OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
Indie authors often have an edge of control freakery … well, I do! I like being in control and I enjoy pretty much all aspects of being an author entrepreneur.
But I hit a wall about 18 months ago, and I definitely needed some help, so I started looking for a virtual assistant to help me.
I had a few varied experiences and learned some lessons, and then Alexandra Amor reached out to me with some brilliant suggestions for how she could help.
Alexandra is a children's author, but she is also a fantastic virtual assistant for me and a number of other authors. I trust her to help me with key tasks in my author business, and she even suggests things that I may not have thought of.
Today, Alexandra explains how a VA can help authors.
Joanna has previously talked about the advantages for authors of having a Virtual Assistant (VA), most recently in her podcast episode with Chris Ducker. I've been Joanna's VA for almost a year, so I asked her if I could chime in and address some common concerns I hear from authors about working with a VA.
For those who aren't aware, VAs are independent contractors, like editors and graphic designers, who provide support from their home offices using online tools.
The rise of the internet in the 1990s made this type of career possible, and it has only become easier in the ensuing decades for VAs to share information and support their clients remotely. VAs sometimes specialize in working with a certain niche of clients (e.g., Life Coaches or Real Estate Agents) but many are generally skilled and can work with almost any type of business. VAs are always responsible for the infrastructure they use to do their work (i.e., computer, basic software programs like Word and Excel, internet connection etc.) and they almost always work for more than one client at a time, just as editors and graphic designers do.
You may not have reached the tipping point yet where you feel you need some virtual support. But I certainly hope that one day your books will be so successful that you will! Whether your need is current, or if you're envisioning what your business will look like when you're a wildly successful author, let's jump in and see if I can alleviate some of your concerns and questions about hiring this type of support.
Author Concern #1: I can't afford a VA
Joanna often says that she prefers the term ‘indie author' as opposed to ‘self-published author' because authors don't actually work in isolation. It's a team effort to get your books published, involving cover designers, editors and more. Working with a VA is a perfect example of this. At some point in your author business, it's not going to be possible, or advantageous, for you to do absolutely everything yourself. But unlike hiring a full-time, or part-time, employee, you can hire a VA for very specific tasks, within a specific budget that you set. A VA will work as few or as many hours as you need her to. It's an economical solution for many solopreneurs, including authors.
Before you start looking for a VA, I recommend you have a clear idea about what your budget is. You will find it easier to set your budget if you know what it is you want your VA to do for you. (Below I cover how to figure both these things out.)
While we're talking about your budget, let's talk about rates for virtual help. (Keep in mind that you always get what you pay for.) You'll pay from US$10 to $15/hour for general administrative or transcription help, for someone who is probably based in India or the Philippines. If you want someone experienced and technologically skilled, who has an entrepreneurial mindset themselves, and who is genuinely interested in your success, you'll pay between US$30 and $60/hour.
The belief that you have to do it all, all by yourself, is not true. And it's equally untrue that you'll need to invest thousands of dollars a month into getting some help. It's not an either-or proposition.
(I also think there's much to be said for the mental clutter that is cleaned up when you've got someone helping you, even if it's for one hour a week. By delegating some tasks, your brain is freed up to focus on your creativity.)
Author Concern #2: It's simpler to do these things myself
Delegating is tough. I get it. Your author business is precious to you and it is difficult to imagine anyone else doing things as quickly, easily and with as much care as you do them. However, as an independent author you also know that there are advantages to not being an expert at everything. You have probably recognized that you don't need to be a book cover designer, a copyeditor, or a bookkeeper in order to write and sell great books. You can outsource those specific tasks to others who are skilled in these areas.
However, even knowing this, a hurdle that authors often face when hiring a VA is this; initially, it can take longer to explain how you want something done than to just do it yourself. So the danger is remaining stuck in a form of superhero syndrome and continuing to try to do everything yourself.
Deal with this concern by thinking about your long-term strategy. You probably want to build a business that will support you for years to come. Invest some time in showing your new VA how you like things done and from then on you won't have to even think about that task. Also, consider that even though the VA you hire may be very skilled, she still needs to figure out the way you want things done. At the beginning of the working relationship, a little patience will be required, but it will be rewarded.
Author Concern #3: What exactly should I get a VA to do for me?
It's possible you feel overwhelmed with the number of tasks involved in running your author business. It's a slippery slope where you can find that you are spending far too much time administering and not enough time writing. And yet, that overwhelm can lead to paralysis when it comes to figuring out what to delegate.
Here's my favorite tip for tackling this: For one week, keep a piece of paper on your desk in plain sight and within easy reach (or use your favorite electronic tool for making lists).
Every time you find yourself doing something you either a) don't like doing and/or consistently avoid or b) know doesn't need your direct involvement, write it down.
(Most people who do this exercise find that at the end of the week the list is far longer than they expected.)
At the end of the week, take a look at your list. Do you notice any patterns? Are the tasks mostly focused in one or two areas? (e.g., social media or behind-the-scenes technical jobs.) Or are they general administrative type chores? Armed with this information, you can now specifically look for virtual help in the area of your greatest need. Now you know both what you need help with and what kind of skills you need in the person who's going to be helping you.
(Not all VAs are created equal, so giving some thought to what kind of support you need before you go searching for help is important.)
If you're still struggling with the idea of what a VA can do for you, here are some specific examples from my own practice:
– Formatting HTML newsletters
– Formatting books for Smashwords
– Research about the business side of being an author (e.g., how Street Teams work, how to market a book in a foreign language, podcasts that might be a good fit to have you as a guest, etc.)
– Scouting for bloggers to send book review requests to
– Pitching to those bloggers and tracking responses
– Formatting (and perhaps light editing) of blog posts, or organizing content
– Managing your Street Team Facebook group (posing questions to keep the group engaged, answering questions, sharing upcoming news, etc.)
– Creating box sets in Scrivener from individual novels
– Moving works translated into a foreign language from Word into Scrivener
– Scheduling tweets and Facebook posts (ones that don't require your direct input or engagement with your audience)
– Transcribing audio interviews or notes
– For non-fiction authors, VAs can do an enormous number of tasks around webinars or other training you offer (e.g., planning and booking the event, scheduling guests, managing registration lists, dealing with the back-end technology, creating and proofing slide decks, sending out advance information packages to the trainees, and then sending out follow-up information to the trainees, etc.)
Author Concern #4: How do I find a Virtual Assistant?
As with hiring any freelancer, personal recommendations are usually the best place to start. Does anyone in your author circles have a VA they can recommend? Can you put a shout out on KBoards asking for recommendations?
There are several Virtual Assistant organizations, usually based on the country where the VAs are located. Do a Google search for “Virtual Assistant [your country]” and you'll find these organizations. Once you're there, you can then do a search by the specific skill(s) you're looking for and the site will offer a list of names, usually with links to the VAs' individual websites.
When you've got a few names that look promising, be sure to interview several potential candidates so that you can get a sense of both the skills they have on offer and how their personality is going to fit with yours. Your working relationship with the VA will hopefully be long-term so you want to make sure it's the right fit.
Bonus Tip #1: Start Small
I always recommend to authors that they begin to work with a VA by agreeing to a couple of smaller tasks or projects and then building from there. Rushing in and assigning too much, too fast, usually leads to conflict and fractures in the relationship. Starting small achieves two really important things; it begins to build trust, and it creates a testing ground to ensure the two of you are a good fit.
Ideally as the first few small projects begin and end, you'll start to trust that your VA knows what they're doing and can follow instructions and complete the project at the agreed time and in a way that makes you happy. As well, your VA will begin to learn how you work and what matters to you. It's just as important that you are a good fit for your VA, as she is with you.
Bonus Tip #2: Communication is Key
In her interview with Chris Ducker, Joanna mentions that she and I share several documents on Google Drive so that we're both always aware of what's going on and what our expectations are. You can keep a shared spreadsheet to track your VA's billable hours, so you always know exactly where you are in terms of your budget. Another great idea is to keep a document with the list of projects the VA is working on, in priority order, so that things don't get forgotten about and so that you both know what your VA is supposed to be working on at any given time. Meeting regularly on the telephone or Skype/FaceTime keeps the communication flowing and also helps to grow your relationship.
I hope this helps any authors who are considering hiring a VA. If you have any questions about any of what I've mentioned above, or want more information, please leave a comment below.
You can also learn more at my website.