Today’s guest post is by author 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 hate all that self-promotion.
I’ve heard many authors—myself included—express 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.
What is a social media assistant?
Whether they call themselves virtual assistants, social media consultants, or author assistants, these 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, such an 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, nor any 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?
These are the questions that I decided to investigate as I thought about how I wanted to launch my second book, coming next April. My debut (April 2020) had a great launch despite the onset of the pandemic, but I wanted to consider what I did not do—or didn’t do very well.
What I wanted a social media assistant to help with
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, I made some mistakes which 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. There are ways around that, of course, such as getting others to post for me, but I still feel great remorse for my actions, which serve as examples of what not to do.
I’ve learned a few things since April 2020, when 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 hefty 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.
Here are the 5 types of social media assistants that I encountered
I spoke with seven people who offer social media assistance. While that’s not a huge number, they do span a wide range of services and packages, and thus provide a framework for pondering the question posed in the title of this essay. Some of them 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 social media skills. I didn’t want someone to coach me on fishing techniques; I wanted to hire a fisherman.
Below are five composite summaries of the models I encountered—what they offer, how they work, their strengths and drawbacks. 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.
VA #1 is a self-published author of several books who has a side-business helping authors with services ranging from proofreading and editing to developing marketing plans, social media coaching, and query critiquing. Her experience and familiarity with the writing world made her an attractive choice. I also liked the fact she offered three options or levels of service, although her prices were at the high end. However, she also had a full-time job and a book of her own launching soon. I wondered if she would really be able to give me the kind of ongoing support I was looking for.
VA #2 is a polished professional, whose website and proposal were evidence of the strong visual style I was looking for. She also provided references so I could see the Instagram accounts of several clients she manages, and the same quality or “flair” was evident there. She offered an expensive prix fixe package, with no flexibility—although her proposal was comprehensive and strategic, and included features like a weekly Instagram Story Reel that other proposals did not. I was hesitant, however, because she had never done social media for an author, and the demographic that her posts seemed to be targeting was not mine. Her work seemed to be geared to a younger, more style-conscious audience, and I wondered if she would know how to target the kind of readers (and book-buyers) I sought to attract.
VA #3 also focuses solely on authors, and has five years of experience. She offered the widest variety of packages (at a variety of prices), with or without features such as: direct publishing, responses and follower interactions, profile optimization suggestions, hashtag creation, alerts and schedulers, insights and analytics. Like VA #1 and VA #2, she required a three-month minimum engagement and included one 30-minute video call per month to review strategy and results. What made her stand out was her strong focus on the analytics—that is, on the quantified effectiveness of what we were doing. What made me hesitate, however, is that I found the visual quality of her own posts to be exceptionally poor, with virtually no engagement. Since she couldn’t show me a client’s account, citing confidentiality, the only way I could assess the quality of her work was from her own account, and I wasn’t impressed.
VA #4 is a team, not a single person, each of whom has a different strength. While they haven’t worked with authors, over the past eight years they’ve offered a range of services—from email newsletters and website design to social media management—to mature female clients who are artists, wellness coaches, lifestyle consultants, motivational speakers, and so on. Their strengths, for me, were their familiarity with the demographic most likely to read my books, their range of experience, the possibility of “one-stop shopping” should I decide to do a newsletter as well, and their flexible pricing. They charge by the hour, with a monthly minimum, and don’t require a three-month commitment—although I’m aware that billable hours can add up quickly without necessarily producing the result I was hoping for.
VA #5 is a book lover who is actively engaged on social media, especially the sites that focus on authors and books, but is young and inexperienced in the role of freelance consultant. She’s trying to forge a career and sees this as a natural way to turn what she knows and loves into a business. Aware that she’s brand-new, she’s set her fees very low. The price tag is obviously attractive and I know she would be eager to do well, yet I’m troubled by her lack of experience and wonder how well our styles would fit.
How to assess your options and choose a social media assistant
Which of the models is “best?” It depends 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. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you want to turn over your entire social media presence to someone else, or do you want to be an active partner in developing the content of the posts? Are you looking to outsource entirely or to collaborate? Will you be adding personal posts, as well?
- Do you want to do your own captions and commenting, or do you want someone else to learn how to represent you and comment as if they were you? Are you looking for someone you can trust to be your voice?
- Which platforms, and how many platforms do you want to engage on? What is your target audience of readers, and where do they tend to hang out?
- What sort of frequency are you looking for in your posts? Do you want to include stories, links to video or audio, questions for discussion, or anything besides the post itself?
- How important are ongoing analytics to you? Do you need to have quantified data on a regular basis? If so, how do you plan to use that data?
- What other marketing strategies do you have in place, and how central or important is social media in that overall plan?
- What time frame are you willing to commit to?
- How much money are you willing to spend?
In case you’re wondering, I’m probably going to go with VA #4. I like the chance to ramp up gradually and see how it works. I’m clear about which aspect I need to outsource (the graphics and visual presentation) and which I can do, and prefer to do, myself (the background research and concept development). If that division of labor can work, then I think I can manage the hours to suit my budget. We’ll see—the flexibility of hourly billing allows me to keep my options open as I learn more.
Again, it’s a matter of knowing what you’re good at and have time for, deciding what you need to outsource, 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.
Barbara Linn Probst is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel, Queen of the Owls, (April 2020) is the 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 won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, was short-listed for both the First Horizon and the $2500 Grand Prize, and is currently a finalist for the Sarton Award for Women’s Fiction.
Barbara’s second novel The Sound Between the Notes, recipient of starred Kirkus Review for work “of remarkable merit,” launches in April 2021.
Barbara has a PhD in clinical social work and blogs for several award-winning sites for writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, visit barbaralinnprobst.com.