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So You’ve Sold Your Writing…
(What Happens Next & Other Conundrums)
No two careers are alike in our field though one thing remains constant – you get paid for the work you do, unless you agree to do it for exposure (in which case, I hope you know that most living things die from exposure). What I’m saying is that once you start selling, you’re going to transform into a business and a player in the Great Game of Finance, something I didn’t at all grasp when I sold my first story back in 2012 at the age of 23.
I’d grown up in a financially inept family that’s always in debt and without additional income outside my parents’ main employment. Prior to my first sale, I’ve held positions in the tourist industry and several offices – all situations where the employer paid benefits and taxed my income as an expense. I never had a reason to know how to interpret the intricate rituals at the National Revenue Agency in Bulgaria, so I was in for a rude awakening when I finally had a reason to interact with the NRA.
How do I declare income? What is expected of me after I send in the right paperwork? What are the deadline for filing taxes for the previous year and how the hell do I make sense out of the form? Bulgaria as it turns out has a rather archaic, convoluted system, which feels as if it’s made to confuse regular people and make sure accountants never go out of clients. Perhaps in your country the set-up is different. Either way you need to get a feel for the lay of the land as soon as you start submitting your work, because I’m pretty sure failure to declare income is a subject to fines.
As I transitioned from the nine-to-five office lifestyle to freelancing as a copywriter (not quite identical to fiction writing, but a useful parallel for writers who have enough projects going), I had to file even more paperwork to the point where I hired an accountant to file my invoices and interact with the NRA on my behalf. This has only resulted in additional expenses on my part as I’m in charge of paying benefits, accountant fees, income tax every trimester and once I file an overall annual income declaration, I may have additional fees to pay (don’t ask).
This is where budgeting comes in. Before, I relied on steady income and as long as I had cash in my wallet until paycheck, I thought I was doing fine. Now, I have to plan for my spending in advance, factor vital expenses and always secure a small financial cushion for unexpected ones. I wish I had been smart enough to budget at the start so I’d have something to save me during my first dry spell in my freelancing when no work came and rent was due.
Fiction writers experience this dip in income due to how irregular payments can be. I waited a year or so to receive a payment for a short story once. Novelists are used to receiving spaced out payments. I recommend these articles by Chuck Wendig and Kameron Hurley that go into greater detail on the subject of advances. You can never rely on a paycheck. Budgeting has helped me mimic the stability I once enjoyed at my office jobs. It’s a hard trick to pull off and I’m not as successful as I’d like to be, but those are the risks when you pursue a career in the arts.
International writers who target US markets will also come in contact with the W-8BEN form – a means to avoid double taxation, since short story payments are subject to a 30% flat tax in the US. Bulgaria mercifully has an Income Tax Treaty with the United States, so filling out the W-8BEN form saves me from this 30% rate and my income is only subject to Bulgarian tax rates.
Has your country signed such a treaty? Is the W-8BEN applicable in your case? How do you fill out this form (you’ll be thankful to know it comes with thorough instructions)? All great questions to answer before you get to sign your first contract, but even if you don’t, the good thing about our field is that people are helpful and patient. I wouldn’t learn as much without a published friends reading my first contracts to check, if they’re all right, and helping me make sense of forms.
Turning writing into a career with its financial obligations is a long-term process. However, those who learn early to look at their craft as a business, too, have a much easier time later on.