Why Writers Who Aren't Yet Superstars
Should Have a Small Business of Their Own --
and How To Go About It.
Suzette Haden Elgin
Suppose your preferred image of "real" writers is that they (a) starve in garrets in sublime squalor or (b) run off to Tahiti and starve there in only slightly less sublime squalor, and that "real" writers would in either case rather starve than compromise their principles by interacting with the grubby world of business. If thatís how you feel, you should stop right now and read something else; I wonít try to persuade you to change your mind in any way. Similarly, Iím not writing for those who are independently wealthy. Iím writing this brief item for science fiction writers in typical financial circumstances who feel that -- on their way to becoming superstars -- theyíd like to be able to pay their bills without working for somebody else at a job they hate. And my position on the subject is that the first step to take toward achieving that goal is to set up a small business -- a small sole proprietor business, not a partnership or corporation -- of your own.
The easiest way to go is to set up a business that is related to writing, such as a newsletter, or a mail order bookstore, or a writing workshop, or a seminar based on one of your books, or a literary agency, or a tiny publishing company. Alternatively, you may want to set up a business that has nothing to do with writing because you need something that gives you a break from the writing process while -- unlike hobbies -- still making sense financially. In the latter case, your choices are limitless and you can pick any sort of business that strikes your fancy and that your resources make possible. The only thing standing in your way is your belief that setting up a business of either sort is very difficult and complicated and requires you to spend large amounts of money and call in experts to help you along. There are businesses for which all that is true, certainly. There are businesses for which you need venture capital and bank loans and lawyers to help you incorporate and millions of dollars of equipment and liability insurance.... Allow me to state the obvious: When you choose your business, pick one for which thatís not true.
A small business, even if it makes only very small profits, even if it sometimes makes no profits at all, will do two profitable things for you. First: Provided you choose the business carefully and you keep careful records, it will make almost everything you do tax deductible. Thatís money in the bank, whether your business has any profits or not. Second: Provided you choose the business carefully, it will give you a way to market and promote your writing that is entirely under your control. Thatís also money in the bank. Every dollar you donít have to pay someone else for outside marketing and promotion is a dollar in your pocket, whether your business has any profits or not.
Itís important to understand that the law (in the form of the Internal Revenue Service) does not require you to make a profit. If it did, many of the Fortune 500 companies would be in terrible trouble and Amazon.com would have lasted only a month or two. Many of our most prestigious magazines have never made a profit and probably never will; most Internet businesses are not making profits and may not do so for years; the IRS is not knocking at their doors. What is required is that you be able to prove to the IRS that you are honestly trying to make a profit; if you canít do that, theyíll call what you do "a hobby" and theyíll zap you for it. That means you have to have business cards and letterhead stationery and business forms; it means that if the town you live in requires newsletter publishers to have a business license, you have that license; it means that you place an occasional ad; it means that you have records showing that you actually do either produce a product or provide a service, or both. It means setting aside a specific time -- in my case, itís Saturday morning -- when you keep your records; it means always carrying paper and pen (or an electronic equivalent) so that you can scribble quick notes to be transferred to those records. [This brief piece is not the place for me to explain the distinction between a hobby and a business further. If itís not clear to you, talk to a tax specialist until it is clear, even if you have to pay him or her for the discussion. You really do have to understand it.]
I recommend that unless youíre dead certain that youíll never want to do anything except carve duck decoys -- in which case itís okay to call your business Better Duck Decoys -- you name your business something vague that will give you plenty of room to maneuver. Your name is John Smith? Set up John Smith Enterprises, or The Smith Center (alternatively, The Smith Center for... whatever). Call your local courthouse to find out if your area requires you to publish a notice in the paper announcing that youíre "doing business as" your business name; theyíll tell you what the regulations are. (Where I live in northwest Arkansas, thatís not required.) Choose a business that doesnít violate zoning regulations in your area. Get your business cards and your letterhead and begin.
Iíll close now by telling you a little about my own business ventures, just to serve as examples:
The Ozark Center for Language Studies (OCLS). This is my primary business name. Itís imprecise enough to let me publish newsletters, publish booklets and short books, put on seminars and workshops, give talks, offer consulting and trouble-shooting, and much more. It has its own small press, called -- not cleverly, but sensibly -- OCLS Press. At one time it had a "division" called The Magic Granny Line, which produced and sold filksong tapes and filksong books; I closed that one down because I got too busy to keep it going, but for a number of years it did pretty well. It lets me sell books and tapes -- both those published by commercial publishers and those done by OCLS Press -- by mail order and at sales tables for seminars, conventions, and so on.
Linguistics & Science Fiction. This is the newsletter I currently publish, every other month; the January/February 1999 issue was Volume 18, #3. Itís about the interface between linguistics and sf, as its name makes obvious. It does make a small profit, but I wouldnít be upset if it didnít -- because the networking it lets me do, and the marketing and promotion it lets me do, would cost me a fortune if I didnít have the newsletter. Iíve published various other newsletters over the years, all as products of OCLS, closing them down when they no longer served any useful purpose.
Elgins Gardens & Gallery. Weíre out in the country, with some land, and I like messing about with plants. That made it sensible to start this little business, from which I sold miniature trees -- including saguaro cactus and Christmas trees -- in containers, and an assortment of arts and crafts. In January 1999 I closed this business down for the same reason I closed the filk business -- we (thatís my husband and I) just no longer had time to keep it going. This was one I didnít want to give up, but it had begun doing well enough that it was cutting into my writing time and taking my husband away from his work as my road manager and as OCLS techie; therefore, it had to go.
Iíll stop now; thatís enough detail to show you what I mean. Donít let anybody tell you that a carefully chosen small business isnít worth the minor amount of hassle it involves; thatís false. Donít let anybody tell you you canít do it; thatís false, too. Itís much easier today, with all the advantages the Internet provides, than it was twenty years ago when I started OCLS. Once youíve become a superstar writer, you can shut your business down or hire other people to look after it, whichever you prefer; until that day comes, itís a very wise investment of your resources.
Copyright © 2002 by Suzette Haden Elgin