From the outside, Joanna Penn is a successful author of both fiction and non-fiction. And she’s an entrepreneur in that she controls her “products” by self-publishing.
But as with her last interview on the show, there’s a lot more going on under the hood. Take an inside look with this episode — because there is lots of great information for you to consider for your own business.
Joanna and Brian discuss how she has built a successful business that fits her lifestyle, the surprising impact that affiliate marketing has had on her bottom line, and how the rise of audiobooks, podcasting, and voice tech is changing the online landscape for writers.
How full of knowledge and insight is this episode? Just know that toward the end of it, Brian is compelled to say the following: “Okay people, if you stopped listening at the halfway point, you screwed up and you don’t even know it.”
So make sure you listen all the way through.
This week’s rundown:
- The rise of audio — both audiobooks and podcasts — and how it is changing the future of both consumption and publishing. (They return to this at the end too.)
- How Joanna stays “sanely ambitious” with a successful 6-figure business that remains completely on her terms … and why she is not striving to hit seven figures.
- Why it’s important to regularly review your business and double down on what you love.
- Why Joanna and Brian struggle with Seth Godin’s definitions of freelancer and entrepreneur.
- Joanna goes into detail about her business model and the many ways she makes money.
- The specific strategies Joanna has used to leverage affiliate sales into half of her total revenue.
- The many different tools and services Joanna uses to manage her independent publishing empire.
- Joanna explains a few remarkable examples of what’s next in audio and voice — including A.I. voice synth and licensing a voice brand.
- Why even a writer like Joanna is thinking and planning for #voicefirst moving forward.
- Joanna’s first appearance on Unemployable: Inside the Lucrative World of Self-Published Ebooks
- Joanna’s website: thecreativepenn.com
- Audiobook Usage Is Up (Forbes)
- Yuval Noah Harari
- The freelancer and the entrepreneur (Seth Godin)
- Follow Brian Clark on Twitter
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Or search for “unemployable” wherever you listen to podcasts.
Why the Future of the Writing Business is … Audio?
Joanna Penn: I’m Joanna Penn, author and podcaster and I’m unemployable.
Voiceover: Welcome to Unemployable, the podcast for freelancers and entrepreneurs who value their freedom, creativity, and income way too much to ever accept a regular old job. For the full Unemployable experience, sign up for our email newsletter for tips, tools, and trends that will take your business and lifestyle to the next level. Simply head over to Unemployable.com to join us. That’s Unemployable.com.
Brian Clark: From the outside, Joanna Penn is a successful author of both fiction and non-fiction. And she’s an entrepreneur in that she controls her “products” by self-publishing.
But as with her last interview on the show, there’s a lot more going on under the hood. Last time, she explained all the different revenue streams that come with a simple product known as a book.
This time, we’re taking a look inside her “sanely ambitious” business and why she’s perfectly happy making a mid-6-figure income by staying small.
I’m Brian Clark and this is Unemployable, actionable tips and powerful tools for freelancers and entrepreneurs. Thanks for joining us.
In this episode, you’ll discover the big impact that affiliate marketing has had on Joanna’s bottom line, which surprised me, and how the rise of audiobooks, podcasting and voice tech is changing the online landscape for the business of writing.
There’s a surprising amount of knowledge and insight in this episode even if you have no interest in writing books. Don’t be fooled, you’ll hear a lot today that can transform the approach you take when creating your own perfect business. Let’s jump right to the interview.
Joanna, thank you so much for coming back on the show.
Joanna Penn: Oh, thanks for having me here, Brian. It’s great to be back.
Creating a Powerful Product with Words
Brian Clark: Last time you were here, you and I got to lawyer to author geek out about the intellectual property rights, the bundle of stuff that goes on when you write a book. I was fascinated by that of course. I’m not sure a lot of people think about what kind of product, a powerful product that you can create with words. And you are a great example of how to do that.
Joanna Penn: Oh, thank you. It’s so funny, because I’ve been listening to Copyblogger and reading your stuff for years, and you talked about scalable products very early on.
What’s so amazing about books, I think people think when they’ve written a book that it’s one thing, but books can turn into these multiple products, even just formats. So ebooks on, say, over 200 different ebooks stores now across the world — paperback, large print, hardback, audiobooks — and then of course in multiple countries. I’ve sold books in 86 countries now just in English. And then you can license them into multiple languages. For example, I’ve just licensed Korean rights for one of my books.
What I think is amazing for people like us who love the scalable side is there’s no customer support. With tech (I mean, you’ve done so much tech), there are always tech problems. But books, people buy a book from whichever retailer they buy it from and they haven’t spent so much money that they want some support. Basically, they’re just happy. I find books to be just this magic form of product that turns into so much more.
Then of course, if you want to do non-fiction, you can have a whole back end of that with courses and other products and software if you like.
Brian Clark: Yes. I think the thing that impresses me most is you’ve done all the sorts of things as far as helping others, teaching others, creating products that do that. But you’ve also done the thing I didn’t do, which is you said, “I’m going to write fiction and I’m going to succeed.” And you did, wildly, and that’s so cool.
Joanna Penn: Well, it’s interesting. The word “success” is very difficult as you know, and everyone has a different definition. Also, it runs away from you. I find fiction occupies a very different part of my life than my non-fiction.
I write thrillers as J.F.Penn, and I have a different time in my calendar for J.F.Penn. The super introvert is my fiction side, quite a dark person. It’s just something that I love to do as well as write non-fiction. At this point, I’ve written 17 novels, and I’m just writing my 11th non-fiction.
I’ve written quite a lot of books, and I just find that the creative side of fiction refreshes a part of me that non-fiction doesn’t. But also, I feel that non-fiction is what I do to help other people. And fiction does help other people. It’s entertainment, it’s escapism. But in our world, with teaching, I think the non-fiction fulfills the side of me that wants to continue to help others.
If anyone listening wants to write a book, I seriously think everyone in the world should write a book, because if you write a book, you buy a ton of books. We’re like this self-sustaining industry essentially.
Brian Clark: Yeah, right now I just buy a ton of books, but I still refuse to write one. I really do think if I’m ever going to write a book, it’s going to be some bad novel. I just don’t even care. I’m going to do it for me.
The Rise of Audio
Joanna Penn: You totally should. Hopefully, we’re going to talk about the audio side, because I think that people now… Well, we’ve just seen in the last week actually (I sent it to you), a Forbes article came out that said 50% of Americans have now listened to an audiobook, and 55% of audiobook listeners have listened to a podcast.
I bet you a lot of the people listening listen to audiobooks. For someone like you, I think of an audiobook, because you have a voice brand now, and because people listen to your voice and they know who you are. For people who don’t even necessarily want a book-book, an audiobook is another possibility.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I have to admit, I’m kind of fascinated with the whole rise of the audiobook that seems concurrent with podcast. People just walk around now with their earbuds and they’re either listening to an audiobook or a podcast. I’m thinking of my wife right now, because she is hooked on podcasts now.
But it’s not music. When I’ve got headphones on, it’s either I’m recording one of these interviews or I’m listening to music. I haven’t been so much of a convert, but I have tried listening to audiobooks and I actually like it. And I’m such a reader, I didn’t think I would.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, I found that too. I feel now when I listen to a podcast that I’m interested in, I will go on my podcast app and I’ll search for other podcasts with that person’s name, which I used to do on Google or on Amazon for a book. Now, I will try and find more people. Like you found Noah Harari, he wrote Sapiens. I’ve been listening to lots of stuff that he’s doing.
I think that’s changing. People are actually looking for more audio first content. But equally, the stats around Internet penetration to 2025 — the year 2025 is when they’re saying that mobile penetration will be complete across the world. All the developing markets that are mobile-first sort of markets, they will have streaming speed for things like audio.
English audio I think (not just me, I’ve been reading a lot about this) will have this renaissance even more than it is at the moment. It’s just going to keep growing as the market continues to grow.
I’d encourage people to think about that mobile first, audio first market, because of course, it’s easier to listen and understand English than it necessarily is to read it. I think that’s pretty exciting too.
Brian Clark: Yeah, and with the impending 5G, there’s no issue with downloads or anything. It’s just seamless. It’s exciting. I’ve had my eye on the same spot you’re looking, which is interesting, but I think a lot of lot of people are and for good reason.
How Do You Maintain the “Sanely Ambitious” Balance?
Brian Clark: Let’s give some background here because you wrote in, reconnected. Obviously, we’ve known each other for a long time. You wrote in about the 7-Figure Small show and shared with me your thoughts and your perceptions about watching people we all agree are successful.
I mean, I guess this was me at one point, just going, going, going, more, more, more. I’ve kind of been reflecting on my own, taking a step back and going, “Wow, that just kind of happened. That wasn’t really what I was aiming for.” And you had a really, I thought, mature and reasoned attitude about it.
Let’s share, because you’re obviously a successful person. I think I just counted 18 books you’ve written, fiction and non-fiction. You have your own publishing empire, it’s fantastic. And yet you keep it sane, “sanely ambitious.” I love that term. I don’t think anyone else does. But it speaks to me of what you’ve accomplished while still pretty much everything is on your terms.
How do you keep that balance?
Joanna Penn: It’s funny, I actually was trying to date this back to when I was thinking about this. I think it was actually Digital Commerce Summit, which is where I saw you last, the Copyblogger Summit a couple of years ago. Tara Gentile did a presentation there (she’s been on this show, she’s got her own great podcast), and talked about the difference between a 6-figure business and a 7-figure business.
In 2016, I just hit the multiple 6-figure level. It’s me, my husband is also in the business, but it’s essentially a one-person business. I was like, “Okay, so I’m multi 6-figures, this is more than I ever thought I would be. But I want to be 7-figures, because that seems to be the next step.” It’s just “7-figure business. That’s what you want obviously.”
Then I hit 10 years of my podcast, 10 years of my blog, and I was just like, “What am I doing? I’ve been working really hard for 10 years. Why do I want seven figures and what do I have to do?” Because as Tara talked about, a 6-figure business can’t be the same as a 7-figure business. You have to reinvent your business model. You generally have to employ a team.
I listened to Pat Flynn, who has just basically hired a whole team, and I was like, “Okay, so for me to get to 7-figures, I will have to grow my business.” Then we looked at, “Well, how could I change my business model around books?” You know I love creating books, I love creating podcasts.
And I was like, “Okay, I don’t really want to do that. I’m a super introvert. I really enjoy being on my own. I don’t use the phone.” I mean, this is as close to the phone as I get. I don’t want to manage people, I never wanted to manage people. I just want to create my own books.
I did start a publishing imprint. I have Curl Up Press. And I thought, “Oh well, one possibility is I hire some people and they publish other people and I do that.” Then I also thought, “I’ll start doing rights licensing about licensing for other people.”
All of that made me feel miserable. I just couldn’t bear the thought of doing that and working on other peoples’ projects. I just didn’t want to do it.
Then I thought, “Well, what else could I do?” I looked at other business models, and then just came back to, “Okay, do I need that?” I questioned that 7-figure number.
Then interestingly, at the same time, I’ve been looking at the FIRE Movement, the Financial Independence Retire Early Movement. Have you heard about that before?
Brian Clark: I have. I think the way you’re thinking about it is probably pretty sane. I think of young people just phoning in at work and collecting paychecks and living horribly. That’s my impression of some of the practitioners.
I talk about retirement a lot on Further, multiple times, and it’s just not even something really to strive for, at least not for me. I’m not going to stop working. I’m going to stop working this hard.
But how does that feel to you? Would you actually quit writing novels? No way.
Joanna Penn: No, no, exactly. But I think it all has to come back to why did we do this in the first place? Yes, it’s the freedom. For me, number one, always freedom, freedom down the way.
But it was also that I wanted to replace my income from my job, which I did in 2011. And then it kind of doubled and tripled. Then I kind of got to questioning, because what I like about this FIRE Movement is they’re actually questioning how much do you need? That, along with some of the environmental movement stuff that’s been going on, the digital minimalism, has made me question seven-figures in general.
I am ambitious, as you say, but I’m creatively ambitious. Yeah, I love earning good money, but I started to think, “Well, if I’m happy with my business model, I’m happy with my life. How about I just have a multi 6-figure business that gives me more time to create?” Because once you hit your goals of your financial goals, it’s a lot more to do with doing the work you love.
I measure my life by what I create, and that is through my books and through my podcast. I’m not ditching seven-figures at all by anyone else. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying when I looked at what I would have to do to get there and what some other people around me…
So, another guy — wait a minute, many more names — is now publishing almost a book a day and has 30 writers. And I was like, “I do not want to be running a business like that.”
It’s that questioning of what do you really, really want. If you’ve got your freedom, you’ve got a great income, you’re doing the work you love, why do you need more?
Brian Clark: Absolutely. By the way, I’m not going to say the number, but Joanna shared with me her number and trust me, she’s doing just fine. And you’ve got to remember seven-figures means revenue, not necessarily income.
You mentioned Pat Flynn, and I am no one to talk, and Pat’s a great guy and I wish him well. I love that he’s going forward, I guess if that’s truly what he wants to do. But if you look that he was making seven-figures in affiliate revenue, that’s almost all profit. That’s no products, no customer support, like you said. It’s perfect, and yet, I’ve been there, and yet, it’s not enough. He’s got to go more, more.
I don’t know how I feel about it anymore, but I think I’m more in line with you at this point. And that’s really where I was when I started Copyblogger. It just was a scalable model. The businesses we launched took off. I mean, I will always say there’s a bit of luck involved, but there’s also the right thing for the right people at the right time.
When you look at your books … I mean, everyone always thinks, “I’m going to write a book and I’m going to make $1 million.” That is so rare. You’re in the 1% as far as people who make a living writing books, easily. In that sense, I would say you’re living the dream right now.
Review Your Business and Double Down on What You Love
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and I think it really does come down to questioning how you want to live. Last year, 2018 as we talk about this, last year, I got to feeling a bit like I did in my old job. That person who really should retire, because they’re talking in a negative way. I was just like, “This is not me, what’s wrong?”
This is the other thing about doing something for 10 years, whatever it is, you have to start looking at what you really love about your business. And as you talk about on Unemployable, there were lots of systems, there were tools, there were things like accounting that need doing in your business. There’s email, there’s lots of things you have to do to run your business. If you grow your team, you then have to manage that or hire a manager to do that.
For me, the change came last year again when I went, “Okay, double down again on what you love, because why are you doing this?” It’s about freedom, freedom of time, and freedom of money to a point. But if you’re meeting your investment goals, you’ve got a great life (I travel a lot), then that’s awesome.
What I would say, coming back to you, is that what you managed to do growing the business, if you had done it on — you couldn’t have done it on your own, but you were very good at finding partners who you were able to work with. That’s how you did grow.
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t have done it without them. I mean, we always reflect on this. There was Teaching Sells, and then there was Thesis and then there were was Scribe.
Then Brian Gardner and I started talking, and I could have taken a completely different route then. Instead of merging everything together after leaving Thesis, I could have just partnered with Brian Gardner. And I would have more money than maybe I actually made. I’m pretty sure I would’ve made more money doing that, but that wasn’t big enough for me.
It’s weird, where does that come from? I know with me, it’s just I like to do the cool next thing. And if I can see how to do it, it’s hard to get me not to. But now, I kind of have a different perspective.
Joanna Penn: I think you’re a creative though. I really feel like you’re a creative guy. What’s brilliant about being a creative is you’re never satisfied. I mean, the reason I have so many books, and it’s 28 to this point, is it’s never enough. You finish your book and you’re like, “Okay, now I want to do this thing and now I want to do this thing.” You’re always creating more stuff. You never want business as usual. Business as usual is just boring as hell.
But what I see, one of the issues with people who are growing is they may choose the wrong thing. They may end up with a business they didn’t want, because you’re always looking for the next thing. I almost, almost made that mistake with a publishing company. If I had taken on other authors, I would have hated it and might have dropped out of publishing altogether.
On the surface, it might have looked like the same thing, but it’s not because I’m the creator and that’s what it comes down to. It’s a bit like deciding — yeah, it’s having that one thing that you say. For me, it is I measure my life by what I create. If I’m not creating every day, I’m just miserable. That’s the goal.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it’s interesting, because we talk about, in the freelance sense, that if you just really love your craft, if you really love to design, you really love to write, you really love to code, great. There is no problem with that. It’s tough with clients sometimes. I mean, everyone has those days, and I’m not even sure I could do it again. But the difference is with you, you are also focused on your craft, but you have a scalable model.
Now you’re talking about intentionally trying to get to a certain revenue goal, which frankly is silly. It really is. Money isn’t the thing you measure by. One of your books could take off and change your life, because it’s just that way. Now, does that just randomly happen? Sometimes, not often — but you do have the model in place. And this is what I tell people: give yourself that room in case you change your mind or you decide you want to go bigger.
How to Define Freelancer and Entrepreneur
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and it’s funny, because you’re exactly right, and this is why I struggle with Seth Godin’s definition of a freelancer or an entrepreneur, because I don’t do any work for hire. I don’t even do speaking at the moment. I don’t do any freelance work, any consulting. I don’t have clients in that way. I write books and I license them.
I call myself an entrepreneur, but Seth’s definition — of course, I love Seth and so glad he’s always on your show…
Brian Clark: Remind me of this, because I saw a video when I just did the interview with him and I don’t think I actually watched it. It was the difference between a freelancer and an entrepreneur and I think I didn’t hit play, because that annoys me. To me, anyone who’s making it on their own without a job, mad respect from me.
I mean, yes, there are differences between client work and product creation and marketing. There are, but still, I don’t like to put too fine a line on it. I see it as a spectrum. It was for me.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, I think so too. But he splits it as an entrepreneur is looking to build a company bigger than themselves and probably sell it. StudioPress might be an example of where you were an entrepreneur, because you were never going to…
Brian Clark: But we never had that plan. Most entrepreneurs do that. They raise money and they build the company usually without even creating a profit and then sell it. We never think that way.
In that sense, I think that’s kind of where I went wrong. I didn’t have the end in mind when we started growing, and then we had all these different products and a kind of a complicated story. Then when people started asking to buy us, they couldn’t get it. I couldn’t even tell them the story and I like to think I can tell a story.
That’s the thing. I think to a certain degree, either you create a business that you just love doing. The guys at Basecamp come to mind. They make gobs of cash. I mean, it’s ridiculous. And yet, they just show up to work day after day, year after year, and it’s good. I mean, what’s wrong with that really?
Joanna Penn: Yeah, exactly. And I certainly would never want to criticize Seth, I’m certainly not doing that.
Brian Clark: Go ahead, he can take it. He can take it.
Joanna Penn: I feel like I fall in the middle of freelancer and entrepreneur especially because I run very much, I guess, a personal brand business. It is scalable, but it’s so associated with me. The Creative Penn is my site and that is my name, so it’s not like I’m going to ever sell that.
And so this, I think it is a question for people, where you’ve got to, even if you didn’t know it was going to get there, and where I’ve got to in a much smaller sense, but it is going, “Is this what I want?” And it’s almost like you have to revisit this regularly.
Why I like blogging so much is every year on the anniversary of leaving my job, I reflect on my blog about the year and what I’m thinking about with the business and what I’m enjoying and what I need to change. By reflecting, at least annually on what’s good and what’s not good and turning things off and doing more of what you love, that’s so important. You have to be pretty brave.
I’ve turned off a number of revenue streams, because I was just getting miserable with them. That’s good, because it means I have more time to do other things, like starting another podcast, for example.
You just have to keep questioning, “Why am I doing this?” And 10 years after your original decision, it might be quite different.
Brian Clark: Yeah, again room to grow freedom is the leeway to do whatever you want. I think people equate freedom with a lifestyle business. That’s the primary thing, but some people get really into work. Their work is what they do.
Joanna’s Business Model
Brian Clark: I think when people think of author on one side of your business, and then educator trainer on the other side, it’s easy to conjure up a stereotypical view of what that is. But what you are is a digital entrepreneur when it comes down to it. You create products that people love and you sell them to them. Like you said, there’s a bundle of “monetizable.” That word should not even be…
You can make money a lot of different ways from your books, and I think that’s how people have to look at you as, ”I believe you are an entrepreneur.” No, you’re not going to sell your business necessarily, but either is Seth. I mean, not the Seth Godin business. He can create other things – and that’s what I’ve always tried to do. I hate the whole personal brand thing. If you’re doing anything worthwhile, the personal brand thing will happen.
But with Copyblogger, Further, Unemployable, these things need be able to exist without me. And that’s how I think about it, but that doesn’t mean I’m in a hurry to leave necessarily.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, absolutely. Just to be clear on if people want to know about my business model, because I think it’s really important. I make a living with my writing and I think that’s important, not just from book sales.
Book sales are one of my streams of income. But equally, I’ve been blogging on thecreativepenn.com for 10 years, and have millions — you know what blogs do. They end up multimillions of words on a website. And those words now drive…half my income is affiliate income based on things like tutorials, on how to use software.
Brian Clark: Oh really?
Joanna Penn: Yeah, absolutely.
How to Leverage Affiliate Sales
Brian Clark: That is fascinating. Okay, let’s talk about this. This is great. Okay, see, I had no idea. That’s what’s so cool when you actually get to sit down with someone metaphorically and talk about their business, because from the outside, it looks like one thing, but there’s so much more going on. I tell people that all the time.
For example, with curation with Further, they’re just like, “Oh well, you just kind of put other people’s stuff together.” But the strategy and the editorial focus is everything. You have to have an opinion, and that comes through with what you share with people.
Anyway, I’m getting off track. Talk about the affiliate side of stuff.
Joanna Penn: Yes, so half my multi 6-figure revenue is affiliate. Every blog post on The Creative Penn (and again, I got this from Copyblogger way back) has links to things. That might be an Amazon link to a book, but it might be a link to software that I use, and we can talk about tools in a minute if you like. It might be a video that I’ve done. For example, I’ve got a video on How to Build Your Author Website. Which as you know, website hosting is one of those recurring revenue streams.
I also have affiliate links to services. For example, I’m not an editor, but I have affiliate links to editors, and it’s all ethical. I absolutely say that I’m an affiliate, it’s all above board. And people are so grateful that I’ve recommended a useful service that most of them are clicking my links.
That, as you know, is a function of audience size and because The Creative Penn is 10-years-old, it’s got millions of words on it. It gets almost 800,000 uniques a month now. With that kind of traffic, that’s driving a lot of revenue. And I never believed that it would get that big 10 years ago when I started it.
Brian Clark: I don’t think people believe that the affiliate marketing thing is true, but 1.2 million for Pat Flynn before he really got serious. The Wirecutter was just a review site, a really great one. People are looking for that kind of stuff. They have to trust you, but people do trust you, and that’s what’s cool.
Multiple Revenue Streams
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and you have to keep driving the traffic. I have guest posts on The Creative Penn, and that keeps driving the traffic. Plus I have my podcast, which is weekly, every Monday.
The podcast is also interesting, because that’s been going 10 years now. I have corporate sponsors who are companies I work with. Again, all ethical, all above board because I use these companies.
Also, I have a patrons through Patreon. Now, my Patreon’s a couple of grand a month, which is people who are happily paying for something they could have for free. You’re not going to turn down a couple of grand a month.
What’s lovely is those are the people who are super fans and that really is a personal brand monetization thing. And they get extra audio every month.
Then I have courses. I do teach courses through Teachable. Essentially, those are my four revenue streams: books, the podcast, courses, and affiliate income.
Brian Clark: Yeah, and I totally get that. But it’s still a more expansive definition then I tried to put you in. Of course, it’s not just books. But I just did not think at all about The Creative Penn. It’s been around forever.
Joanna Penn: Also, a little tip on books. I just put out Successful Self-Publishing, which I update regularly, and that is a free ebook. But of course it’s filled with affiliate links and useful tutorials for people.
That’s a good example of an ebook. Of course, you’ve given away ebooks on your various sites for years. This is giving away an ebook on the author platforms, on the reader platforms like Amazon, Kobo, Ibex, Google Play, all of that. And that’s free.
Brian Clark: Now, do you charge for this? Oh, it’s free? Okay.
Joanna Penn: No, it’s free. It’s a lead magnet.
Brian Clark: Yeah, you put that on Amazon though. It’s not like you’re putting it on your site for an email opt-in. It’s on Amazon, it shows up in the searches, but there’s just no charge.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and it’s also available in print and large print, because it’s a useful book, and lots of people want it in print and large print. I use Pretty Links as a plugin on WordPress, and you can do nice looking links that you can put in things like print books so people can easily type them in.
It’s very much an ecosystem with books as a non-fiction funnel into lots of other things. Then my fiction would be a slightly different department, because there it really is book sales alone. But, yeah, it makes up a satisfying lot.
I would say to people: it is very hard to make money, to make a living just from book sales, because the market’s just so up and down and difficult. But having all these multiple streams of income is the way forward.
Brian Clark: Absolutely. Now that you’ve defined your business, it doesn’t seem like you’re hunched over an old typewriter like the stereotypical ink-stain wretch. You’re a digital entrepreneur. I mean, you’ve got revenue streams left and right. That’s fantastic.
What Tools Do You Use?
Brian Clark: What’s your setup like? What are the tools that help you keep all the balls in the air?
Joanna Penn: In terms of technical tools, Scrivener is what I write in, and lots of writers use Scrivener now. It really is an amazing tool for writing. Then, because I run my own publishing company, I’m an independent publisher, I use Vellum for formatting. And it is Mac-only. It’s beautiful. If you want to publish your own ebooks, Vellum – fantastic software.
Brian Clark: V-E-L-L-U-M?
Joanna Penn: Yes, absolutely.
Brian Clark: Awesome, good tip.
Joanna Penn: And surprisingly, I have a tutorial on how to use it.
Brian Clark: I bet you do, with an affiliate link.
Joanna Penn: Of course.
I do have a number of virtual assistants. I have a primary assistant, he’s in Canada, so obviously Dropbox is huge. I also have my podcast guy who actually lives in the Marianas Islands way out near Guam in the Pacific, which is so cool. They have great Internet out there. He does my podcast management. We use Dropbox for everything, which is super useful. I also use Dropbox for my bookkeeper and my accounting people.
Then I would say really importantly for people is using software like 1Password or LastPass for generating, protecting and sharing passwords with people. You can share a password with a freelancer without it being visible.
Also, having Calendly, which works with Google calendar for doing bookings, that has just been amazing. I don’t know what I’d do without that.
What else? I use ConvertKit for email. Love ConvertKit.
I use Teachable for online courses. Again, before Teachable — and of course, I learned from you in Teaching Sells — I did my own courses on my own site back in the day, and now I use Teachable.
What else? I use WP Engine for hosting, which is why I was so happy when you went with them with StudioPress. I use StudioPress themes on all my sites.
And then I use Buffer app and Missinglettr for social media scheduling. I love social media, but I don’t want to spend my time on it most of the time. I use those scheduling tools.
Brian Clark: Amen to that. Remember the early Internet, we all kind of lived online? And then when everyone showed up, you’re like, “Oh, okay, this is done.”
Joanna Penn: Yeah, I’m done. And saying “done,” I should also mention InboxDone, which is Yaro Starak’s company.
Brian Clark: Tell me how that works. I’ve known Yara forever. I mean, I get it, but I also have never let anyone in my inbox. And I probably should, but I just don’t.
Joanna Penn: I was so like you in December. I interviewed Yara for my show, because he’s always been a real mentor for me as well. And he just said, “Look, it’s about your mind share. It’s about worrying that somebody has emailed you and you have to answer them.”
What InboxDone is, it is a human. And so I’ve met my human, Carly, who’s wonderful. She has access to my main inbox and she answers things she’s learned over the last few months through reading my sent mail and everything, what I say. She always answers it from her. She’s not faking it from me.
But, essentially, she has taken just little things that were bugging me. Like my patrons on Patreon. These are wonderful, wonderful people, but they only spend like a couple of dollars a month, and I was ending up spending all this time looking after them. And now, she can look after them.
I was not convinced either, and then I tried it and it’s just been amazing. I would definitely recommend thinking about it if email niggles you. That’s what it was for me. I outsource so many of the big things and what I was left with were little niggly things.
I travel a lot, and one of the things I want to do is the Camino de Santiago, which is a six-week walk, basically a pilgrimage across northern Spain.
Brian Clark: I want to do that too. That is so cool.
Joanna Penn: I looked at it and I went, “You know what? I can’t take six weeks off my business. I can’t do that. I never have, for 10 years. How can I do that?” My goal in the next year is to work towards the six weeks off, and slowly getting there. But email was one of them. I cannot not have someone doing my email if I want to take six weeks walking the Camino.
You would have the same issue. You can’t leave for six weeks without checking your email.
Brian Clark: You know how I handle email?
Joanna Penn: You just ignore it.
Brian Clark: I don’t. I do it very badly. There you go.
Joanna Penn: But that’s because you sold all your other businesses, so you don’t have an active selling thing going on.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I should totally be outsourcing my email, because I’m terrible, but oh well. Yeah, it’s not like there’s anything interesting in there. “Oh no, you can’t see this.” It’s the most boring crap ever.
Joanna Penn: I still have my personal email, which I check on my phone. But I’ve been really good with my phone in the last year. I got rid of all my social media on my phone. I’ve gotten rid of email on my phone, so I kind of have to look at “How do I do this?”
This is why it’s really good to have a goal like “I want to walk the Camino” or “I want to take six weeks off with my family and not check email.” How do you do that when you’re running your own business as a one-person business? Well, you have to work with freelancers, and it is hard, but it’s so well worth it. That’s kind of my goal.
What’s Next in Audio?
Brian Clark: Let’s come full circle. We started off talking a bit about audio and you are clearly fascinated with it, as am I. Tell me a little more about what you’re seeing.
It seems like in the next five, six years, you’re seeing real opportunities here for people who can create audio something, whether it be podcasts for content marketing or even sponsor — that’s your business. Then again, there are audiobooks, there are audio courses. People are being trained on audio right now. And that’s an incredible market opportunity, I think.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and I’ll tell you what really got me this last week was Mark Zuckerberg has just started a podcast. Did you see that?
Brian Clark: Oh, God.
Joanna Penn: I know, I know. You might not want to listen to it, but Mark Zuckerberg…
Brian Clark: Okay, good one. I love the British, “Yeah, well, it’s interesting, I’m not going to listen to it.”
Joanna Penn: No, but the point is the biggest social network in the world, the dude can reach whoever he wants.
Brian Clark: No, I know. He’s probably going to be okay for retirement.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, but the reason he started a podcast is because it is the way to reach people and get them to trust you. You trust people when you listen to their voice or you don’t, because you can judge them super fast. You know whether or not we’re talking crap or whether we’re being truthful and authentic.
I think with all the problems that Facebook is having with their trust issues, someone said, “Hey, Mark, you really need some trust. Start something where people can hear your voice.” And it might backfire on him.
But what I’ve discovered with podcasting now over the last 10 years is my podcast has been downloaded in 215 countries. Now I cannot even publish in that many. I’ve published in 190 countries, my books are available in and have been bought in 86.
But the 215 countries, including places like Iraq and China and Nepal, people are downloading my podcast. Now I can reach people so much better through voice than I can with the written word. And words can be spoken, not just written. It’s just another interface into people’s brains.
If you think about the next generation, the rise of smart speakers, the Google Voice Interface, Google Assistant and Siri, they’re on over a billion devices around the world and people are interacting with their voice and listening to voice as well.
There are all these different opportunities. One, we are creating content with our voice and we’re building trust with our voice. And secondly, we are optimizing for voice. Even if you don’t want to do more audio, you have to optimize your sites for audio, because people are going to search that way.
This is why I’m so excited. Also, with my fiction, I’ve been doing some acting training and am going to do my fiction in audiobooks as well. And I’ve started another podcast, Books and Travel, in order to start building a voice brand for my other name, J.F.Penn.
This is the thing — to me it’s just so thrilling. The voice is the thing that can break through these global barriers that can be useful, that can entertain in such a different way.
Brian Clark: It helps that you have a lovely voice.
Joanna Penn: But so do you, Brian, in a different way.
Brian Clark: I was just fishing for that. But I’m never going to trust Zuckerberg, okay? You can’t make me.
Joanna Penn: No, but I just think it’s fascinating, because he basically has access to so many people.
Brian Clark: No, it probably is a great move. It’s a great move. Because you’re right, when you’re invited into someone’s head, that’s an incredible privilege that I think exceeds someone reading or writing. I mean, it pains me to say that, but it’s true. And that’s why I’m not going to give up podcasting.
Joanna Penn: What I found with my own behavior is I’m not reading blogs anymore. This is why I keep telling you, you’ve got to write a book. Because I don’t want to read, I don’t find blogs enough for me.
I either want to listen to a podcast interview or a podcast discussion. I don’t mind if you read a chapter of something, but I want to listen. It’s just how I like to consume. I don’t read blogs, I just read books and a lot of them by audiobook now. Also, I listen to podcast.
And I’m not the only one, that’s the thing. If you look at the way transport’s going to change, something like 70% of people are listening in their car. Once you have the self-driving vehicles, I don’t think you’re going to watch TV for a while. I think you’re going to be listening and looking out the window in case you feel sick. There are lots of different ways that people are going to be listening.
The other exciting stuff for people like us who have voice brands or for people listening who are going to build one, is the rise of A.I. voice synth. Lyrebird.ai is a really interesting one, which is you feed your voice into their system. It’s only obviously in beta right now, but they’ve done Trump and they’ve done Obama. Basically, then you could feed in your text and it will read it in your voice. That’s interesting.
Then using something like Amazon Polly, which has a whole load of voices that will read the words off your site, and then potentially you could license your voice brand. I’ve already been asked by an audio company about licensing my voice to train A.I. with, say, an English accent, for example.
With licensing, I think we’re looking at some really interesting stuff around our voices and around something that we haven’t even thought of before.
Brian Clark: Holy cow. I think we need to talk offline. That’s a lot of good stuff right there.
It’s interesting to me. I just remembered that back in 2014 when podcasting really broke…what was the big show?
Joanna Penn: Serial.
Brian Clark: Serial, exactly. Robert Bruce and I had the crazy idea that we were going to launch the Rainmaker Platform, basically the thing that we formed the company to build, by an episodic scripted podcast.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, I listen to all your shows.
Brian Clark: And all my partners thought we were insane. They were like, “Okay, he’s finally lost it.” It was another million-dollar launch. It was amazing. And I forgot about that.
It’s powerful, man. You can write all you want to, but if you can convey the same value-based persuasive message with your own voice, it’s got to be more resonant.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, exactly. This is my next 10-year plan. I’ve written my 10-year business plan for my new site Books and Travel. That is going to be voice first for building my fiction audience, which at the moment, people are doing that. There was like a Stephen King Alexa app. But of course, Stephen King’s not reading the books.
My goal with that is to really become… because there are so many books in the world, but how many authors narrate their stories and have a podcast to go with them and have this whole audio-based audio first ecosystem.
And if people are interested as well, if you look at the #voicefirst on Twitter and on the social networks, you find so many interesting things.
I think right now, I mean, you were early as ever and I was early, but where we are now, between now and 2025, this is the rise of audio.
What’s so interesting with audiobooks is some markets around the world, we thought they would go print to ebook. But actually, the rise of audiobooks is faster than the adoption of ebooks. People are going from print books to audio or print and audio, skipping ebooks altogether. Really fascinating development.
I think we’re only at the beginning of where voice, A.I. and audio is going to go.
Brian Clark: Okay, people, if you stopped listening at the halfway point, you screwed up and you don’t even know it. I mean, how golden is all of this?
Joanna, thank you so much for being on the show and also tell people where they can find you if they want to (whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, both) follow in your footsteps, you can help them. Where should they go?
Joanna Penn: Great. Well, come and listen to my podcast, The Creative Penn Podcast (Penn with a double n) or Books and Travel Podcast. Both of those on all the usual places. If you want to write a book, my site thecreativepenn.com (Penn with a double n).
Brian Clark: Fantastic. Joanna, thank you so much. And I will never recommend Jeff Goins over you again.
Joanna Penn: Thanks for having me, Brian.
Brian Clark: Boy, did Jared save me or what? That was great. Take care, Joanna.
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