The Publishing Secret No One Wants to Discuss
One publishing industry secret no one likes to discuss is that writing and publishing have historically been the domain of the wealthy. Most authors throughout history were rich before they started writing, and that is still largely true today. For every rags-to-riches author story, there are hundreds of riches-to-less-riches stories you don’t hear.
Publishing is expensive. Most authors only make money years after doing the work of writing. Because of that cash flow cycle, people who live paycheck to paycheck find it difficult to thrive in publishing.
Some folks can afford to wait to get paid upon publication, which may be three years after they’ve done the work. Others need income to put food on the table tomorrow.
Publishing also requires a lot of education. Developing a writing craft that merits a reader’s enjoyment, time, and money takes practice and hard work.
If only there were a way to educate yourself while making money instead of spending money.
If you haven’t started making money from your writing career yet, you could be earning money right now as an author assistant. In addition to earning, you’ll get to connect with other authors and learn about the publishing industry.
Our podcast producer, Laurie Christine, has done just that. She started her career working as an author assistant. Today, she hosts her own podcast, Redeeming the Chaos, and recently successfully Kickstarted her first book, Rise of the Enemy.
How do author assistants track their hours?
Thomas: Author assistants will do various types of work, such as building websites, bookkeeping, editing, or researching ancient Mesopotamia, but one thing all freelancers have in common is the responsibility of running their own businesses.
One of the first things new freelancers need to know is how to track their time. Most author assistants charge by the hour for most jobs. How do you track those hours?
Laurie: I use a software called FreshBooks, which makes time-tracking easy. Whenever you sit down to work for a particular client, click “start” on the timer to track your hours. If you need a break, you can pause the timer and restart it when you return.
You can add multiple clients to the software, and FreshBooks will track how many hours you worked for which client.
When you’re ready to bill that client, simply click “Generate Invoice.” FreshBooks will add up the hours you worked and put them in an invoice. Then you send the invoice to your client, and with FreshBooks’s payment tool, your client can pay the invoice online, and the money comes straight to your bank account.
Thomas: I’ve been using FreshBooks myself for about 17 years. When Author Media was a web design company, we did all our billing through FreshBooks. It is very transparent and clear. People tend to pay you faster when you send them a FreshBooks invoice because it’s easy for them to pay.
Laurie: FreshBooks can handle your invoicing and income-tracking because it’s also a bookkeeping software. For example, you can generate an annual income and expense report.
Thomas: FreshBooks can also connect with your credit card or bank to import your transactions automatically. The FreshBooks app even has a receipt-scanning feature. You can scan your receipt through the app, and all that data will be imported straight into FreshBooks.
I used to wait until February to enter my income and expenses, but after many conversations with my CPA dad, I realized I needed to do it right away.
I still hate bookkeeping, but entering my income and expenses throughout the year has helped me hate it a little less. Keeping up on it makes tax time easier because everything’s already correctly categorized.
As an author assistant, are you an employee, or is the client the boss?
Laurie: I use the term “client” loosely. When you are the author’s assistant, your client is the person you’re doing the work for, but they don’t see themselves as the client. They see themselves as the boss.
In some ways, Thomas is my boss, but in other ways, he’s my client because I work for him as an author assistant.
Thomas: Technically speaking, you’re not an employee, and I’m not your boss.
The IRS has legal criteria that distinguish employees from independent contractors. We go into the distinctions in my Tax and Business Guide for Authors, where my CPA dad breaks it down.
The IRS looks at all those factors together, but they all deal with the concept of control. How much control does the “boss” have over the “employee?”
An independent contractor must be independent. The client tells you what they want you to do, but they don’t typically give you as much instruction as they would an employee.
For instance, I am Laurie’s client, but I don’t tell her when to work. Laurie works when she can, which is great if you have kids or are a caretaker. As an independent contractor, Laurie doesn’t have to work on my tasks from nine to five. She has a lot of flexibility.
Laurie: One of the great benefits of working as an author assistant is that you can work at midnight or 5:00 a.m. If you’re meeting your deadlines, it doesn’t matter when you work. If you’re going on vacation, you can sometimes work ahead, depending on the job, to get your work done before you leave.
Freelancing is a very flexible job.
Thomas: But unlike being an employee, you don’t get paid vacation.
Freelancing requires a higher level of financial discipline and responsibility. You should have the same financial discipline and responsibility in a traditional job because you never know when you might be laid off.
Traditional employment tends to give the illusion of stability, whereas the freelancer stares instability in the face daily.
You can mitigate the uncertainty as a freelancer by adding more clients. The more clients you have, the more stable your income tends to be.
For example, if you’re an editor, you may get to the point where you’re in demand and have to schedule your editing projects six months out. That provides a more stable income than taking projects as they come.
Laurie: As a freelancer or author assistant, you can decide how many clients you want. You can fill your schedule to fit your life. If you want a full-time position with consistent income, you can take on as many clients as you need.
Thomas: I’m a Texan, and we value independence. One of the advantages of being a freelancer is that you can “fire” your clients. If you have a mean or obnoxious client, you can “fire” them simply by notifying them that you won’t be taking any more work. It’s easier to fire a single client than to quit a job where you’re a full-time employee.
If you’re working full-time and don’t like your boss, you’ll lose all your revenue when you quit. But if you have ten clients and don’t like one, you can fire that client and lose only 10% of your income, which is a much more manageable loss.
Freelancing gives you more control over your day-to-day work experience, and you can prune as you go.
When you start, you take whatever work you can get. But as the demand for your time and skill increases, you can start delegating or referring projects, tasks, or clients outside your core strength zone.
You’ll also discover your core strengths. As you do bits of web design, editing, content management, and social media, you’ll discover which tasks you enjoy. As you start to specialize, you get better at the jobs you enjoy, and the demand for your time and specialized skills increases.
What’s the difference between a specialist and a general assistant?
Laurie: I recently spoke at a writer’s conference where I explained the difference between being a specialist and an assistant.
You hire an assistant when you already know how to do the task, but you either don’t have time to do the task or don’t like to do it.
You hire a specialist if you need help with something you’ve never done before and have no idea what to do. A specialist doesn’t take current responsibilities off your plate. They do a job you don’t know how to do.
From the freelancer’s perspective, the biggest difference between being an assistant and a specialist is the dollar amount you’ll be paid.
Thomas: If you’ve never done a book cover before and you hire your artist friend who’s also never designed a book cover before, neither of you knows what you’re doing. You can’t help each other because neither of you has the experience.
The first time you design a book cover, you should work with someone who has done it before. Beginning authors often make the mistake of hiring friends, which ends up being a blind-leading-the-blind situation.
Authors end up wasting money because there’s never enough money to do it right but always enough money to do it twice. Instead of doing it wrong and then having to hire a professional, just hire a professional in the first place.
Laurie: For example, in my assistant capacity, I do web design for Thomas. He pays me as an assistant because he could do the web design himself.
However, when an author comes to me and says, “I need a website, I’ve never done this before, and I have no idea what I’m doing,” I work as a specialist.
As a specialist in that situation, I can charge more for my skills because I have developed these skills over the years.
You may be doing the same type of work, but the amount you charge will depend on the situation.
Thomas: As you become more specialized, you can charge more. At the same time, specialization limits your total market, which isn’t necessarily bad.
There’s one micro-genre where almost all the authors share the same assistant. The same assistant sends the emails, which are delivered to almost all the readers in this micro-genre. She coordinates all their cross-promotions with each other.
Authors in this micro-genre either have this person as an assistant or want her as an assistant. Having her as your assistant puts you in an elite club. It allows them to work with each other more easily because they’re already sharing that assistant.
But as a freelancer, her pool of potential clients is limited. She only works for authors who write in that micro-genre. However, those authors are happy to pay $50-$100 per hour to get her because they get a good ROI because of her specialization. An author in a different genre wouldn’t get the same ROI from her work because she is so specialized.
How much does a beginning author assistant decide what to charge?
Laurie: You might charge very little when you start working as an assistant because you learn while working.
When I started building websites, I charged my first client $200. She understood that I wasn’t experienced and I was learning. I developed skills while I was doing the job, and that’s a huge benefit of being an author assistant. You get to learn while you’re getting paid for work.
I have learned so many publishing skills by working alongside Thomas, Steve Laube, and other authors.
Thomas: Another benefit is that you get to practice on somebody else’s work while they’re looking over your shoulder giving you free quality control. Your client points out mistakes, and you can fix them and learn from them.
As a freelancer, you get to set your own prices. It’s okay to set your prices low, and it’s okay to raise your prices as you go. You can also raise your prices for new clients. You don’t have to charge all your clients the same. Freelancers have a lot of freedom and independence in running their own businesses.
Do you need to set up an LLC as a freelance author assistant?
Thomas: How are you set up legally? Do you run your freelance business through an LLC or an S corp?
Laurie: When I started, I ran my business as a sole proprietor, which basically means it’s just me. I don’t have any employees. I didn’t have an official business entity, and we filed taxes for my business along with our family taxes. My business income was like additional income, and I was a sole proprietor.
However, I have since started an LLC for my business called Sweet Bay Media. Now my business is run through that LLC. Authors don’t need an LLC to get started, but there are benefits to having an LLC, whether you’re working as an author assistant or not.
Thomas: And you get to reuse that LLC. You initially used Sweet Bay Media to invoice clients and collect business income. I imagine you had a business bank account attached to your LLC to keep your business expenses and income separate from your personal accounts.
But when you were doing a Kickstarter for your book, your Kickstarter money could go into the LLC account that’s publishing your book.
In some ways, forming an LLC isn’t additional work. Most successful authors form an LLC, regardless of whether they’re traditionally or indie published. Indie authors tend to do it sooner. There are a lot of tax advantages to being a small business. Once you’re a legitimate small business, you can benefit from those tax advantages.
How much can I charge?
Thomas: Everyone wants to know why they can charge. Starting low makes sense, but how do you determine what to charge as you gain experience?
Laurie: I recommend charging $20 per hour as your base rate. As you add clients and gain skills, you can determine whether it’s time to raise your prices.
For example, if you are booked, you have no time in your schedule, and people are still contacting you with work, it might be time to raise your prices. When you are in demand, you can raise your prices and get a higher rate for your work.
When I was doing photography, I wanted to establish myself as a high-end photographer, so I started charging more for my work. People were glad to pay the higher rate because they didn’t want the photographer who only charged $50 to take pictures of their newborn. They wanted the best.
My $1,200 session charge indicated that I was a good photographer for their newborn. Many people were happy to pay.
You don’t want to overcharge. There’s a balance. If you charge too much, you won’t have clients. But if you charge too little, people will devalue your work and think you’re not good or not in high demand. They’ll want to hire someone more experienced and expensive.
Thomas: That’s a good strategy. Start off charging less so you can fill your calendar. As your skills improve, use your desired workload to set your rates.
If times are tough, you can lower your rates a bit until you’re able to bring in more clients. Your pricing is a variable that can give you a surprisingly high level of stability.
This concept is called luxury pricing. Nobody wants $10 opera tickets. They only want $200 opera tickets.
When I ran my web design business, we got too busy, so I raised our prices and expected demand to drop. The first time I raised our prices, demand actually went up. People wanted to spend more for a perceived higher-quality website.
I had to raise our prices again because we were still too busy. I raised my rates until I found that equilibrium where we weren’t too busy.
Once you build a reputation and word-of-mouth recommendations kick in, you can make an enduring income that can protect you from the financial highs and lows of publishing.
Writing and publishing tend to provide lumpy income. You get a big advance as a traditional author, or if you’re an indie author, you have a big launch. But older books don’t sell as well, so you have to write a new book.
The relatively steady freelance income can help level out the highs and lows.
Describe a day in the life of a mom who is an author and works as an assistant.
Thomas: Tell us how you manage your responsibilities as a mom, author, and assistant. Walk us through a day in the life of Laurie Christine.
Laurie: No two days are the same. I enjoy the variety of the work. Thomas talks a lot about “crop rotation,” and that’s my week. I rotate from one task to another.
I might need to build a website, so I’ll focus on that for a day. The next day, I’ll work on my Kickstarter launch. Thomas has interview deadlines, so I’ll have to arrange my schedule to make sure those have priority.
I will often look at my schedule for the week and see if anything needs my immediate attention, and I’ll put those things on the calendar first.
I probably have 15 lists on my phone, and anytime I think of a task I need to do, I add it to one of my lists. When I have an hour here or there, I can look at my list and decide which task I can squeeze into that hour.
An author assistant can set a rigid schedule, determining to write for one hour at a certain time each day, then checking email for 30 minutes at a certain time, etc.
Or you can use block scheduling to spend an entire day on one project, which you may not return to for another month.
Thomas: That strategy is known as time boxing. You set aside time to fully focus on one thing. Trying to do all the things at the same time will kill your productivity.
The amount of time you block off will vary from person to person. You don’t have a boss telling you how much time to spend checking email, so you must figure out what works for you. That also means you can figure out what works for you.
Some people prefer to have the boss do the thinking for them, and they just do the tasks. But if you’re willing to do the thinking and the task, you’ll have more freedom. It’s a lot of work at first, but if you invest in putting systems in place, you can have a more satisfying life as an independent freelance rather than a vassal.
How do you find clients?
Thomas: Where do I go to find the kind of authors who are willing to pay for the jobs I do?
Laurie: You can find clients on the AuthorMedia.social job board. Just create a job listing explaining your availability, skills, and what you’re looking for. People in the community can reply to your listing.
If you scroll down the job board, you’ll see that other members have posted help-wanted listings for different jobs. You might see listings wanting help with a book launch, proofreading, or editing. You can connect by replying to those that interest you.
Thomas: My pro tip for AuthorMedia.social is to set custom notification settings for each space inside of AuthorMedia.social. If you’re looking for work, change the default notifications to notify you via email whenever someone posts to the job board. That way, you can be the early bird that gets the worm. Some authors will hire whoever reaches out first.
Your first job may only be two hours of work, but it’s still a way to prove you can do the job. Next time that author needs a freelancer, they may skip the job board and email you directly.
AuthorMedia.social is free for you!
There is no fee for posting your services or your help-wanted listing. I offer the job board as a gift to our author community, so take advantage of it. Turn on email notifications. Once you get busy, you can turn down the notifications or mute the job board altogether.
Laurie: You can also find clients by asking your current clients if they would recommend you to others who might need similar work. I’ve received additional work when one of my current clients had a friend who also needed help.
You can also connect with contractors or potential clients on Upwork and Fiverr. It’s not quite as personal, but it’s certainly doable. I’ve used those services to find people to help me with different services for my book publishing.
Thomas: If you want a higher-paid specialist role, consider guesting on a podcast to talk about your services.
Author podcasts are always looking for guests and subject matter. As a virtual assistant, you’re easier for the host to book than a fellow guru who’s also teaching a course.
If you have a course on using Vellum and the host does too, they won’t want to interview you because you might steal their customers. But if you’re a virtual assistant who’s not competing with that podcaster, you’re likely to get interviewed.
If you build or design websites, you can discuss the pros and cons of Divi versus Elementor or which WordPress framework you should use.
Do you have a contract for your clients to sign?
Laurie: I have a simple contract for people who work with me. It’s just an agreement to do the work that includes the following details:
- Project deliverables
- How and how much they’ll pay
- Hourly or per-project rate
- Due date
- Method and frequency of communication
There’s not much legalese in my contract.
Thomas: A good contract is written in clear English. Using legalese doesn’t make a contract better. It makes it worse because it confuses people.
The main purpose of a contract is to make sure the parties are on the same page.
One way to avoid misunderstanding is to send your first invoice early in the process and get your first payment right away. If you’re using FreshBooks, that first invoice will spell everything out clearly. The client will see your rate and hours worked. You’d rather have a misunderstanding after you’ve worked five hours than 50 hours. You don’t want your client to be surprised by a big invoice.
One advantage of virtual freelance work is that most of your interactions are via email. Things tend to be written down, which leads to fewer misunderstandings. If I’m working with someone on a Zoom call and we discuss deliverables and rates, I’ll email them after the call summarizing the agreement and terms we discussed in the call.
I’ll say, “Does this seem right to you?” They email me back and agree or ask clarifying questions. That process also helps eliminate confusion.
What tools do you use to communicate with your clients?
Laurie: Email works fine, but other tools work well too.
Google Docs is great because you can both make changes in the same document. You can both update lists and see notes and comments people have made. It’s like an ongoing working document.
I’ve also used Trello, a project management tool that allows clients to see where I am in the process and what still needs to be done.
Thomas: You’ll often find that each client has their preferred set of communication and organization tools. Learning to use different tools is another advantage of working as an assistant.
If your writing takes off, you may take on fewer clients and start hiring your own assistants. When that time comes, you’ll know which tools and approaches you prefer. You’ll also know how to communicate and be a good client.
If someone needs an assistant, how can they contact you, Laurie?
Laurie: My website is SweetBayMedia.com. I’m not taking on clients as an assistant, but if you need a website, design, or book formatting, you can certainly reach out to me.
Connect with Laurie:
Do you feel lonely in your publishing walk? Tired of getting bad advice on Facebook groups. Debunking bad advice shared on Facebook groups has supplied me with an unlimited number of podcast topics. But it can be a bad investment of time for you as an author.
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