Wanna Be a Virtual Author’s Assistant?…Maybe Not

posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Writer BewareAs readers of this blog know, I’m fascinated by the strange phenomena that flourish at the fringes of the publishing world. So I was thrilled recently to discover yet another example: an online course that teaches people how to become Virtual Author’s Assistants.

What’s a Virtual Author’s Assistant, you may ask? The course website offers this explanation:

Author’s Assistants are people who work behind the scenes to create, organize and coordinate all the different pieces necessary to get a book published. To writers, they are miracle workers.

The world of publishing can be frightening, overwhelming and frustrating. An author’s assistant is the expert the writer turns to guide them step by step through the process.

From their homes, Virtual Author’s Assistants organize the publishing process for authors around the country and around the world.

Expert? As it turns out, potential Virtual Author’s Assistants need know nothing about the publishing industry. “[D]on’t worry. We’ll teach you. All you need is a love of books, a few basic business skills and a desire for fun and interesting work.” (Wow. Who knew this publishing stuff was so easy and entertaining? I must have missed that nugget of wisdom in my 25+ years as a writer and writers’ advocate. And gosh, I must be awfully dense, because after all that time, I’m still learning.)

VAA course content includes such important items as how to prepare and proof a manuscript, how to get an ISBN and bar code, how to register copyright, how to put together a media kit, and how to launch an Amazon Bestseller Campaign. Aspiring VAAs will also be tutored in how to create a business website to attract author clients, and ways to identify and solicit authors as business prospects (this article offers a glimpse of how that might be done, encouraging VAAs “to know where authors and aspiring authors hide” and to “[s]ell the author on the amount of money and time you can save them over doing this work themselves”). Those who complete the course will be “a certified graduate of the only course of its kind in the country,” and will receive the suitable-for-framing certificate to prove it. They’ll also be eligible to place the “Virtual Author’s Assistant Professional insignia” on their websites and business materials.

Best of all: this expertise can be yours in just 30 days, for a cost of only $597! You can also, optionally, buy a website. For $85 more, you can earn a Master Virtual Author’s Assistant certification. And if you’re really enterprising, you can recoup some of your expense by becoming an Affiliate, earning 10% every time you successfully refer someone to the VAA program.

Leaving aside any questions of information quality (the course is offered by Jan B. King, a publishing and business consultant who does appear to have professional writing and publishing experience), this all sounds highly dubious to me. I don’t know about you, but if I were hiring an assistant, I’d be looking for someone with real-life experience, not a made-up certification from an online coursepack. Not to mention, I’m not exactly rolling in disposable income–and I’m a commercially-published author who is getting paid for my work. From the verbiage on the Virtual Author’s Assistant website (see “The 24 Services Authors Ask For Most“), it’s apparent that the main consumers of VAA services are expected to be self-published writers. But what are the odds that such writers, who will have to shell out possibly substantial sums to printers or self-publishing companies, could (or should) afford to pay for an assistant, virtual or otherwise? And if they can, would it not make sense to seek out a specialist–a qualified book shepherd, for example–rather than someone with just 30 days of online training?

So how likely is it really, if you spring for VAA training, that someone will hire you? The VAA website dodges that question, citing only the “thriving” Virtual Assistant industry and alleging that more books would be published “if they had the help of an author’s assistant.” Another VAA website provides even more circular reasoning in its FAQ: “How competitive is the market for author’s assistants? Let me answer this way: About 500,000 new trade books were published last year. At present there are fewer than 300 fully-trained professional virtual author’s assistants. The demand is very high for qualified author’s assistants and will be for a long time in the future.”

The same website hosts a VAA Directory that lists 58 members. A spot check of their websites suggests that most primarily focus on general Virtual Assistant services, so I’m guessing that VAA certification is something most Virtual Assistants add, rather than specialize in. However, that makes it impossible to get a sense of how “high” the “demand” might actually be for VAA services. I did find the website of the International Association of Virtual Author’s Assistants, but it appears to be a vehicle for selling marketing and other services to authors, rather than a professional group for VAAs.

Bottom line: this seems to me to be a program that offers little advantage either to people looking for work they can do at home–since I find it extremely unlikely that there really is a “very high,” or even a “high,” demand for VAAs–or to authors, who may be solicited to pay for services they can ill afford, may not need, and could likely get from more qualified providers. However, I try to keep an open mind–so I’d love it if any successful VAAs or authors who’ve happily used them would comment here.

In the meantime–caveat scriptor, and caveat emptor!