Many Virtual Assistants are seeing a relationship between the services they offer and the needs that authors have. There’s a direct connection or perfect marriage between the two industries.
I am privileged to share with you an interview with Jan King on this topic.
1. What gave you the idea to teach VAs to work with authors?
I ran a mid-sized publishing company in Santa Monica, California in the US until we sold the company in 1998. We did 200 titles a year and were quite well known for our financial brand. When we sold the company, I decided to consult and work from home. I found that my clients were mostly new publishers who came to me to find out the real basics of book publishing – how to get an ISBN, a bar code, get the copyright registered, and I was repeating myself over and over with this simple information. For whatever reason, they didn’t want to just read one of the great books on self-publishing, they wanted me to tell them. But what they really wanted was someone who could just handle these things for them.
When more authors started publishing their own books, I started doing more consulting with authors. The learning curve for authors who are only going to do these things once is high and they are usually full-time busy themselves so the need to get them help was great.
At the same time, I had started working part-time with a VA myself in my own business and I realized how capable she was of doing just about anything involving a phone and a computer. In fact, she already had author clients – but she was handling customer service activities and correspondence for them rather than doing the specific publishing-related services. It just seemed like such a natural fit for her to be able to offer more services and ones that were particularly valuable for these specific clients. I started teaching her and then a few other VA’s how to do these things and then I started getting calls from other VA’s asking if I would work with them. The training was just a natural next step in helping more people work with authors. It has been great for me because I work with about 100 authors a year as a publishing strategist, and now I have people to refer authors to so I no longer have to do all the explanation I used to with the authors. I absolutely love training and coaching VA’s because they love to learn and they are usually obsessive about details and getting things right.
2. What work does a virtual author’s assistant do?
The training for author’s assistants is built around the 24 services authors and independent publishers ask for most in the three main areas of creating a new book: manuscript creation, the publishing process and book marketing.
These vary according to where the aspiring author or author is in the process of developing a book. When the aspiring author is creating a manuscript, they typically ask for help in organizing their material or making sure it is all available in electronic form, in getting permissions to use quotes or statistics that were developed by others and in fact-checking or doing research. When authors decide to publish their own books, they typically ask for help in getting the ISBN (International Standard Book Number), finding a cover designer, finding a printer, getting testimonials for the back cover and filing the copyright. Then, for as long as an author wants a book to sell, he or she needs help in book marketing. Authors typically ask for help in setting up their Amazon pages, doing virtual book tours, doing social networking, getting books out for review and more.
What is so wonderful since the Internet came along is that all of these tasks can be done online or by telephone, so the job is perfect for someone working from home. And you don’t need to be anywhere near the author geographically to do them.
3. What are some of the trends in the publishing industry and how will those affect virtual author’s assistants?
Author’s Assistants have been part of the publishing industry for well over one hundred years, with an article written about their essential work in The New York Times in 1904.
Back then, author’s assistants worked at an author’s home or office and the typical old-school assistant helped prepare manuscripts for an author, literally typing them from something the author wrote out long-hand, might have helped the author with research and handled fan mail or requests.
By far the biggest change in the publishing industry is that now self-publishing is considered legitimate and is very common.
Over the past year, more than 500,000 new trade titles were published in the U.S. and, for the first time, more than half of these were published independently, meaning that more and more new publishers were entering the market for the first time. Statistics seem to indicate this is a worldwide trend.
Because of the jump in new author/publishers, the need for professional author’s assistants has far exceeded our ability to train them. We have trained about 200 author’s assistants and about half are working with authors and publishers full time and the rest are working with other types of VA clients part of the time.
Another revolution is online book marketing and about 75% of author’s assistants specialize in book marketing. Especially now with the rising popularity of social networking as a way to increase book sales, VAA’s have plenty to do!
4. What are the benefits to a Virtual Assistant in taking training to become an author’s assistant?
The biggest benefit is the confidence that comes from knowing that you know what you are doing and that if you are challenged by something new, that you have a place to go for support.
One of my biggest concerns is that other people who don’t have publishing company backgrounds will try to prepare their own training programs. There are so many misunderstandings and misconceptions about book publishing and if you don’t have an understanding of how the industry really works, you might accidentally lead an author down a really costly path. About half of the author/publishers who come to me for consulting have spent a tremendous amount of time and money and haven’t gotten a good product and are starting over again.
For authors, working with a virtual author’s assistant is like having the perfect collaborator for your book. They get someone who understands the process of writing, publishing and marketing a book from A to Z, which most authors don’t. And the VAA comes (because of our course) with two additional benefits – a referral network of editors, indexers, copywriters, book designers and more, plus they have access to publishing experts so any time the author has a new challenge, we help the VAA find the answer. So not only does the author get all the benefits of working with a VA – great work ethic, administrative skills and the flexibility of having expertise just when the client needs it – but they also have these specialized skills and connections just for authors, aspiring authors and publishers.
5. Do you really have the only author’s assistant training program?
As far as I know, yes. There isn’t any training even for people who are doing this work on site, not virtually. The publishing industry has always been a “learn from the master” kind of industry.
Oddly enough, there is also no “author school” – no place where writers can learn the skills they need to know to write a book, let alone publish or market it. The way I learned publishing, and everyone else in the publishing industry learned publishing is by working with more senior people, usually in a publishing company. It is hard to describe how valuable these services are to authors, but even more how valuable the perspective of a VAA is – someone who knows the process and knows the author isn’t leaving something out that would be critical to success.
I am in Los Angeles, so the program is US-based, but like so many things, there are fewer and fewer differences in book publishing throughout the world. The biggest differences from country to country are in copyright, online bookstores (for instance there is no Amazon.au) and in printers. We focus on about seven English-speaking countries and all of those things are covered separately for each country in the course. I keep up with some great bloggers in separate countries (for instance in Australia there is www.publish-yourself.info) to see how people deal with the roadblocks to a smooth publishing experience in their own countries.
6. In this economy, is there really a demand for these services? I know a number of authors who probably wouldn’t consider hiring these services.
The demand for these services is already high and growing fast. Even with the economic challenges, there are a record number of people becoming authors. Up until about 2005, about 150,000 new trade (bookstore-type) books would be published every year. That number started to grow and it has recently been announced by the people who keep those stats that over just the past 12 months, the number of new trade books has grown to 500,000 – way beyond predictions. And here is what is especially significant – over half of that number were books published by their authors. We couldn’t train enough author’s assistants to meet demand if wanted to!
We do teach about which authors will make good clients, and you are right, not all of them do. We help author’s assistants focus on professionals writing nonfiction books. These are the people who are creating a book to further their businesses and so they have the budget to do it right and to market the book. We love fiction, of course, but we encourage VAA’s to focus first on getting a good base of clients with a good budget, and then if they want to work on a pro bono basis with friends and others who can’t afford them, they can do that. But you can’t help anyone if you don’t have a great stream of paying clients.
Because authors or author/publishers can get help for just a single project – like setting up a social media presence, or for a longer period of time, perhaps handling all of a publisher’s copyright registrations, this a very affordable and flexible service.
7. How long is your training course? What topics are covered in the course?
The training course is self-paced and includes 37 short slidecast videos, where we take you through the web pages you will be working with. It also includes 47 checklists, tools, planners and hundreds of links as resources. When you register for the course you get the key to a password-protected web site that is the official headquarters for working VAA’s and those in training.
You can choose to take the course in a planned 30-day curriculum or take it subject-by-subject in any order you wish. The 30-day structure is great for people brand new to virtual working, because it includes business set up information as well as the 24 services. But for VA’s who might have a brand new client who needs something specific next week, they can go right to that item, learn it and use it, and come back to the other subjects as they have time.
We have had people finish the entire course in a long weekend when they were really motivated, but it takes an hour to two hours a day for 30 days, typically, so the participant can keep doing other work and learn this material at the same time.
8. When participants complete the training, do they go right out and find clients? Are they really ready to do the work?
We have practice exercises throughout the course which simulate the experience of doing the actual tasks you will be performing with authors, so we think people are ready to go when they finish. We also give sample language, emails, a proposal, an author’s assistant contract and many other tools to make the transition from learning to working as seamless as possible.
But, of course, we recognize that no matter how well prepared, most people are tentative when they take on something brand new. It takes experience to have that really deep mastery of any subject, but we’ve done our best to use our experience to get them to that point as fast as possible. I feel strongly that we best serve our clients when we work with them on what we know well and refer them to other experts when what they need is outside of our expertise and we talk a lot about what virtual author’s assistants should take on and when they should refer to someone else. They don’t have to suddenly become book publishing experts to do this job, but after being trained they will know far more than the average person.
We think one of the biggest benefits of our training program is that it doesn’t end – ever. We have a forum that VAAs use to pose questions and challenges to publishing experts and their peer group. We have live specialty classes where we help VAAs keep up-to-date with the constantly changing book-publishing world. And we never charge extra for any of these things. Once you’ve taken the course, you have a place to learn, partner, collaborate and grow for the life of your business.
9. What is the best way for a VA or VAA to find author clients?
By far the best way is to set up a professional referral network. We have a number of VAAs who partner with other VAAs so they can hand-off clients when they are too busy – yes, that actually happens!
There are so many people involved in the book process – publishers, publicists, book cover designers, editors, copywriters, for instance – and each of these people are asked to recommend other quality referrals.
We spend about 20% of the entire course work focused on marketing to authors. We have actual marketing tools, including a video, articles, special reports and ebooks that are available to the VAA to give to authors to help them understand what a VAA does and how to work with them.
We built marketing into the 30-day curriculum, so that one of our goals is to have the VAA get his or her first client by the end of those 30 days.
Finally, we also have a directory of PVAAs, the trained Professional Virtual Author’s Assistants who have completed the course. You can see that at www.AuthorsAssistants.com. We market that heavily to writer’s groups.
10. What makes a successful Virtual Author’s Assistant?
A successful virtual author’s assistant knows how to provide the 24 services (or can choose to specialize in just some of them), but beyond that, I think there is an attitude and mindset that makes people successful. Authors don’t know what they don’t know, so the VAA is part teacher and part collaborator, plus providing the assistant services. While many VA’s accomplish what their clients ask them to, the VAA is often taking the lead in helping the author know what he or she needs, not just following a list of tasks. There is a level of professionalism in the traditional book publishing industry that we teach VAAs so that they can help their authors create a superior product, one just as well done as anything you would see in a bookstore. So the really successful VAA takes initiative, likes variety, is good with both the big picture and details, is resourceful and doesn’t mind doing a lot of educating in the process. If you really like books, this is a particularly gratifying job. You get to see new books come out and most authors acknowledge the author’s assistant in the book itself which is especially fun. It is wonderful to be a part of a tangible product – I have a bookshelf full of books I helped with and most VAA’s do, too.
Jan B. King
Marina del Rey, CA, USA
Jan B. King is a publishing strategist, a publisher-turned-coach with over 30 years in the publishing industry. She was President and CEO of Merritt Publishing for eight years, doubling its revenue the company was sold in 1998. Merritt had 50 employees and published over 200 books each year and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In 1997, Merritt Publishing was named the 44th largest woman owned/run business in Los Angeles by the Los Angeles Business Journal. In 2004, Jan founded eWomenPublishingNetwork, an organization devoted to transforming women who are experts in their fields into successfully published authors. Jan is also the author two books, Business Plans to Game Plans (3rd edition, John Wiley & Sons) and Smart Women Publish and the Authorsmarts Handbook (both publishing independently).
For more information on the work of the virtual author’s assistant and the 24 services authors request from them most, please visit:
www.VirtualAuthorsAssistants.com. Please also see www.AuthorsAssistants.com for a directory of working virtual author’s assistants.