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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

April 2015

Paying Taxes Is Not Supposed to Be Fun.

Yesterday I talked about all the lovely tax deductions writers can get. But I forgot to add the most important point. You have to keep track of those expenses.  Here’s how I learned to handle that "tacky" detail.
 
One fateful year, I received a terrifying call from my accountant, reminding me that because of the high volume of sales of Beyond All Price in the last quarter of 2011, I owed the IRS a quarterly payment on my 2011 taxes. All she needed, she told me, was a list of all my income and all (read: ALL) my book-related expenditures over the past year.
 
Have I been keeping those records? Well . . . sort of. I have a couple of file folders at the corner of my desk into which I've been stuffing receipts and credit-card bills. And I had started out last year by downloading a highly recommended program for organizing those receipts.  I just hadn't actually kept the records up to date.  Arrrghh!
 
Gamely I dug out all those little slips of paper and opened my expense record, only to be horrified by how complicated it was.  It had a separate sheet for each month, with a row for every day in the month. And each sheet had some 35 categories of expenses, each with its own column on a spread sheet that measured some 18 inches across. That meant I was looking at over 8000 little cells to be filled in before the actual calculations even began. I started sorting my little pieces of paper into monthly piles.  I didn't take long before I realized that this program was major over-kill, and much too complicated.
 
When I couldn't find a simpler version that seemed designed for the kinds of expenses writers and indie publishers incur, I decided to design my own.  The result is a simple template that works on any computer that can handle Excel.  It put all my expenses onto just 1 page. Just set your page to portrait and under the print function, scale to about 80% or 1 page wide and 1 page tall.
 
The layout is simple.  It has three sections: one for travel expenses, one for day-to-day expenses, and one for including the figures for a dedicated home office. You get just one cell for each expense during a given month, so you may have to do a bit of addition on your own--adding all your postage, for example. And travel mileage needs to be converted to cost by multiplying it by the IRS allowance for mileage.  (That's not as complicated as it sounds. The current allowance is $0.50 a mile, so you just divide the number of miles by 2 and add a dollar sign.)
 
When you're finished entering your numbers, the spreadsheet calculates each type of expense (in the rows) over the course of the year and the total for each month (in 12 columns.)  At the bottom right corner, you get the grand total.  Simple.  There are also some blank rows, so if you need to add some new categories, you can just type them in. The "total" formula is already entered in the blank cell at the end of each row.  I finished my calculations in a single morning.
 
It was so easy that I decided to share the template here. I’ll post it tomorrow.
 

Those All-Important Tax Deductions

OK, today is tax day, and like a lot of other people, you've spent the day buried in paper and mathematical scribblings.  I went to the post office today on a non-tax related matter and  had to wait in line to get a parking place. I gathered that most of the people in line were not there to buy stamps. Anyhow, it occurred to me that it must be time to remind my readers of a sure-fire way to save money on your taxes.  It's too late for your 2014 return, but the outlook for 2015 can be much brighter.

How? One simple trick does it all. BECOME A WRITER!

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, parking fees, and bridge or road 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.

Portions of the above blog were originally published in 2013 and have been  taken from my book, "The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese: How to Avoid the Traps of Self-Publishing," available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple iBooks, and Smashwords.com.

Appomattox and Wars that Never End.



Source:
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-B8171-7169 DLC)



Earlier this week I wrote about the "end" of the Civil War: April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse. But even as I acknowledged the general belief that the date marked the end of the Civil War, I suggested that my own books  on the period will continue to talk about the war throughout the period of Reconstruction.  In my current WIP, "Yankee Reconstructed," the characters find that they cannot escape the war, and that nothing appears to have been solved in 1865.

In the chapter I'm working on today (which is actually just at the 50% mark in the manuscript). there occurs a three-way argument between (1) a black man who understands that  freedom doesn't come by decree, (2) a well-educated Northern white teacher who naively believes that all will now be well, and (3) a wounded Confederate soldier who is still continuing to fight under his old CW general.

In today's New York Times, there is an article that explains the problem of Reconstruction exceptionally well. I cannot post it here because of copyright issues, but below is the title and permalink that will allow you to read it for yourself. Enjoy.

The Dangerous Myth of Appomattox
By GREGORY P. DOWNS




150 Year Later.


One hundred fifty years ago today —on April 9, 1865 — Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The long Civil War was finally over, although its effects would last much longer — in fact, right down to today. The anniversary has started me on a path of reminiscing about my own last ten years.

I started writing about the Civil War in 2004 — not because of any anniversary, but simply because I had retired from teaching, and for the first time in 20 years, I had the freedom to write about what interested me, rather than about the no-less-interesting but more pressurized medieval history that would determine my success or failure as an academic.

I had a family story to tell. My great uncle had actually served in the Civil War, and I had inherited a small bundle of his letters.  I wanted to write the story of Sgt. James McCaskey before those letters crumbled into dust. And so I started on a little manuscript that would become a full-size book. My first publisher urged me to “get on with it,” pointing out that the sesquicentennial of the Civil War would start in 2011, and I could be “in on the ground floor” if I had a book or two finished by the start of the celebration.

That was the start of my new writing career. A Scratch with the Rebels was published in 2007.  It was straight military history, a documentary account of the first year of the war and the experiences of the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment. It wasn’t a particularly good book, but it appealed to the descendants of the men of that regiment, and they helped to publicize it. Today it’s still in print and into a second edition, thanks to a far-sighted publisher. (In fact, the first edition is on sale for 30% off today to celebrate the end of the war!  Click Here.)


Then I took the same set of events and told the story from the point of view of the regimental nurse, who had barely been mentioned in the first book. Beyond All Price came out in 2010 and fulfilled the promise suggested by that first publisher. As interest in the Civil War ramped up, so did interest in the second book and by August of 2011, it became a run-away Kindle best seller, staying at the top of its category for several weeks and earning enough money to force me to hire an accountant.

That’s all I intended to do, really, but I soon realized that the Civil War was too deeply embedded in my soul to let the observation of its sesquicentennial pass without me. So there followed a series of books, tied closely to the actual dates of the war. In 1862, a band of missionaries arrived in South Carolina to help educate the slaves who had been left behind when their owners fled from the invasion of the Union Army. By November of 1862,  one woman had established the first black school. In November 2012, I published the story of Laura Towne in The Road to Frogmore.

Stories about other fascinating people began to appear more frequently in the next couple of years as celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation and the “Day of Jubilee” spread through the academic world. In 2013 I added Left by the Side of the Road — a book of short stories that featured several of the more prominent African Americans who made their mark in 1863 and beyond. Gen. Sherman began to organize his “March to the Sea” in late 1864, and in 2014, I published my first  historical novel, Damned Yankee, set directly in Sherman’s path.

And now? Now that the Sesquicentennial has come to an end? Am I finished as well? No, there are still stories to be told. I’m working on a sequel to Damned Yankee — one that is set in the period of Reconstruction immediately after the war.  Yesterday, as I reached the end of a chapter, a Freedman had a chance to speak his mind. I didn’t mean the words to be prophetic, but Hector sums up where I — and my new book —are at the moment:

“In time? In time we’ll all be dead. Look, Jonathan, I respect your position, but the simple truth is that most black men are no better off now than they were under slavery. We may be free, and we may even have the right to vote, but nobody’s offering much help when it comes to having a right to eat. The great promise of land didn’t last long, did it? And while the Black Codes may be gone, the land is still in the hands of white men. If we want to work the land, we have to become sharecroppers, which means doing whatever the white man says. We have to borrow money from white men to buy food, and our seeds and farm tools, and then when our crop comes in, we have to give it to the white man to pay what we owe him. So we’re stuck in poverty and beholden to the same men who were once our masters. That’s why I’m still in South Carolina. Someone has to fight back. The war may be over for you, but for me, it’s just beginning.”


So stay tuned. The Civil War may be over, but the fight goes on.


Some Modest Suggestions for Graduating Seniors

I just finished reading applications for a small scholarship offered by a civic service organization. The group’s goal is to identify top-ranked students who are planning to “give back” to others in exchange for the privileges of education that they have received.  Here are some of the things I wish the applicants had NOT said:

What is your long-term career goal?
    •    To get a good job that will pay me lots of money.
    •    To become famous.
    •    I’m impressed with St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. i would like to establish and run an organization like that.
    •    I’m going to be the top student at my university and let them pay for my Master’s and Doctor’s degrees.
    •    I want to study something i will enjoy but I don’t know what that is yet.
    •    I want to go some place better than this town.

How would receiving this scholarship help your educational plans?
    •    It would mean I wouldn’t have to work so hard.
    •    College is really expensive and I have no way to pay for any of it unless I get this scholarship.
    •    It would mean that I could graduate from college without having any debts.
    •    I could go to a top-rated university instead of the little school near home.
    •    If I get this scholarship I can save all my own money for my own family some day.


What service activities have you participated in outside of school?
    •    Nothing. I’m a diligent student and spend all my time studying.
    •    I spend 40 hours a week doing good works for my church.
    •    I take care of two children for a wealthy family and plan and supervise all their activities during the school year and during vacation time, too.
    •    See attached 3 pages.

Thank you. NEXT?