Writing Stories is a Business
Disclaimer: although this post discusses legal issues, I am not a lawyer, and nothing in this post should be taken as legal advice.
If you’re like many other creative and imaginative people, you don’t like the idea of business. Business people wear suits in drab colors, sit in drab offices with ugly fluorescent lights, and spend their days looking at boring charts trying to figure out how to make as much money as possible. That’s just not for you–you’re an artistic personality who sees cubicles as jail cells. So you start writing out your great ideas for stories, hoping you can make a living from your art someday.
You’re now in business.
For many writers these days, writing means starting your own publishing company and self-publishing your works. Even if you go the traditional publishing route, you still need to deal with things like reporting your business income for taxes and with negotiating agreements with publishers and agents.
I dreaded the business aspect of writing–and delayed getting started because of it. However, I’ve found that I like it better than I thought I would. I’ve found that handling business issues helps me feel more competent and professional.
Here are three aspects of business to consider for your writing career.
Basic Business Requirements
If you haven’t done so already, check with your state and local governments about the requirements for starting a business in your area. You’ll need a business liscense, which will probably cost a nominal fee.. Be sure you aren’t violating zoning laws by running your business at your home. If you plan to use a name other than your own, you’ll need to fill out a DBA.
You’ll also need to choose a business structure. For most writers, a sole proprietership will do for now. You may wish to incorporate later if you want to protect assets. Once your income reaches a certain level, incorporation could save also you money on taxes. Consult with an attorney or accountant to see whether incorporation would benefit you.
Be sure to find find out any state and local taxes you may owe and find out how to pay them so you don’t get any surprises. You may also need to report your business equipmnet and pay property taxes on it.
When you report your business income on your federal taxes, you’ll need to fill out Schedule C. On the positive side, you can deduct your business expenses.
To many creative types, the requirements for starting a business can seem overwhelming. It can seem like you’re trying to learn a foreign languages. When you look through advice on how to start a business and govermentment requirements, you often have to sort through information that doesn’t apply to you. However, I’ve found that once you get through the first part, it’s really not as scary as it looks.
You’ll need a way to keep records of how much money you make and how much you spend. You’ll need this information for taxes. It also shows you how much money you’re making–or losing. You can start by keeping records in a spreadsheet. You can use Microsoft Excel or a free spreadsheet like LibreOffice Calc. Just set up one column for each category of income or expenses that you need to track and enter the numbers in that column. You can select all the entries in the column and have the spreadsheet show you the sum.
I’d recommned having a category for each income source. For example, if you have books for sale at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble, set up a section called Royalties. Then, set up a column for Amazon and another for Barnes and Noble. Put them next to each other so you can add up your royalties from either store or both.
Also, set up columns for each category of expenses you need to track. In addition to general business expenses, you may need to track purchases on which you didn’t pay state sales tax at purchase so you can pay use tax later. You may also need to record purchase of business equipment for property tax purposes.
If you find spreadsheets inadequate as your business grows, you may want to take a look at accounting software. You can also outsource this work. However, doing your own records at the start will give you a good understanding of what records need to be kept.
Most writers and other creative types are not the sort of people who enjoy keeping business records (believe it or not, some people actually like this type of work). Fortunately, once you have your systems set up, you can often make your entries in just a f ew minutes. And it will contribute to your feeling of professional confidence.
Protecting Your Work
It’s important to protect your writing from people who want to steal it. You’re creating intellectuall property, which is an asset. It’s valuable–potentially very valuable. And some people will want the rights to profit from your work.
Technically, your work is copyrighted the moment you write it. However registering your copyright provides serious benefits. It’s easier to prove that you own the copyright, and you can recover more damages if you need to sue someone.
Don’t Sign Away Your Rights!
There are people who like to take advantage of naive authors who don’t understand business and contracts. They’ll try to trick you into signing contracts that give them control over your work. If you sign one of these contracts, you might be unable to use your own characters or your own story world without permission. Imagine longing to publish another story about your character, and being unable to do so because a company now owns the rights to your character.
Sometimes, a contract may leave you as the copyright owner, but tie up the rights for years. You won’t be able to publish your books elsewhere.
Contracts can also limit how many books you can publish. You might be able to publish only a certain number of books per year, or a certain number of books in a series. These limitations on publishing can make it impossible for you to earn a living from your writing.
Often, these contracts would be considered completely unacceptable in other fields of business, but writers have been taught to accept them.
Before you sign any contract, have a lawyer with experience in literary contracts look over it for clauses that might take more rights than you want to give away.
Don’t approach the business world of writing as a naive creative looking for someone to hold your hand and guide you through it. Go through it as a shrewd person of business who knows the difference between a good deal and a bad one. Prove that you can outsmart the sharks!
Marketing Your Stories
Marketing is another major hurdle for many authors. Some of us would rather just write and leave the marketing to others. That’s not an option today, even if you do get a publishing deal.To some writers, marketing feels icky. They don’t want to be pushy salespeople.
Moreover, you may be bothered by the idea of writing to the market. Some people advise writers to look up what categories are selling well on Amazon and write in those categories. But that may not be what you feel called to write.
It helps to see marketing as helping people who would like your work find it. People won’t find it unless you help them. People who don’t even know you exist will not go searching for your book.
You Can Deal with this Business Stuff.
It’s fine if you just want to write what you want to and maintain another source of income. But you are still running a side business–one that should be treated as a business. You’ll still need to register the business and pay taxes on it, protect your intellectual property, and market your work.
If you have the ability to write a novel, you also have the ability to manage the business aspects of writing. It might not be as fun. But you may find that it gives you a break from the intensity of creative work.
Don’t be a starving artist whom publishers and entertainment corporations can take advantage of. Be a shrewd creative businessperson.