I’ve long been a big fan of Joanna Penn’s blog thecreativepenn.com and her podcast, so I was interested to read her book Business for Authors, hoping it would provide an in-depth look at running a business as an author. I’m pleased to say that it did precisely that.
This is a book for people who want to take their indie author careers seriously, who see themselves as much business people as artists. Joanna uses terms such as author-entrepreneur and business model throughout. This is not a book about how to self-publish, although there are links to resources if you are looking for guidance in this area. In fact, the book is packed with links to other books and websites on almost every topic, so it acts as a useful reference guide as well as an informative book in its own right.
Joanna starts by describing the arc of a typical author-entrepreneur and poses some searching questions about what we want from our lives and our definitions of success. Answering these questions honestly means that we can build our businesses on a firm foundation in accordance with our own personal values. There is a lot to think about here.
One of her key messages is that writing is a scalable business. You write a manuscript once and then sell it many times in different formats, languages and territories. Grasping this fact and then putting steps in place to exploit your rights means that you are well on the way to becoming an author-entrepreneur.
As Joanna points out, there are different business models authors can follow. For example, the non-fiction model where most money is made from product sales, speaking, consulting services and affiliate income; the high-volume book release model and the sporadic model which combines writing with teaching, speaking and maybe freelance writing. Although many authors are still attracted to the kudos of traditional publishing deals, she warns the reader about potentially harmful clauses in contracts and recommends books by other people for more detailed information. She’s not saying don’t sign a traditional deal, but she is saying be aware of what you are getting yourself into.
Joanna discusses the value of production plans, something which 99% of authors don’t have. This is definitely something worth thinking about because I’m sure it’s key to improved productivity. And whilst we all want to produce quality work, quantity does matter in this game. The more books you have the more chance you have of being noticed. As she says, you’re unlikely to make a living off the back of only one or two books. This book will help you think about your personal long-term goals and what your strategy is. Joanna defines strategy as “what you do to achieve your goals as well as what you won’t do.” She talks about the value of planning your writing schedule and other activities, such as marketing. This is sound advice and much better than just stumbling along from month to month with no clear idea of what your deliverables are.
There’s a lot of advanced stuff in this book which you may feel is not for you, or at least not yet, but it’s worth knowing about it for consideration at a later date. The section on Employees, Suppliers and Contractors lists a host of different people that you might engage to help you run your business. Or you might just stick with an editor and a cover designer. But know that if you want to take things to the next level you can hire translators, audio narrators, bookkeepers, accountants and virtual assistants.
Business for Authors is a broad-ranging book but that does mean that some topics, like audiobook production, are only touched on at a high level. There’s a good section on marketing, but even here Joanna points the reader towards her other book How to Market a Book for more detail, although personally I found the coverage in this book to be perfectly good. What the book does well is guide you in the right direction to do your own further research. For example, the section on direct selling is full of suggestions and links for sites and services that you might consider using. Although Joanna herself appears not to be selling direct at the moment, probably due to changes in EU laws on VAT which she does not discuss.
Joanna includes much of her own personal story in the book, talking about her background, how she got into blogging and writing, and how and why she maintains two author brands. None of this will be new to readers of her blog or listeners to her podcast, but it does help to personalise the book and makes for a more inspiring read than if it were just dry text-book speak.
I found the section on Financials refreshing. This is a topic that so rarely gets a mention, but Joanna tackles it head on. If we want to write for a living then we need to be more clued up about costs, revenue and profit margins. I’m pretty good at logging things like Scrivener and book promotions as tax-deductible expenses, but how many of us regard our laptops as an asset, the value of which depreciates over time? Or think to include the cost of research (books and exhibitions, for example) as an expense to be accounted for? Another key takeaway from this section is that we need to invest in ourselves: our education and ongoing personal development. There is excellent advice here on invoicing, managing cash flow and reporting. Joanna points out that you really should complete a W8-BEN form to ensure that US retailers do not withhold 30% of your income and she recommends a blog article on this subject by Karen Inglis. My own experience of dealing with US tax authorities (I’m British by the way) is that it makes you want to go and lie down in a darkened room for the rest of the year. The UK Inland Revenue has wonderfully simple forms, but American tax forms will make you go grey overnight. For a humorous take on this subject which will restore your sanity, read Bill Bryson’s essay Your Tax Form Explained in his book Notes From a Big Country or try this blog article. Anyway, I digress.
Good time management is key to getting things done. Joanna argues that there are two types of time: creative time and down time. Now, I agree there’s usually a time in the day when we are at our creative best. But then she goes on to describe down time as “when you’re mentally tired and can’t necessarily create something new.” So far, so good. But, she recommends using this time for marketing, networking and learning activities. Whoa! Personally I would find this almost impossible. To do any of those things I still need to be mentally active and in work mode. I may be quibbling over terminology here but for me “down time” is when I’m so tired that all I want to do is watch the next episode of the current favourite box set. I would say I have creative time (researching, writing, revising), admin time (blogging, marketing, promotions etc.), family time (e.g. meal times and going for walks), personal time (exercising, reading, choir practice), domestic time (chores and cooking) and down time (someone pass the remote please…) But then again, maybe this is why Joanna has published 15 books and I’ve only published 2 so far ;). But I completely agree with her when she says, “Essentially, you have to decide on your goals and take control of your life and your time.” Take heed, people!
On the subject of developing professional habits Joanna turns to her hero Steven Pressfield and quotes from his books Turning Pro and The War of Art. For example, “Distractions and displacement activities are the things that keep us as amateurs” and “Turning pro is a decision we make every day.” She also references Dean Wesley Smith who publicly shares his word count every day. It’s a short section of the book, but includes some inspirational gems.
Joanna recommends accountability to keep you focused and on track. She describes how she has monthly meetings with other business/author friends in which both parties discuss their achievements of the previous month and goals for the coming months. This is good advice if you can find someone at the right level (i.e. at a similar stage to yourself) to talk to. I suspect this is one of the habits she has brought with her from her time as a consultant. When I worked in computing I had weekly meetings with my manager and you had to have something positive to report.
There’s a short but important section in the book on looking after yourself, both physically and mentally. Joanna is right that when you work for yourself the dividing line between work and life gets blurred. As she keeps saying, this is a long-term game and we need to keep ourselves healthy in order to keep going.
There’s huge amount of bonus material in the book, including downloadable worksheets and templates. The Appendices account for about 25% of the book and there is some really good stuff here. There’s a section entitled “Questions to help you proceed” in which she poses dozens of pertinent questions relating to each of the chapters in the book. Working through these questions will ensure the reader comes away with a deeper understanding of their current situation and some actionable goals that they can implement. A comprehensive bibliography offers suggestions for further reading. Joanna also describes all the tools that she uses for her work. There are transcriptions of two podcasts with Jane Friedman and Elizabeth Hyde-Stevens and a Q&A with her editor, Jen Blood.
Get your copy here.
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