One of my first recommendations to any new or aspiring self-publisher is that they treat their writing like a business. I insist that they establish at least a sole proprietorship and create a home office dedicated to the writing, publishing, and marketing of their books. Why? Well, for one thing, having your own business allows you to take valuable business-related deductions on your income tax. So it will surprise no one to find a whole chapter early in “The Second Mouse Goes Digital,” devoted to keeping records and explaining the deductions an author may claim.
It was also not much of a surprise when shortly after I published my book, the internet broke out in a rash of rumors about what the new tax bill was going to do to destroy the livelihood of independent authors. The worst of these predictions was that authors would no longer be able to claim deductions for their home offices.
Were the rumors true? No, of course not. At most, the new law simply strengthened the rules already in place and promised to enforce them strictly. And what were the rules? Despite the governmental double-talk, there are only two rules to follow.First, a home office must be used regularly and exclusively for business purposes. The office does not need to be a lockable separate room; you can use a closet, a part of a room separated in some way from the rest of the room, or any identifiable space. But you can’t get away with slapping a laptop on the end of the dining room table once in a while and pushing it out of the way when it’s time to eat. Nor can you call it an office if you only use it once in a while when you are bored.
Exclusivity is an important part of that definition. If you use the desktop computer to pay bills as well as to write the great American novel, it’s not a home office. You can’t let your teenager write her term paper or play games on your computer when you are not using it. Apparently the cat can walk across your keyboard, leaving gibberish behind, but for other family members, the rule is definitely “Paws Off!”
The second rule is that your home office must be the only fixed location of your business. You can’t claim to have a home office because you hate the drive to your employer’s office building. This is the part of the law that upset several academics. If you have an office provided by your company, you are expected to use it. If you are writing a scholarly monograph as part of your effort to gain tenure, you may work on it wherever you choose, including the local Starbuck’s. However you cannot claim to have a home office just because you have set up a comfortable place to write that monograph on weekends or late at night. That kind of writing is a part of your employment, and you have a fixed location for that employment there on campus. If, of course, instead of writing scholarly monographs, you spend your free weekends and evenings drawing manga comics, then create your own company and draw away. Just be sure to keep your regular job and your creative fantasies on separate computers.
So there it is. I still advise every self-publishing author to set up a company, create a home office, use whatever it takes—up to but perhaps not including razor wire—to keep the rest of the family away from your creative space, and then start keeping your records. Identify every purchase that goes exclusively to your use in your office, file folders holding receipts for postage, your other business expenses (the editor, the cover creator, the layout specialist), and the cost of the books you purchase for resale. Then you can deduct away!
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 simply must be used for your
business and for nothing else. You’ll need a desk, a ﬁling cabinet, and—most
important—a place to keep everything separate from the other parts of your
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 a smaller 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 accordion folding doors of the closet provide 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 opens
onto a grove of cedars and cypress trees. The rocking chair sits on its own
little oriental rug, and a modern 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. Scattered
around the room 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. Sitting on the frame 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 my latest book. (And no, I didn’t steal it; I
bought it in a souvenir shop on St. Helena Island.)
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.