Focus, long term commitment and sheer hard work, every day, are what have enabled Joanna Penn, bestselling author, professional speaker, entrepreneur and UK ALLi advisor, to pack so much into the five years since she entered the sphere of self-publishing. The remarkable achievements of this authorpreneur have just earned her a place among The Guardian‘s Top 100 Creative Professionals 2013, so it's a timely occasion to ask her to share the secrets of her success.
What’s the secret of your success?
I don’t consider myself successful as yet, and I feel like I am just at the bottom of this ladder. I have some specific goals around being a writer, and I haven’t met them yet, but as any business, it takes a while before you begin to have some kind of mastery. I’m only 38, so I have time! As authors, we’re lucky to have the rest of our lives to improve the craft and please readers globally. In terms of what I’ve achieved in the last five years, it’s really been about commitment over the long term and working on writing and marketing every day. I’m passionate about what I do, and extremely focused on becoming the best writer I can be, as well as the best entrepreneur.
What’s the single best thing you ever did?
Starting a blog changed my life – seriously. It has freed my writing style up completely, and given me the confidence to get into fiction. Without the millions of words I’ve written on my blog, I would never have been able to write Desecration, my latest crime novel. Writing so much has enabled me to finally stop self-censoring. Blogging has also given me a community of writers worldwide, some of whom have become my best friends. It’s given me a platform for an income that enabled me to leave my corporate day job in 2011. It’s helped me find readers who want to buy my books all over the world. It’s also been the catalyst for synchronicity, global travel and opportunities that would never have happened without being out there, writing in public almost every day.
Did you get lucky?
I prefer to call it synchronicity, which is a Jungian concept around meaningful coincidences that happen when you focus on something, work towards it and attract opportunities. I can’t point to any one moment where things took off – I’m no Hugh Howey (yet!) I believe in working hard on my writing and marketing activities every day and I’m committed for the long term. That’s not very sexy, but I love this life! I’m definitely a workaholic, my husband says my boss drives me too hard. But I am totally committed to becoming a successful fiction author, so everything I do is working towards that. Synchronicity, or perhaps luck, happens when you keep putting yourself out there.
How do you get/stay in creative mode?
In terms of pure writing, if I’m at home, I will turn on the Anti-Social app which blocks email and social networks. I don’t trust my willpower! I’ll then plug myself into rain and thunderstorms which get my brain into a different state. I also spend a couple of days a week working in the London Library at St James’s Park, which focuses my attention specifically on writing, as opposed to the business side of being a writer. In a more general sense, I do a lot of creative research trips. I spent three days in Budapest for my novella One Day In Budapest, and a visit to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons gave me the opening scene for Desecration. My own curiosity tends to lead me to creativity, and I always carry a notebook to write down thoughts which often turn into scenes.
How do you prioritise?
I have a sign on my wall, “Have you made art today?” so that is always my focus. I’m a morning person so I tend to create early on and then do other things later in the day. I also keep a timesheet on the iPhone app OfficeTime which helps me track the hours I spend on other things. My number one priority is always to focus on the next book, but I juggle that with promoting the existing work, professional speaking and ongoing tasks like interviews, blogging, my podcast and social media. Luckily, I enjoy everything I do, including the marketing, so all of this is my kind of fun!
What’s next for you?
I’ve started the next crime novel, Delirium, which is the sequel to Desecration. My research has involved the appalling history of psychiatry and mental health, as well as a visit to the old Bedlam Hospital. I’ve also got another non-fiction book coming soon, on public speaking for authors, creatives and other introverts. A lot of authors ask me how they can improve their speaking or add it as another income stream, so I’m keen to share what I know. I’ve also got a list of six other projects I want to work on in 2014, so we’ll see how far I get with that! (For more details about Joanna's work, visit her website: www.thecreativepenn.com.)
What’s your top tip for other indie authors?
Spend some time thinking about what you really want, and be honest about your goals for this book, and also your life as an author. If you just want to write one book, brilliant! Write it and launch it with a few friends but I wouldn’t worry about the business side too much. But if you want to be an author who makes a full-time living from writing, then you need to educate yourself around the publishing, marketing and business side. Professional authors can no longer be just writers, we also need to be entrepreneurs. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in this business right now, but you have to be sure you want to join us on the journey. If you do, the Alliance of Independent Authors is a fantastic community to join and learn from.