1979: The Writer’s Life

by wjw on July 22, 2010

We’ve been reorganizing the garage, and I’ve been going through a lot of old paperwork to see what can be tossed away. Among other things, I found boxes upon boxes of old tax forms and documentation stretching back to 1979, my first year as a full-time professional writer.

I’ve tossed away pounds and pounds of old bills and canceled checks, but I’ve hung onto the actual tax forms and my expense sheets, which provide a picture of how I survived in those days.

On New Year’s Day, 1979, I found out that I’d sold three historical novels to Dell, my first sale after some years of struggle in the business of selling fiction. I was 25 years old.

(The sale had actually been on December 31, but various New Year celebrations both in New York and New Mexico distracted everyone concerned and kept me from being informed until the New Year.) What this means is that I was a full-time writer for the whole year, and the figures I’ve dug up should apply for the whole period.

I sold the novels for $10,000 apiece. I got half on signing, and another five grand on completion of the first book— and apparently I earned nothing else, since my total income for the year seems to have been $20,000, plus $180 in interest. This is odd, because I seem to remember that I was clerking in a game store when I made my first sale, another in series of part-time jobs that I’d been scuffling through since being kicked out of grad school. Possibly I was being paid under the table, and the income never got reported. Or maybe my memory is faulty.

I spent $170 each month on rent for my 900-square-foot two-bedroom apartment, locatedly in a downwardly-mobile working-class neighborhood. (It’s nearly gentrified now.) I spent $155.26 on office supplies, mainly paper and typewriter ribbon. The utilities that weren’t part of my rent came to $168.02. Postage was $28.20. The agent took a commission of $2000. (Ah, the days when they only took ten percent!) Auto expenses came to $1250. “Printing” was $325— could that have been Xeroxing? “Telephone and telegraph” came to $129.07. Medical expenses came to $84.60, which is an indication of how well I was taking care of myself— which is to say, not at all.

My biggest, grandest expense was $514.80 for a reconditioned IBM Model D office typewriter.

As far as the actual tax forms go, Schedule G was used for income averaging, a wise move since my previous two years’ income had been crap. (The IRS has since closed this loophole for the self-employed.)

I took $350 depreciation on my 1972 Chevy Van 10, a wretched, rusty piece of Detroit ghastliness that I had bought thirdhand for $2000 some years earlier. It continually threatened to shake itself to pieces, the tires kept deflating for no understandable reason, and the person who sold it to me was later busted for running a chop shop. (I kinda wondered why the serial numbers on the car and engine didn’t match.)

With all the deductions and income averaging and such, my adjusted gross income was $11,150.06.

My Social Security self-employment tax came to $950.87. As I seem to have paid $2138 in estimated taxes— I suspect this figure is actually derived from the income-averaging on Schedule G, but I can’t figure out how— I ended the year with a refund of $1187.12, which must have come as a welcome surprise.

But wait! I have here a letter from the IRS, which states that I miscalculated Schedule G, and that I am due a further refund of $636.95. The IRS is honest, God bless ’em!

What’s remarkable are the deductions that I didn’t take. No business travel, no business meals. Apparently I just stayed home for the whole year and worked. I never actually met my first editor, one Andrea Cirillo, who some time in 1979 left Dell to edit a line of romances, and who was eventually replaced by someone else who I never met, either. (Those first three books had five editors in total, which should give you a clue about why they failed in the marketplace.)

With my income of $20,000 I wasn’t living like a prince, but I was living considerably better than I’d lived before. Up till 1979 I was a wretched failure at everything I’d attempted, engaged in a futile tilt at the windmills of publishing: afterwards, I was an author. Not always a successful author, but one with a track record of accomplishment. Even the IRS sent me money!

The line between failure and success isn’t narrow, but very wide. 1979 was the year I crossed from one to the other.

James Davis Nicoll July 24, 2010 at 4:28 pm

To get an idea of what those figures are in modern US dollars, multiply by about 3.

S.M. Stirling July 24, 2010 at 6:08 pm

You went pro in 1979! Jeeze, you beat me by a full 9 years!

Ralf the Dog July 26, 2010 at 4:11 am

Tax fraud, receving stolen property, how many crimes can you confess to in one post?

dubjay July 26, 2010 at 7:23 am

All I confessed to was buying as van and having a bad memory.

This "one of 1979's dollars equals three of ours" business should be taken with a grain of salt. I lived all right on that money, but not as well as I could live on $60k now.

Plus, I couldn't spend all of it, because I needed to save much of that money to live on in 1980, when the money I had coming in under contract would be much less.

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