How to make a Living with your Writing - reviewed by Katherine Roberts

Here's a secret that most authors know, but most readers and aspiring authors apparently still don't. Having a book published does not mean you will automatically become a millionaire. It does not mean you are rich, and it does not guarantee you a living in the long, or even the short, term. I did okay for the first seven years of my career, better than okay for a couple of them (such as when I signed my seven book contract with HarperCollins), and then the publishing world changed. Everything I knew was wrong. That's where Joanna Penn's book How to Make a Living with your Writing comes in.

I must admit that, although I enjoy books about creativity, I'm not really a great fan of 'How to' books, especially not the 'How to make a million dollars in six days' kind (rob a couple of banks springs to mind) or 'How to write a novel in 24 hours' (I tried this once for the World One Day Novel Cup and ended up with an embarrassing novella I deleted from my laptop the following day). But I'd come across Joanna Penn before through her blog The Creative Penn so thought I'd give her book a try. And I'm glad that I did, because despite - or maybe because of? - not having a traditional publishing deal, this lady knows what she's talking about.

Joanna Penn started her publishing journey in 2008 at around the time my traditional career began to show worrying signs of decline... the big book chains not ordering as many copies of my books as before, publishers going into receivership and/or being taken over by bigger publishers... editors leaving and new editors making a clean sweep... and in the middle of all that, my agent died and I got divorced, not the best timing! Other authors I know have suffered similar setbacks so I know it wasn't personal, but I felt helpless and frustrated about my seeming inability to write what publishers wanted, and this slowly turned into writer's depression (as opposed to all-out writer's block) that has lasted pretty much 10 years, during which I somehow managed to sell a middle-grade series to Templar, and reverted my rights in my out-of-print titles so I could republish them all as ebooks, but mostly just panicked and felt sick when I sat at my computer and worried about money and what else I was going to do with my life if my writing went bad. Whereas at the same time, in the same publishing environment, Joanna Penn was slowly (or remarkably quickly from the traditionally published author's point of view) building her writing into a business and producing a series of thrillers, as well as 'how to' books for her fellow indie authors. She is now, according to 'How to Make a Living with your Writing', earning a six-figure income. That's more of a living than I earned from my IT jobs back in the 1980's, let alone from my fiction, even in the best years of being traditionally published - my advances being of the mid four figure variety.

So what's the big secret? Writing better books? In the right genre? More books? Well, maybe some of all of that (and a few 'How to' books obviously don't hurt) but I think the main difference is mindset.

One of the things Joanna Penn says that really resonated with me was how she went to an author's conference and felt shocked by how insecure the traditionally published authors appeared to be. I can vouch for this. It comes from that feeling of helplessness when things go wrong. We can go home and write another book, we can even write a better book, we can write in a more popular genre, but we don't really believe it will make any difference because the outside forces seem to be so stacked against us. After a few years of being traditionally published, it's easy to lose hope that the book you are writing will ever see the light of day, let alone make it into bookshops and from there into your readers' hands. That is certainly how I've felt in recent years, and readers - particularly younger ones - grow up and move on. If they haven't heard from an author in a year, and can no longer find her books in the shops and libraries, they assume she's died or given up writing. It's clear from her book that Joanna felt much more in control of her writing career from the start, and could experiment and discover the best way for her to make a living from it, without a publishing contract with a non-compete clause strangling her creativity, or a well-meaning agent trying to guide her writing in the wrong direction.

Another difference is speed. Joanna has since published 14 books in ebook, paperback and audiobook formats worldwide on many platforms. Since 2008, working with traditional publishers and without an agent, I have produced just four new titles - my Pendragon Legacy series published by Templar - which do not yet have American editions, and are not available as audiobooks - although on the positive side UK readers can get them in beautiful hardcover editions popular with libraries and as gifts for young readers.

beautiful hardcover edition published by Templar

Joanna Penn's book is indie biased, because that is what the author knows. But it's not against traditional publication, as she makes clear when she notes that she would consider a contract for her thrillers on the right terms. Even if you do decide to go the traditional route, you can still apply much of Joanna's advice to your long term career, while accepting that many of your rights will be tied up with your publisher for a contracted period. The book is split into two parts - the first half about maximising income from your books; the second half covering associated things such as blogging, speaking, running online courses, and affiliate income, much of which would not be possible without social media and our current online publishing environment. I see the second half as being the area where you can build your own writing-associated income according to the type of writer you are and the sort of personality you have. Some of Joanna's secondary income streams do not really appeal to me, but I can see other areas that might, and the affiliate income is something all authors with a website can do even if they do nothing else.

I was scribbling notes during the first part, which deals with all the income streams possible from a new book published independently. I already knew about ebooks from republishing my backlist. I'm currently on a learning curve with print on demand, ditto cover design. I did not realise indie authors could publish their own audiobooks at on a 50% royalty split with the narrator and no upfront costs. So far, none of my titles have been made into audiobooks so that's certainly something I'm going to investigate further! I've also realised I need a mailing list - I haven't got one owing to my mainly under-age readership, but perhaps parents, librarians and teachers might be interested in signing up on behalf of those too young? I am now publishing some books for YA readers who could sign up themselves... my blog could be more useful... it's about time I wrote something that's a bit easier to market... and stopped throwing stuff away if publishers say 'no'... oh, yes, I can feel my mindset changing already. Thank you, Joanna!

Katherine Roberts' backlist titles are available as ebooks from all the main online stores, and her first indie-published project The Legend of Genghis Khan is out now for Kindle on her signature list for older readers.

Read the first book "Prince of Wolves" for only 99c/99p on a Countdown deal (price rises after today) and download the second title "Bride of Wolves" FREE until 22nd March.


Jenny Alexander said…
What a useful review for what sounds like a useful book, Katherine. I'll order a copy!
Bill Kirton said…
Your enthusiasm for the book's catching, Katherine. If it impresses someone with a track record like yours it must be worth a read. But does it have a chapter on overcoming an innate laziness and mañana attitude?
Chris Longmuir said…
I reviewed this book prior to its release and I can confirm it's an excellent book. I've also sat on a panel at Crimefest with Joanna, and her presence is electrifying. She has so much energy you can practically see sparks coming from her. But as well as being a good writer, Joanna is first and foremost a business woman. She built and ran several business prior to becoming a writer, and she treats writing and publishing in the same way. She looks at all the angles on how to turn her writing into a profitable enterprise and runs courses as well as podcasts and a variety of other things. A book well worth reading, although most of us won't have the energy to follow all the recommendations.
I think that's why this book worked for me, Chris - and yes, Joanna's energy comes through to make it an inspirational read. Where writers can get the energy to do/try all these things sounds like the subject for another book...
Mari Biella said…
Sounds like a very interesting read, Katherine. I'm really only just beginning to get an idea of what we can do to increase our presence. Of course, the problem is that there is so much that we could potentially do - and where do people find the time and energy?
Lynne Garner said…
Intersting post. Have added the book to my increasing reading list.
As Joanna says in her book, I think it's important for everyone to find their own way - decide where it is worth spending our limited time/energy, and concentrate on doing those things? I used to think writing a brilliant book would be enough...
Umberto Tosi said…
Been there. Done that. And I agree. It's the mindset. Thanks for a fine review.

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