AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Joanna Penn

With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and editor/writer Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.

Interview with author Joanna Penn

  Joanna Penn is the author of Pentecost and Prophecy in the ARKANE series. You can read more about her fiction at Joanna’s blog for writers offers articles, audios and videos to help you write, publish and promote your book. It has been voted one of the Top Ten Blogs for Writers 2 years running. Connect with Joanna on twitter @thecreativepenn.

1. On your website you say you are an author who has made many mistakes along the way but now you share what you’ve learned on your site. Can you tell us a little about your journey to publication?

I always wanted to write, but I thought that I had to write a Booker prize-winning novel in order to be considered a ‘real’ writer. That gave me a mental block and stopped me from trying. But in 2008, I finally decided I would have a go and wrote a little non-fiction book on career change (How to love your job or find a new one – just re-written and re-released). It was the book I needed to write for myself as I hated my job as an IT consultant in a large corporate. After I had finished it, I started to research publishing and found that it would take 18 months+ to go through the process, even if I was taken on by an agent or publisher. I didn’t want to wait! So I self-published – but I made some big mistakes. For example, I didn’t know about print on demand publishing so spent too much on a print run. I didn’t know anything about marketing, so I didn’t sell many books.

So I started in order to save other people time, money and heartache on the same journey. In 2009, I decided to give fiction a go and loved it! With everything I learned, I was able to self-publish and market the books. The first two novels have sold ~40,000 copies and continue to rank in the Amazon bestseller lists. I’m certainly not against traditional publishing and I think the ‘hybrid’ model of using both is the best way. But right now, I’m really enjoying the independent publishing process.

2. What inspired you to go from being a successful nonfiction author to writing thrillers?

The block I mentioned above stopped me writing, but I always wanted to write fiction. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was the first book that inspired me, and then Dan Brown’s series fired me up. I have a Masters in Theology from the University of Oxford and I wanted to explore some of the topics that I researched back then.

The final impetus came from two things:
a) The realization that great books are not written in the first draft. You have to write some really bad drafts before you can polish it to greatness. This changed my life!
b) I did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2009 and got the first 20,000 words down – that kernel became Pentecost, the first ARKANE novel.

I chronicled the whole journey here:

3. What are some challenges related to writing a series versus just writing a single novel? How do you keep from repeating yourself and keep each new book fresh?

You need an overarching theme that can tie multiple books together, but still have individual stories within each book so the reader is satisfied. I have a secret British government agency, ARKANE, which investigates religious and supernatural mysteries. The main protagonist, Dr Morgan Sierra is an ex-Israeli military psychologist and she is the constant throughout the books. Her kick-ass fight scenes are a lot of fun to write! But basically, the story is different every time: the hunt for the stones in Pentecost, the race to find the Devil’s Bible and stop the demonic curse (Prophecy) and the search for the Ark of the Covenant as the Middle East counts down to a religious war (Exodus).

I’ve written an article on continuation issues in series writing here:

4. You just Indie published Prophecy, the second novel in the Arkane series. What do you think has been the best avenue for marketing this series?

There are two ways that people find books:
Through the book itself – so that’s Amazon & the other book sites. Amazon itself is the best marketing here. Get great reviews, write more books, optimize your sales copy, use strategic pricing.
Through the author platform – so that’s your author site, your blogging, social networking, giveaways, advertising etc.
I use a lot of different marketing strategies, but reviews and Amazon rankings sell a lot more books than I ever could by hand.

5. One challenging aspect of indie publishing is that the author usually ends up having to pay costs for book designers, editors and for publicity. How important do you think it is to use professionals to assist with an Indie published book?

It is absolutely critical to use a professional editor and a professional cover designer if you want to have a professional product. I use the term independent publishing as opposed to self-publishing in part to differentiate this business-orientated view. You don’t want your book to stand out as a self-published book, you want readers to consider it as they would any other professionally published book. So you have to go through the same process as traditional publishers do. No one can polish a book on their own, and most authors are not graphic designers. So you definitely need help. Remember, this is a business. You invest money upfront in order to reap sales later.

6. What are the most cost effective avenues for publicity and pulling book sales?

Most authors have more time than money, and marketing definitely takes time. My keystones have been blogging, social networking and podcasting as well as YouTube videos. None of this costs much money, so it can be sustained over the long term, which is the most effective form of marketing.

But most of the real evidence seems to suggest that the best form of marketing is write a lot of great books and grow an audience who are keen to buy your next book. So you can do this with a simple website and an email list for people to sign up to get your latest news.  Then just put in the time and write.

7. What role does blogging play in marketing a new book? I have heard that blogging is less effective than it used to be and social media more effective now. What are your thoughts on that?

I have a long-term approach to marketing and building an author brand. Great blogging is great content marketing – but you have to write great content, optimize it for the search engines and write articles/ podcast / do videos that people actually want. Most people don’t pay attention to these things so blogging is ineffective for most people. Building over nearly 4 years has enabled me to move into being a full-time author-entrepreneur, so I absolutely love blogging!

I also blog at my fiction site about the research I do, but mainly that site is for collecting email.

Social networking is an outpost that should always lead people back to your main site. I love twitter (@thecreativepenn) and I’m very active there, and it definitely sells books, but slowly, through relationships.

Don’t think about the quick fix for marketing. It’s the long haul that counts.
You can read more about marketing here:

8. How effective have book trailers been for you? What kinds of books would greatly benefit from video trailers?

I’m not sure how effective book trailers are for selling books, but some people really love them. The graphic ones seem to work for fiction, but for non-fiction, it’s the author that sells them by communicating the passion behind the story.
Here’s a couple of articles on book trailers:

9. What is the most effective way for authors to navigate your website and get the most benefit out of the amazing amount of information you have there?

I have just revamped the homepage so people can navigate through the material as there is so much there now!

Start with the free 52 page Author 2.0 Blueprint:
That will guide you through the starting phases and you also get an email series so it is not so overwhelming for you.

You can also go to the specific topic pages:

If you like audio, TheCreativePenn podcast now has 130+ episodes, that’s 65 hours of audio on writing, publishing and marketing. You can subscribe on iTunes or find the backlist here.

10. Do you have any new projects or workshops coming up soon?

I have just finished the first draft of Exodus, the third ARKANE novel, so I need to go through the editing process on that to have it out in the Fall. People can find more on ARKANE at my fiction site . I am also starting a new stand-alone mystery soon, working title Hunterian, which I am excited about.

I have also just finished a series of ProWriter multimedia courses with New York Times bestselling author, CJ Lyons who share her secrets to publishing success as well as how to sell hundreds of thousands of books a month. The courses are for people who may be overwhelmed with all the free knowledge online and want a structured course to lead them through the process.

Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.

Cherise Hensley is an English/Marketing major at Whitworth University. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal. She has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.


One Comment:

  1. It’s interesting to see how active Ms. Penn is in marketing her own work, trying multiple methods of publishing, while exploring different genres. There is a lot here for new writers to learn from.

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