It sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? All you need are your words and a laptop as your means of production when it comes to this digital business.
There’s no doubt that self-published ebooks can be lucrative. The thing you may not realize, however, is that as a digital intellectual property business, it can be quite sophisticated and creative beyond the writing.
Today we’re chatting with Joanna Penn, who is a successful non-fiction author, a successful fiction author, and an educator to other aspiring writers.
And make no mistake — Joanna is first and foremost an entrepreneur who can write (which means no publisher is required or desired).
Tune in to hear:
- Why creativity and business are not mutually exclusive
- How books contain IP rights that generate multiple streams of income
- The massive global sales potential for entrepreneurial authors
- How streaming audio and global print-on-demand factor in your business
- What content marketing means for aspiring authors
The Show Notes
Inside the Lucrative World of Self-Published Ebooks
Joanna Penn: I am a thriller author and creative entrepreneur, Joanna Penn, and I’m most definitely unemployable.
Voiceover: Welcome to Unemployable, the show for people who can get a job, they’re just not inclined to take one — and that’s putting it gently. In addition to this podcast, thousands of freelancers and entrepreneurs get actionable advice and other valuable resources from the weekly Unemployable email newsletter. Join us by registering for our Free Profit Pillars Course, or choose to sign up for the newsletter only at no charge. Simply head over to Unemployable.com, and take your business and lifestyle to the next level. That’s Unemployable.com.
Brian Clark: Hey there, Unemployable people, this is Brian Clark. Welcome to the show. We’re ready for another episode of Unemployable.
I should take a moment here to tell you that Unemployable is a proud member of the Rainmaker.FM podcast network. That’s rainmaker.fm and you can select from a bevy of additional shows that can help you with your business, including my other program with Jared Morris, The Digital Entrepreneur. So make sure you check that out.
All right, today we’re talking ebooks. The first person that jumped in my mind to talk about this topic is Joanna Penn. She’s a successful nonfiction author, a successful fiction author. She teaches other people how to market their courses and self-publish, because guess what? Joanna is an entrepreneur. Joanna does not have a publisher, and she has succeeded quite well at going it alone in this brave new world of ebooks and self-publication.
So, we’re going to learn some really cool stuff from her. If you want to dive deeper on this topic, make sure and check out Digital Commerce Summit over at digitalcommerce.com. She will be speaking for us on this topic and it’s really going to be exciting. But let’s give you a little bit of a taste here right now.
Joanna Penn, how many years have we known each other in “air,” but we haven’t spoken before now?
Joanna Penn: I know, it’s crazy. I think it was back in 2008 when I first started with Copyblogger and I was in Third Tribe at one point. And I’m an absolute Copyblogger fan, so I’m thrilled to finally be speaking to you.
Brian Clark: This is awesome, it is so common, because you’ve written for Copyblogger and you’re a member and you’ve been around so long that you feel like you know people. And then you realize we’ve not only not met in person, but we’ve only typed at each other. It’s a very weird thing and sometimes you don’t realize it.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, exactly. It’s also funny, because I know that over the years, you’ve talked about books, and of course, I’m a super fan of writing books. And even though you’ve written millions and millions of words, that’s not something that you’ve been into so far.
Brian Clark: I know, it’s true. My entrepreneurial impulses definitely use words and content to the max. But that’s why I’m so interested in what you do, because I could see me going in that direction, I just didn’t. And it’s a fascinating thing.
It’s undisputable that you’ve been able to do an amazing… You’re one of those prime examples of people who took the entrepreneurial road to the opportunities that self-publishing opened up with the Kindle and with direct sales of ebooks and other formats. So, we definitely want to talk about that.
What Was Your Journey to Becoming an Entrepreneur?
Brian Clark: I want to take people back a little bit, because you’ve had a very fascinating career and/or journey even before you wrote your first book. So, let’s talk about being a theology student.
Joanna Penn: Oh, that is going back a bit. Yes, I did theology at the University of Oxford, which is actually one of the oldest degrees in the world. The curriculum was from around a thousand years ago. That just shows you how fast people move on. So, reading the Bible in Greek and that type of thing.
Going to Oxford means that you end up doing something like consulting or banking or law. And I know you did law and I went into consulting. But what’s so funny is that degree in theology that I did back then is kind of the basis of my fiction thriller series. So, it wasn’t all wasted. But yeah, that was I guess the beginning of my conspiracy theory love.
Brian Clark: It’s never wasted. Trust me, I don’t regret for a second the legal education. I didn’t like practicing law, but I learned things from that as well. And I did notice the theme of your fiction titles and I was like, “Hmm, that’s an interesting thing that you’ve got going on there.”
So management consulting and then you ended up in a scuba business. Now, how does that happen?
Joanna Penn: This is a great lesson for people, a very expensive one for me, but hopefully other people can avoid it.
Basically, I ended up in consulting and I was actually implementing financial systems in accounts departments around the world, which as people could imagine is super boring and not at all creative, but highly paid in the same way that many of these corporate jobs are. But I pretty much knew that I didn’t want to do that. And I spent pretty much 10 years sort of investigating different things.
At one point, I started the scuba diving business in New Zealand. I was living in Oakland at the time, and we had a boat, all the overheads of a physical business. Things like fuel and insurance for things like scuba diving and diving equipment. Just the crazy amount of work involved in a physical business totally convinced me that even though I love scuba diving, I do not want to run a scuba diving business.
The biggest thing I learned at that point was that I wanted to be location independent and earn a living online. That was around 2003, 2004, so it was not easy at that point to run a business online.
I know you were starting back then, but it wasn’t easy. That was when I started thinking, “Okay, what could I do as a business person that does not involve massive overhead and dependence on the weather in New Zealand?” which is not a good basis for a business.
When Did You Begin to Write?
Brian Clark: Yeah, it was not easy in 2003. I mean, I remember the duct tape websites that I strung together to make things happen that we can do now. That’s a good thing, that’s a positive development.
So, when was the shift? When did you actually buckle down and just write the first book?
Joanna Penn: Well, after the scuba diving business, we moved to Australia and then we tried property investment, which is something else that a lot of people do. Again, I know you’ve done sites in that.
But property kind of had the similar problems. It had high costs, potential risk, but the time had moved on a bit. So, we’re now sort of 2006 and I was really hardcore over being a consultant. But of course, I was also at the point where I was earning really sort of golden handcuffs money.
I started listening to a lot of audio around then before they were called podcasts and self-help stuff. And I thought, “You know what? I’ll just write a self-help book.” It still is out there as Career Change. That was the first book I wrote. It was essentially: how does one find the thing you really want to do with your life and the process of doing that.
What’s so crazy really is that writing that book changed my life, because I learned how to write a book, I learned how to publish a book. And then I had to learn about marketing, which we can come on to.
But Seth Godin, who I know you’re a friend of, I read a post that he wrote around then, that said, “The first book you write will change your life even if it might not change anybody else’s.” And that was classic for me.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it sounds like you wrote your map. You wrote your own guide forward.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, exactly. Because I didn’t know what I needed to know. And a lot of people write nonfiction because of this. You write the book you need to find out about in the same way that you might write a blog post about something you want to learn. That’s kind of how a lot of people write nonfiction.
I really did write about how to change your career. And in doing so, I discovered, “Oh my goodness, I love writing books.” Of course, I’d been a hardcore reader for all my life, but I never dreamed that it could be a career. In fact, I don’t think it really has been a viable career up until the digital revolution as such.
How Creativity and Business Can Coexist
Brian Clark: Yes, we both agree that being a digital entrepreneur beats the real world, but I think we all work our way towards this. Not everyone, but a lot of people, that’s where they want to get to. I think especially in the world of writers, the idea of the laptop and that’s about it. It allows you to create and make a living. And that was the original draw to me when I left the practice of law. I just channeled my writing in a different direction.
It may be interesting to you, because I don’t know if you’ve ever heard me say this, but when Copyblogger started in 2006, it was always about what we now call content marketing. But my intent was to turn writers into entrepreneurs. That just shows you how naive I was, because… know what I’m saying? I mean, there’s a lot of resistance.
You’ve mentioned creativity a couple times so far, and that seems to be the sticking point — that if you’re a creative person, then you’re not a business person. And yet, we’ve really seen the rise of the creative entrepreneur, which is another way of saying an artistic entrepreneur.
What are your thoughts on that?
Joanna Penn: Yeah, there are two things really. First of all, I do think you have to kind of keep your head separate in a way. So, when I’m writing fiction, particularly, I’ll be in a certain frame of mind and a certain mindset that is different to the woman who podcasts and blogs and does book marketing.
I do think you have to consider the artist side and really indulge that creativity when you’re creating products. But then you have to switch heads and really focus on the business. And I actually think it comes down to who you select from the environment as your model.
For me, coming from a business background, I was never going to be someone who didn’t make money. That was not an option. And also, I got really annoyed by the fact that I’d wasted 13 years not being creative, because people said to me, “You can’t make a living out of this.”
So, one of the biggest things that I’m really keen on is trying to prove that this is a very viable business. And that as a creative, you’re creating intellectual property assets that can earn you money for the rest of your life and 70 years after you die. This is magic. When the penny drops around this, it’s incredible.
But so many artists want to give up control of those intellectual property rights to other people. Publishers for authors or gallery owners for artists, that type of thing. But what’s so brilliant is if you learn the business as a separate skill, you also have to learn the craft, you can actually do both.
We both know that business is creative. I mean, look what you’ve created with Rainmaker and Copyblogger and everything. You create wealth, you create jobs, you create all kinds of things through business. And marketing itself can be creative. So yeah, you can definitely do both.
Brian Clark: Yeah, amen to that. You mentioned intellectual property, so now you’re definitely speaking my hybrid language, my own struggle between legal business and creative. What you just said is dead on. I don’t see it as a struggle at all. I see it as one creative process and it’s all an act of creation.
But okay, so yes, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you’ve got to put your artist hat on first. Again, I believe that with nonfiction as well, because the way you position that information makes all the difference.
Why Ebooks Are Lucrative
Brian Clark: But let’s talk about a book as a product — digital rights, publishing rights, multiple streams of income, all of this stuff. I guarantee you James Patterson understands this almost too well.
Talk a little bit about that. What do people have to understand about the multiple ways that this creative endeavor, this book can be — I hate to say the word “exploited,” “monetized” is probably not even any better, but it’s true. There are a lot of rights and leverage there.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, exactly. I get so excited about this. When the penny dropped for me, it totally changed my life, so hopefully this will help some people.
Most people, when they say they’re writing a book, the very words “a book” constrain their mind as to what this actually means. But a book is not just a book. Think about it as that one manuscript. You can then turn that into these multiple streams of income and you don’t need a publisher to do it.
Just to give people an outline. First of all, ebooks — obviously we’ve got all of the multiple platforms, the biggest ones being Amazon, Kindle, iBooks, NOOK, Kobo, for example. That’s four different platforms and different ways of selling ebooks. Google Play would be another one.
Then you’ve got print books. With print on demand technology, if people don’t know, you upload your digital files to CreateSpace or IngramSpark. And then when a customer orders a copy, one copy is printed and sent directly to the customer. Again, there’s no upfront printing cost.
Then you’ve got an audiobook, which we can do through acx.com and you can do all kinds of collaborations with narrators if you don’t want to do it yourself. So, we’ve already got six different products out of one book.
Then you multiply that by country. This is something I get so excited about, because I’ve now sold books in 74 countries, and that’s in English. And this is possible through Kobo, Apple, Amazon, etc.
We can talk about the rise of digital obviously, but then again, multiply that by language. So, I’ve got Spanish, Italian, German, French, English. If you think then you’re multiplying those six initial products by 74 countries, by five languages, and that’s all without a publisher, and that’s just the book.
And then you can do workbooks, you can do online courses from that material. You can sell foreign rights, you can do merchandising, there’s doing screenplays, there’s doing all kinds of things.
I want people to think that one manuscript that you start with — publishers are not charities. They’re not taking that from you, because they just want to do you a favor. It’s worth so much money. Even if your book only sells a couple of copies in all of these different streams every month, that really does add up over a lifetime.
Brian Clark: You may have just convinced me to write a book. I mean, that sounds really enticing.
How Ebooks and Courses Compare
Brian Clark: Let’s talk a little bit about courses, because you also do courses. And I know a lot of people either see those two as complementary or the course is the next step beyond the ebook from an entrepreneurial standpoint.
How do you find the two disciplines, let’s say, nonfiction writing in the book format compared to teaching online courses?
Joanna Penn: I’m two brands. I’m J.F. Penn for my thriller writers, and that is where I love to spend my time. The teaching side, I do enjoy and I have courses teaching self-publishing in Creative Freedom and the Author Entrepreneur stuff. But I really prefer the writing stories.
Again, just to hit you on the intellectual property rights, and again, another penny drop for me, courses, you guys know — I mean, you’ve done lots of different iterations of Teaching Sells and Authority and all that — courses go out of date usually within a couple of years. And often, nonfiction books will as well.
But fiction does not go out of date, and that makes it the most magic product for the long term. And we all know how some stories continue selling a lot of time after authors die.
So, for me, I love building the courses and I’m going to continue to do that. I’m going to do How to Write a Novel this year, stuff like that.
But for me, the time I spend writing fiction is the time that will keep on giving until after my death. So, when it comes to hours for bucks, it’s better and it’s actually more fun for me to write a story than it is to do an online course.
The beauty of this is that we can all do both. So, I would definitely urge people to do both.
Brian Clark: Yeah, that’s so refreshing to hear that not only do you prefer fiction, which I think is no surprise to people, but you actually find it more lucrative, which I think is very encouraging to people.
Audiobooks and the Future for Entrepreneurs
Brian Clark: Let’s talk a little bit about audio. A month or so ago, I talked with Tim Ferriss, and I didn’t realize until I was prepping for that, that he owns an audiobook publishing company.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, he does.
Brian Clark: And then we talked about on the actual interview that his next book is audio only though and self-published. And I’m just like, “Wow, that’s fascinating.” It doesn’t surprise me, but it’s definitely an interesting development. Look at the podcast boom, obviously.
What are your thoughts on audiobooks and the future for entrepreneurs there?
Joanna Penn: Yeah, audio is super exciting and acx.com, which is actually Amazon’s self-publishing audio platform, enables people in the US and the UK to actually… you can narrate yourself.
I’ve narrated one of my books, Business For Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur. That’s brilliant, because you just hire a studio, you go in, you get a producer to do it all for you. It’s one step above a podcast in terms of recording quality.
But once you’ve done it, you’re on iTunes, you’re on Amazon, and you’re basically an Audible, of course. And you’re out there earning money again from another version of your book. Amazon is really pushing Audible certainly in the UK and I think they’ve also done that in America.
And Whispersync is going to be tied into the expansion of Google Auto and Apple CarPlay, which is streaming audio in all new vehicles from 2016. So, right now, all these new vehicles have streaming Internet and people will be able to start reading on their phones, say over breakfast, get in their car and carry on listening through Whispersync, which syncs their audiobook to where they were in the ebook, which is just fantastic.
As we’ve seen a rise in podcasting and audio in the last couple of years, we’ve also seen this rise in audio consumption of audiobooks. I don’t know about you, but for me, I actually have finally bought an audio subscription for books, because when you listen to as many podcasts as we all do, you get to want more audio. You want to learn more through audio.
I think podcasting is a sort of gateway drug to audiobooks, so people should definitely be getting on that. And I should say that you can do 50/50 royalty splits or you can pay narrators for narrating your book. So, you don’t have to do it yourself if you’re not happy with your voice.
Brian Clark: Yeah, that’s interesting. The whole – did you say Whispersync? It syncs between texts, I mean your reading time and then it shifts to audio. That is fantastic. It really is.
How to Market Yourself as an Author
Brian Clark: Let’s talk about every writer’s favorite topic: marketing. Again, this is what you run up against, because you need people with the talent or the people willing to put the time in to become good writers. And then you go, “Okay, now you’ve done that, you’ve created something. Now, the hard part comes, you actually have to get the word out there.”
You’re really good at this. You teach others this. You practice what you preach. You’re very successful in the fiction realm, which a lot of people think is impossible, and your books are good. Now, we do know there are ebook entrepreneurs out there who are better at marketing than they are at creating the actual book, and yet they do well.
What are your thoughts in general on that aspect of this business? And then maybe some tips on how you best think that a new author can self-publish and actually sell.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, I think, again, fiction and nonfiction are quite different in this way. Many of your listeners will already know the model of a nonfiction book and about content marketing. So, that is one way of doing it. For example, an SEO book title. I have a book that’s called How To Market A Book. And it sells, because that’s what it says on the tin.
If you use a clever title, then you’re going to get fewer sales from people shopping for nonfiction. Sort of the overriding thing with nonfiction is the same as writing a headline. People can do your headline course, for example. It has to be something that makes people want to read more.
In terms of fiction marketing and making a living with fiction, it is very much about volume. Your content marketing as a fiction author is going to be more fiction.
One of the beauties of digital is novellas or shorter books. For example, 25,000 words instead of 80,000 words. Doing these smaller chunks of content that people can read and then get hooked on your product. Doing a series is super important, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. So, writing things so that the same audience wants to come back and buy again.
This is another reason why your income as a fiction author keeps going up over time. I’m about to put book eight out in my ARKANE series, and of course, if people come in at book eight, they’re likely to go back and buy books one to seven. James Patterson, as you mentioned, is the king of this.
Then there are us indie authors, we can do collaboration really easily. Co-writing, which means two authors can get together, create a product, and then divide up the money. That’s much easier as an indie than it is with traditional publishing.
Then book sets are another big deal at the moment where you put multiple books (and this is digital ebooks) into one file and you sell them for higher volume if you want to make income, or a cheaper price if you want to hit the list, which is how I was part of hitting The New York Times and USA Today list, through a book set.
There are all kinds of different book marketing strategies that are quite different to the online, say, blogging and podcasting world, which works really well for nonfiction, but not so well for fiction.
Then just the last thing on this, I would say, is the biggest deal, I think, of having your book available globally is all of this marketing now, as you know, all of our stuff is available online. Some of these sales in India, for example, are coming because of putting on a novella or doing a tweet or doing a podcast like this.
So, when you’re marketing, just think that if your book isn’t available everywhere, you’re not going to sell everywhere. But if you are, then all your marketing will be global.
Brian Clark: Fascinating. You have an idea, those of you listening out there, why I asked Joanna to present at our upcoming Digital Commerce Summit on this topic. Because when you think about digital entrepreneurs, I’m not sure people think about how much of a business opportunity it is to sell intellectual property that people are just scrambling to find the next title. It’s nonfiction, solve a problem. But fiction, if you can find your genre and you can find your audience out there, it really is an amazing business.
I guess this is a little bit of a preview of what you’re going to talk to us about in October, Joanna?
Joanna Penn: Oh, absolutely. I’m really excited about that, because as you say, I think people have gotten so excited about things like online courses and podcasting that they’ve forgotten about books.
The other thing about the massive amount of content that there is online in blogs, for example, is people are looking back at books for people with authority, for things that they can just consume without having to be taken away by all of these different things.
So books, I think we’re seeing a resurgence and things like the Worldreader survey that looks at adoption of ebooks in Africa, as streaming Internet goes worldwide.
These are the things that I’m excited to talk about to people at the Digital Commerce Summit. And yeah, I’m really looking forward to share, because it’s such an exciting time to be an author.
Brian Clark: Oh, it absolutely is.
If you can just get your head past that, “I’m not supposed to be a business person” and realize, like you mentioned at the very beginning, the understanding of the rights in this product and the creative leveraging of them is an act of creation in itself. And that’s what we’ve got to get people excited about — that business is not a dirty thing, especially when it’s your business. It’s self-directed, you’re not there to please a publisher, you’re only there to please your audience.
Joanna Penn: Absolutely.
Brian Clark: All right. And that also means that we will finally meet in person, which is another monumental hurdle that we’re overcoming.
Joanna Penn: Yes. I mean, it’s so funny. Of course, being in England as I am now, there are so many of my online people who I’ve never met in person. So, I’m really excited about the conference.
Brian Clark: Yeah, we’re going to have a great time.
If you would like to attend the summit, just head over to digitalcommerce.com, scroll down and click the Summit version to get the full speaker lineup, and we’ve got some interesting things coming there. We’re also looking at an impending price raise, so get over there and get a good deal on your ticket.
Joanna, thank you so much for taking time with me. I know it’s morning here, but it’s evening there. Do you like to write at night?
Joanna Penn: No, I’m a morning person.
Brian Clark: Yeah, me too. Okay, awesome. All right, well, have a great evening and we will talk to you again soon. I can’t wait to see you in Denver.
Joanna Penn: Thanks so much for having me, Brian.
Brian Clark: Oh, my pleasure.
All right, Everyone, that’s it for this week. Hopefully, that gave you some interesting ideas if you are of the writing type. Even if you’re not, I believe that there are all sorts of opportunities for entrepreneurs to work with writers, not in a traditional publisher role, but more as a collaboration. We’re big on collaboration, and if you find a talented writer that doesn’t want to embrace the business side, that could be a way to team up and do interesting things.
Anyway, regardless of which direction you’re going, just remember, keep going.