Last week saw the second in a series of features we're running highlighting the successes of our authorpreneur members. Today, we're featuring another Alliance of Independent Authors authorpreneur member and the inspirational work they do. Today, it's Lora O'Brien, who has found success with a combination model of teaching and books.
Lora O'Brien: Her Journey
Lora is an Author, Teacher, and Guide: born and raised in Ireland, with 30 years personal and professional experience in our history, heritage, archaeology, mythology, and pre-christian Irish Spirituality. She is a modern Draoí – a practitioner and priest of native Irish magic and spirituality. Lora has been consciously following a Pagan path since 1994, and dedicated specifically to the Irish Goddess Mórrígan in 2004. With her partner, Jon O'Sullivan (An Scéalaí Beag), she runs EelandOtterPress.net, and the IrishPaganSchool.com – an online learning environment where you can connect to the heritage, culture and spirituality of Ireland in an authentic and meaningful way, every day. She has three children, two grandchildren… but never enough plants in her life to keep her happy.
Q. Tell everyone a brief summary of your journey.
My first book was traditionally published in 2004, by a US publisher in my umbrella genre (Paganism). I had queried them on a generic beginners book, but they suggested I niche down into something more specific, providing my perspective as an Irish practitioner, which was unique to market at the time. In that, plenty of Americans and British authors had written about ‘Celtic’ topics, but nobody Irish had written about our own native spiritual heritage, and I was in a unique position to do that.
I was 24 years old writing that book, and feeling a whole lot of imposter syndrome! However, it taught me an early and valuable lesson—people want authentic voices, and with awareness around cultural appropriation growing year by year, I knew I was on to a good path that I could develop and explore.
In 2005, living rurally in County Roscommon (West of Ireland) as a single mother to three children under 6, I got a job first as a part-time tour guide to the local heritage sites of Rathcroghan and quickly progressed to managing the entire visitor centre within a few months, with no prior experience. As you can imagine, my writing was put aside as I learned to swim rather than drown, but I gained a huge amount of practical experience and knowledge on the topics of Irish mythology, history, archaeology, and folklore, which were to become my areas of expertise. The heritage centre had the rights to some specialist books, so I learned about publishing that way, and decided to self publish my own works going forward. I began to work on my writing again in whatever free time I could carve out, mostly by getting up very early in the mornings.
When I left that job in 2013, I had just self-published a second book, and had another (more creative/experimental) work in progress, too. I knew a whole lot about my primary target market – US folk who are seeking genuine connection to Irish heritage and spirituality—but was also committed to making sure I was supporting and developing our own interest in these topics at home in Ireland. I’d learned the power of events to attract an audience, the importance of keeping in touch and building a community so that when events came around, people were still engaged with your work. I knew there is a deep-rooted need for quality and authentic content that people can trust, as opposed to the plastic paddy shamrock shake spirituality or misunderstood mythology they were being offered by people both in Ireland and outside of it, in order to make a quick buck.
Q. You chose a combination model where you create teaching materials and focused on growing your mailing list. Can you talk a little about how your model works?
I started my email list when I published my first book, by scraping every contact in my personal Gmail account and mass emailing them to inform them they were now on my list, but I’d take them off any time they wanted. (This is a breach of GDPR and woefully disrespectful; please don’t do this. I didn’t know any better at the time!) It got me started, but I was very patchy about engaging with them for many years. I had a blog with a sign up link though, which I’d add something to about once every month or two, and the occasional additional email sign up would trickle in.
I was experimenting with online meetings (this was way before zoom) and PayPal for running classes, and I’d get a few sales whenever I ran one of these online events. I was working freelance as a copywriter and journalist, getting paid to write articles for newspapers and magazines in a really wide range of markets from business to health to Land Rovers—I queried anywhere and everywhere and things were going ok but it was hard work. I had my eyes on the prize of scalability, a model where I wasn’t swapping my time for money.
After moving to County Waterford (South of Ireland) and deciding to focus specifically on my Irish heritage and spirituality topics in 2016, I started a Patreon account and built a monthly rewards scheme to create content that was delivered digitally. I offered re-tellings of Irish myths and folk stories, to recordings of guided meditation journeys, photos and video content from monthly visits to sacred sites, and more. Those stories became my third book (self-published), and I’m still repurposing the massive amounts of content I created for that account from 2016 to 2021, to this day.
By 2017, my partner was living with me, and as he is also a writer and storyteller, it was the perfect time to go all in and start our current teaching business, the Irish Pagan School. We run classes taught by us, and other native Irish teachers, twice monthly, with longer programmes running annually too. Currently, there are 6 free classes available at the school, which we advertise (on our blogs, YouTube channels, Facebook and Instagram accounts, podcast, and occasionally through paid ads on FB) as a lead magnet to bring new enrollments and mailing list members every day.
Having a lot of freely accessible quality content is vitally important to our business model, which is community focused FIRST. Many people don’t want to, or can’t, pay for any of our classes or programmes. That’s ok. They can stay on our mailing list and get access to all of our free resources and content without buying a thing. The fact is, though, that a healthy portion of them do buy from us, both classes and books, because they ‘know, like, and trust’ us. So, we can give, give, give, and trust that the rest will take care of itself. Which it does once you have the same or better quality stuff for sale and you (gently) remind your community about that on a fairly regular basis.
My partner and I now have a (combined) total of 10 books—one of which I traditionally published with the biggest US publisher in my genre in order to raise my profile, and the rest of which are self-published. This summer I am in the process of a major edit, rebrand, and republishing of these books and two others which are almost ready to go. I’m in the process of getting a Masters in Irish Regional History (May 2023) so my work on this project is a little distracted! But we are determined to ensure that the best quality and professional versions of our books will be available in every outlet by the end of this year.
The books are my main passion still, and I’ve given up teaching live classes now as I have enough material available for download in the school that I can just tip away at the content creation and marketing efforts and the sales keep rolling in without me doing any extra work. Scalability!
Q. What platforms do you use to help promote your free material and how do you use them?
At the time of writing, our free content offering has amassed hundreds of videos, podcast episodes, and blog posts across multiple channels, because we have made it a priority to create new free content every single week. In fact, we often do a push for daily content, for example, when we started the Irish Pagan School YouTube channel we did a 90 day content challenge, with one or the other of us making a new video every single day for those three months.
Since we started content creation (my first blog was around 2000), we own five blogs, three YouTube channels, one podcast, five public facebook groups, and various other social media business pages or accounts (Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook – we don’t do Pinterest or TikTok etc., though there’s merit in them… we just don’t have time or the inclination for more). As well as our mailing list.
Q. What’s the biggest lesson/s you’ve learned from growing your business model?
The biggest positive lesson is that people are basically good, and when you invest time and effort in building a community and making sure the guidelines and boundaries are clearly laid out, it becomes self-sustaining in time, as they truly value the safe space they can engage with and the generous wisdom they receive from other members. We see this most actively in our FB groups, as well as the YouTube and Blog comments sections, and the responses we receive to our emails.
Mistakes made and lessons learned—don’t spread yourself too thin! I definitely went too hard too fast and burned myself out, and although we have a great business because of that and I am eternally grateful, I am taking things at a much more sustainable pace now.
Q. What advice would you give authors wanting to grow and nurture their mailing list to a point where it generates sales for them?
If I was doing it again, I’d pick just one thing—a blog or podcast—that I can completely control. Social media can be fickle, so don’t build your assets on rented land! And build my email list with one great lead magnet/ freebie, and one social media account to promote my stuff on—a place I am comfortable and like to hang out, anyway! Everything I posted or provided would have a call to action—sign up for the email list and get this freebie!
I’d email that list about twice a week: once to share the fresh weekly content I created (blog or podcast), and once with a more social, chatty message, maybe with a cool resource on my topic (what I’m reading, something that inspired me that week, an article or video from a trusted source). And then when there’s something to sell, a couple of emails (maybe with a deadline for a bonus or special offer) is all it will take to generate some sales and positive responses.
Q. How do you continue to grow and reach new customers/readers?
Besides not being under my control, social media posts are there and gone in a day or two, so it takes a huge effort to keep that interest churning. YouTube is a sort of in-between – I don’t control it ultimately but it is invaluable as a search engine. And of course our blogs and podcast episodes are there for as long as we want them to be. We receive email sign ups and class sales every day from content we created years ago that’s still being found by new people. So, we keep creating valuable free educational or entertaining content which works to grow our business and reach new community members, even when we’re asleep, or on holidays!
Q. Where can members find out more about what you do?
- Google my name – Lora O’Brien, and you’ll find pages of content to choose from.
- We do Irish heritage/culture blogs and merch (tee-shirts etc.) at EelAndOtter.net
- Most recent info blogs are going on IrishPagan.School (it’s pretty new at time of writing)
- The Irish Pagan School YouTube channel and Podcast are easily searchable.
- Irish History & Heritage Classes are available at IrishPaganSchool.com
- You’ll find links to sign up to our mailing list in all of the above places, so please do!