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shana galen

Is a Virtual Assistant Right for You?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author in possession of a contract must be in want of an assistant. At least, it seems that way to me. I can't walk through a group of authors at a conference without hearing phrases like...

I wish I could afford an assistant.
I would kill for an assistant.
Who's your assistant?
I'll have my assistant send it to you.

When my first book came out in 2005, I didn't know any authors with assistants. This isn't to say no authors had assistants, but I didn't move in those authors' elevated realms. In 2013, assistants seem more the norm than the exception. I was actually worried about finding authors who didn't have assistants to interview for this article. I needn't have worried. Not every author is enamored of virtual assistants, while some authors, like me, adore our assistants. So how do you know if hiring a virtual assistant is the right decision for you?

What is a Virtual Assistant (VA)?

A virtual assistant is a contracted employee an author hires to help with specified tasks. Most assistants do not come to your house or office. They live in another part of the country, and all or most of your interactions are completed via email or phone, which is why the assistant is referred to as "virtual."

What do VAs do? I asked a number of VAs about their services. Maggie Mae Gallagher, an assistant since 2011, who has quickly earned a reputation as one of the best, gave me a general idea of what she does. "A typical day entails conversing with the publicity department at a client's publishing house, addressing my email inbox, designing an ad, updating a client's calendar, packing book shipments for blog winners, updating websites, and that's only a small portion." Kim Castillo, who is probably the most well-known and most-respected VA in the romance genre, told me she offers "social media help, bookseller outreach, website help, marketing, contest, scheduling, and almost anything else I'm asked to do."

My own assistant, Gayle Cochrane, said of her services, "I will be happy to do whatever someone needs done, from the clerical to the creative." This statement seems to sum up the attitude of all the assistants I spoke to. As Gallagher put it, "as an author's assistant, you really have to be versatile." I know this is true of my assistant. I've asked her to do everything from figuring out technical problems with my author app or social media sites to creating banners, bookplates, and crafting promotional campaigns for me. The sky is the limit with a good assistant. And a great assistant probably knows what you need done before you have even thought of it.

How Do You Know if You Need An Assistant?

Having someone solve your technical problems or design your promo items may sound great, but you could also do it yourself and for free. Or is it free? Time spent working on promotion is time not writing, and writing pays the bills. So how do you know if you've reached the point in your career where doing it yourself is actually not cost-effective?

Gallagher gave me a great checklist.
   You might need an assistant if:
  • you continue to miss your book deadlines due to social media demands.
  • you miss blog dates.
  • you have trouble shipping readers books they won in a timely fashion.
  • it's been so long since you updated your website it has tumble weeds blowing through it.
  • you are a new author hyperventilating over your first book release.
  • social media brings you nightmares.

Cochrane summed it up by saying, an author needs an assistant when "the details of the business are making it difficult to write." And Castillo echoed my own experience saying, an author needs an assistant when she "finds herself pulling out her hair, overwhelmed, screaming, 'I need an assistant.'"

The publishing world at the end of 2013 is vastly different from when I began in 2005. No one talked about social media or blog tours back then. Blogging was still relatively new and the e-book explosion was a long way off. We didn't even know if e-books would take off. We did copyedits on hard copy (some houses still do) and mailed completed manuscripts in Tyvek envelopes we picked up at the post office. I'm talking about a time not even ten years ago.

The demands on authors now are dizzying—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogs, Kindle daily deals, BookBub ads, newsletters...and more. As Castillo puts it, "There is so much an author needs to do other than write books now. Once you sell that first book you become a brand and a product. Those things need time and cultivation. It's hard to do that and write books."

And as authors, didn't we get into this to write books?

I Need An Assistant. STAT!

If the thought of someone else going to the post office for you, updating your website, or writing your RWR article (just kidding—Gayle's good, but not that good) makes you want to dance, then you are not alone. A lot of authors—a lot of authors like you—have assistants.

I asked three authors with assistants—Eloisa James (Three Weeks With Lady X), Jeannie Lin (The Lotus Palace), and Eileen Dreyer (Once a Rake)—to discuss their experience.

Lin hired an assistant because "with a fulltime day job and two toddlers to juggle, I have little time to write let alone promote." She hired her assistant specifically to "set up blog tours as well as other tasks such as mailing out review copies or preparing conference giveaways." Dreyer hired someone to "do the detail work for me, somebody to brainstorm marketing and advertising, social networking. I need somebody who will ensure I follow up, maintain healthy relationships with the various reviewers, bloggers, booksellers and publishing people."

Before I hired an assistant, I had concerns about how readers would perceive me if they knew I had an assistant. I've seen tweets or Facebook posts by VAs, and it always seemed a little distancing to me. I wanted to make sure the readers on social media who seek me out, interact with me. So when I hired Cochrane, we agreed I would still do my own social media, but she would help with all of the graphics and send me suggestions for topics to post about. Sometimes you just need a little help thinking of ideas for a post.

James had concerns about hiring an assistant as well. She admitted, "I'm a perfectionist—so it was hard for me to trust someone could do things as exactingly as I had been doing them for myself. But I couldn't keep doing them and have a life." James makes an excellent point I suspect perfectionism holds many authors back from asking for help. When I was discussing this article with fellow author Monica Burns (A Bluestocking Christmas), she mentioned the biggest reason she thought authors were reluctant to hire assistants was because "authors are control freaks. We're not willing to trust someone with our brand. It takes a great deal of courage to let go of that control and let the assistant do something that you've been doing a certain way for some time." You might not want to give up that control. Or you might only be willing to give it up in stages. When I hired Cochrane, I gave her very specific tasks to complete. The more we worked together and she got to know me and I her, the more I was willing to trust her with more creative and open-ended tasks.

For Dreyer, a major concern was that her "assistant understands how I work...if my assistant doesn't get my methods, that's just added stress, which exacerbates my ADD. Which stops the writing. My husband once tried to be helpful and filed the paperwork in my office. I still haven't found it." Before Dreyer hired her current assistant, she worked with another well-known assistant and felt the two of them were "dancing to different tunes." It's important to give yourself and your assistant a test period, and if it doesn't work out, try another assistant. If you've had an assistant before and weren't happy, it might not be because you can't work with assistants. Perhaps you were working with the wrong assistant for you.

The Elephant in the Room

I can hear you now. Thanks a lot, Shana, for getting me all excited about assistants, but then you quote Eloisa James. I don't make that kind of money! How much is an assistant going to cost me?

Probably not as much as you think.

James will soon be paying her assistant a set salary, but most authors, including me, pay by the hour. I pay Cochrane every month. Most months, my budget is 3 hours. She lets me know if I'm going to go over. Release months, or often the month before a release, are 4 hours, and again, she asks for approval before she goes over. Before I hired my assistant, I asked other authors what they were paying their assistants. The responses I received were anywhere from $12/hour to $20/hour. Some assistants charge by the hour, while others charge by the task.

Lin also has a set budget for her assistant. They "started out with a baseline of 10 hours a month for a four month period and then added additional tasks and hours as necessary." Dreyer is more flexible. She says, "mostly what happens is that I look at my checkbook and consider what needs to be done when, and dole out the money."

Before hiring an assistant, an author should definitely consider budget. VAs are generally very willing to work within an author's budget. And as James pointed out when I asked her about budgeting, "any business must re-invest in itself." In her experience, "overhead for Eloisa is about 10% of my income."

Hold It Right There

As I mentioned earlier, I had no trouble finding authors to interview who did not have and did not want assistants. Megan Mulry (In Love Again), Miranda Neville (The Ruin of a Rogue), and Kate Watterson (Buried) all told me that they'd used assistants in the past or seriously considered it and decided an assistant wasn't the right solution for them. Neville mentioned using Kim Castillo in the past and not having any complaints. She hasn't used her more because "I don't really know what to have her do...By the time you've asked her to do it, you could have done it yourself." Watterson said much the same thing. She mentioned that she "didn't really have time to tell them [an assistant] what to do, as ridiculous as that may sound. It seemed like half the time doing it myself seemed easier than answering questions about how I wanted it done."

Both Watterson and Neville mentioned concerns about using an assistant for social media as well. Neville said, "the most time-consuming thing about promo is producing social media content—blogs, tweets, FB posts. I can't see having someone else do those for me. It's my writing, my voice I'm selling. It needs to be authentic." Watterson agreed, saying, "being represented on social media by someone else makes me uncomfortable."

Mulry also mentioned feeling as though she was a "terrible delegator. I do not like explaining how to do something." In addition, Mulry mentioned another aspect of the assistant-author relationship, which is that it can be very personal. Mulry noted, "I don't do well in long-term committed relationships with one person." No worries, Mr. Mulry, Megan thinks you are the exception. The relationship an author and assistant form is one to consider before beginning the process of hiring an assistant. As VA Castillo noted, "The author assistant relationship is a very intimate one. Both parties need to understand how much an assistant will know about their author's personal life. You'll possibly be privy to credit cards, bank accounts, and so much more."

Final Considerations

If you're still on the fence, here are some final considerations. Before you hire an assistant, Mulry suggests authors should "have a very clear idea of what they want the assistant to do." Watterson suggests authors go one step further and "have a clear idea of just what it is they want from the relationship. Delegating responsibility sounds great, but how easy is it for you, as a person, to let someone else take care of something important in your career? " Gallagher agrees and notes that "hiring an assistant does not remove some of the author's responsibilities; however, the assistant will facilitate these tasks, saving the author's time and energy."

Another consideration, at least for Neville, is "whether having an assistant is really going to save you work. I'm not convinced." From my own experience, I have to agree that there is a learning curve for both the author and assistant. Cochrane and I exchanged hundreds if not thousands of emails when our relationship began. Sometimes we still have concentrated exchanges over a particular task I've assigned her. I'm amenable to that because the tasks I assign her are not ones I want myself, and I do like to continue to make the executive decisions. As Cochrane points out, assistants have preferences too, and it's helpful to them if an author is "very clear and direct in her communication." If you go into the relationship not knowing what you want or with vague directions, you may end up dissatisfied.

James mentions a few other items for authors to consider, specifically, "How many hours can you pay for? What sort of assistant do you want—one who comes up with marketing plans or materials, or one who can "be" you on-line and in social media, or one who is best at behind-the scenes work (i.e., sending out newsletters)." Hiring an assistant is an important decision. Treat it like any other business decision, weighing the pros and cons. Is giving up a measure of control worth the time you gain to write or spend with your family? Is paying for an assistant the best use of your income? And most importantly, before hiring an assistant, take Lin's advice: "Know what you want. I say this about all promotional efforts. Know what you want to get out of it so you can work with your assistant to plan for that. If you go into any game not having a clearly defined goal, you're more likely to waste time and money and not be satisfied."

So, is a VA right for you?

© Shana Galen

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