I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Joanna Penn today. Joanna is the author of Pentecost and Prophecy in the ARKANE series and also runs The Creative Penn. Joanna is sharing some fantastic points about publishing from an entrepreneurial perspective!


Interview with Joanna Penn

Joanna, thank you so much for joining me! First, I’d like to ask how you chose your agent?

I had never queried my fiction before but when I attended Thrillerfest in New York in July 2012, I went along to the agent pitch session. I also met one of the agents for coffee to talk in more detail. I actually led my pitch with my self-publishing sales figures and my existing platform as well as an overview of the books so they knew where I was coming from.

I had several agencies interested as a result of that pitch session and after submitting full manuscripts and a week of discussions, I decided to go with Rachel Ekstrom at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. Firstly because we had a great rapport, and Rachel is passionate about the potential of the books. She also has a background in marketing and understands my online platform as well as how self-publishing fits into my business model. The Irene Goodman Agency also specifically addresses self-publishing in their contract which is fantastic and forward thinking as more authors play with various methods of reaching readers. I also know a number of authors who are with them who recommended the agency.

I think its critical for authors to research agents fully and go through contractuals in detail before signing anything. After all, this could be a long-term business partnership.

Why have you decided to take this new direction?

I always wanted a wide commercial audience as when I set out to write fiction, I wanted to create something I wanted to read myself. I like kick-ass action-adventure thrillers. I also like action movies with lots of explosions and I’m passionate about religion, psychology and travel. Basically I set out to write popular commercial fiction that was a cross between Dan Brown and Lara Croft, that would entertain people and take them out of their lives for a time. But the traditional route of querying and rejections didn’t interest me and I already had a growing online presence so I decided to try self-publishing. I’m an entrepreneur, so I know that sales figures often speak louder than a 1 page query letter.

Two years later, I have two independently published thrillers in the ARKANE series which have sold over 40,000 ebook copies in the last year. They both have lots of 4+ star reviews on Amazon and they have remained in the Amazon bestseller lists in the UK for months.

I realize that I can continue self-publishing and reach a fantastic audience with ebooks. But I am also aware of the commercial potential of the books, and I want the opportunity to reach more readers through print deals as well as through different translation markets. I am keen to investigate the film/TV possibilities and that is definitely something you need an agent for. I also want to become a better writer and hope to partner with an editorial team who can stretch my writing further than the freelance editors I have employed so far.

I’m also at the beginning of my author career and these are not my only ideas, or the only books I will write. I see each project as something to be evaluated on its own merits. For these commercial novels, I think pursuing a publishing deal is right, but for other books, self-publishing will be the right move. I have years of writing ahead of me so I am excited to see what kind of future I can create.

Why did you choose a U.S. agent?

I’m based in London but I wanted a US agent for two main reasons. Firstly, I sell a lot more ebooks in the US as it has a bigger market but I also think the audience likes the type of thriller I write so getting a US deal is my primary aim.

Pentecost (ARKANE #1) and Prophecy (ARKANE #2) - Joanna PennSecondly, there is a much more accepting view of authors who self-publish in the US and agents there are open to authors who choose that route. The UK has quite a snobbish attitude about what is considered to be a valid writing career. Even traditionally published bestselling genre authors are considered secondary to the award winning literary fiction authors who get a lot more press.

I know a number of authors in the US who have a hybrid business model, combining traditional publishing with self-publishing. For example, Scott Sigler, CJ Lyons and Chuck Wendig. That model isn’t so widespread or accepted in the UK yet but I hope to make it more prevalent.

You’ve confirmed you won’t sign a deal that won’t allow you to continue self-publishing. Can you tell us why?

Firstly, publishing is a business and publishers want to sell books, as do I, but their volume of sales needs to be considerably higher than mine in order to make a profit. So I am interested in seeking a traditional deal for my commercial fiction with the ARKANE series but I have other projects that wouldn’t be suitable for commercial publishing that I will self-publish. I have a non-fiction career change book out now and some other works in the pipeline that may not fit under my commercial brand J.F.Penn: Ancient mystery, modern thrill. So the first reason to keep self-publishing is for my own creative freedom.

Secondly, I am an entrepreneur and I need to make a living and self-publishing works in a more financially stable manner than traditional publishing. If you sign a deal with a publisher, even if that is a 6 figure deal, it will be split over several periods and then you may never see any royalties later. It is more of a spiked income model. But Amazon pays monthly and because of their detailed reporting, you know how much money you will get in 60 days time. It may be less money but it is monthly and will continue for as long as you are selling. In my experience, the income has gone up every time I have published a book and begun marketing it. So I like the idea of combining the spiked income with the steady monthly income to create an overall living wage.

This issue was raised by literary author China Mieville in the closing address of this years Edinburgh Festival when he talked about authors needing a salary. (scroll to the bottom, just above the last section)

I presume he doesn’t want to give up creative freedom so I shall assume he means a decent monthly wage, which is what many indie authors can now have by publishing direct with Amazon. China’s work is brilliant and if he self-published short stories in between his traditionally published novels, I think he would find that sweet spot as well.

So I am going into any negotiation with eyes wide open, seeing this as a potential business partnership. I know what I can do on my own and I am looking to go further than that with any deal, but I won’t be curtailing my future freedom or income by signing anything too fast. I have done extensive research on publishing contracts so we’ll just have to see how it goes!


About Joanna Penn

J.F. Penn is the author of Pentecost and Prophecy in the ARKANE series.

You can find her at her website, J.F. Penn. Ancient Mystery, Modern Thrill. Joanna is represented by Rachel Ekstrom at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency in New York.

Joanna also runs The Creative Penn offering articles, videos and audio on writing, publishing and book marketing. Connect with Joanna on Twitter.