I have heard other authors discussing their experience with assistants, and frankly, some of them were horror stories. I wasn't even clear on what an assistant did, much less being able to assess if I needed, or could afford one. When my friend, Susan Squires, raved about a new assistant she hired, Kelly Oakes, I wanted to know more. I thought you'd want to know more. So Susan and Kelly Oakes agreed to allow me to interview them about their experience.
How/why did you come to the decision to use an assistant?
I have known I needed an assistant for some time. There is so much to promoting books these days that it doesn’t leave enough time for writing if you’re not careful. I am fairly organized because I used to manage projects in my day job, but I was struggling to meet the commitments to promotion I made.
How did you find one?
With great difficulty! I first asked around among my writer-friends and got some recommendations. I had three failures before I found Kelly. The biggest problem was over-commitment on the part of the assistant. We would have great conversations about what I wanted to accomplish and how that might work, and then either life interfered, or they had just taken on too much work. After two failures, I took someone very inexperienced, but who had the time. That was okay, but the truth was, I needed a full partner who had perhaps more experience at promoting than I did, not someone I needed to instruct. I had just about given up in despair when I met Kelly at a reader’s conference we both attended. We hit it off immediately, but I waited to engage her until I was about three months out from releasing my next book. I liked the fact that she treated the release like a project, with a schedule, and due dates (for both of us!). She planned to sub out things that were simple and cheap to do, like organizing blog tours. She had a plan!
How do you decide what work to hold onto, and what to delegate?
We discuss it together and agree. She can manage social media in terms of promoting the books, but I write personal posts so my personality can shine through. She organizes the Facebook party, but it’s my job to get other authors to attend. She manages the mailing list and formats the newsletters but I write them. She places the book in promotional opportunities and uses the blurbs, bios, and excerpts that I have written. It isn’t just Kelly who gets assignments. She gives me assignments too.
Who comes up with the marketing ideas?
Kelly is a fount of knowledge, but we do work together. And we’re getting more comfortable with brain-storming sessions together. Then the trick is to prioritize all those good ideas and break them down into steps with assignments, due dates and an understanding of the budget that will be allocated to the idea. Kelly was very blunt about the things we needed to do to get my promotional efforts up to speed. Just what I wanted! That included having my web guy redo my website, getting an Author page up (I know—pretty basic, huh? But I’d been putting it off), new covers for my current series, etc. Now she wants a new author photo. Oh, no!!! She can’t help with my photo, but she put up the Author page, found a dynamite cover designer, and we had a meaningful discussion about branding.
Would you do it again? How expensive is it?
I would have engaged an assistant a lot earlier if I’d found a good one sooner. I will use Kelly for the foreseeable future. It’s possible our hours may fluctuate a little, but they haven’t so far. As far as expense goes, I think Kelly pays for herself and then some. I think of it as a longer-term investment in building audience. I initially thought the investment of hours was front-loaded as we did lots of work on the basics, but now we have new ideas to implement that go beyond basics, so I don’t see our hours changing all that much. The trick is to set a level of hours invested with your assistant that will meet your needs, and that you can afford. I think it’s only fair to your assistant to keep that as consistent as possible, so she can have reliable income as well. Right now, 20 hours a month seems to be about right for us.
It’s also important for you, as an author, to plan in advance. If you haven’t been using many hours and then suddenly you say to your assistant, “I have a book coming out next week and want more hours from you”—Well, she might have those hours available and she might not. You need several months’ notice anyway to generate reviews, blog tours, cover reveals, release parties, or whatever, so plan ahead. If you don’t plan ahead, you won’t be maximizing the usefulness of your assistant.
At what stage of an author’s career do you think they should consider using an assistant?
This is a hard question and one only each author can answer. Personally, I think an assistant can help you generate income, but unless you have an independent source of money (great day-job, lottery win, inheritance, or a sugar daddy) you may want to wait until you’re sure the book sales you are currently generating will pay for the assistant as well as the promotional activities she plans. But that’s just my take on it.
Any suggestions you have for an author who is interviewing assistants?
Ask how many hours they have available. I think reserving a specific number of hours is much more effective than paying by the individual task. If the hours aren’t used, then they should roll over to the next month. Then ask what tools the assistant uses to keep track of both of your activities. Does she keep a time sheet? I like getting spreadsheets with all my blog dates on them (as well as links), for instance, so it would be good for me to hear that the assistant knows a program that produces spreadsheets. I like to understand how the work will be invoiced. Figure out how you will stay in touch. This is especially important if you live in different time zones. I’m very glad Kelly and I live in the same time zone, but it can be done even if you don’t. You just have to schedule your talks, and set hours in the day when you will both reliably answer emails. Kelly and I meet at the beginning of the month by phone to plan out the month’s activities and periodically during the month but we communicate primarily by email and instant message in the interim.
Kelly, do you only work for authors? How did you get into this line of work?
Yes, I started this company because of my love of books and wanted to do something that involved them, but at the same time, wouldn’t make me hate books.
It started with a book… No really, I hurt my back nearly 6 years ago and was bored out of my mind while on a 2 week rehabilitation at home. A friend brought by a book from a series she’d been reading… it was my gateway drug. I started blogging about these amazing things called BOOKS!
I’ve now been a blogger for over 5 years and made many author friends from my site or going to book conventions. I loved interacting with the authors and promoting their books.
It wasn’t until a BIG move across the U.S. was scheduled with my husband’s company that I had the idea, or fear, “What the heck am I going to do for work in Florida?” So, one night when at a convention and sitting in a van with Jade Lee outside of a strip club in Vegas, she mentioned she was losing her assistant. I jumped at the chance and said, “I’m starting my own company, I’ll be your assistant!” True story. The move fell through, but the new company and job was born.
What skills do you need to become an author’s assistant?
#1 Survey answer is: Organization! That is your main job, keep your author organized and on task.
But other than that, it’s good to have experience with: Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, Instagram, etc.), Blogging, Word, Excel, MAC applications, Photoshop, Communication skills, Google applications, time management and creativity. Having 17 years interior design experience and management skills seem to help a little too! I know that sounds like a lot, but you need to know everything from mailing a box, to creating a blog post or coming up with ideas for teaser images to promote a book.
How do you find authors?
Actually, word-of-mouth and referrals are the main way. Some I’ve met at book events while working for another author.
I do have a website, but only get a couple inquiries from there.
What does your job entail?
Please see answer: “What skills do you need to become an author’s assistant?” and much more! Really, I do anything that an author needs and that I can accommodate. I am however, not a marketing company, nor do I bill myself as a publicist. (disclaimer)
Do you like this job?
I love this job!. I’m currently doing it part-time, and hold a Full-time day job as a Designer, but hope to transition it to full-time VERY soon.
Any suggestions you have for authors that would make your job easier?
Copy me on everything! It’s hard to keep track of things that I don’t know are happening. But my group of authors are very good about keeping me in the loop, most of the time. 🙂
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve been asked by an author to do?
Lace up an author’s corset. Although that’s not weird at all, attending conventions we all have dressed in the occasional costume.
Are you looking for clients? If so, how would an author contact you?
Not at the moment, but some of my clients don’t need me at all times and every month. So don’t be afraid to contact me if you need a Facebook party scheduled, book tour or just help with an upcoming book release, I might be able to fit you in.
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Very helpful. Not only did the interview introduce me to the idea of an assistant but it uncovered a bit of the promotional iceberg. I have a book being released and am scared pantless, not knowing what's expected or how I will handle the promotional and branding issues which I know nothing about.
I expect I'll be looking for one before too long, as soon as I feel like I can afford to make that commitment. It's a struggle to balance the promotion and the writing and everything else. Thanks for clarifying the role of assistant and the expectations (or examples thereof) from both sides of the relationship!
I would love one in the future -- hopefully someone with the knowledge and enthusiasm of Kelly! Wouldn't it be wonderful, as a writer, to actually devote almost all of your time to . . . writing? What a novel idea. 🙂
Thanks for spotlighting this issue. I, too, work as an author assistant and find that many authors believe they cannot afford an assistant or do not "deserve" an assistant. My clientele includes debut authors, indie authors and multi-pubbed bestselling authors, some of whom hire me for 2 hours a month and others who pay for 40+ hours a month. It is critically important to hire an assistant who is knowledgeable, experienced and reliable. I did a presentation on how to work with and screen virtual assistants at RWA National this year with one of my clients if folks care to listen to the recording for more information.
I enjoyed learning what being an assistant involves. I've often wondered. Thanks for the informative post.
Me, me!! Ooh-ooh. I NEED an assistant. Alas, I must sell books first. 🙂
Thanks everyone for the comments and stopping by.
Of course Kelly is great. I must admit I'm still learning how to make the most of her skills. But we are growing into a better partnership all the time. It's been a great experience.
I can foresee the need for an assistant when I get published. Hopefully soon! Thank you for educating me about an assistant's skills and how they can be utilized by an author.
I don't know that I would want an assistant, but I would love to be someone else's assistant. I think that would be an amazing and fun gig.
Thanks for this informative post. This has been on my mind for some time. Not in the market now; but, hopefully, I'll be at the point of needing an assistant soon. Now I have the info at hand to know what recruiting an assistant entails.