lifestyle. When I wrote down what I wanted: I wanted to read, write and travel, and that’s what I do. I do this all of this because I love it, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

You wrote down your goals?

Yeah, absolutely. I wrote down: I want to be a six figure author entrepreneur, and I want to leave my job, and I did that in 2011. My husband left his job in 2015 to join the company. Onwards and upwards. I am very ambitious, and I think that’s fine. I know you’ve had very successful authors on the podcast, and ambition is something that British people particularly have a problem with, but Americans don’t. The American indie author community is chock full of seven figure Indies, and that is a lot of fun. So you can create and make money in this in this way and that to me is very exciting.

Your husband’s joined the company. Do you have assistants? A team around you?

We have a publishing company. Curl Up Press is my imprint. I was actually at the in Independent Publishers’ Guild this week. We have a limited company in the U.K. and I have a team of about twelve freelancers: professional editors, designers, website people, marketing. At the beginning, I did it all myself for about seven years, and then when I started earning enough money that I could hire other people I started doing that. And that’s inevitable because you can’t do it all yourself. But there is only me and my husband as employees of the company as directors. He’s in charge of investment.

I know I’ve talked about money and I think it’s important, because this is not a sustainable life unless you do make money, but I measure my life by what I create, and that to me is the difference between my life as a corporate slave and now. It’s hard at the beginning with one book, you guys have other careers, but there have been very few times in history when it’s been possible to do so well as an author and a creator.

It really is the most exciting time for empowered authors.


What’s next for you?

Like many authors, I have so many ideas that I want to write. Map of Shadows is my first true fantasy, the first of a trilogy, so next year I’ll definitely finish the trilogy. I’ve also got more action adventure set in New Orleans that I started earlier this year that I need to finish, and The Healthy Writer. One thing I’m really obsessed with for writers is self-censorship. I mentioned Carl Jung earlier, and the idea of the shadow. I only stopped censoring my writing at book five, when I write a book called Desecration, which is a very dark book. If you like Stephen King, you’ll like it, if you want cozy, don’t bother. I actually started to write what was really in my head without self censoring. I want to write a nonfiction book about the shadow, and how we can use the shadow in our writing to bring depth to our creation. This will probably take a couple of years, because it’s a very deep book, and I want to read a lot and really go deep into that topic. I’m very excited about that, because I think this is a missing book in the canon for writers, because so often we back off from it. I’m basically constantly writing, so happy times.

When you talk about self-censorship, can you give us an example?

I’ve always I mentioned death before, I’ve always thought about death. I go to graveyards for fun. As a romantic trip I took my husband to the mass grave in Budapest for a novel about far right militant stuff over there. I’m a crime writer as well, so there’s a certain type of dark writer in the community, and I’ve talked to horror writers, and I also read that type of book. When we talk about sex, death, different forms of relationships, even if someone listening might have a real problem with their mum, and then wants to write a memoir about it, but they don’t know how they could do that… that’s quite common. People with their parents, or people with their children… look at what happened with Lionel Shriver and We Need To Talk About Kevin. She courts difficult things. The things we’re obsessed with we try and hide from people. I didn’t tell people that I liked graveyards for a long, long time because I thought that made me weird, and now I find it’s very common. Two in five people like graveyards and think about death.

Write what you are fascinated in. I am fascinated with my own shadow, with the darker side of me, what comes out after three tequilas. you know? Sometimes we write something… I don’t even know where that came from. I’m not religious but I’m spiritual, so I’m very interested in that supernatural side of things, and I want to go deep into life and write about the things that interest me and that I’m excited about, and other people will find that interesting. That’s what we have to be really sure of, and be confident of. There are people out there on the internet who are like us, and they are the ones who want our books and that’s again why coming back to indie publishing and internet publishing and global publishing… I’ve sold books in eighty-four countries in the world and those people in those countries are more like me than the people down the road from me who shop at the local independent bookstore. I’m connecting more with someone in India than I am with someone down the road, because of the Internet and that’s probably more likely.

Let’s all just go deeper in and bring that depth into our books.






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