The Business-Savvy Writer

By Jodi Brandon

For most of the year, I think of myself as a writer. As I calculate my estimated tax payments and meet with my accountant, though, I am reminded that what I really am is a businesswoman. Most writers, I assume, are like me: more interested in—not to mention better at—the craft of writing (the creative aspect) yet forced to tackle the business elements of writing (namely, marketing, promotion, and advertising; growing your business; and taxes). Writing is, after all, a business. As is the case in any industry, the competition is stiff. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent (February 2001) findings show that about 9.4 percent of all American workers are either self-employed, temporary, or contract workers. In other words, there are quite a few of us out there vying for the freelance jobs that are available. All the more reason to be business-savvy about your writing career.

Marketing, Promotion, and Advertising

Sales are generated by marketing plans, promotion efforts, and advertising campaigns. Writers can’t think of these tasks as belonging exclusively to their publisher. Doing so hurts you where it counts: your royalty statement. You must consider your own marketing and promotion initiative. Ideally, your publisher would handle your project’s publicity efforts completely and effectively. Realistically, however, only a handful of books (think those of James Patterson, Anne Rice, and John Grisham, books that would probably sell themselves off the shelves anyway’go figure) are given the money for full-scale, knock ’em dead initiatives. Take what you can get from your publisher and supplement it as best you can. If you aren’t in a financial position to send yourself on a first-class, nationwide media tour, then consider a radio tour, which you can do from your home. (And remember that you can likely write off much of the expenses you accrue while promoting your work.)

Articles (and other shorter works) are a different story. Media tours, book signings, and such aren’t things you’ll be exposed to, but that doesn’t mean that marketing and promotion aren’t important to the work you do. You’ll likely be handling the work yourself (unless you outsource it yourself, that is). Send a press release to writing e-zines and magazines, which often list articles, books, etc. recently published. Use the clip as a way to promote you and your writing ability. (Better yet, use that clip to generate a new sale by way of a reprint.)

No matter what type of writer you are, your work warrants publicity’whether it’s generated by you or someone else. If it falls on your shoulders, then consider it a learning experience. Think of the media contacts you’ll make, the people you’ll meet, and the exposure your work will receive. That exposure will leave your readers waiting for your next piece of work, so the business side of your writing life really is important, isn’t it?

Growing Your Business

No writer is happy with the status quo. We’re constantly generating new ideas. Those ideas morph themselves into new markets. As a businessperson, think of those markets as potential clients. Put another way, then, writers are always looking for new clients to grow their business.

Growing and expanding a writing business is different from other types of businesses. You need to balance the creative aspect with the practical aspect. You need to take care of the tasks you’re already doing (sending out queries, attending workshops and conferences, researching markets, etc.) as well as some tasks that don’t seem all that appropriate to you as a writer at first glance. For example, join your local chamber of commerce or small-business association. You might not have much to say to these more “traditional” businesspeople at first, but you’ll soon find that you face many of the same challenges they do. Awkward? Perhaps. Anyone who’s ever moved knows how it feels to be the new kid in school, but you also know that the feeling passes. The same is true here. An added bonus is that you might get some clients that you never even knew existed from the contacts you make through business associations and organizations.

Taxes

Taxes are, without a doubt, the thorn in every writer’s side. They don’t have to be. (I swear!) If you don’t feel like or think of yourself as a businessperson, tax season will surely change your viewpoint. I try to look at the bright side: The more taxes I’m paying, the more I must be making, right? I realize it’s a small consolation, but it’s all I’ve got. Here are a few tips to tame the tax beast.

  • Get a good accountant. The money he or she will charge you is worth it. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got much more important things to keep track of than tax law—let alone the tax law changes each year. Not only that, he or she knows what you can and cannot deduct, what will and will not raise the IRS’s eyebrow, and so on. Try to find someone who specializes in or works regularly with freelancers (freelance writers in particular, if you can find someone).
  • Keep your receipts—all of them, from all year. As I just noted, your trusty accountant will tell you what you and cannot deduct, and the more backup you have for anything you do deduct, the safer you’ll be. After a couple years, you’ll get the hang of it. There are still occasions when my accountant surprises me with something that’s deductible, and I’m always happy to have the receipt. You can deduct just about anything—as long as you can prove that it’s “ordinary” and “necessary” to your business. These are the IRS’s key words here.
  • If you’re going to take a home-office deduction, make sure you read IRS publication #587 (Business Use of Your Home) to find out what the IRS allows and what it doesn’t. This deduction often raises a red flag in the eyes of the IRS, so it’s best to be as careful as possible.
  • Take the deductions you’re allowed to. Your accountant (if he or she is a good one) will ask you for receipts for such expenses as dues for trade organizations (such as the Society of Professional Journalists or the National Writers Union), business cards and stationery, conference expenses (registration, plane ticket, transportation while in Chicago, hotel, and meals). In my first year as a freelancer, I had no idea I could deduct a trip I took to Chicago for an editing class. I ended up missing out a hefty deduction because I hadn’t done my homework. It never occurred to me, as a new writer, that I even had expenses. That sounds silly now, but what did I know at age 23, having never even done my own taxes before? I simply handed the paperwork to my mom in previous years, and the form came back with a note for me to sign and mail it.

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All of the ideas covered here are important to your writing business. Keeping the business in order enables us to do what we love best: write.

In her role as president of JBedit, Jodi Brandon has edited and/or contributed to a number of high-profile book projects, including The Barnes & Noble Guide to Children’s Books (3rd Edition), The Buzz on Beer anthology, the Frommer’s Irreverent Guide travel series, The 50 Best (and Worst) Business Deals of All Time, and Copyright Plain & Simple. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she has also completed a number of writing projects on behalf of national and regional clients, including Arcadia Publishing, Inc., Amateur Chef magazine, The Newark Star-Ledger, Bride’s Guide magazine, Lebhar-Friedman Books, The Pathway School, and TheOddSpot.com. You can find her at JodiBrandon.com

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