How To Write a Nonfiction Book With Joanna Penn

A few people online have helped me with my creative career either directly or indirectly.

Joanna Penn is one of those people.

I first started listening to the Creative Penn podcast by Joanna Penn in 2014 just before I started Become a Writer Today.

Over the past five years, Joanna’s show and books have taught me valuable lessons about creativity, self-publishing and writing books that sell.

I’ve admired Joanna’s work for years and I was finally able to interview Joanna for his Become a Writer Today podcast episode.

In this interview, Joanna explains:

  • How she approaches writing a nonfiction book
  • Why some entrepreneurs rely on ghostwriters for writing a book
  • What her creative process for fiction and nonfiction looks like (and why they differ)
  • The question every aspiring author should ask before they write their book

And lots more

Connect with Joanna at

Books and Travel

The Creative Penn

Check out her book How to Write Non-Fiction: Turn Your Knowledge Into Words

Listen Now

Transcript Below


Bryan Collins:   So, hi Joanna, it’s great to talk to you. I’ve been following you online and reading some of your work for a while now. One of the more recent books I read was your book “How to Write a Non-Fiction Book” and as somebody who writes non-fiction it absolutely resonated a lot with me. But I’m wondering if somebody wants to write a non-fiction book because they want to build their business, for example, or because they want to express an idea, is that something that they should do?

Joanna Penn:                     Well, first of all, hello Bryan and thanks for inviting me on the show. So in terms of writing non-fiction, I think there’s often two ways that people come to it. And if people have a business, I still think those two things apply. So first of all, there’s that kind of, it bubbles up from the bottom idea which is what happened with me with my first non-fiction book about career change. I just felt like I needed to write this book. And then the other way, when you have a business, a bit like you and I do writing books for authors, is you have an audience already or you have a business already and you want to serve that existing market. So I think both of those are very valid reasons to write a non-fiction book.

Joanna Penn:                     But, if you’re a business owner specifically, then you need to start thinking about what do I want to achieve with this book? So that kind of gets into a more nuanced question. For example, if you want to get more speaking gigs, for example, you might write a big chunky, magnum opus book that will look good in hardback, that might get you a traditional book deal and will be a good thing for speaking. But if you want to actually make, let’s say some income, from the book, you might want to write three smaller books which will probably make you more income than one.

Joanna Penn:                     So those are some of the initial things to think about.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah, that’s a good point. In fact I was talking to somebody recently and he was saying that if you set out to write a non-fiction book, just with the purposes of increasing your income, perhaps because it’s something you want to do on the side, that’s probably not the most efficient way to do it. It should be about more than just earning an income. Is that something that you’ve noticed over the years through writing your non-fiction books?

Joanna Penn:                     Yeah, well, I think again, there’s two points to that. In terms of making money with non-fiction, most non-fiction authors have an ecosystem. So often, the book is lead generation for other parts of their business. So again, maybe it’s speaking, maybe it’s products, maybe it’s consulting, editing services or other services. It might be software, it might be affiliate sales, that kind of thing. For example, I have a book called “Successful Self-Publishing” which is free as an e-book. And I’m very happy to give it away for free because it’s full of other things that people might decide to buy which will make me some money. So I think that’s one way to look at it, is yes the book may make a little bit of money from sales. But it will make you more money in that sort of reputations-base or thinking about an ecosystem behind the book is a good idea.

Joanna Penn:                     And then, the other, we’ve got to also say that many people write a non-fiction book because they want to share an experience so they, some people listening might have that thing inside them that they have to share or a story that they want to share to help other people. So I think non-fiction books can serve so many purposes. They can build authority, you can work out what you think about something which is pretty exciting. Or you can use it as an excuse for research into a topic that’s really interesting. So I do think that money for non-fiction authors, it’s definitely up there and super important. But when you’re writing a book, I think it has to be more than money because it’s hard writing a book. You and I both know that. So you have to have a bigger why behind your project, I think. You know, why are you doing this really? Who are you serving? How are you helping both yourself and also other people?

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah, definitely establishing the why is important. Perhaps it’s to serve people like you were saying or it’s because you have that system that would help you grow your business. Recently, I read a non-fiction book by somebody who sells software. I won’t say who the person is but the book was excellent. But then I was kind of surprised and a little bit disappointed to find out that the person didn’t actually write the book, they just hired a ghostwriter to write it. So, that kind of leads me to the question, should somebody write their book themselves or should they perhaps hire somebody who can turn their ideas into something that they can publish?

Joanna Penn:                     This is a great question and there are two sides to this. There will be the purists like you just said you were disappointed. But the likelihood is, so I know ghostwriters, professional ghostwriters who do this for their job will spend a lot of time with the person that they are ghostwriting for. So for example, a lot of very successful business people or media people will not write their books. Like if you see a memoir on the shelf by somebody famous, chances are they did not write that book. I mean writing is a specific skill. But what a ghostwriter will often do, let’s say with a businessperson as the example, is they will sit down with that businessperson or they will interview that businessperson or they will listen to … you know if you listen to my backlist of 400 podcasts, you could probably write a book in my voice.

Joanna Penn:                     So, you know, ghostwriters will become that ghost, they will take information and the voice of the person they’re writing for and they will deliver that. So even if the person didn’t’ actually type all of those words, then it’s still come from them, it’s still based on what they believe. So I’m probably of that sort of ilk. If you’re running a successful business and you want to help other people with what you know, then what’s the harm in hiring someone to help write your book?

Joanna Penn:                     This is the thing about serving the audience. And also serving your own purposes. Obviously, those business people, or let’s take a political situation. We see books coming out from people who are running for U.S. president in a couple of years time. That seems to be the trend. So there’s no way those people write their own books. And they, why should they? So I think that there are these two different sides. But just because you’re a good writer doesn’t make you good at business. And just because you’re a great businessperson, doesn’t make you a good writer. And in fact the more successful you are in your field, probably it’s better to hire an expert.

Joanna Penn:                     What I would say to anyone thinking of hiring someone is please pay your ghostwriter appropriately. And there have been cases in the author community quite recently where ghostwriters have been used and there has been plagiarism issues and I think that’s got a lot to do with the way that people are treating ghostwriters. So there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it as long as you are making sure it’s your voice being shared and also that you’re paying someone to be professional.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah, that’s good advice. So when it comes to the productivity angle of writing a book and you want to write that book faster because you want to get it out into the world. Is there anything that you’ve learned from writing several non-fiction books over the years that you wish you’d known when you started out?

Joanna Penn:                     Right, well, I think the biggest thing with productivity … well, first of all, the big question of what do you want to achieve with this book is going to help you. Because if your goal is, okay I’ve got a business which is on communication skills for CEOs then write a book on communications skills for CEOs. Don’t start writing a book on yoga. Unless you want to change your career or you want to do it for some creative project. So that’s the first thing, be very clear on what your definition of success, who you’re serving, what you want to achieve. That’s going to stop you “wasting words” because you know what you’re going to write. So the first thing is know what you’re going to write.

Joanna Penn:                     The second one is schedule time. Most successful people who … well yeah, let’s face it, who has any time? It’s not even if you’re in top of your field, you have to schedule the time to do the book. So what you’ll need to do it actually get out your diary, however you plan your time, and put in blocks of time for this book. And if you say, “oh I’ll just write when I have time,” that is never going to happen. So definitely scheduling your time is probably the most important thing

Joanna Penn:                     And then, one tip for non-fiction writers in particular. I say writers, is dictation. This can be a way to get your first draft done very quickly. So yes if you work with a ghostwriter, you can have someone interview you and they can write it for you. But if you dictate, you can just speak into a recorder, you can send that off to be transcribed and you can get a first draft of a book done pretty fast. This is especially good if you’re a speaker because it’s likely that you have PowerPoint decks or you have notes or you have things you’ve done for presentations and you can just perform that into a microphone, get it transcribed and then you can start editing that into a book. I think that that may help a lot of people who want to write non-fiction because it’s getting the words down for that first draft that is so much hard work if you’ve never written a book before. Even if you have written a book before. So, those are important things.

Joanna Penn:                     One other thing I say is structuring non-fiction is critical. It’s absolutely critical to structure your book in an effective way. Books are linear and they are more linear in an age of audiobooks. So audiobook non-fiction is huge and in fact my books are starting to sell more in audio for non-fiction than in e-book for example. Print books still selling really well but audiobook is taking off. In a print book or an e-book, you can flip between chapters. But with an audiobook, people are listening in the car on their commute. So you need to make sure you’ve structured the book so it makes sense in a journey for the reader. And that’s where you might need help if you’ve not done this before. Or even if you have. You need to be able to take your reader through that journey. So those are some tips.

Bryan Collins:                     I’m glad you mentioned that about dictation. One of the lessons I’ve learnt over the past few years is that writing isn’t necessarily typing. And I’ve actually been using transcription services to write articles faster. I know that’s helped me a lot, particularly because I had RSI at one point from typing all day.

Joanna Penn:                     Yeah, I mean, also people can use Dragon which has now got a cloud app for your phone called Dragon Anywhere. So you can be … you know let’s say you are in the car and you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you can just kind of click it on and dictate a bit. I’m glad to hear you say that as doing freelance articles. Because you know, that’s the truth about typing, you get RSI. Where as if you can kind of put on a headset or speak into your phone, your arms, your body, you can be walking, you can be on the treadmill if you don’t want to be outside. But dictation is growing. And in fact, the idea of voice first. I mean you and I are talking and we’re generating words from our voices. And then some people might get those words into their brain through listening.

Joanna Penn:                     So we haven’t even connected in a black on white sense but we’re still connecting with our words. So this is something I think is so important in what is a rising voice-first world, especially people interacting with their phones via voice-assistance. We’re moving into that kind of space. So definitely you don’t have to type your book for you to be a writer.

Bryan Collins:                     Okay so I’ve done my research for my book, I have my outline ready and I’ve decided whether I want to work with a ghostwriter or not. And now I’m sitting down to actually write the first draft of the chapters. Can I just make it up or do I really need to approach it like a journalist and use the facts?

Joanna Penn:                     Again it would totally depend on what type of book this is. So, if it’s the history of Russia in the 18th century, then yeah, do some research. But if it’s like, you and I write more, let’s say self help. My book on how to write non-fiction, yes I did a lot of research but its mainly from my experience. Now I have used quotes and this is definitely, I’m not a lawyer et cetera but I have used quotes and attributed those quotes from people that I’ve researched. If you do surveys, you can do interviews, you have to make sure you have permission to use survey quotes and things like that.

Joanna Penn:                     But certainly, the idea of truth is going to depend on your genre. If your book is for history people, then it has to be true. Or, even we’ve seen with politics, we’ve seen some interesting stuff there too around that needs good journalism. It needs backing up of quotes and fact-checking. But I’m not going to fact-check my book on how to write non-fiction. So this again will really depend on your angle.

Joanna Penn:                     I mean, most business people, if we’re talking about that group in particular, who are writing a book, won’t necessarily need to do lots of research because many non-fiction books come from the experience of the writer. So, yeah, that’s the main question. What type of book is it and who are your audience?

Bryan Collins:                     Is there anything I should know when it comes to getting my book ready from the point of view of branding? Do I need to make a master brand of my business or can I go in a different direction?

Joanna Penn:                     Yeah, well, if you are aiming to use the book as lead generation, then yes, I would say you want it to match the brand of your business. The brand is bigger than just the images for example. So that’s the sort of “Communication for CEOs,” that obviously has quite a corporate look about it where as if you’re writing something about yoga, that might have a very different feel. And again, this will differ if you get a traditional publishing deal, if you want a traditional publishing deal, if you’re in charge of the publishing process, which a lot of non-fiction authors do now. Especially if they have some money behind them.

Joanna Penn:                     But I would say that yes, you will generally want to match the brand of your book with your niche.

Bryan Collins:                     So I’ve published my book on Amazon, do you think people will notice or will they care whether it was self-published or traditionally published?

Joanna Penn:                     No, so, regardless of where your book is, readers don’t really shop by publisher. They don’t go into a shop and say “hey, give me the latest Wiley book.” Or they don’t go on Amazon and type “latest Wiley book.” You know, they’re actually looking for a topic, they’re searching for an answer. So actually, this is a little tip on marketing for non-fiction, is yes you want your non-fiction book title to be SEO, search engine optimized. So that’s why my book is called “How To Write Non-Fiction” I think yours is as well. Because if people are looking for that, then that’s how they can find it.

Joanna Penn:                     But I think that the main thing if you’re going down the independent publishing route, and I know a lot of non-fiction authors who do this, is that you want to use professional designers, the same professionals that traditional publishers use these days. And then you can do things like hardbacks now through IngramSpark. You know you can do your audiobook. In fact, many non-fiction authors want to read their audiobooks themselves. You can hire a studio, you can hire a director. All of these things are possible if you have a budget. And of course if you want your book to be in bookstores, libraries, all of that, that’s fine, too. These days you can use IngramSpark for your print books as well as the established sort of Amazon, Kobo, iBook, Apple Books type of thing. And with audio you can use ACX, you can use Findaway Voices and you can have your audio in just as many places, in fact more places, than traditional publishers.

Bryan Collins:                     So that’s a lot of new skills for somebody to learn for the first time. So how do you balance learning new skills about writing and publishing books versus running your business and all the other things that I suppose you need to do?

Joanna Penn:                     Great question. And it’s funny because I’m learning a lot right now, I am doing fiction narration which is quite different for me. But firstly, I’d say that anyone who is in the entrepreneurial space is someone who loves to learn. I don’t think you can be a successful entrepreneur without loving learning in some way. So I think for me, yes, you learn the skill you need. So if you’re someone who hasn’t written a book before, hasn’t published a book before then sure, write the book, forget everything else. You can learn that later, it’s kind of just in time learning. It’s also important to do just in time learning because the markets change everyday. I mean it really is only in the last six months that we’ve seen an explosion of possibilities for publishing audio around the world. I mean it’s very exciting what’s happening right now.

Joanna Penn:                     Oh, yeah, I think the balance for me is everyday I try and create something new and everyday I’m also, I have time for running my business and that might be marketing, that mig ht be learning something new, writing an article, whatever. So, yeah, I think as long as you try to make time for creation and also business time, then you’ll be fine.

Bryan Collins:                     Do you have an ideal early morning routine? Or do you see what happens on a particular day?

Joanna Penn:                     Well, it depends. If I’m in first draft creation mode, then I am generally at a local café by 7 a.m. And I do kind of 7 till 9:30 and then I go do some exercise. So I mentioned yoga, I go to yoga or I go spinning for example or go for a walk because I find two and a half hours of creation and my brain is dead. And then I’ll come back, probably do some admin so I try and do my creation before my emails.

Joanna Penn:                     If I’m in first draft mode, I’ll book some time at a local co-working space to write. I can’t create fiction especially at my desk where we’re talking right now. I feel that having a different physical space for creation vs. business admin marketing stuff is super important for me. Because when I’m here at this business desk, I’m like oh my goodness my to-do list is huge, I need to do all this. But when I’m away, when I’m focused on creation, I don’t do any of that, I don’t even think about it. So, if people are struggling with that, make sure you have a different physical space to create as to the physical space where you do everything else that you have to do in your life. And if you’re struggling, you know maybe you’ve got kids like you do, then it might be that you have to go to a café. I find that noise-canceling headphones are magic in the local café. Or book a room in a co-working space as well.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah, I’ve done all of those things. There’s actually a library nearby where I live as well so sometimes I go there. I was also interested about your idea about flow state. Do you think it’s possible to enter a flow state for about two and a half hours everyday when you’re new at this? Or is it something that you have to kind of cultivate over time?

Joanna Penn:                     I would say that possibly one percent of any creative work is written in flow. I mean, I think the flow state is not something you are necessarily waiting for. I mean Stephen King says it, don’t wait for the muse. The muse may eventually turn up if you’re in the same place everyday from 9 till 3, I think he says. I mean Steven King writes a lot more than I do. But, yeah, so I think … you’re a freelance writer. And I think that’s the attitude. Freelance writers are often very successful with book sales because you have the attitude which is, “yeah I write words, that’s what I do, there’s nothing mysterious necessarily about writing words, it’s just something I do.” And I think that’s what you have to start with. So you go to the page and even if nothing comes out, if you’re like “uhf, I don’t know what I’m writing” and you just start writing “I don’t know what I’m writing,” or whatever you’re going to do. Find a writing prompt.

Joanna Penn:                     But, essentially, once you make the time, if you turn up on the page, you’re going to start writing. And then occasionally there are those wonderful periods when you go “wow okay, that’s alright, I’ll take that.” And I actually find the flow state probably happens more with fiction than non-fiction. I feel like non-fiction you’re focus should be on serving a customer. Always thinking of the person who’s going to read it.

Joanna Penn:                     So yeah, I think flow is a really interesting thing but definitely don’t wait for the flow or don’t wait for the muse, just get down there and do the work.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah, that’s good advice, you’re got to turn up and hit your word count for the day. One other thing I suppose I’m interested in is, what’s working right now when it comes to selling books? It seemed like last year was a great year for Amazon ads and I know you touched on audiobooks there. Is there anything else in particular that you think people should know about?

Joanna Penn:                     Well, I think, I think more and more that your marketing strategy has to be based on what you enjoy doing because otherwise it’s going to kill you. So yeah, if you want to sell e-books on Amazon or even print books on Amazon, then doing Amazon ads is a great strategy. But say you want to sell books on Kobo or say you want to sell audiobooks in Ireland or say you want to get books into libraries in Australia, then you’re marketing strategy will be different depending on the market you want to serve.

Joanna Penn:                     Or, say you do have this book on let’s say communication for CEOs, then maybe the best thing for you to do is actually target speaking conventions for that target market and actually sell books bulk into those markets that have nothing to do with Amazon. So, there are completely different marketing strategies depending on what your goal is and what you enjoy as I say. So I’ve based my business on really, content marketing. So blogging, podcasting, which works very well for non-fiction. Whereas I’d say, social media, yeah, it can be useful but you’re going to get much more bang for your buck in terms of time spent as talking to CEOs, you actually speak at a CEO conference for example.

Joanna Penn:                     So, I would say there are no rules with marketing. It’s all about, who are your audience, where do they hang out, what do you want to achieve and then think before jumping onto the latest thing.

Bryan Collins:                     And finally Joanna, you talked a lot about non-fiction. But if I have been listening to your podcasts carefully, I understand that your focus for 2019 is going to be fiction and your all new podcast.

Joanna Penn:                     Yes, indeed. So I write fiction as J. F. Penn. And I’m now podcasting as Jo Frances Penn at booksandtravel.page. So it’s interesting because it is a kind of non-fiction way of trying to sell fiction because all my thrillers are based on different places. So the new podcast is very much looking at what are the places behind people’s books both fiction and non-fiction. So yeah, I write thrillers and it’s super fun. But yeah, I still like both writing fiction and non-fiction. I feel it gives me a kind of good, creative balance. But people can find out more about the non-fiction at thecreativepenn.com. And that’s Penn with a double N.

Bryan Collins:                     Thanks, Joanna. It was great to talk to you.

Joanna Penn:                     Thanks so much Bryan.

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