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It’s tax time again—and Uncle Sam is breaking out his museum-quality archival gloves and prepping his list of people to audit. And while we’re not accountants, we thought we could offer a few tips and answer some pressing questions about how creative writers can prepare their taxes.
Let’s start with the big question first.
When is a creative writer allowed to write off his or her writing expenses?
There’s one key question to ask yourself that will help you determine whether or not you can write off your expenses, whether from self-publishing a novel or buying books of poetry: Are you writing to start or maintain a business, or are you writing as a hobby?
The difference (for the government, anyway) comes down to one word: Profit. If you’re writing with the intention of turning a profit (starting a business), then you’re allowed to write off your expenses. If you’re writing because you enjoy it, but you’re not making a focused effort at turning a profit and you never expect to, then the government doesn’t want you to write off your writing expenses.
The key for writers is to have a strong, provable case that demonstrates writing as a business as opposed to writing for fun. But it’s a fine line, isn’t it?
A writer may write for years without turning a profit, almost as a kind of apprentice in the trade, until the writing becomes profitable later on. Be sure you have a good accountant to help you make these kinds of decisions (and to back you up if you get audited).
For the record, we at Writer’s Relief think this policy is lame. Here’s why: We’ve never met a poet who planned to make a living writing poetry. It’s pretty much not possible. And we would like to see a government that encourages art for art’s sake, as well as art for profit’s sake. We can always hope.
Do I have to make a profit on my creative writing before I can write off my expenses?
Generally speaking, getting paid goes a long way toward having credibility as a formal business entity. But it’s not necessary. Businesses lose money all the time. And some businesses will exist for years before turning a profit. Look at Amazon (which went online in 1995 but didn’t turn a profit until 2001).
Just be sure that your situation is airtight and provable—that you can show you’re not just writing for kicks and that you hope to start a business.
What kinds of things can a writer write off?
Books, office supplies, research tools, home electronics, website creation and maintenance costs, promotional materials, travel, food, gifts, fees for services…the business of being a writer often requires the same kind of infrastructure as any other entrepreneurial business. Some writers will even write off their home offices (though this can get tricky because home office write-offs are sometimes based on the percentage of space occupied by the office in a home).
What if I get audited?
One word: Doc-u-men-ta-tion!
The key is being organized. Demonstrating a serious focus and level of organization about your professional paperwork can go a long way toward showing the IRS that you’re not a hobbyist who keeps his or her receipts crumpled up in a desk drawer. Also, being organized will help you track your write-offs in an effective way.
Some tips: Keep your writing receipts and expenses separate from your personal expenses. Reserve a file for your business accounting. Keep a separate bank account and/or credit card for your business. Not only will it help if you’re trying to make the case that you’re a legit business, but it will keep you organized too.
Can Writer’s Relief do my accounting? You do so much other paperwork for writers.
We help creative writers target their submissions to literary agents and editors of literary journals. We know the ropes when it comes to publishing books, stories, essays, and poems. But, alas, we’re not accountants.
That said, our Full Service clients do have the option of receiving a yearly tax report, aggregating any monies spent using our services, so that they can talk with their accountants about whether or not it would be appropriate to write off the expenses.
QUESTION: Will you write off your creative writing expenses this year?