by Barbara Linn Probst
I hate social media. It’s an addictive rabbit-hole.
I just don’t have time. Social media takes away from my precious writing time.
I’m no good at creating those visuals and posts.
I’ve heard many authors—myself included—express our frustration and dismay at the expectation that we will not only produce wonderful books, but also carry out what amounts to a second full-time job as our own marketing team. Most of us don’t mind holding events, whether live or virtual, where we get to engage with readers. Nor do we mind interviews, written or recorded, where we can talk about our books and our writing process. But what so many of us do hate is the seemingly bottomless pit of social media engagement.
Facebook, with all those reader and writer groups. Instagram. Twitter. Pinterest.
“Likes” and “follows.” Comments and messages and shares.
Wouldn’t it be great if someone else could do all this for us?
Someone else can—for a price, and with a few caveats. Whether they call themselves virtual assistants, social media consultants, or author assistants, there are people who will manage your social media for you.
Unlike publicists, who seek media coverage on your behalf, or direct marketers, whom you pay to advertise your book on their sites, a virtual assistant takes over tasks that you could, if you wanted, do yourself or learn how to do yourself. They may do it more attractively, strategically, or frequently—but they have no special credentials like the high-level media connections of a good publicist or special access to important gatekeepers. What you’re buying, in effect, is time—and the freedom to use that time in other ways.
The questions are: How much is that time worth to you, and are there other benefits, besides freeing up your time, that a virtual assistant can offer?
I decided to investigate these questions when I thought about how I wanted to launch my second book, coming in April. My debut (April 2020) had a great launch despite the onset of the pandemic, but I wanted to expand my thinking to consider what I did not do—or didn’t do very well.
The obvious gap, for me, was in the realm of social media. Like many others in my cohort, I didn’t grow up with social media and secretly wished I didn’t have to use it. Being both naïve and overly-aggressive (a bad combination), I made some mistakes the first time around that I still regret. For example, having misunderstood the absolute meaning of “no self-promotion,” I am now banned forever from two of the biggest reader groups on Facebook.
I’ve learned a few things since Queen of the Owls made its way into the world. I now understand that social media is a long game, not a quick grab. It’s about the slow, steady development of connection and engagement. Like all relationships, it takes time and commitment. You have to show up every day, not just on birthdays and anniversaries. And that means a serious investment of energy.
Not everyone wants to do that. After all, there’s no end to what we, as authors, might do to reach out to readers! Another thing I’ve learned is that no one can, or should, do everything. I advise those who ask me: “Just do the stuff that’s fun for you, and outsource—or forget—the rest of it.”
And there’s the heart of the matter: what should we do ourselves, what should we jettison, and what should we outsource?
Sometimes the answer is clear. If you want to pitch to the book review editor at The New York Times, you need a professional publicist to do so on your behalf—and even then, there’s no guarantee. Many authors I know are unhappy at what they now consider to be a poor “return on investment” after hiring a publicist at a cost of anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000. They’re wondering if there isn’t a middle ground between spending that kind of money, which most don’t have, and doing it all yourself.
A virtual assistant—someone who can manage author promotion on social media—can seem like an attractive option. At a cost far below that of a publicist, with a direct appeal to readers that can actually be tracked, social media assistance is a rapidly-growing alternative.
And for those of us, like me, who do have a publicist, a social media assistant can—maybe—take over an important piece of the book promotion that publicists don’t do and that many of us authors don’t do very well.
I decided to look into it. I asked—on social media, of course!—if fellow authors had anyone they recommended. Their responses, including some who recommended themselves, led me on various paths, and I ended up speaking with seven people who offer social media assistance. Some focused specifically on authors; some did not. Most, though not all, required a three-month commitment; prices ranged from $300/month to $1300/month.
I also spoke with two people who offer “social media coaching”—with far higher price tags—but am not including them here because that service is quite different; nor am I including the many webinars and workshops that are available, for free or at minimal cost, to teach authors how to enhance their own social media skills. I didn’t want someone to coach me on fishing techniques; I wanted to hire a fisherman.
I encountered a number of models—different ways of working, with different price tags and different strengths and drawbacks. I ended up selecting someone who seemed to be the best fit for my needs and style. While she hadn’t worked with authors, specifically, she was creative and flexible, which were two priorities for me. I didn’t want someone with an expensive prix fixe package who required a three-month minimum commitment, as many did. I wanted to be able to explore and ramp up slowly, which this VA allows me to do.
So far, it seems to be working well. I come up with the concepts and she executes them—a division of labor that’s letting me keep to a reasonable budget, since she charges by the hour. On the other hand, there are possibilities I’m electing to forgo, such as analytics, story reels, optimization strategies, and so on—on the premise that no one can do, or cover, everything. For now, I’m simply outsourcing the creative part, which requires skills that would take me too long to learn to do well. If you’re curious about what she’s done for me, you can see some of her animated and musical posts on my Instagram wall, which I often repost on Facebook as well. (Note: I also post on my own sometimes, and only use her to create posts that I couldn’t do myself.)
How you decide to approach this question will depend on your goals, budget, the demographic you want to reach, and your personal style. What’s best for me might not be best for you, so here are some questions to ask yourself:
In all cases, it’s important to remember what a virtual assistant cannot do. Since a VA has no access to your phone, she can’t post photos of you doing book-related things. Her posts will, of necessity, have a certain “artistic distance” to them.
Again, it’s a matter of knowing what you’re good at and have time for, determining a budget, and finding someone who suits your temperament and goals. You might even decide that what really makes sense is to manage your social media yourself, and that’s okay too.
And there can be unexpected benefits—for either or both of you. Since my forthcoming book—the one my VA is focused on promoting—is told through the eyes of a musician, a lot of the posts are music-related. We’ve used piano music in the background, images of sheet music and pianos.
Here is what my VA wrote to me in a recent email:
“You should know that all of this work around pianos inspired me to start learning how to play. My dad is a musician and plays every instrument in the book, but I stopped piano lessons as a teenager. I have my grandma's beautiful antique piano sitting in my living room, so I downloaded the Simply Piano app and have been practicing every day! I'm loving it! It's something that I have wanted to do forever, and working with you gave me that push I needed to start.”
Is that cool, or what?
Over to you, now …
How do you feel about using social media for book promotion—whether you do that yourself, or see others doing that? Do you think it’s a great way of engaging that you enjoy, or simply a “necessary evil?”
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BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the twenty most anticipated books of the year by Working Mother, a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle, was featured in places like Pop Sugar, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, and Ms. Magazine. It also won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s second book, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, launches in April 2021.
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