After spending 13 years as a "cubicle slave in the corporate world," Joanna Penn decided to blog and write books part time. It took a few years for her to garner enough income and quit the daily grind. She has pursued her passion as an author ever since, publishing over 30 books in 149 countries and 6 languages. Her Creative Penn web site provides a wealth of information for aspiring and experienced authors alike who want to create their own "author platforms."
In the book "How to Make a Living with Your Writing," Penn shares her knowledge as an author entrepreneur in a quick, easy read with a wealth of links to other resources. Those links and her other books will keep you busy with great advise and practical tips you can use right away.
My top 4 takeaways:
Writers are entrepreneurs; they create value from what is written.
— Joanna Penn (p.7)
We all learn best by doing, so it is no surprise that writing is a skill that improves with deliberate practice. If you have aspired to be a writer, cast aside fear of failure or being judged and just start writing... and then keep writing. This is Penn's primary insight followed closely by the idea that writer's are really entrepreneurs who create value from the words they write and share with others.
Much of this fantastic little book is about how to be a productive writer and how to make a living doing it. She starts with some practical advice. Three areas in particular resonated with me.
Create a routine built on small habits that fits who you are as an author. Like Penn, my creative work is best done first thing in the morning. This is especially important if you don't have a day job that forces you to prioritize your time, and if you do have a day job, the morning is usually quiet and free of distractions.
Getting enough sleep is important with any creative or physical enterprise, so make sure you have that base covered. Writing in a fog of fatigue does not set the stage for creative works.
Penn also mentions a change of scenery if too many distractions exist at home. While she prefers libraries or cafes with her earphones plugged in, you may prefer a different context. James Clear provides some insight into why setting context is so important for developing new habits in his book Atomic Habits. I highly recommend his insights on fitting habits into the flow of your life and priming your environment if you find it difficult to get started.
Tools are a touchy subject with me, but Penn is certainly right to point out their importance. Whatever tools you choose, make sure they fit your system of writing and your flow as an author entrepreneur. Tools should find their purpose by adding value and eliminating friction, not by bending you to their will and flashy feature set.
Penn specifically mentions Scrivener. I personally use a combination of Notion for articles and Obsidian for collecting and linking notes, both of which are based on markdown. Other great tools exist. I recommend starting simple and then evolving your toolset over time. The most important focus early on is just writing.
Articles and books are my primary idea generators, followed by videos and podcasts. Penn mentions the same with respect to research, but she also gains inspiration from travel and specific sites or items that trigger ideas. Whatever your source of ideas may be, write down every idea in the form of notes in your own words. You don't have to act on them immediately; just make sure they live on until you have time to make something of them. That means putting in place a frictionless system for capturing small notes.
I started Level Up Fun as a way to, among other things, begin my own journey as a writer. For many years, my writing was firmly lodged behind the walls of corporations never to be seen by the outside world. I tried many times to write on the side, but success eluded me thanks to the insurmountable blank page and associated writer's block. I recently discovered the slip-box note-taking system and connected it to the small change approach of kaizen to finally get the wheels turning toward my aspiration of being a writer.
I have no doubt that most people face similar challenges. Writing is certainly easier for some, but I firmly believe that writing is important for everyone. We all have so much insight and wisdom to share, and it is a shame that most people never put their thoughts into words to the benefit of others.
So how to begin in a practical sense? Read, watch, listen and take notes for the things that interest you most in your own words. Consuming the works of other authors supplies ideas and increases your vocabulary, while writing is the medium for understanding what you read. Start there and be patient. As you read and take notes, the ideas will speak to you, commingle with each other and produce new insights. You will never face a blank page again, because you have been writing all along — just with small steps in the form of notes.
Your system of note-taking may differ quite a bit. Find what works for you. The perfect system is one that allows you to collect ideas and capture insights via notes that you can use later to publish works of your own — with as little friction as possible.
Start thinking about shifting your income streams from being paid by the hour to being paid for scalable assets.
— Joanna Penn (p.8)
You only have so many years on this amazing planet, so thinking in terms of "scalable assets" is attractive for getting the most out of your time here. A book, an online course or any other scalable asset continues earning money after the initial effort to create it. Scalable assets also have a compounding affect over time as you create more of them, along with your author platform and audience. Instead of working for someone else and giving up all creative rights, think about working for yourself and reaping all of the rewards. It is far from easy, but it is incredibly rewarding.
A book alone is scalable through multiple forms: on-demand print, eBook and audiobook. Selling in multiple countries and in multiple languages offers further scalability. Penn provides a treasure trove of advice on traditional publishing vs. independent (indie) publishing. Indie publishing is quite accessible these days with great tools and support. The idea of self-publishing may seem a bit scary, but authors like Penn are out there to support you in your own journey.
Similar to a stock portfolio, diversify your scalable assets so that you have more than one source of income. In addition to books, you have a wide variety of opportunities for creating scalable assets:
That is just scratching the surface. Opportunities abound as an author, especially in this digital world. Build your own author platform by starting with one asset and incrementally fanning out into other areas. Follow where the pen — and your ideas — take you!
The internet makes it possible to sell to a global audience and use your writing as the way to earn money to fund your lifestyle.
— Joanna Penn (p.1)
Content marketing is the process of creating and offering valuable content that attracts a following over time, usually targeted at a specific market segment. Most content is in digital form these days but may involve some print assets.
The freemium model is a common approach when initially building an author platform and an audience. The essence of this model is free, original content that drives interest and a following of people who value what you create. Once a significant audience is built, say a thousand followers or subscribers, then you have a highly convertible segment of people who are likely to buy future content, products and services.
Building an audience takes time. Given Penn's experience and that of many others I have studies, it can take six months or more to get traction. You must create a steady flow of valuable content over time that an audience can build trust in, and while that audience is building, it is the love of what you do that sustains.
Stop asking permission. You don’t need it.
Stop waiting to be chosen. Choose yourself.
— Joanna Penn (p.44)
The more content you create, the better you get at doing it. You also find your true identity as an author over time. Your skill and identity grow in equal measure with practical application. In addition to creating great content, Penn provides some tips for "content marketing" to simultaneously build your author platform and audience:
Steady output as an author positions you as a legitimate thought leader in certain areas based on the value people associate with the content you produce. Future opportunities open up as your library of content expands over time. This includes speaking, online courses and other services geared toward sharing what makes you so successful.
One of my favorite insights from Penn is that you will find a likeminded group of friends who are naturally attracted to you based on your work. This is especially true if you freely link to the content of other authors and engage them on social media. These people will help and support you on your journey, and you will do the same for them. I look forward to finding my own group of author entrepreneurs. Start writing today and find yours too!
The Creative Penn houses Joanna Penn's blog, online courses, books and other valuable information for aspiring author entrepreneurs. You can purchase her book and read reviews here: