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Monday, April 6, 2015

Time, Taxes, and the Old Days

I'll have a State of the Homestead update on Wednesday. It should've been today, but I was too preoccupied with our taxes.

For someone who counts pennies, you'd think I'd be more aware of my income--or lack of it.  

Hi. I'm Maria, and I'm doing my taxes today. :cue groan:

In 2014, I had no fewer than four clients who either skipped out on the bill, or consumed way more time than what was reasonable.

Two of them were cases of micromanagement. By the time it was over, I lost money--big time. At the end, all I wanted was to part company with them. For those of you who don't know, I charge a flat rate, rather than by the hour.

The other two were friendly and earnest new clients who emailed me for several days in lengthy conversation. I tossed out a few ideas and some rough thumbnails since they seemed ready to sign on the dotted line. When I emailed them their respective contracts, all I got back were cricket sounds. Never heard from them again.

I should be more rigid in my business practices but I always assume people will do the right thing. It's foolish on my part, or maybe old-fashioned. The world is different from the one I grew up in.

When you freelance, people don't realize that time is indeed money. Hours spent on a project that went nowhere could've been used on a job that paid my grocery bill.

I think part of the problem is that we're accustomed to getting many things free so we don't realize that the poor schmo at the other end of that internet connection is trying to make a living. 

Authors have it the worst because it's hard to know if your marketing efforts are paying off. But this applies to anyone who freelances and who gives away tangible and intangible goods and services.

Free books. Free art. Free advice. In essence, none of these are free. Not really. 

We give away free books to entice people to buy the rest of our back list.

Stock art companies let you "borrow" art for the chance to advertise on your web site.

Free advice from a professional is always given on the premise that his expertise will encourage you to pay for the rest of his services.

All companies, big and small that offer coupons, discounts, or freebies do it with the hope you'll buy their products or services for full price the next time.

Anecdote from the old days:  Many years ago we raised rhea and emu. We had a phenomenal track record for hatching and raising healthy chicks. We became respected experts in our field, and people called us from all over the US and Europe asking for advice on chick rearing.
Mail we received after my first rhea article was published.

One day, we got a frantic call from someone who had visited our farm for many weeks, asking countless questions and picking our brains for information. 

In the end, he bought from someone else who was "cheaper". Lo and behold, his chicks started dying, and the seller stopped taking the buyer's calls. He was desperate.

From what he described, we figured out the problem and helped him as best we could. We could've turned our backs on him--after all--he chose the other breeder, but we didn't. No matter how we felt about this guy and all the time he took from us, we couldn't allow his animals to suffer needlessly.

Flash forward. I still help people when they ask, but since there aren't any lives at stake, I only give what I can when I can.

Luckily, my good clients far outnumber the bad ones. If it hadn't been for doing taxes today I probably wouldn't have remembered the bad ones at all.

Authors:  It's difficult to know whether a freebie book has netted you any solid sales. How do you decide when to give something away and for how long?

Have you ever been stiffed with the bill?

In other news, it is full-on Spring here. The homestead has been buzzing with activity. More on Wednesday!


Angela Brown said...

I look forward to hearing about what's happening at the homestead :-)

As an author, I'm not sure if any of the freebies I've spent countless hours on designing and giving away as part of blog hops, FB parties and whatnot have done anything. At the very least, I'm hoping I'm extending my exposure beyond my circle of friends.

That's about all I got. Did my taxes earlier this year and realized that being an author is far more expensive than I EVER could have imaginged.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

ohhhhh crud. I've been putting that off too.

Maria Zannini said...

Angela: Exposure is a valuable commodity and worth the investment. If only we could quantify it so we'd know whether it worked or not.

I guess the only way to know that is if we sold our books ourselves and not through a third party.

God knows, no publisher is going to give us this valuable information.

Maria Zannini said...

Mac: Tick, tock. It's taxes time.

Good luck.

betty said...

That would be hard to give advice or do a service and then not get paid for it or some other compensation. Hubby before this job where he is working now taught guitar lessons for four years. What amazed me most was when people would stop wanting to come for lessons, they wouldn't show up (they had to prepay the lessons so after they used up the prepaid lessons they stopped attending). Hubby would hold open the spot for a couple weeks (usually four) just in case they were coming and didn't let him know. I often wondered why someone wouldn't just call and say "sorry, not interested" or some other reason and "man up" to it rather than not show up. Can be frustrating for the self employed! Good luck with taxes, we're getting ours done tomorrow.


Raelyn Barclay said...

As a reader, I do enjoy those freebies and have often bought more from the author. The tactic of offering the first in a trilogy/series sucks me in probably 80% of the time, much to my wallet's pain.

As for the bill, yep. I worked an informal nanny job for a co-worker of That Man's. I did have a contract in place but she walked out on it and my last week's pay. There was more to the situation and I still get angry when I think about it but the loss of pay wasn't worth the time I'd have to invest to pursue her in small claims court.

As for taxes, ours are done but we owe so will finalize them the eleventh hour :)

Maria Zannini said...


Re: Hubby would hold open the spot for a couple weeks (usually four) just in case they were coming and didn't let him know.

That's just rude. If I miss an appointment then it's my loss if I have to make it up at a less convenient time.

When it's someone who's self-employed I make the extra effort to be on time, and usually pay upfront and in cash because I know it makes a difference to them.

Maria Zannini said...

Raelyn: And that's where they have us over a barrel. It's not worth the time or money to take them to court--unless it's a huge amount.

It's even worse when it's someone you know. You expect better of them.

Lynn Viehl said...

The only cover art I ever designed was for an e-book, and the major publisher who decided to use it promised to reimburse me for the costs involved (license fee for the stock photography) and never did. They came back and asked me if they could use it again, and stiffed me a second time. Moral of the story: get the money upfront and the agreement in writing.

Since I've been freelance ghosting I've had pretty good luck with clients; only one project fell apart due to some problems with a third party, and I worked with the client to secure a second project with an upfront, nonrefundable kill fee to prevent it from happening again. I have been working off private referrals, however, and I think if I opened a web site or hung out my shingle I might end up having to gamble more on clients (which is why I haven't.)

Danielle L Zecher said...

Doing taxes definitely isn't fun. It amazes me how much people expect for free and how little regard some people have for other people's time.

Rebekah Loper said...

I worked as a freelance seamstress for a few years, and there were a few things I always had to establish upfront with clients: they were buying the materials, and they paid for labor on top of that. I never had near enough business to make an item and just pay a flat fee for it.

And then I knew that so many people had gotten out of touch with the time and care it actually takes to make quality clothing when they questioned why on earth I wanted to charge well over $100/hr for costuming or elaborate formals.

I don't freelance like that anymore, fortunately - I quickly discovered that I love sewing as a hobby, not as a livelihood, but it definitely helped me realize the time that goes into freelancing - no matter what the field.

Doesn't change my ability (or lack thereof) to pay for things, but it does definitely stop me from hounding people for freebies.

Our world has become so much more 'entitled', though. It's frightening.

Stacy McKitrick said...

Haven't been stiffed with a bill...yet. My husband's business is just getting started, and it's all done on-line, so I'm sure it'll happen eventually. However, he asks for 1/2 the money upfront, so if he does get stiffed for the rest, at least it won't be a total loss.

Re: taxes... So GLAD I got mine done. I may go the accountant-route next year. I don't want to go through that torture again. Ugh!

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I tend to trust people too. When I give away free books it is in the hope that the reader will like them enough to purchase my other novels. But some people just like free books.
Tax time is so painful.

Maria Zannini said...

Lynn: You make a good point about private referrals. I've never been burned by a referral, even when they were total strangers.

It makes me wonder if I shouldn't do the same as you and work strictly from private referrals.

Re: publisher
That really burns my biscuits when a major publisher reneges on a promise.

Maria Zannini said...

Danielle: We are so exhausted after we do taxes, but boy, do we feel like a load was lifted too.

I don't feel right until that albatross is off my neck.

Maria Zannini said...

Rebekah: I am jealous! I have absolutely no skill with needle and thread, despite a mother and three sisters who can sew me under the table.

That is a wonderful skill. I'd paid good money for a seamstress because I know how exacting the work is.

I wish we were neighbors!

Sandra Almazan said...

We hire someone to do our taxes, since my husband has his own vet clinic. She does a good job of making sure we get our full refund.

I have the first book of my SF Catalyst Chronicles as a permafree, but I haven't promoted it much lately. I don't get a lot of readers moving on to the next book (probably because of the time lapse and POV change), but it does help with audiobook sales. When I get another story out in that series, then I'll promote Lyon's Legacy again. In the meantime, I also have to set up a loss leader to entice people to read the Season Avatar series.

Maria Zannini said...

Stacy: It's always a stressful time, and I'm not sure why. I guess it's all the little details, deductions, income streams, etc.

I miss the old tax codes. It seemed back then we'd be done in an hour.

Maria Zannini said...

Susan: This is why I won't enter book giveaways any more. It might be months and even years before I read a book. And if it gets lost in the shuffle, I might not see it until I move again.

It's not fair to the author if I can't get to the book in a timely fashion.

Maria Zannini said...

Sandra: I didn't know Eugene was a vet. Cool!

Back when we raised the big birds, we had an accountant. She was fantastic. She showed us deductions we never considered before. Best money we ever spent.

Re: loss leaders
I think if the book is a good one, loss leaders help. I remember finding Elizabeth Vaughan's Warprize at a garage sale. I was hooked after that book and couldn't wait to buy the rest of her series.

Mike Keyton said...

You all make me feel very privileged having no tax returns to worry about, and I really sympathise with you ref the travails of the free lancer

Darke Conteur said...

WooHoo! Tax time! Crossing our fingers for a rebate!! We need to fix our jeep.

The first book of my series is free, and I know it carries over to my other books because a few people have stated in their review they plan on purchasing the rest of the books AND I didn't have any sales of my later books until the first one went free, BUT it's not a sure thing. Doesn't work with everyone. I'm not stupid, I know not everyone who downloads my freebie reads it. To think like that, you're deluding yourself.

Maria Zannini said...

Mike: That reminds me of my elderly neighbor. He got a nice letter from the US government asking him not to file any more tax returns. Apparently, it wasn't worth their trouble.

Maria Zannini said...

Darke: Every time we get a refund, I feel as if we earned it for the torture involved finding all those deductions.

Re: free book
It really isn't a one size fits all. I've known people give away scads of books and it never helped their bottom line.

A lot depends on the book and where it's being marketed.

It could be a great book, but if you're not targeting the right audience it might as well be invisible.

Jenny Schwartz said...

Taxes! *shrieks and runs away*

Now, free as a promo tool, is fascinating. And you are SO RIGHT on publishers hoarding the really good stats. Venturing into self-publishing was a revelation. I've picked up some readers by giving away free books. But what I find really interesting *everyone lean in while I whisper* is that a handful of free days on Amazon is a lottery. If during that time your book is picked up as an "also bought" with a very popular book, that can go on to help sales. Discoverability is a huge challenge. There are no guarantees, but free can help.

Maria Zannini said...

Jenny: I'll bet the logarithms Amazon uses to decide who gets on that list is a better guarded secret than most governments can muster.

re: stats
I don't blame the publishers--well, I do, but I understand where they're coming from. If the author knew specific details s/he might decide to go elsewhere, or :shudder: go indie.

Diane Carlisle said...

Groan is right! I'm groaning now, because I am NOT doing my taxes when I need to be! :(

I promise to do them this coming weekend. Dang, I'm cutting this close! lol

Thanks for this post, Maria!!!!

Oh, and here's to a healthy return. :)

Maria Zannini said...

Re: Dang, I'm cutting this close!

We did too.

I don't know why we waited so long. It's like hitting yourself with a hammer. It feels so good when it's over.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

This post reminded me of when my husband was in the mortgage business. He spent so much time "helping" people that if you figured out his hourly rate when a loan actually did close it was pretty pathetic. It's so important for freelancers and those in business for themselves to value their own time and work and price it accordingly. Because you are so right--everyone wants a deal and if they can get free advice from a freelancer they'll take it without a moment's hesitation.

Anna Soliveres said...

I have to hire someone to do my taxes - but it might be different if I didn't have much income coming in.

Freelance is definitely hard - time is indeed money. I'm really sorry to hear that those other clients didn't understand nor respect your time. :/ Tough lessons learned.

Barbara Ann Wright said...

I get so frustrated trying to track whether or not marketing does any good. Sales come in so slowly, it's just impossible to know.

And Amazon's author rankings appear to be wizardry.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Ugh, taxes. Mine were still simple enough to do myself again this year, but next year I'm hoping to have to hire someone. (Cuz, you know, that would mean I actually made money writing.)

People calling to pick your brain and then not using your service or paying you for your wisdom is just rude. I've never had that happen to me. Back when I did web design, I did have one guy with constant changes to what he wanted so that I ended up doing more work than he was worth.

Don't get me started on marketing. It's so hard to tell in advance what might produce sales that I'm stymied. I did a freebie for one day, gave away 350 books and didn't really see an uptick in sales afterwards. I did a little paid advertising with a site that I'd heard would earn me some sales, and crickets. :shrug: Oh well, the people who've reviewed it say they like it and it's finally out there where people can read it. I can live with that.

Maria Zannini said...

Karen: I've asked for advice many times from professionals, but my tradeoff was that if I couldn't use them myself, I highly recommend them to others.

People trust me so when I recommend something, my friends almost always follow up.

Maria Zannini said...

Anna: Our taxes aren't that complicated most years. When we had the big bird business we needed an accountant. She was a great investment.

Maria Zannini said...

Barbara: That's why I stopped following the Amazon rankings. I don't care. There's nothing I can do about it anyway.

Marketing is within my control though so that's where I like to focus my energy.

Maria Zannini said...

BE: What I do requires a lot of give and take, especially in the beginning to make sure we have the same vision. The trick is not to let them fixate on details that aren't important.

There's a difference with finding a model with the right build, and one who has a dimple on his left cheek.

LD Masterson said...

For a few years, a decade or so ago, I moonlighted as a computer guru. I wrote programs, installed networks, even repaired hardware. And I regularly ran into people who expected me to do it for free. "Just take a quick look." "I've got it almost done/fixed; I just need a bit of help." It got so the hassle wasn't worth it and I quit.

Maria Zannini said...

Linda: Computer geeks are worth their weight in gold. I know enough just to get into trouble which is why I need them. :)

Sorry so many people had been jerks.