Monday, March 29, 2010

Deductible Expenses and the Freelance Writer

So, last week found me at my accountant’s office, proudly handing over all my W-2s and other evidence of my income earned for 2009. Although it amounted to less than two week’s salary from when I was a lawyer, he smiled approvingly. For the past couple of years, I’d shown up with a laughably meager income that he sort of waved away. But this time, I could tell that he thought I’d at last gotten serious about my writing. He was right. But evidently, not serious enough.

“Good, good,” he said, flipping through my papers. “And what are your expenses?”

Ah. Those.

While I meticulously kept proof of my income, I hadn’t given much thought to my expenses at all. This year (2010), I had saved the receipt from the computer I bought when my old one went on the fritz, and saved the receipts from expenses incurred from building my clips site, but I couldn’t think of one receipt I had saved from 2009.

“Uh, I didn’t have any.” I said, stupidly.

“You didn’t buy paper?” he asked. “Pens? Books for your research? A library membership? ”

Yes, to all of those things, but I didn’t think to save the receipt for such small fry. But I should have. These little things add up and can make a sizable dent in the amount of taxes owed.

Are you keeping track of the expenses associated with your writing?

Here are some other expenses that may be deductible:

1. Business-related fees. Are you a paying member of MediaBistro.com? Do you pay for the online Writer’s Market (or the book, for that matter)? Do you pay for the internet, your professional website, a research service (e.g., LEXIS/NEXIS), a premium PayPal account? Business cards? All of these things and more may be tax deductible. Oh, and you know what? Magazine subscriptions might be deductible as well – of course, you have to prove that you used them for business expenses. My accountant says that an emailed print out of a query letter to that magazine, and/or an acceptance or rejection email from the editor of that magazine can help validate your claim.

2. Professional advice. Have you paid professional advice related to freelancing over the past year? An accountant, for example? What about an agent, editor, web designer or lawyer? Their fees might all be able to be written off – and so can the lunches or coffees that you had with them while discussing business.

3. Your home office. This is a complicated deduction and my accountant has never tried to deduct it from my taxes because my office is in a corner of my dining room (my former office now being my kids’ room). But if your office is used purely for business purposes, you may be able to deduct a portion of your annual rent or mortgage (based upon the percentage of space your office takes up) from your taxes.

4. Equipment used in your work. Your computer, printer, fax machine, scanner, cell phone, computer software and even office furniture may be able to be deducted, although it’s rather complicated. Because these things have a long lifespan, some things can be deducted outright, while other items must be amortized or depreciated over a few years. Ask your accountant his or her opinion. My accountant told me that my new computer, for example, would be depreciated over three years.

5. Payments not received. I was happy to hear about this one – a magazine I worked for shut down last year and even though my article was published in its final issue, I never got paid. It wasn’t worth chasing down the former publishers of the magazine, so I just mentally wrote it off. It was very pleasing to learn that this expense could also be formally written off!

6. Travel expenses. Of course, you can’t go on a luxury vacation, write a blog post about it and expense the trip. But if you have an assignment that requires you to travel, you may be able to deduct the business aspects of the trip. Attending writer’s conferences, workshops and retreats may deductible as well.

7. Subcontracted work. Did you ever pay another writer to complete a job you’d contracted for? The fee you paid this writer may be tax deductible.

I’m sure there are plenty of other deductions, but these were the ones my accountant brought up. Of course, not all of these will be applicable to your situation – but start saving those receipts anyway. Not only might it help you save on your taxes, it will help you to think of freelancing as your business, and not just a cool job.

And since none of this relates specifically to taxes for expatriates, here is some information about filing taxes that every expat should know: Foreign Tax Credit and Foreign Earned Income Exclusions. Good luck!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

5 ways to make money as a freelancer

A million years ago, when I had that extremely short-lived writers' group, I recall someone asking how one could make real money as a freelance writer. She said that writing for magazines couldn't possibly generate a substantial income.

I think that it's true: most freelance writers can't and don't rely solely on magazines or newspapers for income. If I've learned anything in this career, money from freelancing comes in fits and spurts. Many magazines only pay once the article has been written and "accepted." Others won't pay you until the article is published. And since a lot can happen between the time the article is written and publication (once a magazine folded after I wrote the article and I never got paid even though the piece was published in the final issue), it's hard to count on that money until you're holding it in your hand.

So, one must supplement one's income through other means. Here are 5 alternatives to consider:

1. Blogging

In case you hadn't noticed, these days everybody has a blog. Everyone. Newspapers, businesses, libraries, law firms, hospitals...just everyone. And, of course, people like you and me. But, of course, it takes a whole lotta time to keep blogs updated. So newspapers, businesses, libraries, hospital, law firms, hire people like you and me to keep the blogs updated. It can be fun and easy and can mean regular pay. Plus, for an expat freelancer, it means that you don't have to be in the same country as your employer. I have written for a couple of blogs on a regular basis, and have really enjoyed writing without having to be responsible for finding an audience, advertisers, or even pictures and formatting!

Look at Blogger Jobs and ProBlogger for blogging jobs.

You can also monetize your own blog but I think it takes a very specific idea, a huge following and an incredible amount of time to make it profitable. But I do know of people who receive a solid, steady income through advertisements on their blogs.

2. Copywriting/Commercial Writing

You know all those brochures, newsletters, pamphlets, and other marketing materials that cross our paths every day? People write them. Very often, freelancers write them. And these companies are willing to pay good money for quality writing. If you don’t believe me, check out Peter Bowerman’s classic book (and website): The Well-Fed Writer. According to him, you can achieve self-sufficiency as a freelance writer in 6 months or less. What does self-sufficiency mean? Well, according to him, a “comfortable, not-unusual week nets $2000.” Sounds pretty good. I have never attempted to break into business writing since the language of most of the business ‘round here are French, but I do keep my eyes out for opportunities. And I’m sure it’s possible to break into Anglophone business markets from abroad, but as I’ve never tried, I don’t know how. If anyone has any ideas on how to do this, feel free to share!

3. Editing/Proofing
Many freelance writers supplement their income by offering private editing/proofing services. Tons of businesses, students, and fellow writers will welcome you with open arms. If you know your way around Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style or cackled over Eats Shoots and Leaves, then maybe this is an option for you. If you’re an expat freelancer in a country that doesn’t speak English, I imagine that there would be a wealth of proofing/editing opportunities.

4. Résumé writing.

This is the classic job you can do from anywhere. Again, you’ll need to have stellar proofing skills and an eye for detail. You could either seek work through an already-established resume writing company or you could try to start your own resume writing business. This blog tells you how to get started. As expats, we’re well-placed to target people seeking jobs in our home countries. French CVs and American CVs are quite different. I feel confident that many French people seeking jobs in the U.S. would love to have an American eye assess their résumé.

5. Greeting cards.

If you’re always cracking people up with your witty quips or don’t mind getting really sentimental in your writing, consider writing for greeting card companies. You can make quite a tidy sum scribbling a few lines. According to this article, you can make $3 per line to $150 per verse. When you think about it in terms of "per word" payment that can amount to several dollars per word! Makes a nice break from those .10 per word magazines.

There are plenty of other writing options, but I think it’s dawning on my husband that I’m not actually running the kids’ bathwater. I’d better do a “5 more ways to make money as a freelancer” another time. G’nite!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Deconstructing magazines

You might have noticed a recurrent theme in my posts: where to find Anglophone magazines while abroad. If you're new to freelancing, you might wonder why this is important: if you have access to a magazine name and its website, why is it so important to see the magazine itself?

Pretty much all books on freelancing agree that it is essential to take a good long look at a magazine before pitching to it. Editors hate with a burning white passion to receive pitches that clearly do not fit into their publication. I'm not just talking about sending a pitch about sports cars to a fishing magazine. I'm talking about sending a pitch about fly fishing in New Hampshire to a magazine that only writes about boat fishing in Wisconsin. A freelancer should deconstruct a magazine before pitching to it: she should know the exact kind of articles the magazine publishes, have an idea about which department the article would work well in, and understand the writing style of the publication. When you can, you should even look at several issues of the magazine to make sure your intended topic hasn’t been recently covered.

Of course, you can still land an assignment without having deconstructed or even seen the target magazine first. These days, you can get a lot of the information you need from the magazine’s website. But the more prestigious the magazine and the less experienced you are, the better it is to show the editor that you’ve done your homework. Even if the query is rejected, the editor may remember your professionalism. You definitely don’t want to send a pitch that stands out in the editor’s memory for its failure to adhere to the magazine’s concept – or because it details a story that was on the magazine’s cover last month.

As I’ve written previously, I often go to the American Library of Paris to check out the periodicals there. I also stock up on certain magazines whenever I’m in the U.S. Sometimes I ask friends who are in the U.S. to brings pubs to me when they visit. And of course there are a couple of magazines I subscribe to. I would subscribe to more, purely for research purposes, but that gets expensive. But recently I learned a way to make it a bit cheaper: sign up for free subscriptions.

Did you know that there are tons of free magazine subscriptions out there? Take a look at this site. And this one. All you need is a North American address and the pub is yours! Sure, that’s only part of the problem solved for us expat freelancers: the magazine still has to reach us. But it’s a lot cheaper to pay for postage rather than paying for postage and the magazine. I've gotten subscriptions to a few top parenting magazines this way, in addition to a couple of health magazines I'd like to write for.

Most of the time I don’t have the magazines sent to me: I just ask my mother to do a quick title check to make sure that the topic I’m pitching hasn’t been written about recently. If there’s an article of particular interest to me, I ask her to scan it and email it to me. So, okay, yes, you need an assistant in your home country. But personally, I feel more confident sending off a query knowing that, whatever the editor ultimately decides, I’ve done all that I could to fit my article into the magazine.

If anyone out there has a better way (or just a different way) of approaching this problem, please tell me because this is the aspect of expat freelancing that bugs me the most!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Still *another* way to find markets!

Just a quick post to say that I found another great database: Mondo Times. They list over 25,000 media outlets in more than 200 countries. It's not just magazines and newspapers but television and radio, too. You'd think that with all that information it'd be confusing, but it's really easy to navigate. Outlets are divided by topic, country, and city. I'm seeing lots of regional and smaller pubs that don't make it onto other databases. Very cool!

Monday, March 8, 2010

3 Online Tools that an Expat Freelancer Needs

Yesterday I conducted a very satisfying interview on Skype, which got me feeling all affectionate for the service. I do many interviews on Skype, either through their telephone service or IM chat (which I LOVE because your entire conversation is already perfectly preserved). Anyway, Skype got me thinking about the things that make life a bit easier for expat freelancers. Here are my top three.

1) Skype . I imagine most expats know about Skype, but if you don't, download it. Now. Skype is software that allows you to talk with other Skype users through your computer for free. Most of my sources have Skype and, in my view, there's nothing unprofessional about using it to conduct interviews. Did I mention that it's free?

2)
eFax. eFax is another free service that is pretty great. When you register with eFax, you are assigned a U.S. fax number. As I mainly target American magazines, this number takes away the worry that editors will be annoyed by having to pay a premium fee when faxing documents (contracts, tax information, etc.) to me. And as it goes right to me my email, I don't need a heads-up about when the fax will arrive.

3) PayPal. Yet another free service! PayPal allows you to send and receive money online. (Actually, the service has dozens of features, but for freelancing purposes, I only use it to receive money). It is so easy. When you register, you provide your bank account information so that when you are paid, you can transfer the money from your PayPal account directly to your bank account. Many online pubs pay through PayPal, and its so much simpler than waiting to receive a paper check, and then going through the bother of taking it or sending it to your bank.

Of course, I'm talking about the basic level for all these services. For a fee you can get all the bells and whistles that these companies offer, but for me the free service works just fine. Check them out!