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If you do the math on traditional or independent publishing, it may seem impossible to make a living selling books. And while it’s not impossible, very few authors support a family on income from their book sales alone.
But book sales are not the only way to earn money from your writing.
Having multiple income streams is the key to making a living from your writing. The more income streams you have, the less reliant you become on any single method of generating income.
Diversifying your sources of income is the key to creative freedom and reduced financial stress.
Author Joanna Penn knows how stressful it is to lose your only source of income. But she’s also discovered the joy of replacing her single source with 120 different income streams, all related to her writing. Joanna is an award-winning novelist, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers under the pen name, J.F. Penn. She also writes nonfiction for authors and is an award-winning creative entrepreneur, podcaster, and YouTuber.
Her website, TheCreativePenn.com, was voted one of the top 100 sites for writers by Writers Digest.
I interviewed her to find out how she income from her writing and how beginning authors could follow in her footsteps.
How did you start writing and publishing?
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: How did you get started writing?
You did not emerge from the chrysalis as a creator doing everything well. How did you get started writing?
Joanna Penn: I studied theology at university, and then I went into management consultancy, which is one of those random things you do in Britain. I implemented financial systems in large corporations for about 13 years after college.
The job was like the proverbial golden handcuffs. It paid well, but my life was completely pointless. I spent my time in accounts payable departments being hated by people because I was replacing them.
I was miserable in my working life, even though I was being paid well.
I reached the point where I knew I had to do something more with my life, but I didn’t know what I wanted. I decided to start researching how to change your career. I was reading so many self-help books and listening to audio tapes on the subject that I thought, “I could write a book on how to change your career.”
I ended up writing that book, and in the process of writing it, I learned about writing, the internet, how to sell books, and how to begin speaking.
I got into fiction and left my job in 2011 to do it full-time. In 2015 I got my husband out of his job. As of 2018, I’ve been writing professionally for publication for about 12 years and have been full-time for seven years.
But I still absolutely remember being miserable in my job, wondering, “What am I doing with my life,” and not knowing what was coming.
How did you approach publishing before the Kindle and indie publishing was popular?
Thomas: What was it like writing books before the indie revolution?
Joanna: I’ve never been with a traditional publisher, primarily because I’m a businesswoman. I think I sent one query letter and didn’t hear back. That seemed random to me, and I thought, “Why can’t I just print it myself and sell it myself?” So I went ahead with that.
I worked in business accounting departments and on the money side of businesses. I was also earning a good wage. When I looked at the possibility of leaving my day job to become a writer, I could not see how I could replace my six-figure income by just writing books. It was impossible. You would have to hit some kind of book-sales lottery.
But I also learned you could make money and sell books by being a speaker. So that was what I did.
I went to the Professional Speaking Association and learned how to speak professionally. I learned that I needed to start charging for my speaking. I made my first money as a speaker, and I had a book to sell at the event.
Publishing independently was a business decision, and it still is a business decision. So that’s how I got started.
Thomas: That was a smart decision. In traditional fiction, there’s not much of a “middle class.” Most novelists make almost no money. A few make millions of dollars. Since J.K. Rowling sold a million Harry Potter books, she is supposedly wealthier than the Queen.
There aren’t many novelists in the middle class.
With business books, there’s more of a middle class, so getting started and earning some income is easier. It’s less of a big statistical anomaly in nonfiction.
Do you want to be paid for your time or your intellectual property?
Joanna: The difference is also your mindset toward intellectual property rights.
The issue with speaking is that you are paid for your time, which is exactly like a day job. I realized very early on that creating intellectual property, like a book, gives you something you can license repeatedly.
While you will get a spike in income from speaking, you can sell your book for the rest of your life and 70 years after you die.
I currently have 27 books published, 18 of which are fiction, and I make a multi-six-figure income. I’m in a group of mid-list authors who make a living from writing. But many authors, painters, illustrators, and artists are not making much money, and most aren’t even making a living wage from their art.
The difference is having the attitude that you are in business. You need to understand intellectual property rights and start being paid for licensing your assets as opposed to being paid for your time.
Thomas: In a sense, you’re traversing the whole arc of civilization.
In the beginning, we were hunter-gatherers. We’d hunt a woolly mammoth, and everyone would eat for a month, but then we’d have nothing. That’s how it is when you’re paid for a speaking engagement.
Whereas writing and creating intellectual property is more like farming. You get this slow, consistent source of food. It’s not nearly as exciting, but it will sustain a civilization in the long run.
Joanna: That’s also the difference between traditional and indie publishing.
As an independent author, I pay professional cover designers and editors, and I publish professionally. But I have a team of contractors who help me bring the book to fruition. I do a professional job of independent publishing. As an indie author, my income is quite boring, but it has consistently increased nearly every month since I first put my first book on Kindle in 2009.
Traditionally published authors receive an advance and get a spike in income. The advance will be split into payments you’ll receive upon signing the contract, turning in the manuscript, and publishing it.
If the book does well and earns out the advance (most don’t), you’ll get royalties, but you’ll only be paid every six months, and who knows for how long.
You might get more money from that book if you hit a sales lottery. You might get a big royalty payment. And then it might disappear because your publisher has moved on to the next author.
I’ve never written a breakout novel. I’m not famous, but I’m making a good living as a writer and with all the other income streams we’ll discuss.
But my book sales have been a monthly drip of income that has consistently increased. It is exciting because it funds my life, but it’s not a sexy seven-figure deal. It’s not sexy money, but it’s living money, which to me is pretty sexy.
Thomas: It’s ultimately more sustainable.
Joanna: Another advantage of having a monthly income rather than a spike in income is that you can do a cash flow forecast. How can you know you’ll be able to pay your mortgage when you don’t know when or how much money comes in?
Indie authors can use platforms like Patreon to generate recurring revenue.
Independently publishing is like a salary. I receive a predictable amount of money every month. I know 60 days in advance what I’ll receive so I can do a cash flow forecast.
That’s what you need to make a living.
Thomas: Some authors want to tune out when they hear “cash flow forecast” because they just want to make art and prefer to ignore the business side.
That dichotomy is unhealthy. Financial security and a predictable income frees you to create your best work.
If you’re panicked because you need your book to be a hit in order to cover all your debts, that pressure constrains your creativity. Art and business are teammates.
Joanna: I think business is one of the most creative things we do. Most of what we see in the world is created through people doing business, and that’s exciting.
You can create jobs for people. I work with 13 different contractors. Not only do I pay my husband’s tax and my tax with our company, but we’re also paying a load of freelancers.
We’ve got our own self-sustaining industry. The money comes in, and the money goes out. That’s how cash flow should work. You’re building your assets while living and loving your life.
Entrepreneurs turn ideas into value in the world, whether that’s value for someone else or value for themselves.
That’s what we do as writers or artists. You’re turning what’s in your head into value for the world. That’s entrepreneurship and business.
Thomas: It’s exciting because you’re making the world a better place. You’re entertaining and educating your readers while providing for yourself and creating jobs.
The media portrays businesses as evil exploitative people. But these people are making the world a better place. No one gives money to a business unless the business makes their lives better in some way.
That’s the difference between being a thief and a businessperson.
Joanna: It’s much better to put money back into the system. If you have to pay more tax, that means you’re making more money. I say, “Let’s pay more tax and fund all the things we want.”
Some creatives believe that if they are making money, they’ve “sold out.” I was talking to a musician once, and he said, “Don’t you want to sell out? We want to have a sold-out concert!”
I think it’s very important to say that I write the books I want to write. I’ve never compromised on that. I create work that I care about. I enjoy what I write and the lifestyle I have. If I just wanted to do stuff for money, I would’ve stayed in the day job.
When I left my day job, I wanted to do more writing, reading, and traveling. That’s what I do, and I get to help a lot of people.
Why do authors need multiple sources of income?
Thomas: Why is it important for authors and creators to have multiple sources of income?
Joanna: For me, everything stems back to the 2008 global financial crisis. I went to work in March of 2008 with about 400 other IT consultants in this awful open floor plan. Our manager walked in with a stack of paper, and we were called into the office one by one and given a bit of paper saying we had three weeks’ notice and goodbye.
We were all contractors, so they weren’t even obliged to pay us anything, and we were all let go at once, which made finding work an issue.
I was the major wage earner in my family, and that day I realized one company had told me to go away, and I’d essentially lost my only source of income. I declared on that day that I would never do that again.
Many entrepreneurs were forged by the global financial crisis. They were either laid off or forced to pivot around that moment.
This experience is one reason I publish wide and not just on Amazon.
Currently, I’m selling books on iBooks, Kobo, Amazon, and in all the bookstores and libraries. I’ve sold books in 86 countries. Even my book sales are diversified into many streams of income.
Besides book sales, I generate income through speaking, affiliate income, sponsorship on my podcast, and creating online courses.
I have around 120 different sources of income. Some generate £50 per month, while others generate thousands every month.
I don’t focus on the little ones much, but by building up all these income streams, I am not dependent on a single one. If Amazon, or any of them, changed their rules tomorrow, I would not be destroyed.
That is how you remain truly independent.
Thomas: If you visit a financial advisor, the first thing they’ll say is, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Diversify.
And yet, for so many of us, our income is dependent on one person. Your boss has so much power over your life.
When you diversify your income streams, even if several fail simultaneously, you won’t be standing in line at the soup kitchen.
You also can’t live paycheck to paycheck. You have to adjust your lifestyle so you can live on less than you make. That way, you can have savings in reserve to draw upon when your income rises and falls. As your income stream matures, the highs and lows will even out, but saving money along the way will protect you.
Joanna: In 2011, I was working hard at a consulting job, and I didn’t have much bandwidth for my business.
I was blogging and had four books published by then, but I was getting up early, working weekends and evenings, and going to work four days a week.
I told my husband, “I need to give up my job because I have to do this next step for my business.” We sold our house and downsized to a one-bedroom flat. I had six months of income in the bank, and I told him that if I didn’t make it work within six months, I’d return to my day job.
I started publishing and blogging in 2006, podcasting in 2009, and I left my job in 2011 and never went back.
It took me three to four years of doing what they now call the side hustle before I could move out of my job. Then it took from 2011 to 2015 for me to return to the income level my previous job provided.
It was a long journey.
I advise people to be aware of what they want. Know what you are aiming for. What is your goal? Why are you doing this?
I want to measure my life by what I create and the people I help. That kept me going through what Seth Godin calls “the dip.” The Dip is that point where things look bleak, but you need to go through the dip in order to move to a different career.
Thomas: I reread The Dip whenever I have a big decision.
When I read it this year, I remember he said, “It’s smart to not try something.”
It’s smart to start something and work your way through the dip. But starting things over and over again, where you quit in the dip, is foolish. You either need to do it for real or not do it at all.
He talks about quitting things that aren’t going to make it. You want to prune the tree, so to speak, so that you can focus on doing one thing well.
Your story is a good illustration of that. You didn’t start everything at the same time. You started independent publishing, and when you had attained some proficiency, you started a podcast.
That’s the right way to do it. Start one, push through the dip, become proficient, and then start the next thing.
Joanna: Many of the tools I use now did not exist in 2006. The iPhone didn’t come out until 2007. There was no Kindle or Patreon.
But some things I did at the beginning are still the engines of my business.
The main reason I make good money from affiliate marketing is because I’ve been blogging since 2008. I took a course in blogging from the lovely Yaro Starak from Entrepreneurs Journey.
Yaro taught that SEO was about providing value for your audience and not trying to game the system. In 2008, everyone was gaming the Google algorithm and doing black hat SEO tricks.
Yaro taught us to be generous. If you write quality blogs that stand the test of time, you will eventually reap the benefits of SEO.
From 2008 to 2012, I blogged about self-publishing, and nobody cared.
Then in 2012, because of the Kindle, self-publishing went mainstream in America. My website, with all those years of valuable content no one used to care about, suddenly became one of the top-ranking websites in the niche.
It ranked well on Google because it had been around so long and because I had consistently published quality writing.
Why did you want to start a podcast for writers?
Thomas: Why start a podcast for writers?
Joanna: Yaro was publishing a lot of podcasts (which we called downloadable audio at the time). I was learning so much by listening to it during my hour-long commute, and what I heard was changing my mindset.
I also started listening to a few fiction author podcasts. Scott Sigler is an amazing fiction author who still podcasts his fiction.
I realized audio was a powerful medium, and no one was recording podcasts about self-publishing at that time. There were audio downloads for speakers and nonfiction, but not for the fiction self-publishing niche.
Many authors are scared of technology, but I had a technical background. I thought, “I can do this.”
In March 2009, I recorded my first episode. I phoned a lady for an interview on a proper land-line phone and put her on speaker. Then I held a recorder next to the phone and conducted the interview holding the recorder.
That started me off into podcasting, and I realized I could talk to some pretty big names. Some people I’ve interviewed over the years don’t speak for hire. You can’t book them as consultants, but they will do a podcast interview.
I was also pretty lonely because I didn’t know many authors when I started, and I also wanted to learn. I thought that maybe if I started to help people, a community of authors would form. So, I started the podcast to learn and to help people.
It wasn’t until 2015 that I started to make money from my podcast.
How did you monetize your podcast?
Thomas: How do you specifically monetize your podcast?
Joanna: I’m extremely careful about the companies I associate with. In the author space, some companies will offer you money, but you don’t want to be associated with them. It’s important to have your ethics decided before you move into monetization.
I started monetizing by seeking corporate sponsorships from companies I already had relationships with.
I’ve been speaking in the author niche for years and had a relationship with Kobo due to a conversation at a conference. They became my primary sponsor.
I also came up with a sponsorship fee based on my downloads. I had proven download numbers from my podcast hosting platform and blubrry. I could prove how many downloads the sponsor would be getting.
If you’ve just started a podcast, I don’t see how you can monetize unless you can find sponsorship. I now have sponsorships from Ingram Spark and Draft2Digital, which I use and highly recommend.
What’s the best kind of podcast sponsor?
Thomas: Your sponsors aren’t simply products or services you use. They are interesting to your specific audience. Kobo will pay you more for sponsorship than Casper mattress.
Many podcasters think that having a niche means they can’t get sponsors because their audience would be too small to be attractive to a sponsor. If you’re serving a niche, you may have fewer listeners, but those people are more valuable to the right kind of advertiser.
Kobo won’t advertise on an Agents of Shield podcast because most of those listeners won’t know what Kobo is.
But every person in Joanna Penn’s listening audience knows about Kobo, and they are potential customers for Kobo.
Joanna: I would go so far as to say, unless you are Tim Ferris, you need to niche down. Tim’s podcast has some random stuff on there. I think he had Casper as a sponsor, but when you have that many downloads every week, you can be sure that some people will be interested.
But if you’re in a niche with rabid fans, and your sponsor has a specific service or product they all want, you’ll make more money.
One of my listeners is into military figurines. He started a Patreon page and quickly got a lot of money from his small demographic because no one else was serving them.
How do you use Patreon?
I do two monthly episodes for my patrons, and that income stream is now up to a good level.
I also do my own marketing. For example, I’m launching a course on How to Write Nonfiction, and I will advertise it in the midroll marketing slot of my podcast.
Thomas: You already have an audience that knows, likes, and trusts you, and you’re getting 100% of the money from every sale because it’s your own product.
Joanna: If you have a podcast, you should be offering audiobooks too. You have a captive audience for audio. All they need to do is switch to another app and buy the audiobook.
To publish an audiobook, you can use ACX. I’m making decent money from my nonfiction audiobooks every month because I talk about them on my podcast.
Thomas: I narrated my audiobook partly because I already all had the equipment. But narrating your book is not as easy as recording a podcast. It can be soul-crushing, but it’s also very rewarding.
Joanna: That is why I hire a professional. I narrated my book Business for Authors, and decided I wouldn’t do it again. It’s so hardcore.
Thomas: People might hear your story and think, “It took her ten years. That sounds so hard.”
While it’s true that some things take time, you were also using old and clunky tools when you began. It was hard for independent authors to make money before Kindle existed. It was hard to make money from a podcast before Patreon had become the tool it is now.
Two years ago, no one knew what Patreon was. Today, many authors and readers already have Patreon accounts. To read your content, they simply add another author to their account.
Joanna: These days, people are much more excited about supporting independents. I’m a patron of Amanda Palmer. I get her emails and songs before they go live to everyone else. I love supporting her work.
On my Patreon, I do a private Q&A every month. I don’t do much speaking or consulting anymore, but my patrons have access to me through my monthly Patreon Q&A sessions, where they can ask their questions.
Supporting a creative directly is much more normal than it used to be. People would rather shop on Etsy than go to the mall. That’s why we’re seeing the death of malls. People are interested in the creator and the story behind the creator.
Whether you have a podcast or YouTube channel, make sure your voice is the one listeners hear. Then create a slot in your show where you talk about yourself so people get to know you.
That’s the secret.
Listeners have to care about you. People can only care about you if you are a bit vulnerable and share your difficulties. People will support you if you are honest and provide a lot of value.
Thomas: We also do a Novel Marketing patrons-only Q&A session. It’s the easiest episode we do all month because we’re just answering questions.
It’s easy to prepare because we’re not scheduling a guest and researching to create a podcast. The Q&A is one of the most valuable pieces of content we publish because we are answering our authors’ specific questions.
The benefit for the podcast host is that those questions keep you from settling into the ivory tower. Some experts start a super helpful podcast, but it becomes less helpful over time as they become bored with their own content.
For example, someone starts a podcast about podcasting. At first, it’s super helpful because the host advises people about what microphone and equipment to buy. But after a while, the host gets bored with that basic content and starts teaching more advanced things.
Suddenly they’re no longer understandable to the listener who’s just getting started, and the podcast starts losing people.
When listeners aren’t getting their questions answered, they stop listening, and beginners aren’t joining the podcast because it’s too advanced for a beginner. Suddenly the podcast’s revenue starts shrinking.
Hosting a Q&A where anyone can ask a question reminds you that not everyone understands the terminology yet. It keeps you relevant for that beginner audience.
What’s the key to sustaining an author career?
Joanna: Whether you write books, start a podcast, blog, or YouTube channel, the most important thing is that you enjoy the process.
You have to enjoy having conversations if you want to host a guest-interview podcast. It’s the same with writing. Do you still enjoy the process if no one ever sees your writing? Is it still worth your time?
That’s the only thing that will keep me going. You have to keep wanting to do this for its own sake. The money will likely come if you educate yourself and focus on the craft and business.
Thomas: If you enjoy the journey, you can have that joy, even when you’re creating in obscurity.
Some folks get destination fever. They won’t be happy until they’re a bestselling writer. But when they get there, they can’t be happy until they have a second bestseller to prove that the first wasn’t a fluke.
If they get two bestsellers, they can’t be happy until they have a New York Times bestseller. There’s always some milestone ahead of you.
Enjoying the process leasd to success, and that applies no matter what you’re creating.
To learn more about Joanna Penn, visit TheCreativePenn.com, and download the free Author Blueprint on how to write and publish independently.
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CLR Peterson, author of Lucia’s Renaissance
Heresy is fatal in late Renaissance Italy, so only a suicidal zealot would so much as whisper the name of Martin Luther. But after Luther’s ideas ignite a young girl’s faith, she must choose–abandon her beliefs or risk her life in the turbulent world of late sixteenth-century Italy.
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