Jenna McCarthy is an internationally published writer, relationship expert, keynote speaker, former radio personality, wannabe-screenwriter and the author of more than a dozen humorous books for adults and children. Her work has appeared in more than 60 magazines, on countless websites and in several anthologies including the popular Chicken Soup series. Jenna’s TED Talk, “What You Don’t Know About Marriage,” has been viewed more than four million times.


The book industry is in crazy flux. Wind the clocks back 30 years — 20 even — and an author’s published work marks a stepping stone to the next with upfront advances and generous premiums driving creativity. Oh how the times have changed. Creation has become secondary to marketing; only business-minded artists survive. MODERN ONTRAPRENEUR welcomed Jenna McCarthy, the author of a bestselling line of books, to dish about the status quo of publishing, turning writing into an income, and how her reluctant TED Talk galvanized her speaking career.


1:54 - An Artist With a Business Brain
As an author, creation takes a backseat to marketing.

3:30 - My Accidental TED Talk
​​​​​​​How a reluctant speaking gig jump-started Jenna’s career

9:09 - How do Authors Pay the Rent?
​​​​​​​The step-by-step all aspiring authors need to know to make it in the publishing world

13:09 - Dumber People Than Us Do This
​​​​​​​Not a screenwriter? Neither is Jenna, but she entered the Austin Film Festival anyway.

16:58 - Laid Off on My 25th Birthday
​​​​​​​Jenna’s journey from the unemployment office to the writing staff of Seventeen magazine

19:39: The Answer to Anything is “Yes”
​​​​​​​Old Jenna has a sit-down with young Jenna on the merits of positivity.

​​​​​​​23:47 - Whatever You Do, Don't Work for Anyone Else
Sage advice from Jenna’s father: the catalyst of her entrepreneurial adventure

LR  Welcome to MODERN ONTRAPRENEUR. Today we have with us Jenna McCarthy. Thank you so much for being here. She is an internationally published writer, a relationship expert, a keynote speaker, former radio personality, wannabe screenwriter, the author of more than a dozen humorous books for adults and children. Her work has appeared in more than 60 magazines, on countless websites, and in several anthologies, including the popular Chicken Soup series. Jenna's TED Talk, What You Don't Know About Marriage, has been viewed more than four million times around the world. In her spare time, Jenna likes to wonder what she used to do with her spare time. Thank you so much for being here.
The answer to anything is 'yes' until it makes sense to say 'no.’
JM I am thrilled to be here. Thank you for having me.

LR Good, and I just learned that you're a local Santa Barbara person.

JM I am.

LR And so you spend your time writing.

JM  I do luckily.

LR And what do you do with your spare time?

JM I don't have spare time. I have children and a husband and a zoo full of animals, so not a lot of spare time.

LR And quite a lot of books I notice.
JM A lot of books.

LR Yeah.

JM Yeah.

LR How much time do you spend writing every week?

JM Less and less, because as you probably know, when you create any product in the world that we live in now, the creation becomes the smaller part, and the marketing and promoting and the selling becomes the larger part. Of a work week, which could be 20 hours or 80 hours, I probably spend 25% writing.

LR Interesting. I think that will probably be interesting to a lot of authors out there, who imagine that it's about writing the book and then handing it over to the magic people who make it all work out after that.

JM  You'd like that, right? You do. It's like if you build it, they will come. No.

LR It's not that way.

JM No, they won't. They really won't. If you build it and then promote the hell out of it and then ask your friends to promote the hell out of it and then tweet about it and post about it, then maybe. Maybe they'll think about coming.

LR Right. So it's like a normal business?

JM Yes, exactly.

LR  Awesome. Perfect, because we're here to talk about business.

JM Here we are.

LR Tell me what you figure your unique skill set is.

JM  I thought about this, because I've watched many of your videos, and I truly believe my unique skill set is I am an artist with a business brain.

You hear all the time about the starving artist, because artists like to create, and they tend to be introverted, which I am not, and they tend to put all of their energy into the creation and then cross their fingers and, "Well, I built it. Why aren't they coming? But I don't want to deal with that, so I'm going to go back into my cave and continue to create." I actually, not all the time, but most of the time, I get excited about the promotion part. I get excited about being able to interact with my readers and my customers, and having that feedback cycle and all that kind of stuff.

And I'm very, very conscious of the bottom line, because, well, I live in Santa Barbara. I have an astronomical mortgage that I have to pay. Writing isn't a luxury for me. It's a career, so I have to have that business brain, or I'd be in a trailer park in Santa Barbara.

LR Which wouldn't be so bad.

JM  I know. It really wouldn't actually.

LR So that's interesting. You spend 75% of your time actually marketing the business of the work. I think we have at ONTRAPORT a lot of authors as customers, and I actually don't know all that much about book promotion. I've never really focused on that. I'm curious to hear how similar is that, do you think, to the marketing of any other business, and specifically in your case, what is working for you right now?

JM  Okay. Double edged question. Number one, in all honesty, this is the only business I have, but my husband puts on sporting events. I help him with his social media stuff. I have friends that I write promotional pieces for their restaurants or their clothing lines and, like I said, at the end of the day, we're all selling something.

I'm selling my voice. How do I do that? I tweet. I guest blog, however I can get myself in front of my potential customers. I almost feel like, in a way, what I do is easier to sell, because I could just guest blog on your site, and I don't have to be writing about writing, or writing about fiction, or writing about anything I write about, but I can sell my voice just through these words.

So, to that end, into the second question, what I think is working is the diversity. I'm a speaker. I'm a blogger. I'm a social media addict. I am. I'm that person who I can't even see out of my eye, and I'm already checking my Instagram, and my SnapChat, and all my feeds, so I think that integration of all those elements. When I'm giving a speech, at the end, I can say, "Hey, check out my books." On my website, I can promote my speaking engagements. In my books, I can promote my blog, and so they all work synergistically to promote the other things I do.

LR Specifically, is there one thing that ... It all is an orchestra, right? But every once in a while, you have something that breaks through and is like, "Wow, that actually really worked. I'm going to do more of that." What is that thing?

JM  The thing that really worked was I think I was ... This might answer a different question, but the thing that worked for me was this total accidental I gave a TED talk, and I had no intention of giving a TED Talk. I knew what they were. They were for people that were not at all like me. They were for PhDs and Jill Bolte Taylors, and Al Gores, and experts.

But if you've ever been to a TED event, you know that you have to apply just to attend it. You have to fill out this laborious, fairly, application, and say who you are, and a little bit about yourself. I tried to be funny, and I wrote about my books. I had made a funny book trailer, like a little mini-movie for one of my books, so I included that. The organizer called me and said, "We think you should apply to speak," and I put on my Wonder Woman bracelets and started deflecting, and I said, "Oh, no, no. I'm not a speaker." They said, "Oh, we think you're funny," and I said, "Thank you. I'm funny sitting down. I'm not funny standing up. I'm a sit down comedian."

They just kept pushing, and they said, "Well, first of all, the E in TED stands for entertainment, and you're entertaining, and also we're not saying you're going to get it. We're just saying you should apply. You should audition." Then that was like, "Oh, you just threw down the gauntlet. Now I have to do this," and I did. It wound up launching a whole new arm of my career that I never would have considered. I never would have had the nerve to say, "I think I'm going to give a TED Talk." Never. I was going, "No, no, no. I can't. I can't. I couldn't possibly," and it was the best thing I ever did.

LR The arm of your career is now the speaking part?

JM  Yes.

LR  Because you had never done it. Literally, that was your first public major ...
JM My very first, which I do not recommend to anybody, because I look back on it now and, honestly, I cringe a little bit. I used to work for magazines, so I had formal media training. I used to go on talk shows and talk about various articles. But never get up for 13 minutes straight with no cue cards and no notes and give my words. It was all me, and I look back on that now and, of course, because I've had all this practice. I've been flown around the country, spoke on a number of different topics. I wouldn't give that exact same talk today.

But it worked for whatever reason. If I could go back and change it, maybe I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today. For whatever reason, that was meant to be.

LR Yeah. Four million views is a lot.

JM Yeah. A lot of people have seen it. I have had talent agents calling me saying, "Oh, we really like it." I've gotten a few interviews for TV shows. They're looking for a host, and they want someone in that space. None of those have panned out yet, but just to be considered, it wouldn't even happen had I not done that.

LR You said that launched your new career. Did that change your business model, because I think about the music industry. If you're a musician, it used to be that you would make an album, and then you would sell albums, and that's how you got paid. Nowadays, musicians don't make any money on albums. Even if you're a Radio Head, you don't make money on albums. You make money on ... Maybe Radio Head is a bad example, because they're independent. But they don't make money on the albums. They make money on the tours. The album has become almost like lead gen. It's your business card, and people get into it, and then they come to your shows, and that's the business model.

What is that today for authors? We're in a software and service. For us, people pay us every single month. The idea of trying to get a customer and get $12 out of them one time for a book is terrifying to me.

JM It's terrifying to me, too. It's horrible. It's a horrible business model, and then they can return it if they don't like it, even if it's all dogged-eared. It's a terrible business.

LR I almost can't even imagine how that works. How does it work?

JM Well, again, it's part of that synergy equation. When I go out to sell a book ... So here's how it works. I write a book. I bring it to my agent. She says, "Yeah, it's great." Maybe after a revision or two, but ultimately, "Yeah, it's great. Let's go bring it up to publishers." Part of that is she goes out with my platform. It's your business plan for the book. That includes Jenna's reach. It's how many people I can reach on social media, how many people I can get my physical body in front of, because people are very, very likely to buy your book if you're sitting there talking to them and they feel that connection with you. Or, a lot of times, I got smart after a few public speaking gigs, and I said, "Hey, you should buy copies of my book and give them to all the attendees." They've never said no. I go, "Oh, some missed opportunities there along the line."

You can ask for more money for an advance on your book. You may or may not earn it out, but you can ask for that, because you can say, "Hey, look at all these people I can reach." But it legitimizes you having the book when you go to speak. When they introduce you as the author of blah, blah, people go, "Oh, she must know something. She wrote a book." Then you have to back it up by actually knowing something.

LR Those all work together.

JM  Yeah.

LR And you actually do pay the rent with book ...

JM I do.

LR  With book ... What do they call it again?
JM Advances or royalties.

LR Advances and speaking gigs.

JM Speaking gigs pay really well.

LR Yeah.

JM  That's a nice little ...

LR Yeah. It's the one two punch.

JM Yeah.

LR Really great, and very interesting. Actually it's like old school, like back when you could actually make an album and sell the album for [crosstalk 00:10:48].

JM Right.

LR That's kind of encouraging.

JM Most people aren't making a lot of money on books anymore. I think maybe not in the publishing world. We know this now. We know this to be true. The days of the big advances, unless you're JK Rowling, they're basically gone, because you have traditional publishers who are suddenly competing with the Amazon and the self-published, and even if you've got this ...

Okay. I'll tell you a story of a friend, who was a very successful New York Times bestselling author. She had a book that had an editor change. Long story short, it came out and it didn't do as well as all her other books. Water under the bridge. Kind of a bummer. Not the end of my career. I am a seven time New York Times bestselling author. She goes to turn in her next one, and they say, "Yeah. We're going to give you a fraction of what we gave you before for your advance, because we're not sure you can earn it out, because that last one didn't sell so well. Also, we think you should change your name."

LR Start over.

JM Just clean ... With one little dip on the EKG chart, all of a sudden, she's, "Oh, you could be a pariah. We're not sure, but just a suggestion," and she basically said, "Bye bye. I'm going to publish it myself." For a New York Times bestselling author to go self-pub after big Simon and Schuster top six publishers, people were like, "Wow. Okay. I guess you can do that. I guess it's not a stigma anymore," and she went on to make lots, and lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of money, and have all the control, and get her book to market quickly, whereas a traditional publisher would have taken 18 months to two years.

My whole industry is in crazy flux. It's nothing like it was when I started just 10 years ago.

LR I said Radio Head before, but that's actually exactly what they did. They had normal distribution and deals, and then they were like, "Forget that," and now they sell their album through their website, and I'm sure they're obviously doing that because they do way, way better.

JM  Right. And there are bands that will probably say, "Oh, they couldn't get a record deal," and they're like, "Yeah, tell it to my accountant."

LR Right. Yeah. They get to do that because they're Radio Head, because they have spent the time to build that audience, right?

JM  Exactly.

LR And people will show up for that. Interesting. Tell me then what is next for you? What are you learning? What is the cutting edge for you?

JM I don't know if it's cutting edge. I would call it more insane probably, because it's the only thing that might be harder to do than be super successful in traditional publishing would be to be super successful in screenwriting. But I sold the TV rights to one of my books a while back, and there was this back and forth, and they couldn't find the right writer to put on it, and so I thought, "Well, I should know how to do that. I should know how to screen-write," and I had all these people telling me, "It's nothing like writing a book."

I always come back to when my husband and I first had children and we'd get overwhelmed. We had a little motto that we lived by that would get us through the tough times, and it's really profound. It was, "Dumber people than us do this." Dumber people than us do this.

I'm a pretty sharp cat. I know about writing. I can read a book on screenwriting and I can understand what the parameters are. I did a little test, and I bought the software, and I taught myself, and I wrote an original screenplay, and just for fun, I submitted it to the Austin Film Festival. It didn't win, but it made it to the final round, and so I thought, "Okay." I mean tens of thousands of submissions I think, in the multiple thousands. I was like, "That's something I can do."

I have a really good idea for the next one. I might try to polish that one and resubmit it, but I have one that seriously I'm obsessed with that I want to write.

LR This is now more like a wild lottery ticket. You write these, and you write these, and you write these, and then one of them gets picked up.
JM Right.

LR And you make a lot of money from one of these.

JM  Yeah. No. It's insane. There are people who have been living in Hollywood for 40 years, who have done nothing but this, and they've studied with the masters, and they do it all day every day, and it's no different than a struggling musician, that you hear in some dive bar, and you think, "Why is she not famous? She's so good," and she's like, "I'm trying." I don't know. There's so much talent in the world, and there's so much non-talent, I'm just being honest, that it's hard to stand out in any way.

But what are you learning? I'm learning that dumber people than me do this.

LR Yeah. Marie Forleo is one of our clients, and she's famous for saying that everything is figureoutable. It's the same thing, right? If somebody has done it before me, then it's got to be doable.

JM  Right. It might not be easy. It might not be fun, but it's doable.
LR It seems like the foundation that you've built with your speaking and your traditional book writing career has given you the opportunity to take this kind of risk, without waiting tables at night, right?

JM  Right. The only thing I'm risking is my time, and so people say, "How do you get time to do all that?" I say, well, I don't watch any TV. I make my choices, and my vice is I want to write and, like I said, I have to pay the bills, so I have to spend a certain amount of my energy on paying assignments, and I will still take random magazine things, just like, "Oh, that will be a nice chunk of change I can earn in a couple days," and then that buys me some freedom to go do something that I want to do.

LR Yeah. Amazing. It's not that many people that I think ... Compared to the number of people that would like to support themselves, especially in Santa Barbara, by writing, there's got to be very few that actually pull that off.

JM  I'm old though, so I've been doing it for a really long time. I doesn't happen overnight.

LR Yeah. That's interesting. I mean without giving anything away, how long has it taken you from the early days of going like, "I think I'm going to be a writer, and here's my first manuscript," to the point where you're like, "Yeah. I'm actually supporting myself as a writer?"

JM  I got really lucky. Back track into my mid-twenties, I was working in an advertising agency, and I got laid off. It was actually on my 25th birthday, and I showed up. You're going to like this story. I showed up, and there's all these cops in the lobby, and I was like, "What's going on," and one my friends is like, "We lost our big client. They're laying off 75% of the staff." As God is my witness, I thought, "Oh, those poor bastards." It didn't even occur to me that I might be one of them. I was like, "That would suck to lose your job. But it's my birthday. I'm going out tonight," and I get to my office, and all my stuff is being packed up, and I'm like, "Oh, okay. Wow. I don't really know what to do with that," and so I stole a stapler and some sticky notes, and I went home.


I called my dad. I'm like, "What do you do when you get laid off? I don't really know what this looks like," and he's like, "Well, you go to the unemployment office." I did that one with all the homeless people, and I was like, "I'm just going to get a job. I'll just go find a job."

I started freelance writing, and I was in the advertising world, so I was doing really creative bank brochures and that type of thing.

LR Yeah. That's good stuff.

JM  And then I thought, again, dumber people than me do this. I was like, "I should write for some big magazines. I should just start submitting willy-nilly stories that I think are interesting," which is so not how you do it. I've given talks at multiple colleges. So you want to write for a magazine? Here's what not to do. But it worked for me. So don't ever listen to anybody when they tell you what not to do.


I'm sending these unsolicited manuscripts off to New York, and I get a phone call. It wasn't even computers. I was still on a typewriter back then. I got a phone call from a lady who was like 22, who became my boss, who said, "I really like this. I can't buy it or publish it, but I'm hiring writers, and I would love to interview you." I said, "Okay." I was in Florida at the time. She's like, "I can't fly you up. I have 200 people I'm seeing from New York. But if you'll get yourself up here, I'd love to just sit down with you."

So I flew myself to New York, and we sat, just like this, and she's like, "Okay, great, you're hired." I was like, "That's awesome. Thanks," and I got back to my hotel, and I called my parents, and they were like, "How much money are you making?" I'm like, "I forgot to ask. I have no idea. I don't even know what my title is, but it's Seventeen Magazine. I start in two weeks."

I went home and packed up all my stuff, and moved to New York, and, again, dumber people than me.

LR That was it?
JM  That worked. It worked for me.

LR If you could go back to those early days and give yourself a piece of advice, or say to somebody today that was starting off, what would that advice be?

JM  Oh, sweet little naive Jenna, what would I tell her? I would tell her so much. Literally, I would have to sit her down for like weeks, because she was going to make some big mistakes.

I think the two things I would tell her are in all honesty, stay dumb. Stay a little bit dumb. Stay dumb enough that you're not afraid to try these things that any sane person, any smart person would tell you, "That's out of your league. That's out of your league." I got to Seventeen Magazine, and these girls would say, "Oh, whose shirt is that?" I'd be like, "It's mine. Are you all wearing somebody else's clothes? I don't get it." They meant, "Is it Ralph Lauren?" I didn't know. It's mine. Everyone would laugh. I was like, "They think I'm so funny." I've no idea what they're talking about.

That would be good advice. Be dumb. Don't be afraid to apply for a TED talk and do it. Dumber people than you do it. Don't be afraid. Write a book. Write a book, Publish it yourself. Try all these things.

The other thing I would tell little Jenna is never say never. Never say never. I'm not going to give a talk. I'm not a speaker. I've learned since then that was a really pivotal moment for me, giving that speech, and I woke up and I said, "You know what? From now on, the answer to anything is yes until it makes sense to say no." "Hey, do you want to come speak to our group in Kansas City?" "Yes. Tell me some more details about that." Before I'm like, "Oh, I don't know. Kansas City. Is that a good market?" Yes, until they say, "And we want you to wear a goat suit, and roll around on the stage." That's a good reason to say no. I'm going to say no to that. But, until then, it's yes.

LR I agree. I think back to some of the things that I did in the early days of this business, yeah, that today I would never do, and would it would be like a ridiculous waste of time.M

JM But they worked.

LR But those were the things. Some worked. Some didn't. Some were a waste of time. But little by little, you learn and, also, yes, this relationship gets made and that relationship gets made. I actually just had a ... This guy emailed me just yesterday asking me about this ad, a letter actually, like a sales brochure I guess that I had written, that he remembers from like 10, 12 years ago, and he wanted a copy of it, because he was like, "It was the greatest ad I've ever seen. I think it's when you launched your business, and I want to do something similar." I was like, "I can't even remember what you're talking about."

But I actually went to this old bunch of files. I actually didn't find it. But I found something that was from the similar era, and it's kind of incredible to go back and look and go, "You know what? I can't even believe I remember this event that I went to, and there was like 16 people there. I spent way too much money on it. I hauled my ass all the way out to south Georgia for this thing." There is no way I would do that today.

But then I think back and I go, "Oh, wait. I met that guy, and he introduced me to that guy, and that turned into a deal that I think since then has actually earned our business like three million dollars."

JM Oh, my gosh.

LR You know?

JM Yes.

LR You just never know what happens when you say yes to random stuff.

JM I'm picturing Justin Bieber in the movie, in the parking lot, in the tent in the rain, like at the grocery store grand opening. You're paying your dues.

LR Yeah. Did he do that?

JM He did. I have teenage daughters, so you watch these things.

LR There's a video.

JM Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, the movie, the Justin Bieber movie.

LR Sorry. I don't know.

JM It is good. I'll regret I said that on camera, but it's good. I cried.

LR Okay, good. I'll check it out. What would you like your legacy to be do you think?

JM  Well, I'm a mom above and before all else. That is the truth, and I think about I have two daughters who are 12 and 14, and they are somehow still living in a world where men are making more money than women, and a lot of women, most women that I know, at some point and to some degree, are forced to choose between career and family, and I know I grew up with a dad who was an entrepreneur. I would say, "What am I going to do when I grow up," and he would say, "I don't care, but don't work for anyone else. Whatever you do, don't work for anyone else." He made it very clear that would be miserable. I'm sure you're lovely to work for. I'm not talking to your employees. But everyone else, don't work for anyone else.


I'm raising my daughters with that. I want them to know that in their being, that they can have it all. They might not be able to have it all every minute of every day, but they can have the career, and drive on the field trips, and volunteer in the classrooms, and they might be up all night in order to do that, and they might be working early in the morning, but you can have that, and nobody can tell you that you can't.

LR  Yeah. To be remembered by your daughters.

JM Yeah.

LR Two daughters.

JM Yah.

LR For having instilled that perspective, that it gives them those opportunities.

JM God willing and, also, I would like one day for one person to Google Jennie McCarthy, and have it say, "Did you mean Jenna McCarthy?" That would be an awesome legacy, too. Those two things, good modeling for my daughters, and the Jennie McCarthy [inaudible 00:25:27].

LR Very nice. What do you think it means to be a modern entrepreneur?

JM  Well, the first thing that comes to mind when I saw this and saw that was the name of the series, I thought about my dad, who is no longer with us, but was the first entrepreneur I ever knew and my hero, and I thought, "What made him an entrepreneur," and in his day, as opposed to being modern, it was he had an idea, and he had the guts to do it and to go for it, and to execute it, and to do it better than anyone else. That's all he had to do back then.

I'm comparing myself. Do I write better than anyone else in the world? Probably not. So what is it that makes the modern entrepreneur is the ability to evolve. You have to keep evolving. I talk to people and they say, "Well, I have a website, and I have a social media presence." It's like, "Is your website mobily optimized, and is your MySpace page your social media presence?" You can't go, "I don't really like the technology." If you want to be a modern entrepreneur, you better be up with all of that, and you have to find a way to be at least a little bit passionate about it, or surround yourself with people who are, or companies like ONTRAPORT that can bring you into that, because that is what it means to me to be modern, to be evolving, to be keeping up, to be walking the walk and doing it at the same time.

LR Yeah. Well, thank you so much for being here. Would you mind signing our ... What is that? A sign?

JM I would love to sign your sign.

LR All right. Thanks.