J.F.Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author. Her books, Pentecost, ein ARKANE thriller, and Desecration-Verletzung (from Ullstein Midnight) are available now. You can also enter to win a print copy of Pentecost below.
(If you prefer, you can read the interview in German here.)
• Some time ago, you decided to use your initials on the covers of your thrillers. Why?
I have two quite different brands and maintain them both separately so two names make sense. I write inspirational self-help non-fiction for authors under Joanna Penn – which is also my professional speaking brand. Then I express my darker side in my fiction as J.F.Penn. Carl Jung talks about embracing the shadow in order to become a whole person, and I feel like these two sides enable me to do just that.
• Do you think that some readers have a problem with female authors who describe brutality and violent murder?
Statistics about crime and thriller books show that most readers of the genre are women anyway, and I think that women are just as capable of violence as men. We just express it in a different way. I’m an equal opportunities writer, but to be honest, it’s mostly women doing the killing in my books – and men doing the dying …
• Do you think there are male and female genres?
The rise of ebooks has demonstrated that people will read across many genres and they don’t have to admit to it in public anymore through visible book covers! I know plenty of men who are far more romantic than I am, and many women who devour crime and thrillers. The ARKANE books also sit within Action/Adventure, a traditionally male domain and I’m thrilled about that. I think we will see a lot more cross-genre mix up as the digital revolution continues.
• What kind of books do you like to read?
I read widely, finding recommendations through twitter (I’m very active @thecreativepenn) as well as podcasts and Goodreads. I love thrillers, particularly those with global settings and I am a sucker for anything religious or supernatural. Basically, I write what I love to read! I also read literary fiction, some sci-fi and dark fantasy. I read a lot of business and entrepreneurial books, as well as travel memoir and psychology. Some recent favorites would include ‘ Sharp Objects,’ by Gillian Flynn and ‘I am Pilgrim,’ by Terry Hayes.
• Which authors have influenced you?
My role model is Steven King, for his longevity, the way he satisfies readers and the way he mixes the supernatural with his plots across different genres. ‘The Stand’ is one of my favorite books and I loved ‘Doctor Sleep.’ For the ARKANE series, I was influenced by James Rollins’ Sigma books, and also Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series. Desecration is more influenced by John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series.
• In the UK and USA you are a celebrated self-published (indie) author. Has the perception of self-publishing and indie-authors changed over the last few years?
Absolutely, and I believe the same change is now beginning to happen in Germany. 2009 marked the start of the cultural shift in the US as authors began to see success by publishing directly through Amazon and other retailers. For UK authors, I think 2013 was really the year that publishing started to take indies seriously. I now speak at various traditional publishing events and the negativity is beginning to switch to interest. To be honest, readers don’t even notice as most won’t check the publisher name when they buy a book. Serious indie authors doing this for a living just focus on writing a great book, going through the editing and production process, and serving customers who want great books at a reasonable price. I’m thrilled to be doing this for a living!
• The market for English books is far bigger than the market for books in the German language. What made you decide to have your books translated?
Germans are huge readers and also enjoy crime and thrillers, plus I have a number of German friends, so I wanted to have the books available for them. I’m also an entrepreneur and one of the great opportunities for authors is making sure all the foreign rights are exploited as well as just the English language ones. Plus, I spoke in Berlin in 2013 and enjoyed my time there so much that I wanted to have an excuse to come back and spend more time in Germany! I’ll be at Frankfurt Book Fair this year on the Ullstein Midnight author stand as well as at the Kobo stand.
• How do you organize your writing? Where do your ideas come from, how do you do your research and how do you transfer your ideas into a plot and then into writing?
In terms of organization, the best writing tool for authors is Scrivener. The software allows you to write without distraction, but also has brilliant drag and drop design so you can reorganize chapters. Plus, you can output files for Kindle and ePub so you don’t have to pay for a formatter when you want to publish.
My ideas come from places I visit and things I want to research. For example, I went to the British Museum Vikings exhibition in March and saw a staff of magic power as well as some awesome weapons. I decided to write a novella based around that and ‘Day of the Vikings’ was born. Once I have an idea, I usually visualize the opening scene in my mind – it’s got to be dramatic, and most of my books have some kind of dark foreshadowing at the beginning. Then I loosely plan about 10 scenes in Scrivener and get writing. I do more detailed replotting after about 30,000 words.
• What does your typical writing day looks like?
I’m a morning person so I tend to write first thing. I often work in the London Library, where Agatha Christie, Bram Stoker and Charles Dickens were members. I write in Scrivener and do my research as I write, but I do use Antisocial to block email and social media, so I don’t get distracted. I listen to rain and thunderstorms on repeat when I write – perhaps that’s because I’m used to the British weather!
• This is an unavoidable question for every self-publishing author: Was this your choice from the beginning?
Yes, I’m an entrepreneur – I don’t like asking permission! I prefer to try things myself and see what works. With traditional publishing, everything takes a number of years and you have very little control. As an indie author, I can get my books to market much faster and be able to influence everything. I can focus on serving my readers with great books. Either way, the author has to do much of the marketing these days.
Of course, I work with professional editors and translators, most of whom have worked with the big publishing houses, to ensure a quality product. I also have a professional designer and a team of people who help me. I prefer the term ‘indie author’ to ‘self-publishing’ because none of us do this alone.
While Pentecost is self-published, Desecration-Verletzung is published by Ullstein-Midnight, a new imprint for crime and thrillers. I’m always happy to work with publishers for specific projects, but I also enjoy my independence!
• You are a member of an organization for indie-authors. Do you think it’s important for indie authors to unite for a common cause?
One of the best things about being an indie author is the community. You write your book alone, but you can now learn from authors all over the world through blogs and podcasts and social media. Having an organization like the Alliance of Independent Authors gives us more collective power to negotiate and try to change things, as well as encouragement and help on the journey. We all share marketing tips and many authors form promotional groups, so it benefits everyone. The worldview of the indie author is one of expanding horizons and global opportunities – it is a very exciting time to be an author!
• Looking back at your career, what advice would you give aspiring authors?
It takes several books before you find your voice, so don’t obsess too much over the first one. Also, take a long term view of your career. You’ll never make a living from just one book, and most authors have a backlist of many books before they can go full-time. Plan what you will create over the next couple of years and then focus on that, rather than obsessing over daily sales.
• What was hardest thing to learn when you became a self-published author?
The hardest realization for any author, no matter how you publish, is that no one really cares about your book! You have to learn about marketing in order to start connecting with readers, and over time, you will attract an audience.
• You also wrote a book about speaking in public for introverts. Do authors have to go into public when they think of themselves as sensitive and retiring?
Successful authors need to know how to speak – you will eventually get asked to a literary conference on a panel, or onto the radio or TV for an interview, or perhaps onto a podcast or Google hangout. That’s true whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, so it’s best to be prepared to speak before you really need to. It can also be a brilliant way to connect with readers and being a good speaker can raise awareness of your books. Equally, being a bad speaker can instantly put people off. When you speak, you are representing your book – if people connect with you, they may go on to buy your work.
I’m an introvert – which means I need to be alone a lot in order to recharge my energy – and many writers are too. This just means we need to manage our energy at festivals and events, making sure there’s enough alone time and then performing at 150% when we speak. It’s still authentically you, but you’re giving energy to the audience. I love speaking, and it’s a great way to stand out as an author.
• Would you recommend that authors blog?
Blogging changed my life! Seriously, it did ¬– but it’s not for everyone. I’ve had several blogs but my main site these days is TheCreativePenn.com where I have been sharing the journey of being a writer since Dec 2008. Blogging can help you on a number of levels:
* Find your authentic voice – I spent years writing business documents so my ‘voice’ was very stilted with no personality. If you look at the earliest posts on my blog compared to recent ones, you’ll see the difference. Without blogging, my writing style wouldn’t have relaxed and I truly believe that I couldn’t have started writing fiction without it. I’ve also found that the more authentic you are online, the more you connect with people, so blogging helps liberate your attitude too to sharing in this genuine way. You might freak out at the beginning but over time you relax.
* Find a community – Through blogging and podcasting, as well as twitter, I’ve connected with thousands of writers across the world. We all learn from each other and there’s a generosity and positive energy about creation that I love.
* Find a readership. If people know, like and trust you, they are more likely to buy your books – so sharing information, inspiration or entertainment can help you run your creative Business.
Thank you for the interview, Joanna!
Joanna Penn gives away two copies ofPentecost to readers of this blog. If you want to read the thriller send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact form “Kontaktformular”. July 27th 2014 is the last day to send in your name.