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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

September 2011

"The Community of the Page

Yes, I know I signed off for a week, but a friend just sent me a link to a post that I have to pass on to you.  I met Amy Benson Brown through the internet several months ago, and we quickly discovered that our writing plans and current research overlapped in interesting ways.  We were both contemplating books about the abolitionists who traveled to South Carolina in 1862 to work with newly-freed slaves.  My main character was Laura Towne; hers was Charlotte Forten.  The two women knew each other, worked together, and frequently sustained each other when the going got really hard. Each would become a peripheral character in the other's life story. Since then Amy and I have exchanged tips, bibliographic citations, pictures, and whatever other information came our way. In other words, we have become the counterparts of Laura and Charlotte.

Recently Amy began her own blog, and in her most recent post, she wrote about the type of connection we have forged.  She calls it "The Community of the Page." Please click on the link and visit her blog to read what she has to say.  I think it will encourage you to seek similar communities to sustain your own efforts, whatever they may be.

Plans of Mice and Men

Yesterday, my horoscope read: 'It's a funny thing about life: No matter how much you try to prepare, plan and push things in a certain direction, you never really know where you'll end up until you're there. This uncertainty could disorient a lesser person, but today, you're ready to embrace the fact that life is full of unexpected detours. You'll surely get somewhere today, but it probably won't be where you expected to land when you woke up this morning. The good news is that you'll be very happy regardless."

Now, I would be the first to tell you that I don't believe in horoscopes.  When they seem accurate, it's because we have unconsciously made the predicted become reality.  But with yesterday's events, I can say that I did not do that.  We had been fussing here over two matters -- one was the unresolved health problem that cancelled our Alaska adventure, and the other was a major disruption scheduled for the coming week.  Our community was planning to reseal all asphalt roads and driveways in a massive paving effort that would keep us effectively housebound for one to two days.

Immediately after I read my horoscope, an e-mail arrived, announcing that the paving job was being postponed indefinitely. Was it unexpected? Yes. Did it change where I expected to find myself? Yes.  Was I happy? Definitely.

Even better, by noon, we had learned that the medical crisis was not as severe as previously thought, and that it would need no further action, except for twice a year monitoring, unless something new developed. So, unexpected, a change in where I would be, and joyful.

Got it right on all counts, oh Crystal Ball!

Therefore . . . this blog is once again going into vacation mode. There are still meetings to attend, speeches to give, books signings and interviews, and several banquets to enjoy. See you next month.

Hiring Your Staff

Self-publishing is something of a misnomer.  The process of taking a book from first idea to a spot on someone’s bookshelf requires the help and talents of many people.  The work used to be done by huge publishing houses. When you offer to self-publish, the responsibility for all the many tasks involved falls squarely on your shoulders.  But you are already the author, the editor-in-chief, and the business owner. You cannot hope to sit isolated in your little home office and do everything yourself, no matter how talented you may be.  The success of your book will depend upon how well you assemble a team of assistants.  Here’s a look at the staff I have assembled. Perhaps it will give you some ideas.

My most important hire was my husband. Of course he was already on board to give me moral support, but as time went on, he has taken upon himself three important roles. First, he is my travel agent. Once I decide on the need for a research trip or agree to do a talk, a book signing, or a conference appearance, he takes over.  He plans the itinerary, books our accommodations, and provides the transportation.  Second, he is my mail clerk. He’s much better than I at packing and wrapping, and he never seems to mind a trip to the post office every few days. I can count on him to mail out single book purchases or handle large book shipments. And third, he is my official photographer. Whether I need a special shot for an illustration or just some general pictures to help me set a scene, he is there with his camera. You can see a sample of his work on the cover of Beyond All Price. He also comes with the advantage of being inexpensive. His salary is $1.00 a year, augmented by clean laundry, home-cooked meals, and endless affection and gratitude.

My business plan recognized that I would need to hire a design artist to create the book cover and a layout expert to make sure that the final book meets the exacting standards of the publishing world — page numbers, attractive fonts, spacing, chapter titles, and flourishes all in place. Since both those areas are way beyond my expertise, I hired both functions through the production company who contracted to produce the physical book.

I found another multiple source of staff members at a company called Vistaprint.  I got started there by ordering my first business cards for Katzanhaus Books. From that one order, I learned about their other great promotional items and ended up buying a magnetic sign for the side of the car, postcards, brochures, a tote bag, and several other items with my own logos on them.  Then I found that they also provided hosting for websites and blogs, as well as domain names and e-mail addresses for companies. I was able to use their services for all my promotional and web-based needs.

You will need a banker. Money matters, but many people are not trained to handle it efficiently.  I certainly wasn’t.  My first lesson came when a friend of a friend bought a book from me and handled me a check.  When I looked at it the next day, I found that she had made it out to Katzenhaus Books. I took it to the bank, only to have it rejected.  I couldn’t cash it because I didn’t have an account in the name of Katzenhaus Books.  I could either hunt the person down and ask them to write another check (embarrassing!) or open a business account as Carolyn Schriber, DBA (doing business as) Katzenhaus Books.  Since there was a real possibility that other checks would follow the same pattern, I went ahead and opened the account. A good move, as it turned out, since the account came with an associated credit card that lets me keep business purchases separated  from household purchases. It also provided safe direct deposits for royalty payments.

At about the same time, I realized that I needed to be able to take book orders on my website, which in turn meant I needed to have a credit card manager. Despite what you may have heard, most people trust PayPal to handle their credit card purchases. The service they provide is the easiest — and the safest — way to handle such charges. I’ve never had a PayPal charge that was not paid in full, and the company is quite good about forwarding customer information.  They charge only a couple of percentage points on each transaction, and those are pennies well-spent in terms of convenience.  Granted, occasionally I get a “phishing” attack on my account, asking that I send in my bank account number, but since all such requests are by definition fraudulent, there is no real danger of an account being compromised.  Further, PayPal is very good about tracking down the perpetrators if you send them copies of any such e-mails.  I use their services constantly without problems.

To extend my outreach, I needed the help of  professional promoters.  I found my greatest help came from three sources, First, the wonderful reading site, BookBuzzr, which not only created a free on-screen reader for each of your books but continues to offer clever new ways to advertise the books for free. I gained access to professional trade shows by subscribing to NABE, the North American Booksellers Exchange. The connections I have made through professional writers’ organizations have also been invaluable.  Writers are tremendously generous folks, probably because we’ve all been in the same trenches fighting the same wars.

When Beyond All Price began to make a lot of money —not a fortune, but more than I ever expected — I sought more help with money management. A financial advisor helped clarify the best uses for unexpected windfalls. He found flexible investment ideas that helped preserve the principle while providing a way to start the money making money on its own. He also introduced me to an absolute necessity — an accountant who could help me organize my records and deal with the tax complications that come with self-employment taxes and irregular income schedules.

I relied on friends for many things.  They served as sounding blocks when I needed to talk through an idea. They volunteered as pre-publication manuscript readers to check for unfortunate mistakes, blatant errors, and unintentional omissions. They were my first salesmen as they talked about the book to their other friends, and throughout the process, they were faithful cheerleaders. A couple of them are still reposting my blogs and tweets to keep spreading the word. I couldn’t have done it without them.

So there are the people I needed in order to “self-publish” a single book. Even I am surprised at how many there are: travel agent, mail clerk, photographer, design artist, layout expert, production company, printer, web host, banker, credit card manager, professional promoters, financial advisor, accountant, sounding blocks, manuscript readers, salesmen, and cheerleaders. Each of them deserves partial credit for any success my book has achieved.  If you’re beginning this same process, start now to identify the staff that can help you along the way.

Tax Deductions for Writers

The Internal Revenue Service has a soft spot for writers.  Who would have guessed! Once you admit that you are an author by claiming that designation as your profession, the tax laws are on your side. Someone in Washington actually understands that book production takes a long time, and that you can work at it for years without making any profit, because you are still creating the book, not selling it. They will grant you your deductions for expenses for up to five years before they start refusing your claims to be a “real” writer. On your tax return, don’t list yourself as “store clerk” or “plumber’s assistant” while you are writing.  There’s a special designation for writers; find it and use it.  Oh, you should keep your day job, but think of yourself as a writer and regard  “fry cook” as your hobby, not the other way around. Then start collecting your deductions.

Have you set up your home office? Then you have a place of business. Measure the space in square feet, determine the square footage of your entire house or apartment, and then figure out the percentage of the residence that is exclusively used for business.  (A 10’ x 12’ office in a 1500 square foot house = 8% devoted to business use.) That percentage now applies to all of your housing expenses that affect the entire space — heating and lighting bills, rent or mortgage interest, insurance, homeowner association fees, security system,  and termite protection are all common expenses. You can’t deduct painting the living room if you use the back bedroom as your office, but you can deduct 8% of the cost of a new roof, since that applies to the entire structure.

Next, take a look at your home office and its contents.  If you are using an old card table and a folding chair for a desk, you probably can’t deduct their cost, but if you go out and purchase a new computer desk, using it only for your writing, its price will be deductible.  New or fairly recent electronics (computer, printer, external backup drive) can be deducted or depreciated. The first phone line into your residence is not deductible, but if you add a second line for a fax machine or an 800 number for your business, you’ve found another deduction.

Be sure to keep track of all expenses for office supplies — pens, pencils notepads, printer cartridges, diskettes, scotch tape, paper clips, file folders, labels, a calendar, an appointment book, scissors, a rack to hold current file folders.  You can even deduct the cost of air, if you buy it in compressed form and use it to clean your keyboard.  (I use mine to chase the cat off the desk, but the principle is the same.)

Think advertising. Anything you have printed with the name of your company or the name of your next book can be deducted as an advertising expense.  Of course you’ll have a supply of business cards, but you can also use the same size card to announce an upcoming book. (I just had some printed with a picture of “The Second Mouse” on them.  I have a second set of half-size business cards with photographs of Beaufort, SC ,on them to advertise my next novel, The Road to Frogmore.) Both were deductible, as are bookmarks that match your book covers or brochures telling dealers and bookstores how they can order your books.

Much of your book budget will go for travel — to research libraries, book signings or writing conferences. If you travel by car, you can deduct the exact mileage, so long as you keep a log or record of the odometer. You’ll be asked for details of the car’s purchase price, its year and model, its VIN, and its total mileage, so keep them handy. You’ll be able to deduct 50 to 55 cents a mile if your travel is purely for business.  I bought a magnetic company sign  for under $10.00.  On business trips, I slap that on the front door of the family sedan, and turn the entire trip into a business expense.  You can also deduct hotel bills, meal costs, parking fees, road and bridge tolls if  you keep records.

And finally, you’ll need to keep careful count of the books you order for resale. With a print-on-demand contract, you don’t have to keep a huge inventory on hand, but you’ll need a constant supply of printed books to give away, to send to book reviewers, to sell to your friends, to take with you to speaking engagements, or to enter into book contests. You may be asked to report your sales and to pay sales tax, so you’ll need to account for every copy you purchase.  Be sure to check with your municipal and state laws on sales tax. In my state, you don’t have to report sales for tax purposes until your sales go over $3000.00, but that may not be so for where you live.  The ones you sell will cost you a bit, but the ones you give away can be deducted.

For many authors, these expenses can mount up to a tax deduction of several thousand dollars.  Just remember that you are expected to be earning a profit  after five years of effort. If you are making money, you can only deduct expenses that exceed your income.  If you are not making any money after five years, the IRS will tell you that writing is now just your hobby and deny any deductions.   It will be time to declare your real occupation as fry cook or plumber’s helper.

Setting Up Your Home Office

Establishing your own business has tax advantages. Once you have a plan and a named business, you can declare it as a “sole proprietorship” on your income tax and start taking deductions for all those expenses.  The biggest deduction will come from establishing  your home office as your principle, regular, and exclusive place of business. What does that mean? Well, basically, no more writing at one end of the dining room table and then shoving the papers out of the way to serve dinner. You must have a clearly defined space in which you conduct all the activities associated with your business — writing, researching, editing, advertising, shipping. It does not have to be a large space.  You can fit an office into a large closet, a cubbyhole under the stairs, in the basement or the attic, or into a section of a room that is clearly separated from all other activities there. It must be used for your business and for nothing else -- no sharing the space with the family TV, or letting Aunt Mabel move in and use it as a bedroom when she's in town. You’ll need a desk, a filing cabinet, and — most important — a place to keep everything separate from the other parts of your life.

I was fortunate to have my own space already designated. When we moved into our new condo, we had the builders convert what started out as an open den area into a third “bedroom” with a small closet.   My husband had already claimed the smallest room as his place to work on all his Lions Club business. This new room was to be mine.  It has evolved into a cozy hideaway that makes a perfect home office.  My initial requirements were these: a door that closes, lots of natural light, phone and computer cable connections, and a few creature comforts.  I furnished it first with bookcases and  a large slab table to serve as a computer desk.And here’s what it holds at the moment: I’ve added risers at the back of the desk slab to lift frequently-used office supplies, the printer, the cable modem, the backup drive, and other components off the main desk. Two low filing cabinets flank the desk to hold research files and other supplies while providing additional space to stack stuff. The closet is now full of industrial shelving to hold overflows of books, files, shipping supplies, and extra computer elements. An upholstered rocking chair and a floor lamp positioned between the accordian-folding doors of the closet provides a hidden reading nook. A futon, full of pillows and a fuzzy throw, waits for the moment when I really need a quick nap.

The atmosphere is welcoming. The walls are painted a bright, energetic tangerine. A magnetic white board allows me to leave notes or pin up interesting pictures or publicity clippings. The large picture window looks out onto a grove of cedars and cypress trees. The rocking chair sits on its own little oriental rug, and a tiffany lamp gently lights my desk area.  On the walls are a few award plaques, my diplomas, and a huge etching of St. John’s College, Oxford, where I was lucky enough to teach for three separate summers. And scattered around are a few stuffed animals from special places — a bear from Gettysburg dressed as a Union soldier, another dressed as one of the palace guards from Buckingham palace, the ragged little puppy from Poogan’s Porch in Charleston, and the stately lion from the Biltmore estate.

Finally, there are the reminders of the purpose of this particular office. Above the entry door is a cutout of a black cat, looking exactly like the Katzenhaus cat from my business cards. A brass Civil War cannon acts as a paperweight. The closet door sports a street sign that says “Frogmore” in honor of an upcoming book. (And no, I didn’t steal it; I bought it in a souvenir shop on St. Helena Island.) My favorite piece is a replica of a Civil War era rag doll.  It is reversible, so that at one end is a black slave “Momma” wearing an apron and a turban. Turn her over, and you reveal a red-headed white woman. The storyboard says that the slave woman made the doll for the small child she tended. When the white “Massa” appeared, the doll could be quickly reversed to look like the child’s real mother — and then reversed again for the more beloved Momma. To me it serves as a reminder of the two very different perspectives — the slave and the white missionary — that fill my new book.

The result is eclectic, but definitely my principle, regular, and exclusive place of business. When I’m here, I’m working.  Even the cats have learned to respect the boundary of the doorway. They will wander in once in a while, but only to curl up quietly on the floor or the futon, thus keeping it Katzenhaus in fact as well as spirit.