As an author, you are always juggling. Not only are you writing the next book, but you are promoting your latest book, writing a monthly newsletter, keeping up with your blog (or other blogs), and updating your website. And that’s just for starters.
This is where a virtual assistant (sometimes called an author assistant) comes in handy. They can help you gain some breathing space and may even boost sales with their knowledge of promotions. These assistants—who don’t have to be in the same office, or even same city, as you—handle a multitude of tasks, including:
Marketing, from writing press releases and newsletter to coordinating contests and giveaways. Some virtual assistants have graphic artist experience and can create the promotions for you.
Social media management. VAs will handle social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Instagram, YouTube, etc., creating content and replying to comments.
Scheduling. An assistant can help you with whatever you need to schedule, from speaking events and book signings to blog tours.
Website and blog management. VAs may update websites as needed (new books, events, photos of you, etc.). They can also write content for your blog, or help you by brainstorming ideas.
Database administration. If you need to maintain any sort of database—for NetGalley requests, Goodreads giveaways, newsletter signups, etc.—an assistant can keep track of these.
Online research. Some assistants do research and fact-checking.
Other assistance. This can include monitoring email, sending out cards and letters, ordering supplies, and making travel arrangements. Depending on their skills set, some offer book formatting services.
Most authors seem to use virtual assistants to develop marketing plans and run promotions. You could, as an author, do this on your own. But experienced virtual assistants have already done this for other clients and know how best to promote your book.
How to work with a VA
Most virtual assistants charge $25 to $50 an hour for their services. You don’t need to hire them full-time, although you can. You may need them just for a few hours a month, or to work on a specific project.
“Each virtual assistant will have a different skill set,” said Jenel Looney, who works full-time for three authors. “If you want someone to create marketing graphics for you, make sure that she knows how, and that you like her style. If you want someone to help you brainstorm contests that will get readers excited about your books, make sure you hire a VA that has creative ideas that are in line with your readers’ tastes. If you want someone to handle a large mailing for you (like the 30,000 bookmarks I recently mailed to Susan Mallery’s readers), make sure you hire a VA who has mad organizational skills.”
If you know that you will have to promote your book (because your traditional publisher only does so much, or you are self-publishing), then your VA can help you come up with creative promotions. For example, Looney, who works with mystery author Kate Carlisle, designed a custom deck of cards for one of Carlisle’s books. Each face card held a different murder weapon. It was used for a giveaway for members of Carlisle’s mailing list. In addition, Looney created a video revealing each day’s random winner. It was so popular that “she had a lot of readers asking if they could buy the cards,” Looney said.
“I offer a wide variety of services that come down to this: helping authors get more organized and feel less stressed,” said Mel Jolly, who has assisted multiple New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. “The clients who utilize my services best keep me in the loop for everything involving their business. When it comes to things that need to get done (website updates, blog interviews, social media posts, newsletters, launch plans, ad booking, etc.), I either do the thing or I make sure the thing gets done.”
Another assistant, Amanda West Kassis, who also works as an editor, focuses on publishing weekly newsletters and growing subscribers. “I am in the publishing industry, which gives me unique skills and knowledge,” she said. She will help an author post on social media, write newsletters, and do other marketing.
Is it worth hiring a VA?
You may have written a wonderful book, but it won’t go anywhere without marketing. And marketing may take away time spent writing the next book, which is crucial in a series.
Most virtual assistants said this is the beauty of having help—the author can concentrate on the writing.
Having a virtual assistant, said Looney, “isn’t going to magically make you a bestseller. In my opinion, authors should not hire a VA until they’ve reached a stage in their career when it makes financial sense, and that’s a decision each author must make for herself. When you’ve reached the level of success that leaves you too busy to have a life, consider hiring a VA.”
Sarah Merchant, who specializes in social media and website/blog management, said that what may take someone else hours to do might take her minutes. “Is it worth it to you to struggle through those hours simply because you think it will save you money? Isn’t your time worth more than that?” she said. “I have a lot of respect for authors, and love putting my skills to work for them, so they can concentrate on their writing.”
She can’t say how much her work has helped with sales, but pointed to a recent Facebook promotion she did for an author. Her work resulted in an immediate increase in clicks.
Looney also said it’s hard to pinpoint whether her work has boosted book sales. “The frustrating thing about marketing is that you will rarely be able to draw a straight line from a specific promotion to specific sales,” she said. “I will say that I don’t take any credit for my clients’ success. That always, always, always comes back to the book. They write books that readers love. My work is not responsible for their success; rather, I help them manage that success.”
An author first needs to consider the budget and her priorities, said Jolly. Most of her authors only need her for five or so hours per month.
“We all wish we could outsource SO MANY THINGS, but the reality is that we have to start small and outsource just one or two things at first,” Jolly said. “That’s best for a small budget and for building trust.
“Quickly, let’s talk quickly about math. Let’s say an author can afford to hire an assistant for 10 hours/month. That’s 120 hours per year. How many more words can that author produce with an additional 120 hours per year? Let’s estimate low and say that’s one additional novella per year.
“If the author is paying the assistant a rate of $40/hour, that’s $4,800 for the year. How much can the author make by self-publishing that novella? Or selling it traditionally? At this point, there are too many variables for me to continue with the math, but do you see where I’m going with this?”
One author, Susan Mallery, has worked with Looney for nine years and considers her indispensable. As an example, she mentions her latest book, Secrets of the Tulip Sisters. Looney created the content for TulipSisters.com, sent 200 copies of the book to a “Review Crew,” created a sign-up form for mailing list members to receive bookmarks, then sent out the bookmarks to 30,000 fans (Looney also designed the bookmarks). In addition, she created quote-of-the-day shareables with quotes from the book, created videos and graphics to use in Facebook ads, and executed the Facebook campaigns. During all this, she coordinated with Harlequin’s PR and digital marketing departments on the book promotion.