Friday, April 26, 2013

Eight Ways to Expand Your Business

If you’ve been freelancing for a while, perhaps it’s time to think about expanding your business. Other small business owners have the luxury of being able to hire help, open branch locations, even franchise their business. Unfortunately, most of those don’t work with freelance writing.

Working for yourself, by yourself, means that you can only do as much work as you have time. And there are only so many hours in a day. That puts a limit on expanding your business. Sure, you can take on larger projects, but when you work on a large project, such as writing a book, you don’t have time to do the smaller ones. And frankly, most book projects don’t pay nearly as much in the long run as working on a bunch of shorter and less complicated pieces. So how can you expand?

1. Revise your sales presentation. When the same bland renewal notice for a magazine subscription arrives in the mail, you don't give it a second look. If you want to renew an editor's interest in your material or build up assignments on a higher level than in the past, you must revise your presentation. Analyze the way you pitch ideas now and see if you can improve on it. How well does your current method sell your ideas? Is your timing and the sequence of ideas logical? Is the market holding you back or are you holding yourself back through fear, lack of expertise, or timidity?

2. Create a brochure. Don’t forget you are a business. And businesses advertise. Some kinds of writing may allow you to run ads in journals or newspapers. But the majority of what you do most likely doesn’t lend itself to direct advertising. So why not create a brochure of your work. Hotels do it. Airlines do it. All sorts of businesses do it. This doesn’t have to be an expensive, glossy affair. It can be nothing more than one page folded in thirds. You won’t have too much room, but there’s enough to include teaser quotes from your writing and perhaps a few photos. Short excerpts of articles will do the trick.

3. Keep up with marketing chores. And don’t forget, that many top freelancers spend several hours a day doing marketing chores, staying in contact with publishers, editors, agents, and other clients either by phone or Email.
4. Use books as premiums. If you’ve written books, consider using copies of them as premiums—gift books to corporate executives which they then gave their employees or rewards for contests that you run on your Web site and Facebook. Naturally, you’ll want to sign each copy.

5. Create or improve your Web site. And speaking of Web sites and social media, if you don’t have a good Web site yet, create one. Today, more and more people look to the Web to find professionals, including writers. But don’t just focus on selling, give visitors to your site something in return—information on writing, itself, or the subjects you write about. Both will draw them to your site.

6. Publish pieces on Kindle. The longer you’ve been freelancing, the more material and information you’ve acquired. Use some of it to create articles or short stories and perhaps short ebooks that you can sell on Kindle. While this may not bring in lots of cash, it helps you use materials that lie fallow in your files.

7. Promote a book through articles. If you have a book about to be published, you might want to try to write several short articles on a related subject and get them posted at key Web sites online. They’ll give you greater visibility and subtle promotion for both yourself and your book.

8. Apply for grants or enter contests. Lastly, consider applying for grants or entering contests from time to time. Nothing boosts a career like an award. But don’t concentrate on either of these. It’s actually easier and less time-consuming to just write and publish your work than it is to seek out a chancy result like either of these.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Five-Year Plan

In freelance writing, the present often dominates. But unless you look to the future, you’ll be stuck in the present with nowhere to look to. This is especially true as your assignments get bigger and more complicated. Managing them can be a bear.

You need to know or at least have an idea of where you want to be in five years. Do you see yourself freelancing full time for a host of markets? Or do you see yourself writing books, one right after the other?

Do you know how much money you want to be making? What kind of writing—articles, stories, books, brochures, or a combination of these—do you anticipate selling? Projecting further into the future gives you a push to start acquiring the skills you might need.

But before you start planning for the future, begin making a list of the people who might help to make your dreams come true or at least of places where you'll find help in accomplishing your goals. This will help you to avoid veering off into sidelines that aren't financially beneficial to you.

A five-year plan also helps you to keep tabs on your best, most lucrative and satisfying ideas. Be both realistic and ambitious—five years can be a very short or a very long time. But if you don't look that far ahead, you'll discover you've lost much more than just five years of your time.

Begin your five-year plan by asking yourself where you want to be at the end of your career as a freelancer? Do you even see an end to your career? Freelancing is a profession that doesn’t have to end. It’s something you can do more or less of as time goes on. It’s all up to you and your health and economic status.

Set a target for two years from now. This is enough time to let your plan play out, but not so long as to not give you time to reflect on it.

What kind of assignments do you want to receive on a regular basis? In the beginning, you’ve been so focused on just getting published at first, then regularly, that you probably haven’t had time to think about the bigger picture. Are you taking anything that comes along just for the money or are you weighing in other things, like the relationships you have with editors, how quickly and how much they pay, and, believe it or not, if they appreciate you and your work.

Once you think about the types of assignments you’d like, think about what you need to know to get them? How much education, formal or otherwise do you need to upgrade your skills? How  much experience will working with particular assignments require? What types of people to you need to gather for contacts?

The next question you have to ask yourself is what have you done so far that will help you? For this, you’ll need to start keeping a log, noting each assignment, how you did it, and the resources, people included, that you used to complete it.

What barriers do you see between where you are now and where you want to be in five years? Perhaps you don’t see any obstacles, but the road to freelance success is littered with them. Recognize this and prepare for them.

Publishing is changing at a rapid pace. Magazines are dying like flies sprayed with insect bomb. Trying to stay afloat, book publishers are merging faster than you can blink your eye. Will your long-term plan be able to cope with upcoming industry changes?

How well do you present yourself and your talents? Are you too timid or too difficult? Do you overreact to criticism? Are you trying to handle everything yourself instead of looking for the right kind of help? Have there been warnings that you’ve ignored?

As with any plan, your five-year plan must be flexible. You should constantly be updating it and adjusting it to fit your needs. But more importantly, be realistic. Know what you do best and then do it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Budgeting for Success

Freelance writing is one part creative skill and one part business sense. The only problem is that too many writers who get into this business don’t have much of the latter. Unfortunately, this came from what most learned in school—albeit subconsciously.

Writing has always been looked upon as an intellectual endeavor. Therefore, it shouldn’t be tied in any way to business. But when you’re in business to make money, having a bit of business sense is a prime concern. And if you’re going to make money in this business—at least enough to live on—then you have to know what’s coming in and what’s going out. If these aren’t relatively balanced, you’ll be out of business sooner than you think.

To keep tabs on your finances, you’ll need to create a budget based on what you’re spending now and what you predict you’ll spend in the not too distant future. The best way to do this is to create a budget sheet for each month for at least six months. Doing so will let you know if you’re going down the right marketing path and making enough money to cover your expenses. Once you know how much you can afford to spend based on your earnings, you’ll be able to take control of your finances. If you're always coming out in the red, you’ll find it easier to change your work patterns once you're faced with the actual figures.

One of the best ways to start budgeting is to faithfully record the details on your budget sheet. After you've recorded these for a month or two, you'll have a better idea of what sums to enter in your budget for the month. At the end of the year, add them up and divide by 12, putting the resulting figure in the proper slot, even though you may pay some bills quarterly, semiannually, or annually. With an accurate monthly record, you'll be able to more easily adopt counter measures if your receipts aren't tallying with your expenditures.

Lay out your budget sheet like this: Divide it into three columns.

The first lists your sources of income for that month, your uncontrollable expenses, and your net income (the first minus the second). Under that, list your regular expenses—mortgage or rent, gasoline, equipment, office supplies, utilities, travel, etc—and the their totals. At the bottom, create a line for profit or loss.

The second column lists the predicted and the actual amounts in each category in the first column.

The third column lists the predicted and actual totals for the year to date.

A budget sheet faithfully kept will show clearly where your problems lie. Are expenses in one category heavier than you imagined? Is disaster looming around the corner if you continue to work for a specific market? Where and how can you cut down on expenses? Will you have to negotiate for a higher fee from your best client? Should you aim for more sales volume? Do you need to consider getting a part-time job? Are you paying too much rent? Are you billing properly? Has your inventory of stories and ideas been turned over quickly enough?

Obviously, this budget sheet, too, needs to be balanced monthly. Be sure you carry over the figures on the following month's sheet where indicated. To accurately record figures on this sheet, you'll have to tally up those petty-cash slips you've collected. Keeping an account of each expense as it occurs will help you tremendously in following a budget plan.

Count in the current inflation rate when you're setting up your future budget pages, saving yourself from too many unpleasant surprises when new costs arise. For instance, is your phone/Internet plan slated to increase next year? What about your health insurance premium?

By keeping an accurate tally of your income and expenses, you’ll be able to tell when you may possibly be getting into hot water. If you don’t, you may find yourself reaching for that life preserver all too soon.

Friday, April 5, 2013

It's Tax Time Again

Every year around this time, freelance writers cringe at the thought of filling out their tax forms. It needn’t be the anxiety-prone, stress-inducing time that some make it. In fact, if you’re organized throughout the year, it can be downright easy. But remember, the Internal Revenue Service, otherwise known as the IRS, puts the burden of proof squarely on you.

Although the IRS requires no specific accounting systems for businesses, the details it asks for do add up. You'll want to keep careful records of income, expenses, deductions—travel, entertainment, and business expenses in particular—as well as receipts for equipment purchased depreciation schedules, and miles traveled. The IRS requires that these records be accurate and accessible. So for this very reason, you need to move away from storing receipts in a shoebox to a more organizes approach.

Today, there are any number of computer programs that will help you with keeping accurate records. Whichever one you choose to use, be sure it allows you to enter expenses as you create them, recording amounts from receipts daily, weekly, or monthly. The sooner you do record them the better.  One program that’s particularly easy to use is Quickbooks Online. You can also install Quickbooks on your PC and use it there. There are also a number of cell phone apps that allow you to record your expenses. But make sure that the app allows you to synchronize with your computer and transfer the results to it, preferably to a spread sheet.

When can you toss out your  records, as far as the IRS is concerned? In general you can do this  three years after a given taxable year's due date for the tax return, or the date filed, whichever is later. These dates, however, are minimums. You should keep many records, such as cash books, depreciation schedules, general ledgers, financial journals, financial statements, and audit reports, longer. Plan on storing accounts payable and receivable records, canceled checks, payroll records, and invoice details for at least seven years. And don’t forget to keep copies of your tax returns.

You can deduct all of the obvious expenses involved with your writing business up to 100 percent of your gross earned income from writing, but no more than that. Obvious expenses include office supplies, equipment, postage, copying and printing costs, magazine subscriptions, book purchases, professional memberships, travel, business meals (50 percent), professional help, and so on. Keep receipts for all these items.

Expenses connected with your home office are also deductible, but the space must be used solely for your writing business, and you must be employed primarily as a writer. No other use of the same space is permissible. If you use one room of an eight-room house for your office, you’ll figure one-eighth of your mortgage or rent, plus one-eighth of your utility bills, etc. So you’ll need to keep receipts for all of these, too.

Automobile and mileage expenses—the portion used for business—are deductible as well. It pays to figure out your actual costs and compare them to the standard mileage deduction to see which way of calculating your expenses gives you the largest deduction. Generally, you’ll probably come out ahead with the standard mileage deduction which is more than generous. If you drive a lot for your business, keep a mileage log.

Be sure to record purchases of  office equipment and any related tools like software and cameras under capital expenditures. You’ll need to depreciate all of these items a certain amount each year of each item’s useful life which is usually five years. So you divide the total cost by five and take the resulting amount off as depreciation each year for five years.

One way to make sure you’ve kept all the right receipts in the right categories is to take the categories direct from Schedule C of your 1040 tax return. By doing this, you won’t forget any expenses, and they’ll also be sorted when it comes to filling in your tax forms. The more organized you are with this, the easier the whole process will be.

You may want to hire an accountant to prepare your tax return if you don’t feel up to it or if you’re too busy. However, only you can decide what to deduct—you have the final say. The fee you pay him or her is also deductible. Generally, the items you’ll deduct for your business will remain more or less the same each year. There are always a few changes but nothing you can’t sort out for yourself. Once you have everything in order, you can fill the forms in online and file electronically if you wish.