This week’s guest on The 21st Century Creative Podcast is Joanna Penn, an Award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers and dark fantasy, which she writes as J.F. Penn. She is also known for dispensing information and inspiration for authors and creatives via her popular podcast The Creative Penn, and her books and courses.
She’s here to talk about Productivity and Audio for Creatives – two subjects that I think have recently become a lot more relevant due to Coronavirus, drawing on insights from her books Productivity for Authors and Audio for Authors.
In the first part of the show I reflect on the sad news that Kristin Linklater, the world-renowned voice teacher who gave me a wonderful interview for Season 1 of the podcast, passed away last month.
I talk about what I learned from Kristin as a teacher, and also about the positive news that her team and network of teachers will be continuing her work at the Linklater Voice Centre in Orkney. If you have been touched by Kristin’s work and you would like to help it continue, you can contribute to The Kristin Linklater Appeal.
In the coaching segment I share a wish for us all, about how we approach the world after lockdown and social distancing.
Regular listeners to The 21st Century Creative will already be familiar with Joanna Penn, a best-selling thriller author and creative entrepreneur who has appeared on the show twice before, talking about Mindset for Creatives and how to be a Healthy Creative.
I’m delighted to welcome her back today to talk about Productivity and Audio for Creatives – two subjects that I think have recently become a lot more relevant due to Coronavirus.
Joanna is a good friend of mine who lives in Bath, just down the road from me in Bristol. In normal times we meet up for a coffee every few weeks to talk creativity and business and generally set the world to rights.
But now we’re not allowed to meet in person, one of the first things we did when lockdown started was to meet up for a virtual coffee on Zoom and try to make sense of the new reality, and work out what we could do to help our fellow creatives find their way forward.
Because she’s always leaning into the future, exploring new technologies and trends, so she’s a great person to have in your corner at a time like this. And she’s got some really valuable insights into what we should be focused on going forward.
We also talked about her two latest non-fiction books, Productivity for Authors and Audio for Authors. Both of these were written before Covid arrived on the scene, but as I say to Jo in the interview, I think they are both very timely in the new reality for different reasons.
Starting with the Productivity book, it’s been a real eye-opener to see how millions of people are suddenly having to adapt to new ways of working, taking more responsibility for their time and their productivity, and Joanna’s book is full of great advice on this subject.
Because like most authors, she’s been doing this for years – working alone in her home office and her local cafe, and producing 33 books as well as hundreds of podcast episodes and blog posts, as well as a whole range of elearning courses.
The second book, Audio for Authors, is a really interesting and unusual topic – because there are plenty of books that talk about creating specific things like audiobooks or podcasts, but this is the first one I’ve come across that takes a strategic look at what audio as a medium can do for your creative career or business.
And let’s face it, with conference venues, theatres and other spaces for connecting with people having taken a massive hit recently, it’s more important than ever that we as creatives find new ways to reach audiences, and Joanna makes a compelling case for using audio to do this – again, whether or not you’re an author or another type of creative.
As you’ll hear in this interview, Joanna practises what she preaches about being an engaging and inspiring presence in audio media, which is why her interviews have been some of the most popular episodes of The 21st Century Creative. I’m sure you’ll find this one just as useful as the others as we gear up for the challenges ahead.
Joanna Penn interview transcript
MARK: Welcome back, Joanna.
JOANNA: Oh, thanks for having me back on the show, Mark. This is always fun.
MARK: And goodness me, how the world has changed since you were last on the show! Who would have guessed?
JOANNA: I know! It is crazy times and I feel like where we are now as we record this, I’ve been through the roller coaster of emotion and I know everybody will have had their own journey through the pandemic. We’re not even through it yet, but it’s so interesting how this has affected our work and our personal lives, obviously. And even if we’ve made it through health-wise, it’s changing so much. So, this is definitely a time for resilience, which I know you know a lot about.
MARK: Yeah. And, obviously, you’ve got your own experience as a writer, but you’ve got the finger on the pulse of the writing community.
Is it too early for you to identify any big changes that you’re noticing for authors and maybe creatives in a wider sense?
JOANNA: I think in a business sense, what is incredibly interesting is how fast everyone is changing their business model. So, of course, traditional publishing with books in physical bookstores was basically decimated from the middle of March, April into May, definitely a massive impact. Many publishers are reinventing themselves with more digital sales, more audio, which we’ll come back to, subscription models which they’ve put off for years. So, definitely that’s happening.
Selling direct is something I’ve been personally doing. I’ve obviously done digital sales, like you, for a decade, but selling direct to an audience through an email list and just not caring about ranking or anything like that. Just caring about protecting cash flow in a difficult time when cash flow is important to help our families and keep the bills paid.
I think what’s interesting is how fast we can pivot if things are difficult. And the resilience, again, of the digital business model is pretty incredible, I think. And something we want to keep creating. That is what we want to do.
How do we do that in difficult times both through the productive methods, but also how do we sell our work so we can keep doing this? I’ve been very encouraged by how the business model for an independent author works in this new world. We’ve also seen countries that have been resistant to digital, so, France, Spain, Italy, they are like 150% growth in ebooks and audiobook listening over the last…
JOANNA: Yeah. It’s been so frustrating for many years, these countries who’ve resisted digital, but it seems like this pandemic is helping people recognize that ebooks and audiobooks are not the devil. You can love print books, but you can also love the speed and the cleanliness of a digital file. I’d also say for independent authors libraries have been difficult because they have really focused on traditionally published books. But now with libraries going digital we’re all seeing a lot more library borrows for ebooks and audiobooks across library apps which we can be in. So, I really think the business models are changing in this time and I don’t believe we’re going to go back 100% to how they were.
MARK: I was listening to somebody, I think it was on James Altucher’s podcast the other day who was saying that he didn’t think COVID had changed any trends, but it had accelerated a lot of them. Which sounds like what you’re describing there.
JOANNA: Yes, absolutely. And automation as well, artificial intelligence, all of these things are accelerating fast because people are realizing, ‘Right, what do we need to do so that if this happens again, when they’re saying it’s likely to in different forms over time, how do we make sure we can carry on with our business?’ And also people working from home. How do we now shift that into the world of work?
And this might change completely places like London and New York where people suddenly realize maybe they don’t have to live in a big city anymore. Maybe they can actually live somewhere cheaper and still work in the same way. So, business models are changing, people are shifting their views.
Even like speaking, you and I both speak, we’ve done podcasting, but this is not speaking like on a stage, but what I have been to is a couple of conferences which were meant to be physically live, and the online tools that are now available for the different type of online presenting; they’ve really matured. I went to one conference the other day and it was just incredible and I realized that I need to upskill in the more formal presentation style of doing it online. And actually, that could mean I could do more speaking because I don’t have to travel.
So yes, it’s definitely accelerated these different trends and where I think we’re going to see so many changes because the investment is there to make the changes for the future.
MARK: I’ve been thinking about your two most recent books for creatives. You’ve got Productivity for Authors and Audio For Authors. And we talked about doing this interview before COVID landed, but actually I think they’re even more relevant now in a COVID-infected world for different reasons.
I’d like to start with Productivity for Authors and as usual with your books, you write them for authors, but most of the content is going to relevant to most types of creatives. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to do our usual thing of retitling it. So, this is Productivity for Creatives! And right now I’m thinking there’s maybe two – I’d like to get your take on this – I think possibly there’s two different readerships for a book like this at this point.
Firstly, there’s the people like you and me and many of our listeners who are already independent-minded creators who want to take control of our time and being creative and productive as we can. We’re probably used to working from home or at least by ourselves. And we’re probably more motivated than most people to do that.
And then secondly, you’ve got all these people who are suddenly finding that they’ve got to work on their own. They can’t go into the office. They’re having to find ways to structure their time independently.
Have you noticed an upsurge in demand for productivity advice since the lockdown started?
JOANNA: I think in that first week, I actually did a YouTube video on tips for working from home. Everybody did that first week, sort of end of March, there were so many tip things about working from home.
What’s interesting, I think, at this point is… and I’ve actually noticed it as well, is the physical pain of working from home based on your workstation. And this is very important to productivity, physical health. Obviously, we’re assuming you’re not actually sick, but what’s happened with a lot of people suddenly working from home a lot more. And even if you are a creative used to working at home, you’re probably doing a heck of a lot more than you were. I’m working harder than ever because there’s little else to do. But what’s interesting is if you’re new to working at home, you probably have a laptop and you probably just put it on your kitchen table or if you’re lucky enough, you have a desk or even your own room, although many people don’t have their own room.
But what you’ll find is you’re going to get back pain and neck pain and all this type of thing. One of my first tips, and even if you work in a cafe, usually, which I do, is I take along a little folding stand called Nexstand, N-E-X-S-T-A-N-D. And it’s tiny, portable and you can just use that on your kitchen table and that immediately helps your posture. I actually think the first week with all those tips, probably people were fine, but now, as you and I speak, we’re over a month in, a month and a half in, and people are going to be in real pain.
MARK: Yeah. And you can’t go to the physio or the chiropractor, can you?
JOANNA: Exactly. And maybe you’re doing some online yoga. I’ve certainly been doing some, but definitely, and even now I’ve been doing a lot more standing. I’m at a standing desk as we speak, and I’ve been getting a lot more lower back pain because I’m not maintaining my usual physical practices, which are, I’m still walking the one hour a day, but I’m not getting my longer walks because that’s kind of frowned upon in our country where we’re recording this. And also I’m not going to yoga. So, there were lots of things that I think productivity around physical health.
If people listening just take a bit of an inventory of your physical health right now and how’s your posture and your shoulders and your spine and what could help around that physical side. And then I think the other thing is, if you are an independent already, and you’re already doing this full time, like you and I, then maybe you have a creative groove that has been worn for years.
You and I have talked about this on my show, is that I would go to the cafe, I would put my headphones on, play rain and thunderstorms and that’s how I write. I couldn’t work on my novel for weeks when this first started because I couldn’t go to my cafe. I couldn’t put on my… well, I could put on my headphones, but that sound was associated with that place. And I had boxed myself into this scenario of creation where I couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t get back to my ritual. And both of us have talked about the importance of ritual for creative work and getting into your zone, getting into your mindset. But the problem is if that is related to something that you can’t do anymore, you have to shift it up.
I know people like yourself who are used to being at home without the children or without their partner, and suddenly there’s a house full of people. And things have changed. Whatever your life is like at home, things have changed. So, what you have to do is find your new creative groove and figure out a new way that you can get back to that zone. And actually it’s a challenge, but it’s good because it proves to you that you can change your habit. After we talked, I started listening to the Game of Thrones soundtrack, which is fun, but the instrumental version, which is fantastic. I write thrillers, so it’s a pretty good soundtrack for that. But I was able to finish my novel within a couple of weeks of changing the soundtrack and also just literally turning everything off.
I’m still at my desk where I am standing right now, but I turned all the screens off, moved everything out of the way, put on my headphones and put on this new soundtrack and it worked. And now I’m in the editing mode. But doing that proved to me that I could change my creative groove as such and come up with a new one.
So, I challenge people listening as well. Maybe that’s something you can do to change up your writing, your creative process. And in fact, maybe that’s a good thing to do anyway. And who knows what you can create if you change things up a bit? I haven’t spoken to you since I’ve thought about this, but now I’m thinking, what else can I change? If I can change such an embedded habit, what else can I change?
For example, I’m a discovery writer. I write into the dark. Some people call us ‘pantsers’, which I hate. So, discovery writer, I sit down, I just write stuff. But I really want to be a plotter. I really do. And so, well, why can’t I do that now? Why can’t I learn? Why can’t I change my process? Or maybe some people on productivity. You and I both do a bit of dictation, but I don’t do enough. And the reason I don’t do enough is because I’m a discovery writer. If I can plot, maybe I can dictate more, maybe I can create all the stories I want to foster. And so, that’s exciting to me. So, I feel quite released actually. I feel like, ‘Wow, okay, I can change my habits.’ And that’s powerful stuff.
MARK: A plotter, just for the non-authors in the audience, that’s someone who plots out the story before they write it rather than just discovering it word by word. Is that right?
JOANNA: Yeah. I generally know a character and the place and something, but I won’t know what happens during the story. I might not know how it’s going to end. Whereas a plotter will sit down and say, ‘Okay, this is the structure of the story.’ They will know the end. They might write a few sentences per chapter or someone like Jeffrey Deaver, for example, a mystery thriller writer will write 40 pages of outline. James Patterson, also a massive outliner. Some of the most successful writers are plotters. Although Stephen King is a discovery writer. So, what I would say to people is there is no right way to do your creative process, but what if there are ways to challenge ourselves to get ourselves out of ways that could be done better, I guess? Sort of not optimizing in a ‘We must be productive’ way, but in an interesting, playful, creative manner.
MARK: I think this is great and I love the way you’ve taken one change and taking it as a cue to look for another change. You changed your writing routine. You came up with a new routine, a new way of getting into the flow of your writing and now you’re thinking, ‘Maybe I can change some of the higher-level patterns in my creative process.’
And I think if there is a silver lining from this whole pandemic business – and I think we do deserve one! – then my wish would be that we all come out of it with more choices than we went in.
Because I think whether you’re an individual creative or you’re a company, lots of people are realizing, ‘You know what? We don’t have to go back to work the way we used to.’
JOANNA: And I have been changing up my business model too. So, it’s really coming down to what is working and what can I just get rid of, because now I realize I’ve got some perspective. And another thing I’ve done is I was doing quite big online courses and now I’m just doing smaller ones. Mini courses or lectures, charging less, but they’re selling a lot more. So I’m actually making more income from courses since I made that change just in March, I just went, ‘Right, I’m just going to do a small course every month.’ And that is getting more people into them. So, people listening, many creatives teach online, teaching online courses. Doing little ones might be better than the sort of mega course.
The other thing is I realized on the day that I was, ‘I’ve got to make some money. I’ve got to protect the business.’ It was the email list, you and I know this, but I felt it so deeply that one of my best assets is my email list and, of course, the podcast. But there are lots of people listening to the podcast who are not on our email list. Hello, everyone, we love you! But we can actually talk to people on our email list by pressing a button and not everyone will open it, but there were days when I could send out an email and make income on days when I needed it because I had that list. And it just reiterated to me how important the email list is.
That’s another tip for people: what can you do in your creative work and your creative business so that you can take the best stuff and double down on that, and then maybe forget about the stuff that just doesn’t need doing? Just let it go.
MARK: This is a distinction you’ve got in the productivity book, right? Between busywork and important work. And I guess maybe now for all of us, the line has changed between what seemed important before and what is important now.
How would you encourage people to look at that distinction?
JOANNA: Oh, it’s so true. One thing I did is I reached… you know, you have that moment where you think, ‘Okay, I could die.’ Obviously we’re all going to die, but, ‘I could die of this disease next week or something, and what would I just be really annoyed at if I didn’t do before I died?’ That’s how I thought about it. I’m very happy with my life, I’m a full-time author and everything, but what would I be annoyed about? And I actually wrote down two things. I am an award-nominated writer, but I want to win a prize. I want to be an award-winning writer.
MARK: And you’ll have that on your gravestone!
JOANNA: Yeah, I do. I’m going to be Mark, you know how these things work!
MARK: I know.
JOANNA: Then the other one I wrote down was, ‘Walk the Camino Francés,’ which, if people don’t know, it’s a pilgrimage from Southern France across Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. I’ve wanted to do it for 25 years. It’s a six-week walk. So, it’s one of those things.
So, I have an artistic goal and I have a physical goal. And we all know with goals, right? It’s really difficult on the prize. Who knows? It could be a lifetime getting there, but both of these things, who will I become in aiming for these goals? When I wrote those two things down, it really brought into focus the things that I want to do with my time and the things I don’t. I had a whole load of non-fiction projects on my list for the rest of the year, and I have actually moved them off my list to focus on my fiction because I need to keep being a better writer, keep learning, keep bettering my craft.
So this is something that I think is important for people. Have you identified those things that you really want to do before you die? And then who do you have to become to achieve these things? And then what’s the next step in that direction towards these things? I have put aside some stuff that I thought was important and now are not.
Or for example, one of the other things is I have two podcasts, and one is called Books and Travel.
When this all happened and travel became not something we do right now, I was like, ‘Oh dear, that whole brand, that has to go. I can’t do that. There’s no point.’ And then I realized that that podcast completely underpins my fiction. I love doing it. I love talking about travel with writers and all my books are about sense of place.
So, all I’ve done is repurpose the intro and outro to point to my fiction instead of a new brand. And I’m doubling down on Jo Frances Penn, J.F. Penn, which is my fiction side. So, re-tooling what I already have to serve that bigger goal and all of these things have just come from saying what is the most important thing to me? What do I want to do to build the body of work that I will look back on and go, ‘Yes, that is what I wanted to do.’ Again, super powerful to examine this stuff.
MARK: Nothing quite focuses the mind like the prospect of one’s own mortality, does it?
JOANNA: Yeah, the memento mori moment.
MARK: I was talking to Gabriela Pereira about this yesterday, she’s doing a virtual writer’s conference. And one of the things that came to mind for me was, well, I don’t want to die without having written that book.
I think a lot of writers have got a sense, ‘That book, that’s the book I’m going to write, even if I can’t articulate exactly what it is, there is a book that I want to write before I shuffle off the mortal coil.’
JOANNA: And there are non-fiction books I want to write. I want to write a travel memoir and I want to write a book about the shadow, which I know you appreciate, the shadow side. But those to me are different to the sorts of how-to books. I’m really happy with my how-to books. I do have some more in me, but I feel like when I look at what I really want to achieve and that’s what we’ve got to think about, isn’t it?
Figuring out what you will give up to make time for the most important thing. And at the moment, we do all have a bit of time to sit at home. And the other surprising thing is how little money we’re spending, right?
JOANNA: And then you think, ‘Okay, well, so maybe I don’t need too much to live on. Does that actually give me more space?’ And again, this reinvention of work, maybe somebody listening has realized that they could move somewhere a lot cheaper and suddenly save themselves a couple of grand a month. And that is the thing that frees them up to follow the creative path that might change their life. And that’s how I did it. When I decided to become a full-time writer, we sold the house, we moved from a four-bedroom house to a one-bedroom flat and downsized and moved. And sometimes we need this push, don’t we?
MARK: We do. A lot of what I’m getting from you is a lot of this is about decisions. We think of productivity as being about what we do, but a lot of it is about what we don’t do. And it’s drawing the line between one and another.
And talking of which, there’s a chapter in the productivity book about saying no and setting boundaries. And I’m thinking, coming right down to earth again, this has become a lot more pressing recently, hasn’t it?
With everybody under the same roof. Any advice on dealing with that?
JOANNA: I actually think boundaries are difficult right now, especially… I don’t know about you, my family’s like, ‘Oh, we should talk all the time.’ It’s funny, because when you work at home, you have your thing, like we do stuff like this, we do podcasts and we do Zoom calls and things, and then suddenly there’s people that you wouldn’t normally be talking to every day who want to talk to you all the time. And my Dad was like, ‘Oh, can we just chat?’ I’m like, ‘Dad, it’s half past ten on a Thursday morning. I’m at work!’
MARK: I know. I’ve had friends who were absolutely astonished to find I’m working! But it’s work time.
JOANNA: To find you’re actually working. But no, obviously, hopefully, this will be short-lived. So hopefully, that won’t carry on. But in terms of setting boundaries, now it’s about setting them with yourself. So for example, social media is a classic one, right? It’s kind of, ‘Oh, I must do social media, blah, blah, blah.’ But you don’t have to say no, but you just set your boundaries around your time.
If your number one goal is to finish that book or whatever, your painting or your creative project, then you get up and you do that, you spend some time on that, and then maybe you have your half an hour on social media, whatever. Setting boundaries around your time is really important.
And then the saying no, I feel it really depends. Like I used to say yes to a lot more stuff. Now my default is no, but I also have an assistant and if I feel I can’t say no, I’ll send her the email so she can say no, which really helps because sometimes it’s very difficult to say no. So, what can you put in place that will help say no? You don’t need an actual assistant. You could make one up! You could just sign your email. Have an email signature from your assistant. Don’t tell anyone. But stuff like that can really help. Also, just making it very clear, like we said, what time you’re available.
You and I both, when we’re sorting out an interview like this, we’re friends, we see each other in real life. But when we’re doing professional interviews like this, both you and I work during the day. And so we do these interviews later when we’ve finished our creative work.
The other thing is the to-do list. My to-do list is so long. I use the Things app which I love. But I am frequently now when Things pop up on it, I will look at it and go, ‘No, I’m not even going to do that, I’m just going to not do that.’ Because I don’t have enough time to spend like four hours editing my novel and fulfill the creative work that I love. For example, podcasting for both you and I is part of our creative body of work. Today is my podcast day as we record this. And that is important to me. It’s important for my creativity but also for my community and for my income because it’s an important part of my business.
Those are the things that have to happen. And the things that have not happened today are posting a picture on Instagram or replying to comments on Facebook. Those have not happened! They won’t be happening today. So, setting these boundaries around what’s really important, will make sure that you get the important stuff done in a day, in a week, in a year. And if you don’t make these boundaries every day, then you aren’t going to end up looking back at 2020 or 20-whenever you’re listening to this and going, ‘What did I actually do?’
MARK: It’s those little decisions that have the big knock-on effect. So, clearly, Jo, you have been making the right kind of decisions because you have written not one but two non-fiction books out since the last time we spoke. Not to mention your fiction output. So, clearly the productivity advice works, folks! I would take a look at Productivity for Authors.
But maybe now we could move on and think about Audio for Authors, which is quite an unusual topic to pick. And again, you wrote and published this in the innocent world before lockdown.
What motivated you to write a book about audio and how important do you think audio is going to be for us creators specifically in the new circumstances that we’re all facing?
JOANNA: I think the reason I created the book is because my brother, who’s a photographer, wonderfully creative guy, phoned me and said, ‘I’m going to do a podcast. Do you know anything about that?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, there are so many things I need to tell him and he’s not going to listen because he’s my brother.’ And that’s what happens with family, right? I could tell him a few things, but would be great if I just had a book that I could send him. So, because I realized that there’s so much stuff that we learn, a bit like writing or whatever. We learn this stuff and then when someone asks us how to do it, we realize it’s a lot more in-depth than it might seem.
I’ve also been working on voice narration. I narrate, in fact, both of these audiobooks I narrate, not this fast, I should say! I’m speaking quite fast today. But I think what happened, it was this confluence of things. Also, in 2019, I went to Podcast Movement in Orlando and they mentioned the tipping point around audio, how people know about podcasts. They’re listening to audiobooks, double-digit growth year on year for seven years for audiobooks. And now, as you mentioned, with the pandemic, audio had a little dip when the lockdown first started because people stopped commuting. So, that was really interesting. The commute was one of the places that people listen.
But what’s happened is it has suddenly ramped up because the dip was due to existing listeners not listening because they weren’t commuting. But what we’ve had is now a growth phase, especially in audiobooks because people have discovered digital library apps like Hoopla and whatever your library is they possibly have an app. So, they can get audiobooks for free at the library. They can get ebooks for free through the library app. And also, obviously books on digital, audio and ebooks are downloadable and so people are now listening lots. They’re also a great way to escape and learn as well. A lot of podcasts about COVID-19 and about dealing with stress and all of this type of thing. There’s a lot of uptick in that area.
So, what’s interesting is there was a tipping point in 2019 where over 50% of people in the US over the age of 12 had listened to an audiobook, and who knows what it’s going to be in 2020? But it’s suddenly… so it went mainstream in 2019. But what has now happened is that it’s just exploded. Suddenly people who would never have listened to digital audio or bought ebooks are suddenly going digital because it’s a way of consuming story or escaping or information without having a physical object that isn’t your phone, for example. So, this has become even bigger. And in fact, I seem to remember you saying that you wished you’d done your audiobooks before lockdown…
MARK: Yeah, I do! But also, I’m one of those people who started listening to audiobooks in the last year.
JOANNA: Wow. There we go.
MARK: I think it was probably you prompting me, and I thought, ‘I’ll give it a go.’ Or I think I got an Amazon token, so I thought, ‘I’ll give it a go.’ And suddenly I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve got all this reading time opening up for me.’ Because that was one of the things I’d realized. I did want more reading time in my day and my week. And with an audiobook, you can get it while you’re out and about cleaning up the kitchen or whatever.
Now I’m a bit of an evangelist for audiobooks, so I guess I should get on and do mine, shouldn’t I?
JOANNA: Fantastic. And that is exactly one of the power of audio things is that you can do other stuff while you’re listening. So for example, this is a total lockdown activity – I painted one of the doors inside our house because it needed repainting. But I don’t paint doors! It’s not something I do. And I listened to an audiobook while I was doing it and the different coats and all that. And DIY is something that lots of people are doing. And so, I listen when I’m cooking. And the other thing is you listen to podcasts, but what happens with podcasts, I find, and this is why the audio ecosystem is so important. If I listen to a podcast on a topic, then sometimes I want to know more and I click my Audible app to go see if they’ve got a book on it because I want to go deeper.
And so this is how I want people listening to think about it is if you’re using podcasting as part of your marketing, going on other people’s podcasts, or if even if you have your own, then you need somewhere for them to go next. And someone who consumes audio is someone who potentially also reads on audio. So, you need to offer them an audio product, and audiobook is obviously the first step on that audio product. Then there might be an audio course or whatever. But doing an audio product means that you have another way to, I guess, monetize that you might not have already.
MARK: And kind of circling back to the creative, audio as a creative medium. Because, I mean, you’ve been podcasting since what, 2009?
MARK: As well as writing.
As a creator, what would you say, what is special about audio? What can you do with it that you can’t do with other media?
JOANNA: Well, first of all, there’s that connection. If you’re doing your own audio, I know not everyone will do their own, but if you do it like us now, we’re in people’s heads and this is a sort of extemporaneous conversation. So, you’re listening in on a chat between two friends about stuff and that can be very personal. That is a way to connect. And let’s face it, the world is busy and any way that you can connect in a more personal way is a really good thing.
I guess that’s partly marketing, but on the creative side, for me, my podcast, as you say, I’ve been doing it for over a decade is part of my body of work. And I’ve actually reached more people through my podcast. I’ve reached 222 countries with my podcast. And I’ve sold books in 136 countries, but still, I’ve reached more people with my voice than I have with my books.
There are lots of people who are never going to read your book or maybe you’re a painter or jewelry maker or whatever you do, you’re not going to reach everyone with your creative product. But audio can be another form of creative product that literally has no borders, even borders imposed by pandemic. Audio crosses borders and even if you license your creative other work, audio can be a way to cross these boundaries. Also, I feel like creating for audio first is a different thing. My Books and Travel podcast, for example, these are episodes that exist in audio that don’t exist in another way. They are things that are unique in the world. We’re not going to turn this conversation into a book or anything else. This exists as it does like this.
I also think that we can create different things. Audio drama, for example, I listen to quite a lot now. As you get into audiobooks, you’ll find that you move into some audio dramas which are quite different, performances basically. And going back to the old days of radio, dramas where you’re listening and there’s people acting and different voices and a soundscape, you can create different experiences with audio than you can with just reading words from a page. I think the audiobook experience can now be quite different with audio drama and people are starting to come up with other things. For example, as sort of what Books and Travel is almost the research behind my fiction. It’s a different product that supports your creative work.
And also I’d say, I think I am becoming a better writer because I’m writing for the ear, which, you’re a poet, you understand rhythm and the sound of words. But I write thrillers, usually that’s less important, but by realizing the sound that it makes in someone’s head, I’m choosing different words than I used to do and I’m working with a thesaurus a lot more than I used to because I’m trying to make sure that my sounds are different on the ear over time. So, I just think audio has so many possibilities. It’s just a medium that you can create in.
MARK: And If I’m listening to this and thinking, ‘Well, I’m not a writer,’ maybe I’m a painter or a performer or another kind of creative.
Have you got any ideas of things that I might create? Because clearly I’m probably not going to do an audiobook, at least not straight away.
JOANNA: This is a conversation podcast, for example. That’s definitely something that’s possible. If you’re a physical artist, so let’s say you are a painter, you can still talk about your creative process. You can still have pictures on your website or you can interview other artists. You can even create an audio narrative around your work and your life. When we’re talking about audio, you can talk about video as well. Many podcasters, for example, will have a show on YouTube or a video show that they then also publish a podcast feed on. But there were questions that are similar for all of us as creatives. We all get it. Where do you get your ideas from? This is something that is true for any creative, any person in general, but creative.
So, if you’re a painter, where did you get the idea for that particular painting from? Why do you choose that medium? Why do you choose watercolor? Who are your favorite artists? All these types of things are the same. And so, if you wanted to do a podcast and you are a physical artist, then what would you call that? An artist making physical things in the world as opposed to words.
MARK: ‘An artist making stuff,’ I think is the technical term!
JOANNA: Making stuff. Yeah. Then think about what are the questions that people who might be interested in your work would love? I have a painting on my wall, which is the muse that I bought years ago by an artist called Vjekoslav Nemesh. And I look at this painting every day, and it’s my muse painting.
And I would love to know the story behind this painting. And especially on audio, you can put extra images into, certainly in an audiobook there’s a downloadable thing or you just have an easy-to-say URL where people can go and have a look at the picture if they want to. But I think what I want to encourage people is how can you reach the people who listen rather than read? I don’t read blogs anymore. I haven’t read blogs for years now. I listen to podcasts, I do read books. I have a lot of books, but I listen to audiobooks a lot. So, if you want to reach me with your paintings, it would be best for you to go on a podcast because then I might find out about you. So then your call to action is come and have a look at my online portfolio at X website. And so, what you have to think about is this audio ecosystem, a group of people who are growing all the time, who discover the world through listening. And what I think is that this will grow out of the experience of the pandemic as more people discover it. I think we’ll see a lot more.
MARK: Great. And I would really encourage you, if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re kind of proof of this concept that this show is basically based on me asking questions of different types of creative, not all of whom are writers, about what they do and how they do it and what the process is. And you may not realize, if you do something creative, you may not realize how fascinating that is to people on the outside of that. And also as Jo says, it’s beyond boundaries. You can reach people. I think it’s a real privilege about audio is that you reach people in their private time, when they are commuting or when they’re painting their door or cooking dinner or whatever it may be. And it can be a very powerful connection. You get in that intimate space.
So, okay, maybe if I’m listening to this, Jo, then maybe you have sold me on the idea. The concept of doing audio, see, yes, I can reach people I wouldn’t reach otherwise, I can get out there and have a direct connection with an audience. But it feels a bit scary! ‘What microphone do I get? I hate the sound of my voice and I always get nervous when I’m speaking in public.’
What can you say to me to encourage me to get over these fears, Jo?
JOANNA: Oh, it’s tough! Again, you and I are professional speakers and the number one thing is it’s not about you, it’s about the audience. And so, that’s one thing. And literally with audio, if people don’t like our voices, then they’ve turned off by now, I mean, presumably, they like your voice because this is your podcast, but maybe they don’t like mine. So, they’ve just gone away and you can’t hide that. You can’t change that. You just have to be you. You literally just have to be you and the great thing is you will turn off people very quickly and they will just go away.
But the people who stay, they become very loyal. I have a Patreon. My podcast is free, The Creative Penn podcast, but people pay because they want me to keep doing it and support my creative work. And that’s just incredibly powerful and that’s because you’re in their head for an hour a week or whatever. So, think about it as how can I serve the audience I want to reach? How can I best serve those people and reach them with something, with audio that works for them, but also that I enjoy?
I love podcasting. You and I both enjoy it and enjoy the process of creating it and meeting people this way. But that’s the creative side, getting over it from that angle. The other way to get over it is to think, how does this support my creative business? If you aren’t going to get into audio, how could you monetize it? And then obviously the first thing is marketing. As we talked about with the painter, you have a call to action and you make sure if you go on an interview, you aim for that call to action at some point. You can also make money through Patreon, like I said, advertising. If you have a popular podcast, you can promote your own products and services and creative work. You meet other people. Like you and I, we met doing like online audio before we met in person.
MARK: We did, didn’t we? It was because you invited me on your show years ago. You were in Australia then, weren’t you?
JOANNA: Yes. So that’s how we met!
MARK: Yeah, that’s how we became friends.
JOANNA: And that’s kind of crazy.
MARK: And now we’re living just down the road from each other and we aren’t able to go out and meet up! It’s a funny old world, isn’t it?
JOANNA: It is. But that’s the thing, the relationships that you can make through having a chat like this on a podcast, they can be valuable for business too over time. And so, I would say if you are scared, it is scary. It’s totally scary.
For example, I’m really thinking about doing more live video, which scares the hell out of me but I think if we’re going to be in this world where we’re not going to be traveling so much for a while, I need to have my face there too. I love audio, but equally, I need to put my face out a bit and do like 10 minutes of live video a week or something. That is scary, but I know that it supports my community, it supports my business, it helps my audience. And challenge, again, circling back to where we were at the beginning around the challenge of the pandemic and how we’re adjusting, anything that pushes us out of our comfort zone is a good idea if it’s going to serve your ultimate goal.
I think this is really important. What scares you about audio and what will make it worthwhile for you? Oh, you probably need to upskill, practice doing this kind of thing. Go on some smaller podcasts first. That’s always a good idea.
And just give it a go because you don’t know how successful it’s going to be. And when I started The Creative Penn podcast, phoning someone up on a handset and holding a little recorder next to it, literally that’s what I did back in 2009. I had no clue that I would end up a decade later with the podcast that underpins my business and makes good money as well as building a community. So, you just don’t know where this may take you and you might love it, which would be awesome.
MARK: I would absolutely second this on two fronts. One is the connections, the new friends that I’m making through the show. And also getting into discussion with people professionally as well. Now I’ve got something, if I see somebody, I love their work, I can reach out and invite them on the show and we start a relationship. And you never know where that could go.
And then the other thing is it’s scary for all of us. Jo, you’re finding new ways to scare yourself by doing live videos. I’m starting recording poetry and putting that out there, which I feel is much more exciting, but also much more scary and personal to put that out there.
It is scary and like anything creative, it’s kind of supposed to be scary if it’s going to be exciting.
JOANNA: Exactly. I think that these relationships are really important. Also, when you do interviews like this, you can actually learn something yourself that can change your world. When you came on my show a few weeks ago, you really helped me and we could have had that conversation offline, but we did it online. And I think it helps when I feel that I’m serving my audience with my questions, but then I learn as well.
Even today I interviewed a guy called Will Storr about the science of storytelling. And in that discussion I had an aha moment that – I’ve read his book, I’ve listened to his audiobook, but in talking to him and asking questions, I had that aha moment that made everything hang together really well, and that’s just brilliant. It doesn’t happen in every interview, to be fair, but it happens often enough that it makes the curiosity about other people. It makes it really worthwhile.
Let’s come back to curiosity because it underpins our creativity. We’re curious as to see how something’s going to turn out. And let’s try and be playful about it as well because people are very forgiving about audio. They’ll get the gist of our conversation without it being completely organized. That can come across as quite stilted if you try and read from something on a podcast. But being the sort of natural, playful, curious, that’s the attitude I think to go in with.
MARK: And talking of curiosity, you have a very interesting final section of the book Audio for Authors, which is all about audio technology and weird stuff like AI and dictation and so on. And I really feel like, as always, you’re leaning into the future, Jo, you’re there ahead of the rest of us. And I get a real sense in this section that you’re starting to explore some creative possibilities that are really only just starting to open up for us.
Can you say a little bit about the audio technologies in the final third of the book, and what are the creative opportunities that they’re opening up for us?
JOANNA: Of course. Well, first of all, the voice-first movement has been talking about, things like smart speakers, assistance on your phone, even voice search. If you say, ‘Hey, Google, find me the nearest Chinese restaurant,’ or something. I won’t talk to my watch right now, but, I ask my watch about the weather and that kind of thing.
We’re starting to interact with devices with voice, and this is another thing the pandemic will change. Everybody thought we would be in a touch world, a touch-first world. You can go to… I don’t know how this will change. Just a thought. You can go to McDonald’s and use a touch screen to order your burger – how is that going to change out of COVID? Certainly, I mean, people are not going to be doing that!
So, I think we might even move faster towards voice first because of the fact that touch is going to be not socially acceptable to be doing that. This is a really interesting time for that voice idea. So, you think about people listening, even if you don’t have a smartwatch or you don’t talk to your phone like that, your assistant, this stuff is coming. And thinking about people being in their car, again, it’s much safer to use voice assistance.
That’s one side. Then the artificial intelligence is fascinating. Voice synthesis, which is, there are tools right now where you and I, we both have voice recordings that we can feed to an AI and the AI will then speak in our voice. And I actually have a voice double, I’ll link to it in the book. Yeah, I already have a voice double and I’ve played it on my podcast!
I use a platform called descript.com, it’s brilliant if you’re podcasting or narrating or dictating, it’s fantastic. But yeah, descript.com. It’s still in beta for the voice double, but these are things that are happening.
This year, so at the London Book Fair, which didn’t happen in 2020, but some of the press releases still went out. The first audiobook created with an AI voice is now for sale on various platforms. And so, that’s happened. Also, AI voices are becoming more human. So people are like, ‘Oh, but it sounds like a robot.’ Partly, they want it to sound like a robot because it is disingenuous to have a voice that is more human.
But again, what we’re seeing now is Alexa and various devices are getting more and more human, Siri and all of that. You can choose different voices. My husband has an Indian British voice for his Siri voice, which is just lovely. And you can choose all these different voices, but you can also create your own. And in fact, Baidu, which is a Chinese technology, they only need 3.7 seconds of audio to clone a voice.
MARK: Really? Whoa.
JOANNA: I know! So you don’t even need to have hours and hours of work like we do. I should say the company with that audiobook is called deepzen.io if people are interested. What we’ve also got now is we already have voices that are from famous people. We have the Deepfakes, which we’ve seen Zuckerberg and Trump and Boris Johnson and things during the elections and stuff like that.
So we’re going to see negative stuff. But we’ve also got positive stuff. Audiobooks will boom even further as costs come down if they’re AI-generated. And if people are worried, I’m not worried, I see it as a bit like physical books or products or let’s say, again, you’re an artist, you do a painting, someone can buy that one painting, but maybe you also do prints of that painting. You take a photo and then create limited edition prints. That’s two different products. Same with books. I think the AI narration will be a cheaper product. And then you could have human narration as your premium, higher-priced product. And I think there’ll be a place for everything. But what it also means is if I want to write an audio drama, instead of having to hire a whole load of actors, I could use different AI voices to do an audio drama. How cool would that be? Which is great.
And the other thing I expect to happen is if you buy my audiobook, let’s say you buy my audiobook Audio for Authors, but you don’t want to listen to me read it. You should be able to, in the future, switch out for Mark’s voice, for your voice. And you could read my book!
MARK: Yeah, whatever floats your boat!
JOANNA: Because why not? I get annoyed because I always have to listen to non-fiction business books. They’re usually an American male voice, but I would rather have a British female voice. Why can’t I just press a button on my phone and change the voice like I can do with Siri or Alexa? So, all of these things I think are coming.
MARK: That’s great. In fact, only this week I went to check out an audiobook by an author. I won’t say who it was. And the author is a man and I’ve heard his voice quite a lot and I was looking forward to that, and they’d recorded it with a female voice. And I’ve got nothing against the female voice in general it’s great, but it was just so jarring to have this author whose voice I knew read by a woman that I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll get that next week…’
JOANNA: Or maybe you won’t listen.
MARK: Well, maybe I won’t because it’s just such a… I don’t know what the publishers were thinking of, but in this brave new world I could just flip over to the voice synth of said author’s voice and they would have got the sale.
JOANNA: Exactly. People are worried about this, robots taking our jobs, which, again, will accelerate with the pandemic. But this is an example where I think we could license our voices, we could do micropayments for licensing voice and also I think it will sell more audio because you would have bought that immediately if you could have swapped the voice or I’ve listened to some and just thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is just terrible.’ And I would love to switch the voice to something else and then I would have listened because I wanted the content.
So, this is the thing. I think what we’re moving into is a world where this type of stuff becomes much easier and more, I guess, more cost-effective certainly where the price of publishing, as we know, has come right down, the price of podcasting. This is a radio show that you’re doing from your house. And the price of this type of thing, of AI, is going to come down so much that it will be easier for people to create. And what I would – sort of final word on this – the important thing is to build a brand so that people want your work. And this is why I want to license my voice. I want you to want to listen to me.
MARK: The voice of Big Brother, Big Sister!
JOANNA: Yeah, Big Sister! But this is the thing, this shift is happening. This has already happened. And the difficult thing about the book was, of course, I published it and as soon as I published it, other things happened because that’s what’s happening with AI. It moves so fast. But I wanted to just give an example, but it was literally three weeks later, the first audiobook was released, narrated by an AI. And this is fascinating and will continue to grow. I think the problem is that publishing contracts often don’t accept this type of thing. And audiobook copyright law is not clear on this. So, we are going to go through an interesting time, but I believe that people will be using licensed AI voices to do audiobooks pretty soon.
MARK: Joanna, whenever I hear you talking about the future like this, I find it a mind-boggling and slightly unsettling, but also a really exciting prospect. Thank you for opening our eyes and indeed our ears to things to come.
If we can come right back to the present for the moment and indeed the very near future for our listeners, it’s time for the Creative Challenge, which if you’re new to the show, this is the part of the interview where I ask my guests to set you, the listener, a Creative Challenge, something that you can do within seven days of listening to this conversation that will stretch you creatively and probably as a person as well.
So, Jo, what is your creative challenge?
JOANNA: Okay, so your Challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to record your voice this week. So, you can use your phone, there’s free software on the internet, Audacity. So you actually have no excuse, there are lots of ways you can record your voice.
And I want you to answer the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ And just talk, like no one needs to hear this. This is just you and you’re going to record that. And then yes, you are going to have to listen back to it and sit there and cringe and just feel the pain, or realize that it wasn’t that bad, which I hope is what you’re going to get.
MARK: I think that’s brilliant, Jo, because that is a real hurdle for a lot of people, the first time you hear your voice because for physiological reasons, it sounds different to the way you hear it yourself from inside your skull. A lot of people find it really unpleasant experience, don’t they?
JOANNA: Oh, definitely.
MARK: So, this will help them get over that. Okay. Brilliant. So do that, and if you’re feeling extra specially brave, then maybe you could go and post it online and leave a comment in the show notes. We would love to hear that. In fact, it would probably be very interesting. So, if you go to 21stcenturycreative.fm/audiochallenge, I’ll make sure that links to Jo’s interview and you can leave a comment with a link to your, you know, the audio if you’ve uploaded it somewhere.
JOANNA: Oh, that is a good idea. And in fact, you could use a service like SoundCloud. There are a lot of places. You can even do it like if you want to do video, you can do it on Instagram or you can do it on whatever you like. But no, that’s great. So, that’s another step of the challenge is posting it online. Even if you don’t go that far, maybe leave a comment to how it felt to do it privately.
MARK: That would be great. And honestly, it would be so nice to listen to our listeners, wouldn’t it, Jo?
JOANNA: Yeah, it’d be great.
MARK: All right. Joanna, thank you so much. As always, you are a fount of enthusiasm and ideas and new technology and exciting vistas opening up. Where should people go to find out? Obviously there’s the new books, there’s Productivity for Authors and Audio for Authors, which will be available from all good bookshops that are currently open.
Where else should people go to connect with you and find out more about your work?
JOANNA: Well, you guys obviously love podcasts, so come along to The Creative Penn podcast, or my other show is Books and Travel podcast. And everything else is at thecreativepenn.com, Penn with a double N. And lots of free stuff if you want to write books, publish books, etc., etc.
MARK: And just to give another little endorsement, Joanna’s podcast, The Creative Penn was one of the shows that inspired me to start podcasting. So, if you like this one, then I do encourage you to go and check out Jo’s.
JOANNA: Thanks so much for having me, Mark. That was great fun.
MARK: Always a pleasure. Thank you, Jo.
About The 21st Century Creative podcast
Each episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast features an interview with an outstanding creator in the arts or creative industries.
At the end of the interview, I ask my guest to set you a Creative Challenge that will help you put the ideas from the interview in to practice in your own work.
If you’d like my help applying the ideas from the show to your own situation you are welcome to join us in the 21st Century Member’s Group.
This will give you access to Goal-setting, Accountability and Q&A videos, as well as other exclusive insights and glimpses behind the scenes of the show. Due to the pandemic, membership is currently on a pay-what-you-want basis.
Your membership fee will also support the podcast and help to make it sustainable.
Make sure you receive every episode of The 21st Century Creative by subscribing to the show in iTunes.