You can't build a writing career on luck, but you can build it on developing a creative process that works for the long-term. In today's show, Jeff Haden explains how high achievers set themselves up to win.
In the intro, I talk about the shake-ups in publishing this week: Kindle Worlds shuts down, the Indie Author Support Network approaches Amazon on behalf of authors impacted by KU scammers, and Romantic Times (RT) shuts down after 37 years. [Shelf Awareness]. I talk about how the changes will keep coming and what we can all do to protect ourselves with multiple streams of income.
Plus, my personal update and how the various aspects of How to Write Non-Fiction: Turn your Knowledge into Words are coming along. I'm doing ebook, paperback, audiobook, Workbook, Large Print edition, and a multimedia course, and selling those on multiple platforms. And yes, trying to launch it all on 31 May … we shall see if I make it I also mention seeing Amanda Palmer in concert, the Guardian article on Patreon, and poet Ben Okri's amazing book, Mental Fight.
Today's show is sponsored by IngramSpark, who I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 39,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries and more. It's your content – do more with it through IngramSpark.com.
Tips for working at a side-hustle and transitioning to full-time author
Why routine and process are essential for productivity – even for writers
Why measuring small milestones is the key to success with big projects (like writing a book)
The One Question that can help you achieve everything you want to achieve
Balancing multiple passions with being productive
You can find Jeff Haden at JeffHaden.com and on Twitter @jeff_haden
Transcript of Interview with Jeff Haden
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today I'm here with Jeff Haden. Hi, Jeff.
Jeff: Hi, how are you?
Joanna: I'm good. It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Jeff is an author, ghostwriter, speaker, LinkedIn Influencer and contributing editor to “Inc. Magazine.”
His latest book is “The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.” Which is a fantastic book and Jeff, I got to tell you, I read the advanced copy that you sent me. I also bought it in hardback. That's how good it is.
Jeff: Oh, thank you. That makes you my new best friend.
Joanna: And it's interesting because when I read books that I think ah, yes, I want to remember that I read that. I'm now buying books in print again because I'm more settled.
Let's wind the clock back. I'm fascinated by your background.
How did you go from manufacturing to writing? Give us a bit of a potted history.
Jeff: I worked my way through college in a manufacturing plant. That's how I paid my way through college and I really liked it.
When I graduated I looked around for jobs and it seemed like all of them were with 40-year-old men working in cubicles. And at the time that seemed horrible. Of course, now I'm way past 40 so it would be awesome to be that. But I just couldn't see it.
There was another plant in the town that I lived in that had just started up and it turned out to be an RR Donnelley plant. They're the world's largest commercial printers and actually, they print tons of books. Half of the books behind you they probably printed in one of their factories.
The plant was just starting up and so the HR manager where I was working said, “You know if you want to do manufacturing you should go over there because you can ground up.” So I thought okay so I started on the shop floor as an entry-level worker.
I was the college boy which was okay. My goal was to be, I wanted to run a plant, aim high, right? So I worked my way up, went through a lot of different jobs, a lot of different roles and responsibilities, finally I found myself running a plant.
Three years into that I found myself not wanting to run a plant anymore. Not that it was a bad job and not that the people were bad or anything else but I just wanted to do something different.
There's a longer story there but I won't tease that I'll just say it people would come into my office and within a sentence and a half of talking to me, I would know where the conversation was going to go. What I was gonna end up saying, all the things that were going to happen but it took 20 minutes to get there because you have to listen and you have to empathize. I just wanted to say, “Shut up, go out and get along with Joe and do your job,” but I couldn't do that.
Joanna: You didn't want to be a manager.
Jeff: It's sad to say because everyone aspires to be a leader and I had aspired to be a leader. But I got to the point where I didn't want to lead and I thought if that's how I'm feeling, then I'm not serving the people that I'm supposed to lead.
I was whining about the fact that I didn't love my job anymore and my wife would say, “Well, then do something different.” And I would whine and she would say, “Do something different,” and so finally she said, “What do you want to do?”
I said, “I think I would like to write.” Which seemed really strange because the only thing I had ever written were things that I wrote for work. So, I didn't go to school, none of that.
I whined for about six more months and one day she came home and she said, “Okay, you said you wanted to be a writer, I got your first job. I met a guy who needs a press release for his company.” And I thought I don't know how to write press releases.
This is early internet days and so it was kind of hard to find press releases to use for an example, and it's the worst paying job I have ever had. Because it took me probably 5 hours to write this one-page press release, and I think I made the princely sum of like $40 or something like that you know.
So I'm sitting here and I'm thinking, “Okay, here's what I make at my real job. Here's what I made for that.” But it was interesting and he liked it and he hired me to do a few more things and I thought, “Well, let's just give this a go.”
I didn't quit my full-time job because I think that's foolish. If people say, “Well, you got to go all in,” and I think all in is good at some point but you really do need to prove that there is a business there for you.
I would work nights and weekends and I was doing, I was getting a lot of work off of Elance which I think is called Upwork.
I was getting a lot of projects there, fairly low paying because I didn't have a lot of background but I was getting practice, I was getting the experience, I was learning how to work with clients. I was figuring kind of the business out.
I got to a point where I said, “Okay, I think that I can make a go of this.” And so I worked really, really hard for a really long time to make a go of it and here I am.
Joanna: There's a lot of people listening who are married and their partners would love them to be happy but that switch is very difficult. It took me five years to go from, “I have to get out,” to making the jump.
I did the side hustle for five years. How long did it take you?
Jeff: About a year.
Joanna: Oh, wow, that's really quick.
Jeff: Here's the thing. When people ask me about side hustles and keeping full-time jobs, if you're going to do that, the first thing you have to do is say, “I will be the best at my full-time job of anyone there.”
Because typically what happens is your attention starts to drift and you slide in a few things during your regular work time and you're focused on other stuff. And you owe better to your employer, you owe better to yourself and I just think it's a poor way to start.
So I worked really, really hard at my job which was good but then I worked every night. I worked most weekends. And I just I tried to shorten that cycle because there's a certain amount of time it's going to take on your side hustle for you to build it up to where you can make that your real hustle.
You can shorten that time by how hard and how much you work. Really like from a guy he was a skipper of one of the America's Cup winning yacht teams and he says, “Never have I seen where doing less than the other guy is a winning strategy,” or something like that.
I'm not that smart, I'm not that talented, I had some good experience but not in writing but I had other experience, but I can outwork you.
You can always outwork other people and you can always do a lot. And so I just decided that if I really, really worked hard at it one, it would help me prove to myself fairly quickly whether there was a business here, because I didn't want it to drag on forever.
And two, if there was a business there, well let's get to that, because I don't want to do what it is I'm doing. So when people say to me, “Hey, what's your best advice about the side hustle thing?” Work really hard in your job so that you keep your job and something bad doesn't happen there. But then work really, really hard at your side hustle and if people will say, “Well, what about me time?”
Joanna: There's no me time.
Jeff: Well, me time should be the time that you're putting towards accomplishing something you really want to accomplish, because isn't that the best me time of all? Me time is not vegging on TV and watching whatever the best of the available options are, because that's kind of dull.
Now, if you have something you really want to watch that's different. But me time should be, what will make me feel good about myself? And what made me feel good about myself was transitioning from I work for somebody else to I work for myself. So there you go, so that's perfect me time.
Joanna: I would say one caveat for the screenwriters listening, watching movies with the screenplay is always a good piece of work to be doing.
What you're talking about really it relates to one of the main themes of the book, which is everybody wants this kind of lightning strike success, inspiration, the new career to pop out the sky. But you emphasize routine and process and those kind of words that aren't very sexy. People want the sexy success, the seven-figure deal.
Why are routine and process more important for achievement?
Jeff: I guess the real premise of that comes from and we will probably get to this. But I'm lucky enough now that I get to meet some really, really successful people and talk to them about how they got there.
None of them ever describe this little lightning bolt moment or “I hacked my way to success” or I found this shortcut that got me there. Every one of them worked harder than everyone else around them and they had a goal, they figured out how they were going to get there.
And they were relentless about not focusing on the goal but focusing on what they did every day that would get them to that goal.
For me, process is how you win, process is how you succeed because it weeds out all of the other stuff like talent or education or connections and all those things that people say, “Well, I don't have these things and if I did life would be great.”
You get those things by your process. I wrote some bizarre stuff along the way. I get to work with really cool people now but I wrote a book about hydroponics. And I've tried to repress that experience because I never want to think about growing plants in water again.
I wrote a book about card tricks. I didn't know about any card tricks, I wrote a book about card tricks. How sexy is that? It's not but it paid and it helped me learn. The most unusual one is I wrote a book, it was personal finance for exotic dancers.
Joanna: That's brilliant.
Jeff: Yeah, and it didn't have any pictures.
Joanna: Very “Inc.”
Jeff: It probably hurt its sales and I can actually talk about that experience because I didn't get paid. What's odd about that is that's the only time in all of that time of doing freelance work that I didn't get paid.
I would go into my gigs saying, “Look, you don't know me. You don't know whether I'm good or not so here's the fee. If you're happy with that, you pay me at the end.”
I wasn't even taking money up front because I didn't need the money so to speak because I had my job. But two, I wanted to prove to people and that got me past that hurdle of, “I don't know how you're going to be, I don't know how you going to work.”
I was doing everything ghostwritten and so the problem with ghostwriting is it's like fight club. And the first rule of fight club is you can't talk about fight club and you can't talk about who you write for. It's really hard to market yourself when you're a ghostwriter.
So that was my twist on that and it worked out really well which took me way around the barn from your original question. But if I sum that up it's I just sat there and said, “Okay, if I want to get to here, what are all my steps?”
And then I'm going to focus on my steps and I'm going to do the work that gets me there because then I can look back and say, “Okay, that worked.” And if I'm constantly looking for a hack or a trick or a shortcut or something, you spend all your time looking for that and you don't develop the skill you need to actually be the thing that it is you want to be.
Joanna: I've worked in manufacturing. I worked in business process engineering back in the day and worked in factories and with robots, making stuff.
You really learn in a manufacturing plant that things have to happen in an order and they keep, if they keep happening in an order you have a business.
Why should it be any different with brain work and writing?
I do want to ask you about your process for writing because obviously as a freelance writer, ghostwriter you have to do the words, like you say, even if it's a project you don't really care that much about.
What's your process for getting the words done?
Jeff: That's interesting and it actually ties to a theme that's in my book where I talk about when you do something for long enough you become the thing that you are trying to do.
I had a very rigid process early on and it was, okay, I've got this number of hours today. I knew what I needed to get done. I played it like manufacturing. It was sort of like okay, here's my target. I want this much per period of time.
I'm not going to allow reflection time and stuff, because I could think about what I needed to write somewhere else. I even had a word target but what I would do is if I didn't get to my target within the time I had that meant I had to stay up late because I was going to get to that target.
I know that sounds for people that feel that some of the creativity and inspiration and things like that have to come to you which I do think is true and so, therefore, you're forcing it. I think there is some success to be found in forcing because it's easy to sit there and say, “Wow, I don't quite have this figured out so I'm going to walk away.”
Sometimes you figure it out when you stay on it and you keep chugging and suddenly the places you wanted to go, they actually do reveal themselves. But they don't reveal themselves if you are not there doing it. They don't for me the way.
Now, every once in a while I do have a cool thought when I'm away and I'll think, “Oh, that's the way to handle that.” Half the time I forget it by the time I get back to where I was, it pisses me off.
But I think that there's lots of people, there's lots of research that shows that people that are the most innovative, they're not dreamers and tinkerers and they're not floating off in the clouds somewhere. They're doing the work every single day and the good ideas come out of the bad ideas but it's a numbers game of sorts.
And so for me, that process was it was a numbers game and I'm going to do a certain amount, partly because I had deadlines, but also I'm going to do a certain amount. And if it takes me longer to do that then boo on me and I need to learn to be more efficient.
I do think you can be a more efficient writer. There are productivity things you can do as a writer and that should be part of your job because the less time it takes you to do quality work the better.
Joanna: Now you've set it up so people want your productivity tips for writing. I can hear my audience go, “Oh, he's mentioned there are productivity tips.” So now you have to tell us.
Just give us a couple of yours.
Jeff: Let's say I'm writing an article for “Inc.”
I have my first paragraph in my head before I start, for instance. I have three or four things usually they're in my head now but I used to bullet out three or four things. And I would have this little quick map on the side that said, “Okay, here's my first paragraph,” roughly. “Here's the four things I want to get across. Here's how to I want to tie it up,” because you can only accomplish so much in an article.
Those are my things so now stick them on my document and let's flesh them out. And it actually worked really well instead of trying to be linear. So if point four was easy to write I started with point four which usually made point three easier because when you've got practice you get to the point where you go, “Oh, okay, I already can figure out how I can tie this and then that figures out how to tie that.” And it all comes together in your head if you have a little bit of a map.
Then the other thing that I do, I'll give you one more. If I'm writing a 700-word article, if I can't write it in 25 minutes and have it be 98% right, I stop. Because I haven't figured out what I want to say and that's the bane of most writers' existence.
I feel like writer's block, if there is such a thing, because I don't think there is, but if there is such a thing it's just because you haven't figured out what you want to say.
Maybe you haven't figured out who your audience is, maybe you haven't figured out who your client if you're writing for somebody else. There's all kinds of variables, but ultimately you haven't figured out what you want to say.
If you know what you want to say it should flow. If you've put in the time and effort to get good at your craft to where you can translate what's in your head down to your fingers.
Joanna: To the page. I'm really interested in understanding what you want to say.
Fiction writers do the same thing; know what you want to say before you say it. Same with dictation. I think in general it's that thinking process.
But you've ghostwritten books. You write a lot of articles. You've got your own book.
What was the difference in writing process with your own book compared to ghostwriting other people's and the articles you do?
Jeff: I am much better at doing work for other people and meeting their deadlines than I am for my own.
If I'm working on my own thing and there's a deadline but then if something comes up or if somebody needs something, I like to please. And so pleasing myself is kinda boring, but coming through for someone else is really cool.
I was terrible about being rigid about what I needed to do for myself. I would find myself in these little periods where it's like, “Oh, crap I'm really behind.” I have to do my own thing and my editor will agree that I was really terrible at that.
To be honest, I haven't figured that part out really well.
When I write articles for “Inc.” that's pretty easy because they don't take me that long. I write something every day for “Inc.” I don't always publish it. But I'm at least knocking out one thing a day.
That's just what I do, I don't even have to think about it and so that goes and then I do some other stuff.
But then like with my book, that was always last and I think for a lot of people if you write for clients and then you try to transition to doing some of your own stuff, it is a really hard transition to make because you will always put yourself last. And somehow you have to find a way to say, “Okay. I'm first now.”
What I eventually did to your question again in a really long-winded way, I eventually carved out days and said, “Okay, Sunday, is just my book day and I'm not going to do anything else.”
I would have my wife help me. She would say, “Okay, are you headed off so that you can just do that?” She would kind of prime me and I would just pick out days and say, “This is the only thing I can do.” Sometimes it was because I planned it and sometimes it was because it was a necessity, whereas the only thing I can do is my book.
Joanna: Got to get it done.
Jeff: It's hard and I think that's a struggle for a lot of people to put..
Colin Gray: Hey folks, welcome to another episode of Podcraft. Podcraft is the show of everything podcasting from launching a show, to monetization, and everything in between. I'm Colin Gray.
This time around, it's an interview show where we're talking to another experienced and excellent podcaster, someone I met at the Youpreneur Summit back in November actually and absolutely loved her talk on creating books to grow your business, how to be published, how to use that to grow everything else you do. But she also runs a podcast which is really successful, with lots of different ways that she's monetizing. It's Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn. How are you doing Joanna?
Joanna Penn: Oh, thanks for having me Colin, it's great to be on the show.
Colin: No worries. Thank you for coming along. Like I said there, it was just I really loved your talk at Youpreneur. It was great. It was so practical, so many things in it that you could take away and do, so I took lots from it. I've got some plans around books and CDs and stuff this year, so thank you for that in the first place.
Joanna: Oh no, thank you. I'm so enthusiastic about books but it was funny I was talking to someone the other day about podcasting and so often our body of work is the things we publish or the talks we do.
But actually, I think podcasting is part of our body of work.
The people we touch. So I consider podcasting just as important in my career as writing.
Colin: Well, that's a good testimonial for us I suppose.
So, what is The Creative Penn about?
Joanna: Well, firstly writing. I've written 27 books at this point. I write fiction and also nonfiction. I have three author names. So I talk about writing fiction, writing nonfiction, publishing options and particularly self-publishing as well as book marketing and making a living with your writing. Creation and monetization – both important for people like us doing this as a career.
Colin: Yes, excellent. And the podcast, is that the exact same audience, the exact same topic, or is it a niche of it?
Joanna: The same. Definitely. I actually started the podcast in 2009. So I'm one of the old school podcasters. And I started the podcast to get to know other authors like back then. I didn't even have any author friends.
If you want to start podcasting, then it's best to do something that you're so passionate about, you don't need to make any money from it because those will be the long years at the beginning.
But I cover pretty much the same stuff on the website and the podcast. It stems from a personal interest. I'm an author, so I can talk about my journey and talk to other people who are on their journey as well.
Colin: Perfect. So, I mean, you've been going that long, that's something that's amazing that you've kept up for the last eight years now. That's a very long-running podcast which is a feat in itself, but beyond that, you've monetized it.
You've actually made a success of this podcast and are getting a real return on it, haven't you? That's mainly what I want to concentrate on today, all the different ways you're doing that. So I wanted to delve in first.
People often start with Patreon. So can you tell me what you're doing with Patreon, the story of starting up there and how you've developed over the years?
Joanna: Obviously, I didn't start with Patreon because it didn't exist. But it's a good place to start as all of my monetization does roll in together.
In 2015, I'd been doing the Podcast for six years every two weeks or kind of sporadically. It was never on the same day of the week. It was based on when I had time and I incorporated it into the blog. I was talking about my books, so it was indirectly monetized. It was building my brand, so it had a marketing angle.
But I felt like it was taking so much time that I had two choices. Give it up completely, or monetize it.
I interviewed someone on my podcast around that time and expressed my misgivings about asking for patronage. This is often the way, isn't it?
They said, “Why don't you just ask your audience?” I felt a massive reaction. I didn't want to ask for money from my audience. My show was free show. It had been free for years.
But in the end, I went, okay, why not just give it a go. I put quite a low target on the bonus. You know, you have these bonus levels and I just started putting it out there. I only did two a month at that time, my Patreon is based on two a month even though I moved to a weekly show and do it at the same time every Monday morning these days.
It was like $1 the first month and $5 and then $20 and now I'm up to around $850 per show, two shows a month. So it's like $1600, plus other forms of monetization. It's pretty good. And also, the people who are patrons have really invested in the show, so it's a double whammy. It's some money even though they can get it free, but also these are the super fans.
Colin: That's amazing. That's not small money, that's an actual living for a lot of people, so that's great you've got up to that level. A testament to your fan base, I think and what you're offering obviously.
There's a few things in there, I think I want ask about that people are often concerned with.
First of all, frequency. Have you gone for a standard monthly pledge or is it you press the button, “I've released an episode,” and that draws in the money at that point?
Joanna: I charge for two episodes a month. So if there are five Mondays in a month which sometimes there are, I only charge for two of those and then the other shows are free. Free shows, even though, of course, they are all free to anyone.
In terms of my Patreon bonus, I do an audio-only Q&A once a month. So my Patreon listeners get access to a form where they can enter questions and then I do extra audio. You can get your own RSS feed and if you do extra recordings that never even go live on your site, you can distribute them through Patreon. That's basically how I do it. I just charge for the first two shows of every month and then I just put them up for free.
Colin: Okay, that makes sense. So with bonuses, is that the main one that people sign up for?
Joanna: Yes, that's the main one and then the top tier, the $5 per show is basically they get all my nonfiction audiobooks and eBooks as well. Although some cheeky people obviously email immediately. Sometimes I just say, “Hey, would you mind supporting for a month or so before you get your bonuses?”
But most people obviously are absolutely amazing. I didn't really have much of a drop off when Patreon had their fee glitch a month or so ago as we speak. I think if you're doing an audio show, it makes sense to do extra audio and that would be probably a tip:
Make sure your bonuses resonate with your audience.
Colin: That's really interesting that they're offering an RSS feed now. I didn't know they did that. So you can actually directly through Patreon for those extra episodes.
Joanna: Yes, it's just a little link on the right-hand side of your page and I have a little response whenever anyone pledges and I just copy and paste that in so they know how to find that.
I also have the backlist on my special page on my website. If someone starts supporting me now even for just a dollar, they get two and a half years' worth of extra audio if they want. And you know how some people want to go and listen to it, the whole backlist.
Colin: Oh, yeah. Go back and binge it all. Have you ever used total tier bonuses? Like, if we make it to a 1000 done episode or 2000 episodes, we'll do this or that?
Joanna: No. I mean, as I said, I got in quite early on Patreon and they didn't have a lot of the different options. I feel at this stage that I can't really change what I've done. So, no. I haven't done that.
An important point is, don't make these numbers too low. Say, if we reach $250 then I will give everyone a free hour consulting or something because you will be surprised at how fast these things are going to grow.
Colin: Getting to that level is brilliant in terms of the monthly income you have there.
What's worked best for you in terms of getting people to sign up?
Other than just asking people which is actually where a lot of people fall down. Any other tricks or tactics for getting people to sign up?
Joanna: No, that literally is it. When I have a show, I do the introduction then I do usually an interview. Before the interview, I'll say, today's show is sponsored by … So I might say Kobo Writing Life, one of my biggest sponsors for the show. Then I'll say, thank you to all my new patrons and then if you would like to support the show here is my patreon link.
Within my introduction, I might also be introducing a webinar which is an affiliate link. I might be talking about one of my audiobooks, I might be talking about one of my books. I'm actually putting multiple income streams within one show.
So the Patreon call-out has become a regular segment of the show and new patrons will have their names read out and the call to action is that if you'd like to support the show, here's my link, but then also I'm still pairing that with a corporate sponsor.
I guess it's a bit like YouTube in that way. In that people are more used to corporate sponsors now, so they don't necessarily battle it. So realistically with Patreon, all I've ever done is stick a segment into the podcast before the interview. I haven't done anything else.
Colin: That's perfect. There's a couple of things in there I think which are a little bit different than most people do.
A lot of people just surf through in their Patreon link at the very end of the show. They don't treat it as an advert like you're talking about a sponsorship advert put in the middle of the show – which is always the most actioned sponsored slot.
So include it in there alongside the other sponsor's slot. Make it as important, give it the same precedence as something that is paid for – because it is paid for – but a lot of people think of it as charity or donations or something.
That's great that you're doing that. And the other thing, you just mentioned there you're reading through the new Patreon contributors.
That's always a great call to action because people go, “Oh, I'd love to get mentioned on here one of my favorite shows. I just have to donate a couple of dollars and I'll get my name on here.”
Joanna: It's interesting as you do get some people who sponsor as a business. So they get their business or podcast read out. And I'm happy to do that obviously and some of these people unsubscribe later, but that's fine.
The other thing is that social proof.
When I do personal shows with no interview, when I go into my own journey or something I'm struggling with at the moment, I will get a lot more Patreon subscribers after a personal show than I do after an interview show. If people get value from a show, they are more likely to then sponsor.
Colin: Perfect. I mean, it stands to reason, doesn't it? It's a great show, I got a lot from this, I wanna pay the person back. But then if you get a benefit and the deal of yourself mentioned, even better.
Let's go into the corporate sponsor stuff because you said that's where you started in terms of monetization. You mentioned the fact that, you were not getting as much return as you wanted off it so you had to make it pay in another way.
What was your first step towards getting that first sponsor?
Joanna: I looked at the standard corporate rates. Then I looked at my download numbers. I use Bluberry and Amazon S3, I got some numbers and then I was like, “Oh, this is quite good. I could actually get a couple of hundred per show and over time it's growing. I could get something that would pay for the transcription, for example, because I do transcription on the show for SEO purposes.
I had some relationships with companies who I was already promoting in different ways, so either affiliate relationships or just companies that I really liked and I know would need promoting. I talked to some of my contacts. So I actually went looking for those sponsorships.
Now, a lot of people come to me but I still only work with companies that I personally use and recommend because I think that's so important. It has to fit your audience or it's not gonna make any difference. They'll just go away. Have something that might be tailored to your show as opposed to the same thing that you hear on every show.
You have to know your numbers. I did a two-page pitch sheet with the demographics. Countries, number of downloads per show and then I said it will cost you this much per show or this much for the discounts and my first sponsor bought the whole year up front. It's awesome to get a big chunk of cash up front and now my annual rate is pretty high. But then what you realize if your show is growing all the time is that you sold those later shows at a discount because you're going up. So probably it's better to sell three to six months at a time so that you can adjust your rates necessarily.
Colin: That would have saved you a lot of time and effort in going and finding people, so often it's worth a little bit of a discount, isn't it? To get that kind of longer term relationship.
I like three and I sell about 35 shows of the total in the year of my weekly shows. I keep some for myself and I promote my own products and also promote affiliate webinars and events and other things in those other slots. That's important, too, to just make sure you keep space for what you're doing as well.
I only ever do one kind of corporate sponsor per show and then I have the Patreon slot and then I'll often have a webinar or something as well.
Colin: Excellent. So you mentioned that with 99designs you did something a bit different. That's something I'd like to dive into. How do you do the sponsored slot? Can you describe one of them just what you did to make that one unique?
Joanna: I didn't do 99designs in a unique way.
Think about tailoring your ad. So if you use a service, you can really talk about what you're doing.
IngramSpark are a publishing company, I use them for my print publishing. So I just will go into a much more personal story of using the service and some of the great things they're doing and I make it a lot more personal than many corporate ads you hear which are repetitive. Exactly the same thing read by a different user. I do think you'll get much more traction if you do something more personal.
Colin: Absolutely. I think those personal stories are what make a good sponsored slot. And it's interesting to your listeners. They want hear what you've been doing, your experience with something and even though it's a sponsor slot, you're telling them about a product. You're teaching them something too because it's a case study about what you've done and how successful it was. Wasn't it?
Joanna: Yeah, actually that's a really good point because with Kobo Writing Life, for example, I get them to record tips.
Instead of it just being an ad, it's a tip for selling more books on Kobo.
That is much more effective than anything else. If people listening do buy ads, I think the voice of the advertiser is important. People get used to a voice. So if you buy 10 slots on a podcast, and you're the voice in that slot every time, that can really be effective. Some of the people who've done ad slots get recognized at events because they've been on my show. It's really funny.
Colin: That's great. So they build a bit of a personal brand.
Okay, so the top tips there really are in the early days when you're trying to look for sponsorship, that it's about those existing relationships, isn't it? It's those products that you see on your desk. The things that you're using right there and then get in touch with those type of people first and build those relationships and hopefully if you can do the personal stories, the case studies, then that sponsorship will work and they'll come back for more and hopefully you won't have to search out anymore after that.
Joanna: Exactly and especially those of us with introvert tendencies who don't like to sell, sell. I do not want to do a hard pitch to someone I've never met – or in fact, ever. The relationship approach is much easier. Of course, it takes longer because you have to build those relationships, and don't burn things too early. So if you're only gonna get $25 bucks, then maybe it's too early – unless that is a daily podcast. Maybe you should wait until it might be worth it with a bigger audience, which means the ad revenue would be bigger but also the audience would be bigger and you might see some return. So it has to be a win-win situation there.
Colin: Agreed. Actually, we often tell people in the early days that it's not really worth the bother of arranging the contracts of sending your media kits or the chasing. It's better to spend the time on improving your content and creating better stuff.
But at that stage sometimes it's worth putting in a sponsor slot for yourself because it gets people used to the fact that you do have product. So your first sponsor slot isn't gonna turn people off. Because they're like, “oh no, he sold out.” You've always been doing it.
Joanna: Yes, I do think that's right.
I also think the show notes page is really important.
It's really important even if your listens are lower. I have a lot of people who actually read the transcripts of my shows who don't necessarily listen. The sponsor will also get their logo and a couple of lines of text on the show notes page and obviously, I'll also have links there, affiliate links and other things. That can also add to your pitch when you're ready to do that.
If you're interviewing someone, you can also use ad links in your YouTube description. All my interviews I put on www.YouTube.com/thecreativepenn as well. So those are some other ways in that you can kind of make things better while having traffic as well.
Colin: Those are some great tips there. Let's go onto your audiobooks. This is something I found really interesting as well because obviously we are creating audio podcasting as an audio medium and audio books are a separate thing. But how do you tie them together?
How do you use your podcast to monetize your audiobooks?
Joanna: First of all, people can make their own audiobooks. If you are technically savvy, you can record your own audiobooks and upload those audio files to www.ACX.com, Amazon's distribution service. You can also even produce audiobooks.
So if you are an audio producer, you can have a share in the rights and the royalties? You can be paid to produce other people's audiobooks. So that might be an additional revenue stream for voice talent. There's probably voice talent listening to your show. There's a lot of authors looking for voice talent to read their books.
In terms of marketing audiobooks, obviously, you need to talk about it on the podcast. I've also shared snippets.
With ACX, you can share five minutes or if you do a non-exclusive contract you can share whole chapters. I've actually used a chapter from my audiobooks as a whole show on some of my podcasts. I did record one myself but it was so much hard work but now I have like a voice doppelganger.
But essentially, it just makes the course of action to move from podcast to audiobook much, much easier because you've got an audio listener who's there and all they need to do is click over to the Audible app and download a sample or put it on their wish lists or..
Readers do judge a book by its cover. Whether they are wandering through a physical bookstore or scrolling through an online shop or Instagram channel, a well-targeted, genre-specific cover will catch their eye.
Maybe it's enough to make them want to click and read on.
The importance of helping your readers in the age of attention saturation.
We live in a world where attention is measured in blinks. Social media is weaponised to grab eyes and feed people information as quickly as possible.
In this rapidly changing landscape, it’s more important than ever to help people assess what they should click on (or pick up) without resorting to sensationalised options. A picture speaks a thousand words and a title tells a story.
Combine these on a book cover and you should be able to signal to prospective readers what genre to expect, hint at the plot and perhaps give some insight into the style of writing as well.
The whole idea is having people think at a glance “this looks like my kind of read!”
Let's look at some examples
You can tell worlds from this Mark Lawrence book cover right away. It screams fantasy action adventure with just the imagery. You don’t even need the quote from Guardian to know that.
You can also tell that it’s a revenge plot, likely full of violence in a medieval setting. There is probably some royal court intrigue in there. Perhaps this ‘prince’ is an orphan that will fight for his right to the throne.
I haven’t read this book, so if I’ve made a few mistakes please forgive me. What I’m trying to illustrate is that if you’re a fan of this kind of story, the cover will entice you to at least pick it up and flip to the blurb to read more. Job done.
When looking to put together your own cover, it’s worth digging into as much research as you can.
What do your genre’s covers normally look like?
What do they signal to the reader?
How can you somehow flip those themes to stand out, without losing the heart of the message?
Here is an example of what I mean when looking at the thriller genre. Remember, step one is to see what the best-selling titles out there look like. You’re likely to find something like this…
Best-Selling Thriller Covers
So what are the patterns? And what are the images telling you?
First, you’ll see there’s a single figure on each one, often running away from (or is it towards?) something. This hints at being hunted, or hunting for answers, as often is the case with crime thrillers.
There’s also a solid sense of place: frightening cold, country fields, Washington State. You know where the story is going to be placed and also get an idea of whether there’s suspense through isolation, a small-town mystery turned to murder, or political intrigue involved.
Fonts are often harsh or augmented with blood, or both.
Quotes are often urgent, using emotive language to reflect the intense page-turning quality of the story.
Given those patterns in the thriller genre, how can you twist these clear signals for your own story, without losing the heart of the message?
This is a great cover. You can clearly see the visceral image of the figures running. Note there are two people, not one. This is a clever twist, generating a sense of partnership (and maybe a hint of romance?).
It oozes ticking-clock urgency. You can see clearly it’s set in Rome at the Vatican, hinting that this could be along the same lines as one of the greatest thrillers of all time — The Da Vinci Code. That makes me think there might be international travel involved as well.
The story summary on the cover “A Power Kept Secret For 2000 Years” reinforces this. Conspiracy, political intrigue, perhaps some supernatural elements.
If I was a thriller fan, I’d be at the very least picking this up to read the back.
This might work for thrillers, I hear you say. But will it work for my genre?
I recently went through this same process for my latest novel. It was the first time was I doing a pure love story and the first time going it alone without a publisher. I was very nervous about stuffing things up. So, I dove into research, which tends to calm my nerves.
Here’s what I found…
Best-Selling Love Story Book Covers
A lot of love stories have a people kissing on the cover. Kind of obvious really. It’s an easy signal.
There is often flowing script to suggest a sense of softness and poetry in the writing.
I also really like the sharp story summary on the cover for One Day. It simply says: “Twenty years. Two People.” Brilliant! You get a sense of what to expect right away: a love story set over time, with ups and downs and heartache and, hopefully, a happy ending.
So, how could I take these cues and twist them to keep things compelling without losing the message?
For my novel, If Kisses Cured Cancer, the cover designer and I made the decision to stay true to the overall style, but tweak the image. Instead of lovers kissing, we had them holding hands with their backs turned to the camera.
Putting the lead woman in a hospital gown was also something to have people double take and look a bit closer at the image.
The title, combined with the hospital gown should show that it’s a love story with a battle for life thrown in. The short story summary down the bottom is a quick overview to help further establish setting, plot and the quirky nature of the tale.
Failing that, there’s always the ‘praise’ quote from a fellow author who likes the book (which I put that on the back cover this time around).
If you’re still wondering what to do for your own cover, please do yourself a favour and look into the genre first to see how you can use that information to your advantage.
Your action steps:
1. Research the covers in your genre and pick out consistent themes in the imagery, quotes and story summaries on display.
2. What are these images/words telling you about the book? How do they make you want to pick it up? How do they make you feel?
3. Find a way you can twist those themes to keep your cover interesting, without losing the message? This really key. When it comes to attention, a sea of sameness will never create waves. Mix things up as much as possible to engage, entice and most of all inform the reader.
4. Think REALLY hard about your title. The title can speak volumes all on its own. My initial title for If Kisses Cured Cancer was Over The Edge Of Eternity. What does that tell you? Not much. Make the title a story all of its own.
5. Ask a fellow author for a cover quote to provide credibility. Reviewers are also great for this. Remember, you can always update your cover with these as great new review quotes come out.
6. If you’re not a designer, find a good one. There are two things I’ll always pay good money for — editing and cover design. Here is a link to Joanna’s resource for finding and working with a designer. Well worth a read.
Your author business can be an extension of your values and another step on the journey of your life. In fact, if you can integrate your truth into your writing, it will only be more powerful, as I discuss with T. Thorn Coyle in today's show.
In publishing news, I talk about #cockygate [Writer Beware] and why it's likely that these type of trademark issues will likely continue as the market matures.
Team Creatives for the Isle of Wight Challenge 2018: Joanna Penn, Ali Ingleby, Guy Windsor, Jane Steen, Nicole Burnham, DJ Mackinnon
I congratulate the Team Creatives on our epic Isle of Wight Healthy Writer Adventure – and I talk about why things didn't quite go as planned for me. Check out blog posts on the walk from Guy Windsor, Ali Ingleby, and Nicole Burnham.
[FREE WEBINAR] How to Master Amazon Data to Sell More Books with Alex Newton from K-lytics. Thurs 17 May at 2pm US Eastern / 7pm UK. Click here to find out more or reserve your place. If you can't attend live, just register anyway and you'll get the replay within 24 hours.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
T. Thorn Coyle is the author of the alt-history urban fantasy Panther Chronicles, The Witches of Portland Series, as well as nonfiction books on magic, witchcraft, and mysticism.
On writing both fiction and non-fiction under one name
Spending time determining our core values and how that can feed our author brand
Using the rapid release model for a planned 9 book series
Writing African American history and diverse characters as a white author
Making peace with making money
On the importance of sound business practices
Gradually expanding multiple streams of income
Keeping a focus on becoming a healthy writer
You can find T. Thorn Coyle at ThornCoyle.com, a list of her recommended articles and books for writers here, and on Twitter @ThornCoyle
Transcript of Interview with T. Thorn Coyle
Joanna: Hi everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I'm here with T. Thorn Coyle. Hi Thorn.
Thorn: Hello, good to be here.
Joanna: Oh, it's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Thorn is the author of the Alt History Urban fantasy Panther Chronicles, The Witches of Portland Series, as well as nonfiction books on magic, witchcraft, and mysticism. And she's super interesting.
Thorn, I want to hear about your journey. How did you get into writing? Give us a bit of a potted history.
Thorn: I have been writing since I was a tiny child. I remember an early memory is I slept on a trundle bed under my older sister's bed, and I had a little orange nightlight, and I remember shoving a pencil and paper under that and writing poetry I think it was at like age five or six.
Then in my late teens early 20s, I wrote a lot of poetry, dabbled in playwriting with a girlfriend at the time, wrote fiction. But I joined a writing group and I would labor on one story for a year or I had a whole drawer full of two-thirds finished novels.
And then I started writing nonfiction. I wrote my first book, “Evolutionary Witchcraft,” got a huge advance for it, started teaching a lot more, entered into my last career, and kind of put fiction on the back burner.
And then several years ago, some characters dropped into my head, and I started writing fiction again, and have been going gangbusters ever since.
Joanna: That's the writing side, and your bio on your author page is awesomely good. It opens with “I've been arrested at least four times” and all this stuff.
So give us a bit more of your colorful life.
Thorn: I've been an activist since I was a teenager, and I've been arrested around four or five times with activism through anti-war work, anti-nuclear work, supporting Black Lives Matter movement in the US.
I worked full-time on the Pacific Stock Options Exchange. I worked full-time as a peepshow dancer. I worked full-time in a soup kitchen, serving the homeless population in San Francisco. Those are kind of my big broad brushstrokes of my strange life.
And then I taught witchcraft as a living for many, many years. And now I'm writing strange urban fantasy filled with politics and magic.
Joanna: That's really why I wanted to talk to you because they say you write what you know. I personally, prefer the write what you're interested in.
We both kill people in our books. There are things that we write about that we haven't actually done, but you do write a lot from your life experience and your views, but we're going to come back to that.
I want to ask about your branding because a lot of people listening have nonfiction and fiction, and this is a big deal I think especially in the indie world where the ups and downs of both genres.
What are the pros and cons of nonfiction versus fiction, because some people want to move from one to the other?
Thorn: For me, nonfiction was easier to build as a saleable product, but it still came from the core of who I am just like my fiction does. So in that way, there's no difference to me between the fiction and the nonfiction.
I definitely built an audience and a following with my nonfiction but frankly, other than my huge first advance, I mostly made my living teaching. I did not make my living from my writing.
And so now with the fiction, it's similar. I'm definitely building up to making a living with my fiction. I definitely make decent money with Patreon.
And I'm making more money through fiction sales, but I'm still not making a living if you know what I mean. And so I'm also looking for 2019 ways in which I want to diversify my income streams.
I will probably start teaching classes again this time on creativity, creative flow, creative process. I have a lot of experience with that, and I've taught some of that in the past through my more magic stream.
I don't know if that answers your pros and cons question. I think there's pros and cons to each, and I think you just have to find your way and keep returning to what your source is, which is what I keep doing, what's at the core of me, what's at my heart, and what do I want to communicate with people, whether that's nonfiction or fiction.
Joanna: You did say that it's easier to sell nonfiction. We are in this age of keywords and categories. To me, the people searching for witchcraft stuff, mysticism stuff, magic. They're probably easier to find with keyword marketing.
Do you market your fiction and nonfiction differently?
Thorn: I do and mostly though right now I have taken the backseat. Marketing my nonfiction has taken a backseat.
I've been really focusing on the fiction and trying to get that in the foreground and up and running. And so I actually have been studying so much more marketing now than I ever have, and I wish I had learned some of the things I'm learning now back when I was making a living doing my other career because I think I would have been more successful.
And also there's just better technology now. There was stuff I was way ahead of the curve on, and now it's just so easy, things I was paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars for that now it's free. So, I'm going to retool that.
That's on my docket for next year. I'm gonna re-examine some of that. But this year, I'm all about the business of writing fiction and marketing fiction.
Joanna: That's fantastic. You write fiction and nonfiction under the same name. So that's something that I talk about a lot.
Thorn: I do.
Joanna: I personally am really happy with my choice, not to do that but obviously, we know Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith. They write under the same name for different genres, different books. So again, there are pros and cons with different names.
How have you felt using the same name has gone in terms of your old audience liking it or finding a new one or how has it gone for you?
Thorn: The reason I chose to use the same name is that I had built up relationships with thousands of people as T. Thorn Coyle, and they already knew I was interested in magic and activism. And since my fiction encompasses those same themes, it felt like a natural thing that I felt these people I'd built up this relationship with we're going to be interested in.
And that's really been the case. A lot of them are very excited that I'm writing this fiction now, that I'm writing fiction with magic and mystery and strange fantastic things happening in ordinary life.
There is a lot of crossover with my audience. I think for some people, there's not such huge crossover. And I do know that you do have to figure out how much you're going to let Amazon dictate your career. Amazon is still 80% of the market share for books.
And so yes it does pollute my also-boughts to have my nonfiction and my fiction under the same name, and I chose to do it anyway. It felt more important to me to stay true to my audience than it did to try to have a clean also-boughts Amazon search record.
Joanna: I totally get what you mean. And I would probably now write like the shadow book that I'm looking at right…well, I've started there… There are words on a page, writing about the shadow. And I could easily publish that on the J.F. Penn, my fiction name.
Thorn: Oh, yeah.
Joanna: I might well do that because it might fit better as a nonfiction written by that fiction author who writes dark things. So I think that's interesting, but then that brings us onto your tagline for your site, which is just brilliant.
I feel really like I want to say jealous, and I know we're not allowed to be jealous, but I'm so jealous that you've found a tagline because I think this is one of those things that we're all meant to do. And I've tried a few and they've not stuck.
Tell us about your tagline, what it is, how you came up with it.
Thorn: My tagline is, “Magic is real and justice is worth fighting for.” And it did take me a few iterations to get to that. I kept refining it.
In magic, we do that with spell work. We take a big concept and then we keep narrowing it down to its essential core, what is the essence that I want to put out into the world? What's the core? What's at the heart of it?
Magic and justice are at the heart of every facet of my life and really though at the heart of what I want to communicate. And so that's the thing I recommend for people is whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction or both.
If you can drop into your core and ask yourself, “What's at the heart that I am trying to communicate?” and start playing around with concepts and narrow it down from there. That was my process. When I hit on that one I was like, “That's it,” because I had had like two or three other taglines before that I had played around with and sat with for a while, but they weren't quite it.
Joanna: I'm glad you said that because I've tried a couple and they haven't worked. Okay, so you went through this iterative process.
How long do you think it took you then?
Thorn: I think it took a year, and I don't think that's unusual for writing a mission statement or any kind of magical action. I think a year is a good amount of time. The thing is to not give up, it's to keep re-centering on it.
Joanna: I think I probably just stopped thinking about it. So it begs the question. What if you want to write a science fiction techno thriller, will that fit under that tagline? You said you don't want Amazon to define your future.
Does your tagline now define your name, your brand?
Thorn: I think my tagline does define my brand, and I'm okay with that. It's both narrow and broad because it's hitting at core concepts. I'm not saying I'm always going to write contemporary fantasy with magic and justice in it. But it's clear that justice is probably always going to be part of what I write.
My short stories run the gamut. I write science fiction short stories. I've written and sold thrillers short stories. But they do have that key really of justice, all of them or Magic, not every story has both, but every story has either/or. And that's part of how it works for me I think.
Joanna: It's interesting. Obviously, I've known yours for a while and it's really good to think about and because you've got the two elements. Well, I think you've almost got three: the magic, the justice, and worth fighting for, which suggests the activism side of things, which I think is really good.
I hope people listening that that's useful because you don't have to have a tagline as an author, but I think it really helps you. It helps you organize everything almost. It helps the promise to the reader.
Thorn: It really does. Coming up with that tagline is also really helping me with my fiction like “The Witches of Portland,” series that I'm in the middle of writing right now. I'm on book four. I have a series tagline that really helps me. It's, “Magic is ordinary, life is not.” That's the tag for the entire series.
Joanna: That's great.
Thorn: And then each book has its tag. And that keeps helping me refocus on both the series and the books within the series. So I'm finding it to be useful.
Joanna: You're doing this in a very organized way, aren't you, this series? You're going with the rapid release multiple books approach.
So talk about that because again if you use the word mysticism, people assume a slightly less organized kind of psyche, I think. And sort of do it when inspiration strikes. That's the kind of stereotype I think of that kind of person, which I think is wrong having met you.
But this organized rapid release model for fiction. Can you talk about how you're gonna use that for the book? And by the time this goes out, “The Witches of Portland” should be out I think.
Thorn: Yes. I'm trying to now circle back to what the question was.
Joanna: How are you using the rapid release model for this series?
Thorn: Okay. So I came up with this series. Actually, I was having a lot of health problems the last couple years, which thankfully now are getting better. And I was in a place where I was so brain fogged and depleted that all I could do was lie on the couch and watch videos of other authors and what they were doing in their business.
I came up with this series. I was like, “Oh, I could do this nine book series about these nine witches all in a coven, do a book for each. You know, here's the theme. Here's what I would do.”
And then when I started working on it, I realized I actually wanted to make them bingeable. I wanted it so that people would be grabbed in the series and want to read the next one right away.
So I've been stacking them up. I chose to do that. My health has been up and down. So my writing schedule has gone according to that.
But as I said, I'm almost done writing book four right now and I'm just getting ready to release books one through three. So I'll release books one through three over the course of a month, a month and a half and then the next month, I'll release book four.
And then the current plan is I'm going to take a month off in between the rest. So I'll release one every other month.
That gives me enough spaciousness to do the writing and the marketing that I still need to do on the rest of the series. But it will hopefully give readers a big chunk of the series to dig their teeth into, and I'm hoping then that that gives the series momentum.
You do have to be organized. I have to schedule my editorial deadlines and meet my editorial deadlines and get my cover designs ready. I've already got the covers for books one through four, get all that set up.
But then I also decided I needed to build in some flexibility because I was going to release some one a month after that, and I thought, “You know what, that's pushing too hard for me.” I really want to be able to not only focus on the writing but focus on the business.
I said to myself over a year ago, I was not going to be a book a month release person because I feel, with everything else there needs to be done in the business, that's kind of a punishing schedule for me. So I'm hoping to leverage both the rapid release and build in some spaciousness.
Joanna: I've thought about doing this and I just can't. I just don't think I have the patience.
Have you really had to hold yourself back or you've been doing lots of short stories and things to kind of feed your publication button?
Thorn: I've been doing short stories. I do my one essay and one short story every month for my Patreon. I've been focusing on marketing for “The Panther Chronicles” series. So there's plenty to do and stacking the books up, it hasn't been a big deal.
And part of that is actually the Patreon has been great for me to learn how to just write and release. It's just like, “Oh, there you go out into the world.” Some stories I get a lot of response. Some stories, I don't. It doesn't really matter.
And so I'm not so attached to my books as these precious objects anymore. Saving them and not putting them out in the world right away has actually not been a big deal. It only became hard when I started getting these fabulous covers and then I want to share the covers with everyone. So I did make a composite for my Facebook header for the characters because they're so beautiful.
Joanna: I think they're on your website as well, aren't they?
Thorn: Yes, they're on my website now because I needed to start sharing the images. Once I had the covers, it was like, “Okay, I do want to share some of the excitement.” But yeah, it's been okay.
Joanna: That's good to know. As I said, I keep thinking I will do that and then for “Map of Shadows,” I really thought, “I'll write three and then I'll release them on…” I just couldn't do it. I was just like, “No, it's gotta go,” and it's so funny.
Let's talk about the “Panther Chronicles” because I really want people to go and look at these covers. They are awesome, really striking covers featuring African American characters, and, of course, it relates to the Black Panthers in the 1960s, which puts your activism in play there. For those listening you're a white woman. Let's just make that clear. And we've talked about diversity on the show before.
What were the challenges in writing quite iconic African American time in history?
Thorn: It was exciting, and it was also a struggle. I actually kept almost stopping the series. It wasn't that I was writing African American characters. It was that I was working with the Black Panthers. And it's like, “Who am I to be writing about the Black Panthers?”
I definitely believe authors should write diverse characters. The world is a diverse and beautiful place, and our fiction should represent that and reflect that. But I had two African American first readers. I had three first readers for this series, and then one of my dear friends is a black woman who I also had read the first book before it went out.
So I had three African American first readers really. And they all kept saying, “Please continue. Please go with..
You're feeling guilty because you haven't written anything this week.
You know that A.N. Other writer is making far more money than you and seems to be able to write so much faster – why can't you be that good?
You're behind on your writing goals or coming up against a publishing deadline and you have to get this thing written.
You're struggling for money so you need to get books out there.
Or you can't spare the time for your writing because you're working so hard.
You're snappy and angry and annoyed.
Your family don't understand why you're spending so much time writing when it doesn't make you happy and they put pressure on you to do less of it.
Your sleep is suffering because you're worried about all the things you should be doing.
You're trying to blog, write guest articles, do social media, master advertising and connect with other writers, as well as writing books. There's never enough time to do it all.
You're not making progress and you don't know what to do.
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?
[ This is an excerpt from The Healthy Writer: Reduce your Pain, Improve your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long-Term by Joanna Penn and Dr Euan Lawson. Available now in ebook, print and audio editions.]
One of the reasons that we become writers is to live a different kind of life, a more creative life, more fulfilling and hopefully, a healthier life.
But the incredible opportunities available to authors now have turned out to be a mixed blessing.
Writers are focusing on productivity and word count, on a book a month, feeding the hungry algorithms and the voracious appetite of readers. There's a constant stream of social media notifications that urge us to write more and faster, stoking the machine that provides cash flow as well as an ego boost.
Then there's the marketing side, all the things that you could be doing to get your books into the hands of readers, the technical stuff around categories and keywords and algorithms, and the sociable aspects like social media and blogging, as well as events and conventions.
There are so many things that you could be doing right now. So, many authors are doing more and more and they're not taking a breath and they're getting stressed and burning out.
Part of the reason I co-wrote The Healthy Writer was to reflect on how I've fallen into some of these traps myself.
My husband, Jonathan, even said to me the other day, “You're the Creative Penn, not the Productive Penn. Take a break.”
We all need to stop, take a step back and think about what we want for our lives in a holistic sense.
Burnout happens in the writer community when we forget why we're doing this in the first place. We bury the joy of creation in all the things that have to be done, or specific sales and ranking goals, or we write in a genre we don't really love, and some end up quitting writing altogether.
“When I first started writing, it was therapeutic, like an escape from reality. But now it feels like a burden and I don't know how to get back the good feelings.” Alexa, The Healthy Writer survey
One of the reasons I left the corporate world was to change my life in a physical way, to be more healthy, hoping to add years onto my lifespan by removing bad stress and living a life I really wanted.
I burned out several times in that career, lurching from day to day powered by caffeine tablets, sugar and alcohol until I had to leave the job in order to take a break. I didn't think the same existence would be possible for writers, but I've seen it in the community.
Because writing is hard work.
Sure, it's not physically hard but your brain uses a lot of energy and we have not evolved to spend hours a day trying to produce words from our heads. But there is a difference between being tired and feeling fatigued, stressed and on the way to burnout. Here are some distinctions.
“Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.” Lily Tomlin
Stress can happen in any job, even one that is supposedly an ideal occupation. The myth of the writer sitting in a gilded salon with Gauloise and black coffee in hand, writing perfect words while a publicist does all the heavy lifting is (sadly) indeed a myth.
Writing is intense work in a deeply satisfying way but it takes its toll as much as any job – especially if we lose the passion, the reason why we started writing in the first place, replacing that with deadlines and writing books we don't care about.
The idea of work-life balance springs from doing work that is not integrated with your life. Certainly, I used to think about balance when I worked as a business consultant because my day job was not something I thought about out of hours or on weekends. It was something I did to pay for the rest of my life.
But being an author is all-encompassing and as a full-time writer, I don't separate my work from my life anymore.
The two are so entwined, and that is wonderful in one way as I am doing what I love. But it can also be the basis of burnout as there is no reason to ever stop working.
I'm an even-tempered, naturally happy and optimistic person. So if I find myself snappy, negative or persistently unhappy for days at a time, annoyed at the slightest thing, then I know something is wrong.
Stress is the feeling that everything is too much. You are juggling things and just about managing, but you're on the edge of collapse if you push too much further.
Of course, there are good types of stress. The edge of trying something new that pushes us outside our comfort zone. That might be a new writing technique, a different point of view, or going deep into a topic that might be uncomfortable.
On a physical level, when I did a double ultra-marathon, 100km in a weekend, the physical stress pushed me way past my comfort zone. I finished the course weeping with pain but the achievement of the goal was worth it. I feel the same way when working hard to finish a book sometimes.
Humans need stress in some way or we wouldn't achieve so much.
We need to push ourselves beyond what we're comfortable with. But the problem comes when that stress goes on too long, when it stops us sleeping or when, over time, it leads to destructive behaviors like drinking or eating too much.
Back when I had a day job in the corporate world, there were constant project deadlines that were often impossible to reach, accompanied by stressful status meetings, even though it seemed that the deadlines were arbitrary and there was always another project right behind the one I focused on.
Financial stress is common, and family stress might be another issue. If you have young children at home, or you're a full-time carer, the level of stress is qualitatively different to the stress someone might feel in an office job with project deadlines, but it's no less real.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” William James
So how do you know when stress is getting too much?
When tiredness becomes fatigue
Being physically or mentally tired is completely normal at the end of a day when you have worked hard or done some physical activity. If you're not tired, what are you doing with your life?
But fatigue is waking up tired every day, with a deep exhaustion that seems to pervade your bones. It's like layer upon layer of tiredness, like a chronic syndrome, where every day you wake up feeling heavy and spend your whole day feeling more than tired.
It can be associated with other conditions, so definitely consult a medical professional if you're concerned, but it can also be down to persistent stress and overwork.
When I gave up my day job back in 2011 to become an author-entrepreneur, it took me a few months to get over the fatigue of constantly working in that toxic environment for so long. Some nights, I would sleep for 11 hours as I caught up on 13 years of sleep deprivation and overwork.
“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.” T.S.Eliot
Anxiety can take many different forms. It can be a persistent low level of worry and concern that disturbs your sleep and may progress into mood issues like depression. Being unable to control that worry is often a marker of anxiety ramping up. You might feel restless and irritable.
Some people will get symptoms such as their heart racing and feeling sweaty or shaky, or it can kick off gut or digestive issues. Others may get panic attacks where they feel they can’t breathe or that they are being choked and their throat is closing up.
If anxiety is severe, then see a medical professional, but low-level anxiety is common and The Healthy Writer discusses mood and mental health further.
There are three major components to burnout.
Emotional exhaustion (feelings of being exhausted and overextended by your work); depersonalization (a feeling of being removed and separate from various aspects of your life); and personal accomplishment (an absence of the feeling of accomplishment which may also be characterized by feelings of incompetence).
Creative work is often emotionally draining, and while it is normal to feel a certain level of exhaustion after the end of a project, you might be approaching burnout if these feelings are persistent and continue for months or even years after you've finished a book.
Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that whatever you do is never quite good enough, could always be better, and the persistent nagging sensation that your writing is terrible. Even when you have enjoyed some commercial and critical success, Imposter Syndrome will often remain as you wait for someone to pull back the curtain, Wizard of Oz style, and expose you as a fake and a phony.
This can result in symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating. There may be other physical symptoms such as teeth grinding, palpitations, or headaches. There might be increased anxiety or trouble sleeping.
“If you feel burnout setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have long-term perspective.” Dalai Lama
Managing stress, burnout, and anxiety
Part 2 goes into detail on many of these aspects, but these issues are so prevalent in the writer community that we wanted to make sure you had some action points upfront!
(1) Acknowledge your feelings and where you are right now
We like to think we're super-human, but everyone experiences these periods of stress and overwhelm, and many of us progress through levels of anxiety to burnout. The first step is to recognize the symptoms and acknowledge that you have a problem. Then you can look at ways to fix it, or at least manage it.
(2) Get organized
If you're feeling overwhelmed, it's a good idea to write down everything you think you should be doing so you can begin to organize it all.
I use two tools to manage the bulk of my life these days: Google Calendar and Things, a list-making app which syncs between my Mac and iPhone. Of course, there are many tools you can use, but if you have a calendar for scheduling and a To Do list app, you can manage pretty much everything. Of course, you can use paper for the analog option!
Start by writing down everything in your head until you can't think of anything else that needs doing. This can include personal and work tasks as well as writing tasks.
Once it is all out of your head, you can then start to organize and put specific dates when things are due. This will help you see what is urgent, what can wait and could be deleted. You can set recurring tasks and move dates if you get too busy. If I keep moving a task forward, I consider whether I should just delete it. Is everything on the list really so important?
I've also started scheduling downtime into my calendar. That might sound extreme, but without doing this, I end up constantly over-scheduling myself because I think I'm super-human!
I've made the whole of December a downtime period with no speaking, podcast interviews, or external commitments because I know my energy and mood are lower in the winter. I need to curl up and recharge, ready for January, which is when I perk up again. I also schedule a week every month where I don't have external commitments either and try to book in holidays as I used to do when I had a day job.
Running your own author business can take over your whole life, and I certainly work more hours than I ever did in the day job, so scheduling breaks is critical to sustainability for the long term.
What do you want your life to look like? What suits your personality?
You can't do everything, so these questions can help you work out what you should cross off your To Do list entirely and can be the most powerful way to reduce stress.
For example, if you are an introvert who doesn't enjoy speaking at events, then don't do it. Concentrate on internet marketing for your books.
If you enjoy watching YouTube videos, then consider using video as your primary marketing activity, but if you prefer writing short stories, then do that instead. Identifying your preferences will help you cull your To Do list.
For example, I tried doing Facebook Live Video, considered by many to be a powerful marketing tool, but I would dread it beforehand and didn't particularly enjoy it while doing it, so I have eliminated that from my marketing list.
You can also outsource tasks if you have the budget. I used to do all my podcast work myself, but now I have someone doing the video, a sound technician doing the audio, and my virtual assistant doing the show notes and transcript formatting. This means my own time has gone from five hours per show down to two hours per show, making it much more sustainable.
What can you eliminate or outsource?
(4) Say ‘no' more
There's a period of time when you are starting out when you say ‘yes' to every opportunity because you don't know anyone and you're building your brand. But if you're stressed and overwhelmed and you no longer have time for writing, then you need to say ‘no' more.
I'm talking to myself here because I still struggle with saying no. I'm a people-pleaser, but I've also said yes to things only to find myself regretting them, wishing I was doing something else.
So when you're asked to do something, or you are asking yourself to do more, then stop for a moment. Give yourself space to consider it. Don't reply to that email immediately. Don't say yes before you've slept on it.
Do you really, really, really want to do this?
“If you’re not saying ‘HELL YEAH!’ about something, say ‘no’.” Derek Sivers
(5) Try a digital fast
The internet is amazing.
Cycling down the Western Ghats from Ooty into the tea plantations, India. On a digital fast
It's the reason we can actually make a living as writers and reach readers all over the world. One study even found that people would rather have the internet than have sex, chocolate or alcohol. So it's an important part of our social and business lives as writers – but it can also be the cause of much stress.
If you check the news too much, you can be crippled by fear and anxiety about the state of the world. If you check Facebook or Twitter or Instagram all the time, you might feel comparisonitis at all the successful authors doing better than you, or feel like you're missing out on various conferences, holidays or promotions. And all of it makes us feel as if we can never do enough and we are always behind.
There is an answer to internet overwhelm. Turn it off!
Sounds simple but I know it's not easy. I am tethered to my iPhone just as much as many others.
But I do have periods of digital fasting, where I deliberately turn my phone to aeroplane mode. I take my phone on long weekend walks because it's also my fitness tracker, but I don't check email or social media. If I do longer trips, like cycling in India or walking in Europe, I only check it once a day. I took Facebook off my phone a month ago and feel a lot better without its daily tyranny.
We don't watch the news on TV, and I really recommend you wean yourself off that if you're struggling with stress. I monitor the headlines on the Financial Times or The Guardian news app, but the written word is less sensational than the TV announcements, which are designed to spike your interest and make you want to keep watching.
What you feed your brain has a huge impact on your mental health, so turn off the news and you'll feel a lot better!
Pay attention to your breath right now.
Where is it in your body? Can you direct it into your belly? Or your back? Or into the pain you're feeling?
Can you slow your breath to inhale for a count of five, hold it, and then exhale for a count of five?
These exercises may sound simple, but being aware of your breathing and taking time to just sit (or lie) and breathe is one of the most powerful, yet under-used, relaxation techniques. Because who has time to sit and breathe? There's always more to do.
When things used to get too much at work and I would be hyper-stressed, I would hold my breath, skip-breathing, yet unaware of it. Jonathan would put his arms around me and hold me against his chest and breathe with me, slowing our breath down together until I was calm again. I know parents who do this with their children and it really works, because you suddenly become aware of what your body is doing.
I tried meditation a number of times but always struggled to find the time – a classic case of the person who needs it the most and continues to resist it. The Headspace meditation app helped a little, but then I started to go to yoga several times a week to help my back pain, and breathing practice is part of those classes. It's now one of the main reasons I go. Time to breathe feels like a luxury, which is crazy, right?!
After a year of consistent yoga, I'm much more aware of my breath and realize that I tend to hold my breath or take shallow breaths when I'm stressed. Now I can feel when it is short and take steps to deepen and lengthen my breath in order to calm myself. It's helped me manage my stress, so if you're struggling, then consider incorporating breathing exercises into your daily routine.
(7) Develop a regular physical practice
Exercise helps to manage stress and anxiety. People who exercise regularly and are physical active have better health-related quality of life.
There is also evidence that exercise can be used as a specific treatment to help manage anxiety. A regular physical practice will help your body cope with long hours of writing and with emotional ups and downs. People who are physically fit are more resilient and able to cope with the stresses and strains of life.
(8) Consider a seasonal approach to your energy and creative patterns
Stress and burnout can happen because we try to achieve at the same level all the time, but that's just not natural.
I know the word entrepreneur has some sort of Silicon Valley connotations and implies that you need to create this mega business. But that's not true.
4 Critical Mindset Shifts You Need If You Want To Make A Living Writing - YouTube
The essence of an entrepreneur is someone who creates value from ideas. They take what's in their head and turn those ideas into value in the world.
When we write a book and put it out there, whether that's non-fiction or fiction, we're creating value in two ways. We're creating value for the readers because they're going to, hopefully, have their lives changed or be entertained and have some time away from their miserable lives, which is certainly why I used to read a lot of thrillers.
And we're also creating value for ourselves because we're selling the books and we're making money from our writing, or at least that's the intention for some of us. It would depend on your definition of success.
Absolutely, authors create value from ideas. We can say, “I made this. I turned what was in my head into this.” And we can turn that into lots of different products, which I'll come to in a minute.
By thinking about being an entrepreneur, we're taking a forward step. We're taking a proactive attitude to creating new things in the world that give value to our customers, our readers, and to ourselves.
Once you reframe your own identity as an author-entrepreneur, you will find it much easier to take control of things like marketing or understanding the financials behind some of what being a writer is.
Making this initial mindset shift just means that you're much more in control.
(2) Focus on creating scalable income
What do I mean by scalable? Back in the day, I used to implement accounts payable into large corporates. Yes, I was a cubicle slave and spent my days typing on computer systems and working in companies. I was paid for the hours that I worked. I was an employee for a while, then I was a contractor, but I was always paid for the hours I was there.
Of course, there's some sick pay, sometimes holiday pay, but you pretty much can't scale you beyond you. And then if you die that's it, or if you get sick, that's it. Non-scalable income is exchanging money for time.
These days, I do still have some non-scalable income, for example, doing professional speaking. When you get paid to do a professional speaking event, you're being paid for your time. Non-scalable income can also involve marketing and administration.
But, my main income these days is scalable. That means you create something once, and then you get money for it over and over again.
When we write a book once, we can sell it over and over and over again. Even 70 years after we die, for the life of copyright.
Scalable also means that this is not limited. For example, this book, How to Make a Living With Your Writing exists as a digital file. It exists as an e-book, which one person can buy, or millions of people can buy.
It exists as a print book. It exists as a workbook. So, that's another format. It's an audio book. It's also been translated into French.
It can be all these different products. So, I create it once, and I sell it millions of times, or at least hopefully, millions of times.
That's the definition of scalable.
This post is an example of scalable marketing. I create it once, and then it goes out there into the world, and one person could read it, or nobody, or lots of people.
You're not basing everything on money for time, you're basing it on what can be expanded, not based on your time anymore.
The book really is the ultimate scalable product.
At right is an image of my book Map of Shadows. I'm turning this book into a screenplay.
You can do this with fiction, as well, and obviously, there are different formats for fiction.
Scalable income is a key to making your living as a writer.
(3) Develop multiple streams of income
There is this pervasive myth in publishing. I don't really know why. I think it's a focus on the debut author phenomenon, which is that you can write one book and it will sell a gazillion copies, you'll be able to retire, you'll be a multimillionaire, and life will be good.
Now, of course, that does happen occasionally, but that's not the reality for most authors. And if you look at the richest authors in the world, according to Forbes, the highest paid authors, people like James Patterson, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, these are authors who've been writing consistently, one or more books per year.
In fact, for Nora Roberts writes a book a month. She writes under two names, as well. These writers, have multiple streams of income from their books.
Right now, I have 27 books. Those are 27 different income streams.
Then, you can multiply that by formats. Each book is an e-book, and they're on multiple sites. You can get them on Amazon, on the Kindle, on the iPad, and iBooks. You can get them on Kobo, you can get them on Nook. You can get them in different e-book formats. That multiplies the 27 by all these different e-book formats.
Then, of course, they're in print, and they're sometimes bundled together in box sets.
One of my ARKANE box sets
Box sets are amazing, and you can do them e-book, print book, audio book, and turn three novels into one box set, which is more streams of income.
Then, multiply that by country. So, this is the other exciting thing. Especially as independent authors, we can publish in 190 countries. I have sold books in 84 countries, and those are all in English.
If you have English books and you publish on sites like Kobo Writing Life, with iBooks, with Amazon, you can get your books out to all these places. You can use print-on-demand. You don't have to hold stock. There are lots of ways you can turn your books into multiple streams of income. But the important thing is not to rely on one book in one format.
And then, of course, you can use different author names. You can publish in different languages. You can license different intellectual property rights.
There are so many ways you can turn one manuscript into multiple streams of income. You should definitely be thinking about writing more books, about expanding into other genres, and thinking multiple streams of income for long-term success at making a living writing.
(4) Think global, mobile, and digital
Many authors get quite hung up on wanting to see their physical book in a local bookstore. Now, there's nothing wrong with that, and I totally urge you to go ahead and try for that.
But what's more exciting are the global possibilities, especially for independent authors.
What we've got now is a growing population of younger people in Asia, in Sub-Saharan Africa, in Latin America, all over the world, who are using mobile devices to access the internet and to read on.
We can actually meet that population. We can sell to that population. And thinking global, mobile, digital, rather than physical in the bookstore down the road from your house, will mean that you have greater streams of income coming from these exciting new sources over the years.
Is screenwriting as glamorous as writers think it is? And does self-doubt ever go away even after massive success? I discuss these questions and more with David Nicholls, internationally bestselling and award-winning author of four novels including One Day.
In the intro, I talk about what I'm doing to prepare for the EU GDPR regulations – and here's Seth Godin's article on why you should care, wherever you are in the world. Respect for your readers and respect for data, in general, is ever more important, especially after Facebook/Cambridge Analytica.
I also mention my ultra-marathon around the Isle of Wight this weekend, along with the Team Creatives – check #healthywriter on Twitter for the pics. Plus, if you're interested in Blockchain and cryptocurrency, check out the CryptoNewsPodcast.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
David Nicholls is the internationally bestselling and award-winning author of four novels including One Day which was a huge hit in the U.K. and the film around the world as well as a BAFTA-nominated screenwriter for film and TV.
His latest project is Melrose, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, out on Showtime and Sky Atlantic.
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today I'm here with David Nicholls. Hi, David.
David: Hello. How are you?
Joanna: It's great to have you on this show. Just a little introduction.
David is the internationally bestselling and award-winning author of four novels including “One Day” which was a huge hit in the U.K. and the film around the world as well as a BAFTA-nominated screenwriter for film and TV.
David, you've done so much but you started out as an actor. How did you get into writing?
David: It was out of necessity really. I was a very unsuccessful actor as you'll tell from this podcast. I studied English and the theater at university and I really loved it. And after I left I was at a bit of a loss what to do and I wanted to remain part of that world and the only real way I could think of doing it was acting.
I'd done a lot of plays in university and loved it and it was kind of an extension of student life really I think, being an actor. I acted all through my 20s in fringe plays and repertory theaters around the country and amateur productions and then I got a job at the National Theater understudying and playing small parts and I did that on and off for about eight years.
As an actor I was in work maybe half the time which is actually pretty good. But I never really played proper parts. I always played these tiny roles and I always did too much. I was one of those small part players who can't keep their hands still and there's always fidgeting and overreacting and it's the only note I ever got as an actor really was to do less.
So I had a lot of spare time in between understudying roles and these small parts in big plays. And I used to read a lot and then I started reading for the literary departments of various theaters where I worked, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the National Theater.
I started helping the literary department read through the submitted manuscripts because I had some experience at university I suppose. And I loved that. I loved that element, the writing element.
The best job I ever had as an actor was in the first production of an amazing play called “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard in 1992, and I was understudying the role, but I was allowed to be in the rehearsals for the production and to see this play come to life and it was such a wonderful production and so brilliant to see a play originate, if you like.
And I suppose over my years as an actor I gradually came to realize that that's what I wanted to do. The thing I loved about acting wasn't acting but writing and that I'd probably stand much more chance as a writer.
So I started writing little scripts and sketches and stories and gradually got the confidence to start showing them to people. I started as an actor, worked as a script reader, worked as a script editor and then finally took the leap into writing.
Joanna: We're going to come back to the screenwriting, but then I want to ask you when did you decide to write novels? Because they're different skills. If people listening have never read a screenplay or a play, they are very different forms of writing.
Why did you move into writing a novel? What was it that you weren't satisfied with screenwriting?
David: Well, again it was born out of necessity really. I had a really good run early on as a screenwriter. I'd written a script with a friend of mine, Matthew Warchus, who's a theater director, based on a Sam Shepherd play called “Simpatico” and mainly through Matthew's talent and determination that got made as a feature film.
Suddenly I had a produced feature film script and I've written some other things, some comedies and some drama pilots that were read by various producers and they started to happen. I got a job working on someone else's show, a show called “Cold Feet” so for people outside the U.K. created by Mike Bullen, but they needed other writers and I began to write episodes of that.
I loved doing that and the episodes were a success and got big audiences and I got off with my own show. I got off with two shows in fact. One was called “I Saw You” and one was called “Rescue Me” and they were big, big C1 shows, ITV shows and they didn't do very well.
They were great shows and I loved them but they didn't get the audiences they needed to be a success and to be recommissioned. I went very quickly from being over-employed to being very under-employed and not really knowing what to do next.
And also a lot of where I've been writing had been of a sort of a 30-something relationship drama, kind of comedy-drama, and I felt that I'd written as much as I ever wanted to write about 30-somethings having relationship trouble. So I wanted to write something that I was really passionate about.
Going to university has always been a big marker in my life. The main event of my life I suppose. I always wanted to find a way of writing about that. I made some notes and started writing them up and realized that rather than a script, rather than a screenplay, it was a novel.
It was like a monologue, a dramatic monologue, which is another way of saying a first-person narrative, a first-person novel. I showed it to a friend who showed it to an agent and that became my first novel.
So it was really born out of necessity, out of having pursued one line of professional life and that coming to an abrupt end and taking a while to pick myself up and have a rethink and start again on something else.
Joanna: It's so interesting because some people assume that the writer's life is, you wake up and you go, “Oh, well, I'm just going to write this screenplay and I'm going to write this novel and then I'm going to win awards.” As you've discussed though it doesn't go like that, does it?
It doesn't go from nothing to the top.
David: No, it's fits and starts and I can't ever imagine being relaxed about it or complacent. I'm very fearful all the time. Even when it appears to be going well. It's very nerve-wracking.
To a degree, I don't mind that. It should be frightening having a book out or having someone read your work or watch you work. There should be some stakes involved. So that's fine.
I've been very, very lucky, I think, to be able to write in all three mediums. But I feel that it's an ongoing process and I'm always learning things. I don't feel like an old hand. I've written 25 hours of telly and 6, 7 feature films and 4 novels but in all of those mediums I don't feel, “Oh, now I've got it.”
Writing the third novel doesn't make the fourth novel any easier. It's all ongoing and you're always making mistakes and screwing up and learning and hopefully moving forward.
Joanna: Let's talk about your latest TV adaptation which is “Melrose” starring Benedict Cumberbatch which is out on Showtime and Sky Atlantic the week this goes out. This is really interesting and a different challenge because you've talked there about writing your own original stuff. But this is an adaptation, not just of one novel but multiple novels into a series.
Talk a bit about “Melrose” and the challenges of adapting multiple novels.
David: Yes, it's five novels adapted into a five-part series. Each episode one hour. Each episode more or less corresponding to one of the novels.
This is based on an amazing series of novels by a great writer called Edward St. Aubyn and I've read these books over the years. They come out at roughly five year intervals and they're scenes from the life really of an aristocratic family in decline.
The central character is Patrick Melrose played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who when we first meet him is in a terrible state. He's a heroin addict, he's caught up in a spiral of self-destruction, he's spending his way through the family fortune.
It's really an investigation into how he became like this and how he finds some kind of redemption, which makes it sound very worthy but it's very, very funny and spiky and bitter and cynical and brilliant I think.
I read the first book back in the early '90s when I was working in a book shop and I picked it up off the tables and started reading and was really blown away that something that was very much in a tradition, a sort of British literary tradition should also feel so modern and startling and original.
It had always been a dream project. I've been working on it now I think for about five years. It's finally coming to fruition now. It's finally finished. I just watched the last edit of the last episode today. And I'm really proud of it.
Joanna: Wow. Again the timing thing is so interesting because again people think, “If you write a screenplay it'll end up on TV like next year or something.”
Had you already finished it or is that from commission to screen?
David: I would think from my first meeting with the producers and then with Edward St. Aubyn, with the writer, the novelist, I would think it's probably six years and then a year or so working on the first script, which was 90 minutes long and then some time cutting it down to 60 minutes and doing the format change. It was 5, 60 minutes instead of 4, 90 minutes and then structuring the rest of them.
And then changing the order slightly and then writing the third one, and realizing there are things in the third one that should go in the second one. And then adding the fourth one and getting a broadcaster attached, and having those meetings and losing the broadcaster.
Having further conversations about the first two and changing the order, and just working like that through endless drafts. If I look in my file on my computer I'm sure there are 60, 70 drafts of the scripts, and that rewriting process happens not just through production but on through the edit.
I'm still writing little bits of what they call ADR for the edit for next week. Just filling in little bits of information and little bits of emphasis. I won't stop writing it until it goes out on the television. So it's a long, long process.
Joanna: It's amazing and again, I think people don't have a very good idea of what a working screenwriter kinda does and these numbers of drafts as you say, but one of the sexy things that everybody wants is being on set.
David: Yeah, yeah.
Joanna: Being that everyone thinks that. Do you get to go on set? Do you hang out with Benedict?
Is it really glamorous or is it just not at all?
David: When people say it's not glamorous you think, “Oh, come on. It is glamorous. It must be exciting.” And it's exciting but it's not glamorous.
It's both the most exciting thing that'll ever happen to you and also fantastically boring, because there's nothing to do. I mean, it really is. There's nothing to do except eat biscuits and drink weak tea. It's very, very nerve-wracking.
If I go on set and I'm watching a scene play and I watch a take and I think, “Oh, that's beautiful. That's everything I wanted.” And they go for another take and the light is fading I'm instantly thinking, “Well, that one was fine. Move on, move on, move on. We're gonna run out of time.”
The days always start with a languid leisurely approach to shooting and they always end with this frantic, “Oh, my God. We're not going to finish in time,” feeling. Which for a writer, you can't do anything. You're not even allowed to touch the equipment. It's very nerve-wracking.
I'm not at all complacent about actors, being with actors either. Two reasons. One is, I'm a fan and so it's exciting and I'm scared of making a fool of myself and saying the wrong thing.
And two is that they tend to ask for script changes, hence all the rewrites. And you usually have a very, very good reason why you've put the words exactly as they are on the page and I find it very, very hard to turn actors down.
I remember the first time I wrote a screenplay that was going to be produced, the Sam Shepherd film. I got a phone call one night and I was living in that little bedsit in South London and the phone rang and a voice said, “Hi, it's Jeff here.” And my father-in-law is called Jeff. And I thought, “Oh, it's Jeff.”
So I said, “Hi, Jeffrey. How are you? What's going on?” He said, “I'm good but I have some notes about the script.” And I realized that it was Jeff Bridges who is in the film, calling me at my home number in this little flat in Stockwell. And I went into a complete panic because it's Jeff Bridges.
My God, it's thrilling and exciting and I grabbed a pen and we went through the script and there is no way in the world that I'm going to say no to a note from Jeff Bridges because I'm a huge fan and no one, I'm just starting out as a writer. And this person is hugely experienced. So you'd be silly not to listen to them.
At the same time, sometimes you do have to say no and it's usually better to go through that process via a director or a producer because everyone has their own version of the script in their heads. They're very sure that their version is the right one and that applies to the screenwriters and the producers and the performers and the cinematographer.
Everyone on that film would make a different film given the same script. And you have to find a way of screening those endless opinions because there's an infinite number of variables in the production process. So this is a very long-winded answer to your question.
Joanna: No, it's fascinating.
David: Which is that it's very exciting to be on set but you are as a writer entirely useless and you will often either distract the cast who would think that you are checking up on them or you'll simply get in the way or you will worry the director or you'll see something that you're sure someone else should've noticed and they haven't.
The makeup doesn't look quite right. And you're not qualified to give those opinions. As a writer you have a very set range of responsibilities and you have to stick to them. When you're a novelist everything is up to you and when you're a screenwriter you have a very specific job description which you have to stick to.
Joanna: I'm loving this. This is so interesting. I know my audience are really enjoying it, too.
But this discussion of the actor. So you've written lines of dialogue which will go in the mouth of actors who are great at their job. Now as you say, you've made the words specific because you're the writer. That's what you've done.
Is there a rule for sort of, “Oh, we'll just let X percent of it just go with whatever the actor does in the moment.”
What are your tips for writing dialogue that actors don't mess with?
David: I'm not bullish at all. I hate confrontation. I'm not very good at it. Filmmaking can be quite a confrontational business and I hate that aspect of it.
But I am pretty tough about people saying what's written or talking to me about changing it because everything is there for a reason. And if you've taken care with your dialogue and you've said it out loud and you've listened carefully at a read through you should be able to spot the sticky patches.
That said, if an actor's having trouble saying something there's often a reason and the actors are bringing with them expertise and experience and you'd be silly not to listen to them.
Here's an example. I made a film of Thomas Hardy's “Far from the Madding Crowd” and Carey Mulligan who was amazing as Bathsheba in that, but who was very keen to go back to the line as written in the novel. I'd given her the line, “I cannot marry you.” And she found in the novel the original line which was, “I do not find it in my heart that I have the emotions required to marry you.” Or something like that. I'm paraphrasing.
I deliberately decluttered, I suppose, the dialogue, because Thomas Hardy's dialogue is quite florid and I thought it'd be much better if it's pithy and to the point.
But the idea that Carey had was the verbosity of the dialogue…the fact that it was very hard to say was something she could use. And she showed me and I saw it and we went back to the line as written by Thomas Hardy and you can see it in the movie in the scene with Boldwood where she turns down his marriage refusal.
She's trying to find her way through the sentence. She's trying to find the right words to turn him down in a way that she absolutely wouldn't have been able to if she just said what I'd written, “I cannot marry you.”
So at times like that you'd be crazy not to listen because actors are not just doing it for selfish reasons. They're often doing it because there's an element in there that they can use.
On the other hand, if I watch rushes and I found out that lines had been added or riffed on or that the rhythm of a joke has been changed, I get really annoyed and particularly when a lot of modern actors add a lot of little hiccups like, “I kinda think.” Instead of, “I think.” Or, “I really wanna.” Instead of, “I want to.”
And they think they're making the dialogue more realistic but often they ruin the rhythm or a scene stretches and becomes too long or the acting becomes mannered. So I am very strict about making sure the words are said as spoken unless agreed otherwise.
Joanna: And you mentioned the “Far from the Madding Crowd” and I love Thomas Hardy. “Jude the Obscure”, one of my favorite books.
Joanna: You haven't adapted that one yet?
David: No. It has come up in discussion because I've done two Hardys now. I've done “Tess” and “Far from the Madding Crowd” and I love both of them and of the adaptations I've done, they're the ones I'm proudest of because Hardy really adapts well.
He writes in a way that's very suited to cinema and TV. There are these literal cliffhangers. He wrote the first cliffhanger in I think, “Two on a Tower,” someone will correct me I'm sure, but there's a scene which ends with someone literally hanging off a cliff by the tips of their fingers.
He writes these wonderful set pieces that come along at regularly spaced intervals and when people think of a Hardy novel they think of, “Oh, the bit where Tess eats the strawberry. The sheep shearing in “For from the Madding Crowd.” It's a series of wonderful set pieces. So they were a pleasure to adapt. And I've forgotten your original question.
Joanna: These are giant books in the consciousness. You also did, “Great Expectations,” but then you also adapted your own novel, “One Day” and also “Melrose,” someone else's work.
The difference between adapting someone else's and adapting your own, especially when author's are often told not to adapt their own work.
David: I kind of agree. I don't think, “Well, they should adapt their own work.” Of the work I've done, adapting my own work has been the least pleasurable and the hardest because to me it's like cutting your own hair. You can't see all the way around. You tend not to be as ruthless and as clearheaded as you ought to be.
For the first two years I was writing and blogging and podcasting and doing social media, I felt like I was howling into the wind.
I followed people online who were doing amazing things and I couldn't ever imagine being like them. I couldn't imagine having an audience who would care about what I wrote.
But I kept writing, kept blogging, kept podcasting, kept reaching out to other writers, and slowly, I started to find an audience who liked my work. It can happen for you too.
In today's article, Natasha Bajema explains how she's managed to attract a following as a new author.
Superfans are the holy grail for any author.
Former Wired editor Kevin Kelly famously argued that 1,000 superfans is all you need for success as a creator (authors, musicians, artists… anyone who sells things they create). A superfan is someone who will buy anything you produce and sing your praises to anyone who will listen, winning you potential new fans for your books. Word of mouth is incredibly powerful for selling books, and that’s why authors strive to get superfans.
If you’re a new author like me, you probably want to know all the secrets of gaining loyal superfans who love and promote your books. You might also wonder if there’s something you can be doing now to get a head start. If you haven’t published a book yet, is this something you should start thinking about now? Or do you have to wait until you press publish?
“…half the battle is knowing your Ideal Reader and the kinds of things she responds to (and what she hates). It’s about not viewing your readership as some kind of amorphous blob but a collection of individual people. Actual human beings!”
In his book, Gaughran suggests that we should “view things from our Ideal Reader’s perspective and map out their customer journey, i.e., from being a reader which is unaware of our work all the way to being a rabid fan.”
Your goal as an author is to get them to complete the Reader Journey: the stages of a reader moving from being merely interested to actually buying your book to later becoming a superfan. The five stages are discovery, visibility, consideration, purchase, and advocacy.
Although a reader’s progression through the stages isn’t necessarily linear, there are “different challenges or chokepoints along the way, all of which require different solutions.” Gaughran offers a practical guide “to map out the Reader Journey and optimize each stage.”
Even though I’m a new author, I’ve designed my entire launch strategy around winning over superfans early on in my career. However, the stage of getting my readers to advocate for my books and become loyal superfans feels really far away.
As I began reflecting on the Reader Journey and my own journey as an author, I discovered some interesting synergies. I realized that there might be actions authors can take early on in their careers, and I’m doing some of them already.
Below, I weave insights from my interview with David Gaughran into some early lessons learned from my author journey and my quest to win over superfans.
Lesson #1 – Get Yourself Out There
If you asked me to pinpoint the one thing that fundamentally altered my author journey last year, it would be my decision to attend a number of writing/self-publishing events where I met other people within the Indie community. In other words, reaching the discovery and visibility phases of my Author Journey.
Authors including Joanna Penn in New Orleans, 2017
In the Reader Journey, Gaughran explains that in the Discovery stage, “all readers start off in the same place: being completely unaware of our work. The Visibility stage is when a reader is tangentially aware of you.”
The same concepts apply to you as an unknown author within the Indie community. You need to get out there as a writer, attend events, and network as much as possible.
I know that’s not what my fellow introverts want to hear. Can’t you just join Facebook groups to interact with other writers? Not if you want to jumpstart your writing career and receive opportunities for getting in front of your ideal readers.
Although the Internet allows us to develop virtual writer communities, it’s always better to connect with other authors in person.
Being known by other writers can be powerful for your author journey. Why? Because you’ll get opportunities that will help sell your books that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
At events, you might meet authors in the same genre who are willing to do cross promotions. If they really like your book, they might be willing to promote it directly to their reader list. Perhaps, you might go far as finding a collaboration partner to produce more fiction faster.
If other authors don’t know who you are, they can’t send their readers to you. If you don’t know other writers, you’ll miss out on opportunities to collaborate. You’ll also miss out on the chance to get smarter about self-publishing and creating superfans.
To most introverts, myself included, the notion of networking can seem rather daunting. But writing and self-publishing conferences are where the real magic happens. It’s where you’ll plant the seeds for discovery and visibility for your career as an author.
If you’re worried about not fitting in or don’t know what events to attend, start by listening to podcasts.
Not all writing conferences are created equal. Tuning into podcasts is a great way to learn about what events to attend and prepare to talk to other authors in the Indie community.
After listening to several hours of podcast per week, you’ll gain sufficient understanding of the self-publishing industry to blend in and feel confident when you network with other authors.
Even though I’d rather hide in a corner most of the time at a writing conference, that extra boost of knowledge from podcasts helps me have the courage to put myself out there and make some extremely valuable connections. I’ll give you an example from my own experience.
In the fall of 2016, I began listening to the Self Publishing Podcast (now called the Story Studio) where I learned about the Smarter Artist Summit hosted every year in Austin, Texas by Sterling and Stone’s Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright. For months, I wrestled with the financial expense and anxiety of attending the event but finally bit the bullet.
At the Summit in April 2017, I made some amazing connections with writers at all stages of their careers along with well-known experts on self-publishing such as Michael Anderle, David Gaughran, and Mark Leslie Lefebvre.
Mark Leslie Lefebvre
After the event, I followed up with Mark to brainstorm my ideas about experimenting with crowdsourcing and using a Kickstarter campaign to create a superfan base. He was so excited about my ideas for building my reader audience that he promised to have me on his podcast.
If I hadn’t put myself out there, I doubt I’d be doing any podcast interviews or even writing this post. To plant the seeds of discovery and visibility for the future, you need to network, meet other authors and find opportunities to collaborate, and talk to members of the self-publishing industry to learn about the latest trends.
Lesson #2 – Put Something Out There
The days of hiding away alone in your office to write, edit, and publish novels and succeed as an author are over. You need to establish a platform and social media presence to be a successful author these days.
And to do this, you need to put out quality content as soon as possible. So, stop waiting, hemming and hawing, and get something out there already.
Your author platform is crucial for discovery and visibility, but also for the third stage of the Readers’ Journey. Gaughran notes “the Consideration stage is when readers are actually on your product page and considering the purchase of your book.”
This is when your book cover, blurb, and sample are incredibly important to convince a reader to buy your book. But I believe your author platform is key here as well.
Compare and contrast two hypothetical authors who just launched their first book. Author A created a professional-looking website several years before publishing their book and began uploading high-quality content on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Author B doesn’t have a website or any other online content at the time they launch their book.
Now consider potential readers interested in both authors. They look at the books by Author A and Author B and decide to look them up online for more information. They find nothing about Author B, but a diverse collection of posts by Author A that allows readers to get a feel for the author and their voice.
Which book do you think readers will take a chance on?
Moreover, readers can’t discover you if there’s nothing to find about you online. If you don’t publish anything or have an active social media presence until you launch your books, there’s nothing to help readers to gradually get to know you and remember you.
Putting something out there before you launch your books is not just about building your reader audience. It’s also useful for leveraging opportunities you gain through networking with other authors.
Without any online content, the connections you make at author events or even virtual communities may lose strength because there’s nothing tangible to build them on.
A finished novel is not necessary to begin building your reader audience and increasing your future potential for discovery, visibility, and consideration. I’ve tried a number of interesting options for publishing content and have been slowly building my reader audience.
In April 2016, I launched my website with a blog where I post regularly about my author journey. Over the course of two years, I’ve published 34 blog posts tracking the evolution of my career and sharing my insights along the way.
About 2,400 people have visited my website and viewed 4,682 pages of my content. My blog has 48 followers from the WordPress community, but I get most of my traffic from my social media presence on Facebook (511 friends), Twitter (420 following), and LinkedIn (1,169 contacts).
Admittedly, these stats are not wildly impressive, and I didn’t find blogging very helpful for gaining fiction a ton of readers. However, at minimum, readers can find discover me through my content on search engines.
In my first year of blogging, most of my traffic came from Facebook. But by the second year, most of my traffic is coming in from search engines. That means that people are discovering my website through web searches and content. As such, my website/blog now serves as part of my author platform where prospective readers can learn more about me before buying my book.
If you’re really brave (or crazy), you could also post draft chapters online to generate reader interest. In the fall of 2016, I started a crowdsourcing experiment and began releasing scenes of my first mystery novel Bionic Bug on Wattpad and giving my readers the opportunity to vote on three choices for the next scene.
Once the votes were in, I wrote the scene with the most votes. I gained a small but enthusiastic following for Bionic Bug. Most of these people are now my superfans and supported my recent Kickstarter campaign.
You might also consider a soft launch strategy for your series to gain traction with your reader audience in advance of your formal launch. Many authors are now holding several books in a series back until they can release them successively in a rapid sequence. This allows authors to leverage momentum of each book, maximizing opportunities for discovery and visibility on Amazon.
The truth is that you don’t have to wait to “bank” your books. You can have your author cake and eat it, too.
One of the great things about the Internet is that you don’t exist at an online retailer until you press publish. That means you can wait to release your books on Amazon, while still publishing them on other smaller retailers.
I’ve made my first novel Bionic Bug available on Kobo while I’m working on the second, third, and fourth books in the series. This way, I can direct interested readers to buy the book and leave a review and begin building my reader audience long before I make a splash on Amazon.
Putting my book out there, even with limited availability, has led to many new exciting opportunities that I would not otherwise have had.
If you have a book finished and want to release the first few in your series at the same time, don’t wait to build momentum. You won’t regret getting started early.
By the time I release the four-book series on Amazon in late 2019, I expect to already have an enthusiastic launch team to help me spread the word and leave reviews.
You need to put something out into the universe to start a ripple effect. Since it takes a long time to develop momentum, it’s a good idea to start on it sooner rather than later. If you do put something out there, then you should make sure the content represents the quality you wish to be known by (or clearly state that something is a draft upfront).
Lesson #3 – Start Your Reader Engagement Now
One of my greatest fears as a new author is to launch my series on Amazon and then hear the sound of crickets. That’s why I’m planning ahead and putting pieces into place to support the different stages of the Readers’ Journey. You can start engaging prospective readers and winning over superfans long before you launch your books, but it can get tricky with time management.
According to Gaughran, the final two stages of the Reader Journey are the Purchase stage when readers are actually reading your book and the Advocacy stage which takes place after a reader has finished your book. This is the point at which reader engagement becomes especially important for cultivating superfans.
If you already know your Ideal Reader, he suggests “there are two main things an author needs to do to help more readers become superfans. One is pretty easy and just requires a little set-up—which is having pristine end-matter and being present where your readers are in terms of social media. The other is quite hard and requires constant work—and that is having some form of open channel with your readers which keeps them happy and engaged. Any organic two-way communication between you and your readers creates engagement.”
One-on-one reader engagement requires a great deal of time and regular personal communication.
Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in a day, and many of us have full-time jobs and family obligations. It’s also a well-known fact in the self-publishing industry that the best way for you to make more money as an author is to write more books. Time is money.
This is probably the reason that Gaughran claims that most authors spend more time building large email lists rather than considering their engagement levels. “You need to make readers feel valued, and a part of what you are doing… but generating the level of excitement in your readers that will make a truly impassioned recommendation, that’s where it gets complicated.”
I’ve been trying out a few ways to engage readers in advance of my book launch that leverage my current work, but simultaneously provide an interactive experience for my readers.
The great news about being an Indie author is that you own your intellectual property. That means you can get creative with your content to engage your readers and kill more birds with one stone.
Recently, I built upon my early crowdsourcing efforts to launch a Kickstarter campaign for Project Gecko, the second book in my series. I offered limited edition signed hardcover copies of Bionic Bug as the main reward. I also invited backers to sign up for my fan club where they would become members of the Lara Kingsley Series Facebook Group and get the opportunity to help choose names, settings, and details about the storyline in Project Gecko.
The Facebook group has been underway for several weeks. Every few days, I ask my fans to brainstorm ideas on a specific issue in my draft. I collect a list of ideas, choose my favorites, and then put it to all of my Facebook contacts for a vote. I’ll use the winning ideas in my book and give credit on a special page in the back of my book.
In the coming months, I will also be launching a weekly podcast around my first novel, Bionic Bug. In the front matter, I’ll be leveraging my expertise from my day job and discussing the latest emerging technology headlines.
In each episode, I’ll read a chapter from my book. Then I’ll conclude the episode with behind-the-scenes information. To gain support from my reader audience, I plan to have a Patreon page that offers a few cool rewards.
Both of these projects are quite time intensive, but they are doing double duty and helping me to accomplish my overall goals for my formal series launch in 2019. Through reader engagement on my Facebook group, I’m cultivating superfans who will hopefully help me with my book launch and reviews. With the podcast, I’ll be adding valuable content to my website, increasing my chances of moving readers through the stages of discovery, visibility, consideration, purchase and advocacy.
Superfans Want to Get Involved at “Fan Zero”
It’s never to early to begin understanding your ideal readers and cultivating your superfans. As you begin your author career, there are things you can do in advance to set yourself up for your future launch that improve your chances for creating superfans.
Michael Anderle recently suggested one of the secrets to creating superfans is to involve them from the beginning: “the strategy, no matter the tactic is to get fans INVOLVED in the creation of the stories. Give them a place to voice ideas, suggestions, and become part of the story.”
Several successful authors such as Andy Weir (The Martian) and Hugh Howey (Wool) have tinkered with involving their readers at the beginning of their bestselling careers.
Once you know your Ideal Reader, Gaughran says “it’s about focusing on your core audience, not trying to be all things to all people, creating engagement, and delivering value in every interaction.” In his new book, he offers..
I've been writing in journals since I was 15. They have been my escape and my therapy, my creative expression and a record of my lowest times and my highest achievements. Journals are more than blank paper. They represent possibility. In today's show, I talk to Joel Friedlander about his new premium journal.
The edits are done for How to Write Non-Fiction. Onto formatting for print and re-jigging for audio to make it an easy read. Pre-order available now.
I also mention BookBlock.com for anyone who might want to make their own journal.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Joanna Penn and Joel Friedlander, San Francisco, 2017
Joel Friedlander is an author, book designer, professional speaker, and blogger. He runs TheBookDesigner.com, regularly rated in the top sites for writers, and has courses, templates, and many resources for authors. His most recent project is the WriteWell Writer's Journal.
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I'm back with Joel Friedlander. Hi, Joel.
Joel: Hi, Joanna.
Joanna: Great to have you back on the show. I think it's number four or maybe five on the show over the last nine years.
Joel: Some things it's good to lose track of, I guess. But I'm really happy, and thanks for having me back.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Let's do a little introduction for those people who might not know you.
Joel Friedlander is an author, book designer, professional speaker, and blogger. He runs TheBookDesigner.com, regularly rated in the top sites for writers, and has courses, templates, and many resources for authors. His most recent project, and what we're talking about today, is the WriteWell Writer's Journal, which I have a red copy of here.
Joanna: I'm very excited about this. Those regular listeners will know that about a year ago I flirted with and even met people about doing a journal. You have done a journal, so I'm excited.
You've done so many books over the years. Why a journal, and why now?
Joel: One thing about those books, they all have words in them. And if you think about it, this is a book with no words yet. The words are latent, you might say.
I use journals and notebooks. I've used them for many years. I'm not a journal-er, in that I don't sit and record scenes or what I did that day, but I still use them for notes, for talking with clients, for developing ideas, drawing mind maps, whatever, recording conversations I'm having. Because I realized a long time ago if I write it on a three by five card I'm going to lose them.
And if it is in a journal, you're not going to lose it. So, I love journals, I've been using them for many years. I have stacks, my wife has even bigger stacks.
The problem is, Joanna, I'm a professional book constructor in a sense. And many of these journals, some of them are lovely, and many of them are very irritating. Which is a problem when you have a little perfectionist streak. I've thought for a long time I could do that better because I know how to put books together.
This year I've really been more interested in doing more personal projects, because I've been doing other people's projects for so long. I'm really interested in working on my own projects, and this is a project I knew that would bring me a lot of joy as well as help other people.
Does it get any better than that?
Joanna: I love it.
Joel: I understand why you went into and then out of this project because it's actually quite daunting. And even though I've been in hundreds of books over the years, and I know all about bookbinding and papers and adhesives and all that stuff, this project stumped me.
I thought it was going to take about six weeks, and it took over a year to put together the materials, the way of manufacturing, the right vendor, and it was very, very challenging, but I'm very pleased with the outcome.
Joanna: We're gonna get into the challenges because I definitely think they're underestimated. But let's first talk about the features that were important to you when you went into this. And like you said, “I can do it better.” So, what are the features? For example, are you, having been down this path, it's interesting. The cover you sent me, this I would say oxblood, is it an oxblood?
Joel: Cranberry, we call it.
Joanna: I'm a thriller writer. I prefer oxblood. But it's like a dark red, to those who are not watching the video. So if you're on audio only, I've got the kind of cranberry. And it's got these rounded corners, which I know are impressive. What were some of the other things? It's got a ribbon, I've got the little ribbon here.
What are the other features that were important to you and that impacted the design process the most? And what are things that people take for granted that are really hard?
Joel: There are a lot of elements that come into creating physical products, and we're going to talk a little bit about that. And books are no different.
A book is a physical product, and a journal is even more so because this isn't restricted to bookstores particularly. You can sell them anywhere. But there are a lot of manufacturing demands and financial demands to doing it.
What I was looking to do was to correct some of the errors or irritations that I had using other journals.
For instance, the journal that won't lay flat. That was my number one goal. And you could see it from this journal here, for those who are watching this, that these journals will open flat anywhere you open it in the book.
If you have one that's like a hardcover journal, you may have experienced leaning your elbow on one side, so you could write on the other side. Well, I just felt that is wrong. Journals should be a pleasure to use, and it should lay flat so you can write in it easily.
The rounded corners were really important to me because these are very mobile. People carry their journals with them, they stick them in their purse or their briefcase, or even in their pocket, or their backpack.
Square corners tend to get banged very easily, and they get dog-eared, and they fold over. I don't like that. So the solution to that is the round corner, and that does take special finishing at the printer.
The paper, obviously, was super important that it be able to absorb all kinds of writing instruments well. The way the interior was laid out, and mine, you can tell that I'm a minimalist because I created this journal specifically for writers, not for sketch artists, or bullet journal planners, or productivity people.
This is just a canvas for writers to write, and it was optimized for that. So, there's no interruptions, it's just lines on the page.
Now, Joanna, I know you like the blank page, but…and my first go around, I thought lines, or rules as we call it in printing, would be important, so that the lay-flat binding, the round corners, the good paper, the minimalist interior, the ribbon you have to have.
If you don't have a ribbon, it's really hard to sell it as a journal. You use the place marker or not, because a lot of people just stick pieces of paper, business cards, whatever in there, but if it doesn't look like a journal without the ribbon…
Joanna: That's interesting.
Joel: That's a critical visual cue.
Joanna: And hasn't it got more pages in?
Joel: Most of the journals sold in the U.S. run between 160 and 192 pages, and one of my problems with that is you have to keep replacing them.
These journals, WriteWell journals, have 240 pages, substantially larger, and they won't need to be replaced as often.
I also was very irritated over the years by trying to find things in my journal. Maybe I wrote down an idea for, and this is actually true, an idea for a bean dip recipe. And one day I went to try and find it, and I must have spent 15 minutes just leafing, leafing, leafing, leafing, leafing. It's so irritating.
So these journals actually have page numbers of pages. And then at the end, there's an index page where you can actually create a little index to what you've written, and you can find it right away. I thought that was a pretty good innovation.
And lastly, I would say many of the journals I've bought tend to be kind of narrow, and I don't know if manufacturers make them that way so they're easier to fit in your purse or pocket. But I find them a bit claustrophobic because I just get to the end of the line too soon.
So I intentionally made these journals wider than the normal ones. And I'm very, very happy with the results.
Those are some of the product innovations that I put into WriteWell journals, and I believe they're unique. I don't know of another journal on the market that has these kind of qualities. And then also, Joanna, all the feedback I'm getting is extremely positive.
Joanna: We should say, again, if people aren't on the video that it's about A5. Is it A5 size? Because we haven't really said what size it is.
Joanna: Yeah, so it's A5. I like the A5.
Joel: We don't use A5 in the U.S., so it's an inch measurement. But, yes, it's basically exactly A5.
Joanna: I like that size, too, because I don't want an A4 journal, that feels like school. I have some of those tiny journals, I've got some on my desk here. But they're too small and like you say, you can't get many words on the page. I think this is the most similar to a Leuchtturm.
Have you seen a Leuchtturm?
Joel: Yes, I have. They came out in the U.S. when I was about three-quarters of the way through my product development, and the Leuchtturm is the closest I've seen to what I put together. It was actually kinda freaky because they're doing the things that I'm doing, and they're very nice journals, Leuchtturm.
Joanna: They are, yes. Let's just go into it a bit more.
They lie flat, because when I had this conversation with the publisher that I went in to see, and the first thing I said was, “It has to lie flat.” And they just looked at me like, “Oh, my goodness, what are you talking about?”
Can you explain a bit more about the types of binding, and why this is such a big deal? And how you got over that with the binding that you use?
Joel: You also had asked me earlier about cost factors of producing these. And by far, on this journal, the binding is the biggest cost factor. To get that real lay-flat binding.
There are many ways to bind books, and part of the reason it took me so long to develop this, I'd never actually done a book with a flexible cover. Because I really love that flexible feeling. It just feels luscious to me, and rich, and I just really like it.
When I first started talking about this, I was talking to Robin Cutler you may know who's the manager of IngramSpark. And she said, “Oh, that's great, Joel. Do them at IngramSpark and I'll help you out.”
I said, “Geez, Robin, I would love to do that, but I can't.” You can't POD these books, because print-on-demand books use what's called a perfect binding where all ends of the pages are glued to the cover. They're chopped off and then glued to the cover.
You'll notice on the print-on-demand books, the spine is kinda tight. So, they won't open fully and they won't lay flat. And if you try to do that, you're going to break the spine, and you do stand the risk at that point of pages starting to fall out.
That's not a good solution. So, this binding is called a “soft side case binding,” and the cover material is actually glued to a piece of paper that runs throughout the whole back spine of the book, and that's what the book block is glued to.
And in this case, the pages are all sewn into the binding, so they can never come out. You would have to, like, physically tear the book apart to make them come out.
If you open it fully, you'll see little threads, the marks of little threads in the book. So, it's done on a case binding machine, which is what's used for doing hardcover books. But instead of a bordered case that's hard, this uses this custom material I had made, another cost factor, because I couldn't find the exact thing I wanted, so I had to have it custom done.
With this kind of green, and the soft finish, and the flexibility, so the binding on these journals is really, really good. And like I say, you can fold them all different kinds of ways and they're never going to come apart.
But doing that is a lot more expensive than perfect binding, which is a totally automated process where they chop the books, they glue things on, they bring a knife down and trim them, that's it, you're finished. That can be done very inexpensively.
But if you want a true lay-flat binding, it does cost money. And that's one of the reasons why the journals have the retail price they do here in the U.S., which they retail for $22.
Joanna: I think that's really interesting. Generally, I buy Leuchtturms or Moleskines. I think they retail here in the U.K. for around £12, £15, which would be similar price to a $22. And a lot of people say, “Oh, that's so expensive,” but it's not.
I think what you're saying is so interesting because I have, behind me I've got shelves and shelves of journals as well. The journal is emotional. It's an emotional product.
Of course, we all love books. In print, an e-book, an audio, whatever. But it's a taking approach. Reading a book is a taking approach, and the product, you take from the product.
But the journal, you emotionally are involved with it, and what you write in it becomes part of your life, it's so important. I love the fact that you've got a custom material because it does feel really nice. It's hard to describe.
How would you describe it? Because it's not leather.
Joel: It's got a grain to it.
Joanna: Yes, it's got a grain, but it's not plastic-y. That's important, it's not plastic-y.
Joel: It's kind of a loose grain.
This is something you find out that's actually kinda cool when you start talking to manufacturers, material suppliers. You don't usually have to settle for just what they have. You can actually create something that doesn't exist.
And so by combining the kind of grain, the weight of the cover, the color, and the actual finish on it, this very soft finish that's not high gloss, and it's not dead matte, it's kinda somewhere in between, you can create something unique.
The word I use for this experience is it's intimate. People are very intimate with their journals because you're writing sometimes stuff that nobody else will ever see. A lot of people use journals.
I'm in Northern California. It's the human potential movement headquarters here. People at workshops, meditations, and retreats. And they're doing psychological processing by writing stuff. It's very sensitive material.
That sense of intimacy and personal connection you have with the object that you're expressing yourself in, I think, is really crucial to what I was trying to achieve with this journal.
Joanna: Let's talk about the money in a couple of ways. First of all, when I went down this process, the actual reason I stopped is because in the U.K., blank journals, and I like blank journals, are taxed as stationery rather than books. And in Britain, we have VAT, a sales tax on stationery, that we don't have on print books.
And there's a certain percentage of text that you have to have, to have something classified as a book so that the sales tax is different. I would have had to go through all these different hoops to do stationery.
What was that like in the U.S.? Did it became a different product, that you're now a stationer?
Joel: No, it's actually totally different. It's a non-issue in the United States. And part of the reason for that is because sales taxes are all locally administered.
In other words, we have no national sales tax in the U.S. Some states have a sales tax. Some counties have a sales tax, which is added to the state's sales tax.
Some places like where I'm sitting also have a city sales tax, so we have a City of San Rafael, County of Marin, State of California, add them all up. When you go into a shop down the street here, you're going to pay about seven and a half percent sales tax, but you're gonna pay that on anything.
Hot tubs, cars, journals. There's no discrimination about the kind of product you're buying, there's a flat tax on anything you buy at retail. And the retailer has to collect the tax, and then report it and pay it to the appropriate government.
It's much simpler. There's no discrimination between different types of products at this level.
Joanna: It doesn't make any difference. And it's interesting because, of course, and again, most authors who are listening don't have to worry about sales tax because usually we use Amazon KDP, Kobo, Apple. They deal with that and we just get the money later.
But what we're talking about here is not using print on demand.
Tell us how did you do this practically with a print run, how were you selling them, and then how will you continue to sell them in terms of distribution?
Joel: That's all really interesting. But I would like to point out one thing, Joanna, and that is that the vast majority of print books sold in the United States, and I'd reckon it's probably the same in the U.K., are offset printed books.
The vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of printed books, even though in the indie publishing community, a print book is almost defined as a POD product.
I remember when Guy Kawasaki came out with his book, “APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur.” You remember that a few years ago? He didn't have anything in there about books printed offset. And I actually complained to him about that.
I said, “Guy, you're putting this book out here, but you're ignoring most of the book's printing.” And the fact is that, many self-publishers don't know this, but there's a long tradition, very active tradition of self-publishers publishing print books through offset printing, distribution, and actually getting to that whole system.
Basically, you have to contract with a manufacturer, and part of my challenge with the journals was finding a manufacturer who could do what it was I was trying to do.
I spoke to at least three dozen printers, I would say, over the course of time. Rather frustrating because some of them would say they could do it, but then they couldn't, so you have to vet your supplier. You do have to have capital because you have to pay everything upfront.
In print on demand, we don't pay anything, basically. Over at Ingram you might have to pay to upload your files, but when they print the books, they don't come and ask you for the money. They deduct the money from the cost that the buyer is paying.
So, yes, the book printers will not ship your books without having a complete payment for the entire print run in their hands before they kick those books off the shipping dock. They won't start your project without having, like, a third to a half of the anticipated expense.
But I do print books for clients all the time, and so this is not really that esoteric. Obviously, my journal is an unusual product.
But as far as having a print book, your print runs are gonna start at about 500 copies. Because under that it doesn't really make financial sense, you're going to be paying too high a cost.
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