Pursuing A Creative Entrepreneurial Path with Derek Murphy
On being in the right brain space to be able to do a high level of creative work consistently, pursuing a creative entrepreneurial path and being a digital nomad.
Today’s guest is Derek Murphy, an award winning book cover designer with a PhD in Literature. His book design templates and tutorials have helped thousands of authors take control of their publishing. More recently, Derek has started writing fiction and shares an author platform that lets his novels earn six figures a year. He shows his marketing hacks and publishing tips on CreativIndie.com and on his YouTube channel, which has nearly a million views.
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Derek, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me on. It’s fun to be here.
I’d love to talk to you about how the places that you live influence the work that you do. Where are you living right now?
Right now, I’m in Austin, Texas. We came because we’re digital nomads, so we travel a lot and we tend to check out all the hubs. We don’t really plan to stay anywhere long-term, but it’s interesting to see what other people recommend. A lot of people talk about Austin because it’s a really nice city for digital nomads and for entrepreneurs, so that’s why we came. There are a couple of conferences so we get to see people face to face. I think one of the challenges of working online is that it’s pretty isolating and sometimes it’s hard to make real relationships in the actual world. While we’re travelling, if there’s a conference we want to go to, we just go and stay in that country for a month and go to the conference and meet some people. We’re here for a month, and then in about a week, we’re going to Portland for two months, then we’ll go back to Europe for the fall and then Asia again next year.
In Portland, what kinds of things do you like to do in terms of cultivating a positive healthy routine when you’re in town?
It’s interesting comparing Austin with Portland. I feel right now in Austin, we’re really downtown. We’re right between Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. I think it used to be the industrial area and it’s become gentrified so now it’s a cool, hip area, but there’s a lot of concrete. We can walk down to the river. I’m jealous on Facebook right now. Everybody is posting their summer photos, they’re out on the beach or they’re by the river and by the pool or something. I’m feeling a little, “I need to get out of the city.” We have a nice apartment in Austin, but I just feel I’m surrounded by buildings and concrete so it’s not what I like. I prefer trees and parks. Maybe it’s just because when we’re in Portland we’re not in the downtown centre. I feel Portland has more open spaces and parks and stuff.
Do you like biking or walking? What’s your mode of preference?
I don’t think our lifestyle is particularly healthy. I like to be surrounded by nature, but we’re not very active. I really just want an apartment with windows that looks out on trees and rivers and stuff. I want it to be right on my front door because we won’t really make much of an effort, and that’s also partly because we don’t have a car because we’re travelling. Even if we’re in a pretty nice area, we can’t really get out and see things so that’s weird. Sometimes I’ll just get on Airbnb and I’ll try to find some places in the middle of nowhere. There are places like nobody else would want to rent it because there’s nothing there. We were in Southern Bulgaria a few months ago. It was way out, near the border with Greece and there was nothing around. It’s a tiny town, but it was this gorgeous mountain top apartment with a great view that we had all to ourselves. Sometimes, I prefer to be in that kind of environment for my creativity and my productivity, but then I lose the human factor. I’m not able to see people. It’s hard to get everything that you want.
Derek, when you and your wife are travelling, do you find that any kind of typical routines that you have are really tipped upside down or is it because you embed yourself in one place for longer than a few days here and there, you really feel that the routines that help you with your productivity and help you with your creative output are easy to apply no matter whether you’re in Asia or in the US or you’re in Europe?
I think our routines are easy to apply, but that’s mostly because we don’t have a routine. Our natural rhythm, we’ve tried to control it, like make ourselves wake up early and be more productive. I think that’s important. I understand how that can work. If I make myself set an alarm and wake up early and try to get things done, I’ll just feel tired all day. Most of the work that I do, especially now that I’m writing fiction, it’s a very high level brainwork, cognitive work. It’s really difficult to get in the right brain space to be able to do a high level of creative work consistently.
For me, if I don’t feel my sleep is perfect to the way that I wanted it to, if I wake up unnaturally, if I make myself wake up, then I feel tired all day long. I can’t really concentrate. My personal routine, which is probably pretty weird, I think I tend to stay awake a little bit more every night. I have a little bit of manic energy, which can lead to insomnia so I tend to stay awake all night long until I’m exhausted and then I go to sleep in the morning and I sleep until I get up again. That tends to be even when we travel, even when we change time zones, we tend to get into this habit where we’re going to bed at 4 AM and then 6 AM and then 8 AM, and then it’s so crazy that we just decided to stay awake all day long and then go to sleep in the afternoon. We don’t really have a consistent schedule. We just try to do the best we can every day and do as much work as we can.
Have you ever found yourself in a position where you were really burned out?
Probably when I have to get up in the morning when I have a conference or a meeting, that can throw me off. I know that if I did it every day, then I would get used to it. That’s another problem of working by yourself. If I work online, I never have to get up in the morning. There’s no deadline or pressure. I should join a Mastermind group where I’m committed and I have to get up and meet other people, where the people are counting on me. But I’m afraid to do that, because I have a tendency of missing deadlines because I’m sleeping at some random time. Even if it’s 4:00 in the afternoon, that should be easy to just show up and to meet, but I’ve missed deadlines before. I try to not schedule things because I’m not so good at scheduling my life.
One thing that I found about working for myself and pursuing a creative entrepreneurial path is that, it’s been really liberating to carve out my own routines and rhythms and identify them and identify when I’m at my optimum. It’s also quite a challenge as you say. There are times when you are not working in a way that is convenient or socially conventional, which can be challenging when you’re working with other people or other people in your life have more conventional ways of working and earning their living. It can cause a friction and a tension in my experience.
Before, I was doing more business or client work, so I had to have some human interaction. I’m at the point now where I’m building more of my own products or assets like my novels. It just takes a lot of consistent work for over several months to finish the product. If I’m doing that and nothing else, that’s still valuable work, because when I finish a novel, it will earn money for quite some time. If I can get even an hour in a day and get a few thousand words a day, that’s still a successful day for me. If I slack off the rest of the day, I don’t have to feel guilty about not being more productive because I wouldn’t necessarily get more done if I was more productive. I could always be doing more things, but I’m not doing nothing. Even if I’m only working an hour a day, I’m focusing on bigger things that matter. I think I could probably spend more time working on things that aren’t really impacting my life or providing value.
Now that I’m focused on the projects that I’m working on, I feel there’s less pressure. Partly it’s because my books are making money now so there’s less pressure, “I have to make a living. I have to produce more because I need to boost my income.” I don’t think I’m a hustler. I’m not that interested in scaling up to be a millionaire. If I can make a living already, then I already feel pretty good about what I’m doing.
For a decade, you lived outside of the US. Will you tell us about how that experience has informed the creative work that you do today?
It’s probably been about two decades. When I was sixteen, I went to Argentina as an exchange student and then I lived in Malta for my Bachelor’s degree. Since then, I pretty much have been abroad. I went to Taiwan when I was 23, and I met my wife there. I taught English for a while and I got my masters and my PhD in Taiwan in English Literature. It’s a different kind of lifestyle. The nice thing about being a digital nomad is that you’re really disconnected from the cultural norms. I don’t have to worry about the expectations or what’s the normal because when you’re a foreigner in another country, you’re already a weirdo. People already assume that you’re just going to do things differently. I don’t have to worry so much about what people think, so that’s pretty liberating.
It’s weird because on the one hand, you’re very visible because everyone can see you, you stand out, and you look different. On the other hand, it’s not that you’re up on a pedestal but it’s just you’re disconnected from the normal culture. It’s almost being isolated and you don’t really have to care so much about doing the right things. I probably did it because I like exploring the cultures. I like experiencing new language, foods and everything. Also it gives me isolation bubbles. I can really focus on my work and my own thoughts and do things my way without fighting people for it.
Do you think that being an outsider is a helpful way to be when you are a fiction writer?
Not necessarily. If you’d entered that question differently, I think I like my identity as an outsider. Thinking differently has probably been part of my brand or my personality. I write commercial fiction, which is popular fiction. You would think that if you want to be a fiction writer, you have to be really creative, you have to do things really differently. Most of that stuff doesn’t actually sell. The majority of readers want a reading experience that they’re pretty comfortable with already. The stuff that they buy and the stuff that satisfies them is not that it’s pretty similar to what’s already been done. It’s not when you want to write popular fiction that sells, you’re not really inventing the whole universe of writing. You’re not trying to do James Joyce or anything. Especially I write young adult fiction, it’s generally a hero’s journey. You take a template. There’s certain features that are in all young adult fiction. I try to put those in all my books because I know that readers want those things. I still bring myself to it. I still make it a new and different story that they haven’t heard before. I still surprise them with a lot of twists that they’re not expecting. I want to focus on making it an exciting and engaging reading experience for my readers.
A lot of authors, they don’t do that. There’s this misconception in the creative space that to be creative, you have to do everything differently. You can’t depend on what’s hot before, it has to be new. That’s modernism. It’s a pretty recent philosophy of creative production sense, the romantic poets. I don’t think that that’s necessarily true but it’s very prevalent among authors especially they want to do something new. They want to make a cover that doesn’t look like any other covers in their genre. They want to write a book that isn’t like any other books that’s ever existed. Those kinds of projects generally don’t perform very well. They don’t sell very well. It’s possible, The Martian is one case where an author did things differently and it worked out and he got a big movie deal, but that’s pretty rare. It’s still very challenging and very difficult to write fiction, but I’m not just making it up as I go along. I definitely plot first and I’ll have a pretty sound story architecture and structure and then I just try to make it a good story.
How long did it take you to write on average each novel?
I think three months would be a reasonable amount of time if I was doing it full-time. I’ve written novels in a month before and novels with 80,000 words. If you’re writing 2,000 to 3,000 words a day, which is definitely doable, you can write a couple of 1,000 words in an hour. It’s not easy but you can do it. That’s only working a couple of hours a day and you could finish in a month. I think with enough pressure, I used to put my books up on pre-order, which means people are already ordering the book so you have to finish it because people have bought it. If you don’t finish it, they’re going to get some rough draft copy. I was using that and that’s stressful, but it also really helps me produce faster. I don’t think producing faster necessarily makes low quality of work. A lot of people believe that. I don’t think that’s true. I think you can produce very quickly and have as good a quality book as something that you took years to write. It’s like the three-month year or something that a lot of people talk about now, which is if you set your goals to the next year, you’ll probably get them done. But you could probably get the same goals done in three months if you just shorten the time span and added the pressure to make yourself do it.
I definitely think if you shorten your goal setting and push yourself to produce faster, that’s a good idea. I lost my pre-orders because if you screw up on Amazon and you don’t upload the pre-order files in time, they’ll take away your pre-order privileges for a year. I did that a couple of years ago and I lost it for a year. I got them back and I did it again recently, so I lost my pre-order privileges again. Now, I don’t have that pressure to finish, which makes it a little harder. I have a book that should have been finished last month and it’s still not finished. I’ll finish it at the end of this month, but I probably could have finished it a month ago and been working on something new already. Without that pressure to get it done, it’s a lot easier to just take it easy and not worry so much about it.
In those moments, when you’re working really intensely and maybe in the past when you’ve been faced with the motivation or the fear of those pre-orders, what kinds of things do you like to do when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed?
I’m probably not very good at actually relaxing. I probably just watch TV or something, but otherwise I enjoy it. If I’m working on my own projects, I actually enjoy it. Even if I’m fixing up my websites, improving my funnels or my email sequence or whatever, that doesn’t feel like work to me. It only feels like work to me if I’m selling my time for money and I’m working with other people or clients on their goals. That’s less satisfying for me so it feels more like work. If I’m doing my own creative stuff, I consider it business like a creative project, so that’s a fun challenge for me.
Writing fiction is a different kind of creative challenge even if it’s ridiculously frustrating. I’ve argued about this thing where creative people tend to have problems with insecurity. They don’t know whether the work that they’re producing is good enough. Generally, that’s an indication that they’re not producing value for a target audience. They don’t know who their market is, that they don’t know who’s going to like the thing that they’re making. I think that’s where a lot of insecurity comes from. At the same time, when I’m in the middle of a book and I know that the book will probably turn out okay and readers will probably like it, you still get to points in the middle where you just can’t fix a chapter and you just think it’s crap. You don’t know how to move forward, but that always happens as part of the process. You get stuck and then you take a break for a couple of days and you don’t think about it, and then finally something will click into place, and you’ll figure out where to go from there.
Switching up a little bit, one of the questions that I want to ask you, was about the Castle Project. I really enjoyed watching from afar your creative experiment and I’d love for you to share that story a little more with our listeners.
Basically, I was at World Domination Summit probably four years ago, which is something Chris Guillebeau puts on in Portland. I had this genius idea to buy a castle and use it as a running retreat. That was my end goal. I’m at a point where I was meeting a lot of my small goals but I didn’t have a big future goal. I think you need some really massive epic goal that inspires you and encourages you forward, something that’s not actually achievable where you are now but something that you can grow towards. That was my thing. I planned it over my platform and make it out there so I could kick start and buy a castle and use it as a writing retreat.
I’ve learned a lot since I made that goal. Last year, I rented a castle from Airbnb and used it as a writing retreat. That was my first time trying to do a live event. I learned a lot about how I would actually make that work as a business. I probably wouldn’t, because I found it was actually pretty hard to get people who could just take a month off and go live in a castle. It was in Southern France. It was harder for me than I expected to find people who are willing to do that. Everybody was really excited about it. They’re really interested in it and that was great for my platform because we did get featured on CNN and we got featured on the NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. It’s a pretty big deal. I think it’s about 2 million people a year who participate. That’s a lot of writers who are writing novels. It was nice to be featured on their platform.
To do it again this year, I think the one I will rent this year is in Austria. But I probably have lost sight of my goal of buying a castle. I don’t think that’s very practical. I would love to build my own creative space. I would love to do more events and to really customise an event space that could be focused on boosting creativity and productivity. Not only just teaching people how to write and publish books, but really focusing on high level brain work, opening your mind to new creative visualisation exercises or all kinds of things. I’m so interested in that idea. I think it probably makes more sense to continue to rent properties, especially because we like travelling. I don’t know that we would really be happy if we just settle down and pick one spot. There are so many cool places on Airbnb, we could really just every month stay somewhere awesome and just invite people to come and do creative stuff with us. I think that’s pretty attractive.
I love that you explored the goal and the dream and you’re pivoting, which is all good. Next question is about where is one place that you’d love to visit that you’ve not yet made it to?
We’re going to Lisbon this fall and that’s one place I haven’t been. Probably over the last four years, we’ve spent a couple of months in Europe. I spent five years in Europe when I was younger but I never made it to Portugal. We’ve been ticking off all the boxes and going to more and more remote places that are a little bit off the tourist map. Portugal is one of the main digital nomad hubs that we haven’t been to yet. I’m looking forward to it because I think Lisbon has probably a really nice lifestyle, environment and surroundings. I really like history, so I much prefer if I’m somewhere with a lot of old buildings, a lot of history.
I’m from Oregon. My dream house would be just surrounded by fir trees and mountains and lakes and stuff. But I don’t really love living in America that much because there’s not a lot of history. A lot of the buildings are pretty modern. Things seemed rush. Even if there’s some natural space, it doesn’t feel untamed natural beauty. I’d prefer to be in Europe most of the time. Next year, we’ll also go to Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City and Bali because those are other digital nomad hotspots that we haven’t been to yet.
I’ve just come back from a month in Bali. Bali is amazing. It’s a beautiful spiritual place. It’s also a crazy place. It was such a treat to be able to work by the pool and enjoy the heat, especially coming from London where here often the weather is not so great. It was really a treat to think this is my life, I’m working but look at my surroundings.
I’m not sure how much we’ll love it because I think it’s more tropical, isn’t it? It’s more jungle-y?
I don’t know that we’ll love that part of it but I’m looking forward to connecting with the community there. There are other places, if I was out on a beach somewhere, we’re going to be in probably Malta at the end of the year. I spent some time in Malta when I was in my undergrad, so I’m excited to be back in Malta. That’s a pretty cool place to be. Because I know that I’m a home buddy and I don’t want to get out actually very much. Wherever I’m living I want either the forest or the ocean to be right on my doorstep. I want my neighbourhood to be full of interesting cultures or people.
It’s hard to find the perfect environment but I think it also helps that we change so much. The joy of travelling is that you can’t ever get complacent because you’re always challenged by something new and something different. Your creativity is always sparked and refreshed by putting yourselves in new surroundings. That’s probably why I tend to get the travel bug. If I stay somewhere more than a few weeks, it might be great the first couple of weeks, and then after a month I’m just, “I’m done. I don’t want to be here anymore.” I tend to do that everywhere and it’s probably just me because I like the change of travel.
Jumping back to Portland, for somebody who’s never been there before, what would you recommend that they go and see or do or taste or experience?
Comparing Austin and Portland in terms of creativity, this may sound bad for people who are from Austin or from Portland, I have probably stereotypes about the cultures here. Austin tends to be more upscale entrepreneurship, so people who are starting startups or million dollar businesses or they are working on big deals. Portland tends to be a lot more people focused on personal creative projects but not so good at the business. A lot of people who are making music in their garage or their basement or they’re part-time writers, but they all have full-time jobs in a coffee shop or something. I think Portland, they spend more of their time on their creative dreams but they don’t really connect it with how to build a successful business. I think Austin is a lot more focused on if you’re working on something for ten years and you’re not making money, that’s a problem. You need to figure out what you’re doing wrong. In Portland, I think people are satisfied. They’ll say, “This is my art. This is my dream. I don’t care if I’m not making any money.” Culturally, I think that’s a pretty big difference.
There are things that I like and dislike about both. I think it’s great to follow your passion and focus on your dreams, but I also think it’s great to earn a living from what you love so that you don’t have to work a full-time job. When I’m talking to people, I would like to find ways that they could take what they are passionate about and turn it into a real business that produces income for them. In terms of everything else, the other nice thing about Portland is it’s only an hour from the beach, the Oregon Coast, which is a rough natural landscape beauty. It’s about 45 minutes away from the Columbia Gorge, which is just full of pine forest and waterfalls, a really nice hiking. That’s pretty nice too. Portland just feels like a smaller city. It feels a little easier to get around. I like Portland but I feel I like Oregon. Oregon just has so many really pretty places and a lot of natural beauty.
Is there a particular hidden gem in Portland that you would be happy to share with our listeners?
Yeah. I think it’s called The Roxy. There’s a couple of weird small places that are just really bizarre, almost like too strange. I think there’s also a museum of Elvis in Portland, which is pretty bizarre. The Roxy is a bizarre breakfast place. It’s open 24 hours. People have the expressions for both Austin and Portland. They say, “Keep Portland weird.” I think “Keep Portland weird” was Oregon’s expression first but I know Austin uses it too. I think they both like to focus on the eccentricities in their culture, doing things really weird or differently. I haven’t actually lived downtown Portland for a long time, so this summer will be the first time that we’ve been back for a while. I’ll probably add more to say about it later.
I look forward to hearing more down the line. Derek, what are you curious about right now?
I think right now I’m most curious about writing fiction. I’m really excited about where I am right now, but I really only have three or four books out. This is also true with my business. For the long time, I’ve been doing client work and I’m finishing things that are basically digital products like online courses. I’m finally able to scale up in a way that I never was before. With writing fiction for example, novels, are really digital products. I can have one book that’s selling okay and making me some money. If I make $5,000 and I spend that on advertising, there’s the possibility of making ten times as much money just by selling the book over and over again to more people. That’s something that I could never really do with my other businesses or my service-based businesses because there’s not enough time. You can’t help enough people when you’re helping them one on one. When you do something like write a novel, even if it’s not a huge major bestseller, it doesn’t get made into a movie or whatever, it’s still possible to earn money from that one book for years and years.
Just like in the last couple of months, I started making a living as a writer. I’d never really considered myself an author because I didn’t make money from my books. Now I’m making enough to live on from my books and I can focus on writing more books. I have three or four books that are selling but friends of mine who have twenty novels out, for example, and are making not just a living but they’re making serious money. They’re making well-over six figures from fiction. Five years ago, I don’t think that was really possible. The publishing world has been going through a lot of changes. People say it is more and more competitive but there are still some authors who are making really serious money writing fiction.
I hang out with lot of entrepreneurs and digital nomads and everyone has their business. I think it’s really cool to say I write fiction full-time. I write young adult fantasy. I write books about mermaids and time travel. That’s my job, that’s what I do full-time. I think that’s an incredible career choice. I’m really excited that I’m actually making that work. It’s what I like to talk about because I do a lot of research and case studies on how do you build a platform? How do you sell fiction? How do you keep it selling and visible? They’re experimental because Amazon is always changing and updating its platform. It’s difficult to figure out any system that works long-term because generally after a couple of months, they’ll change something and then you have to start over. I think it’s a lot of fun. Not only writing fiction but the challenge of trying to keep your fiction selling, it’s really interesting and engaging.
Derek, that was really fantastic. I really enjoyed talking to you today on the Urban Curiosity Podcast. Where can people find out more about your work?
My main site is CreativIndie.com. That’s where I post everything.
Derek, thanks so much. It’s been great talking to you.