Limited Company or Sole Trader?
One of the biggest decisions I had to make over the past few weeks was whether to continue working as I was, submitting an annual self employment tax return to HMRC or whether to take the plunge and to set up as a more official business. I didn't need to set up as a company, I'm not earning anywhere near enough, but I knew that psychologically it would be a mental shift and the timing felt right for me to step up my cozy mystery author career.
My initial thought was to be a sole trader (for more on the differences between sole trader and limited company click here). But with all the recent discussions over the trademarking of the word 'cocky' by a romance author, and my longer term goal of buying a forever home, it made more sense to become a limited company and to have my personal assets (including my future home) protected and separate from my business assets. This was spurred on by seeing Irish fashion designer Orla Kiely go into administration after years of success, and then seeing other authors lose money when Amazon suddenly had a glitch and books suddenly disappeared over the past few weeks. Publishing and writing as a business would be potentially volatile, much like any business this day in age. I'm not getting any younger and I did not want to invest everything in my books, only to end up losing my home if things ever went wrong. This might not be the right decision for every author or publisher, but for me it was the right decision.
I want to be a cozy mystery writer for the rest of my life, and I want to wind down my paid speaking events and my work on film and television productions (unless it involves screenwriting which is something I'd like to do in the future for my books). So my publishing business needs to be diverse, and not reliant on one stream of income. I'll have to be savvy to make this more robust, especially as my business and all of my works will ultimately be left in my will to fund my charity Oceans Project long after I'm gone. It was a no brainer, I wanted to be a Limited Company. The main downside would be filing a lot more accounts with HMRC and that would cost me more money probably, but it felt like it was worth it for the extra peace of mind (I still have to tackle insurance, but we'll come on to that in a bit).
As an aside, I'm starting at zero right now, so I have nothing to lose, and I'm working hard for everything I have, so there's no way I am going to put my future assets at risk. In this respect I'm very lucky as a new business owner because I'm not leaving a lucrative career, I don't have a family to support (just my pets), and I currently live in a guesthouse since my landlords decided to sell up the place I rented. It therefore made more sense for me to live in a guesthouse and to save up to buy a house for cash sometime in 2019. That way I don't have to pay utilities and council tax and can instead really focus on building my author and publishing business. I don't earn enough to get loans and credit cards (I don't think I'd use them anyway to be honest), so I have to do everything slowly and steadily, saving up a few pounds each day and doing thinking strategically. This in itself is a good thing in my view. I have had a Paypal business account for more than three months (it doesn't cost any more than a personal account) and in a few more months I should be close to having earnt enough (£9000 is the minimum) to be eligible for Paypal Working Capital. This looks like it would suit me as it would allow me to drawdown funds and these would be repaid from future Paypal income. Since I currently offer author services (Vellum formatting, beta reading, and marketing help) on Fiverr the payments for these go into my Paypal account so any money would soon be paid back from those earnings. If I can get this working capital, then I would plan to use it to buy 1000 ISBNS from Neilsen in bulk because that way the cost works out as £0.94 per ISBN instead of £89 per ISBN and since they don't go out of date, they'd likely last me a lifetime. I'd also look to pay for website hosting upfront rather than monthly, and reducing outgoings by paying for other things once a year instead of per month. I could of course stick to using the free ISBNs on Createspace/KDP but since I'm looking to run this as a long term business and without having all my eggs in one basket, I'd like to make my books available outside of Amazon, so having my own publishing house ISBNs would help me to achieve this.
Registering with Companies House
With the decision made to be a Limited company, and already knowing what I wanted to call my business - Isla Britannica Books Ltd. (which is named after my Italian Greyhound Isla, partly because she's 13 years old now and I know that one day she won't be around anymore, so this is my little tribute to her and all her hours sat by my side as I write) I scribbled down my logo and had a lady on Upwork create it as a digital version for a few bucks. I read through lots of websites for free about starting up a business and found out from the HMRC website what I would need to set up my business.
The process itself was straightforward enough. I filled in a form online, paid my £12 registration fee, waited a couple of days, then received notification that I was now registered. I also checked with my accountant about anything I was unclear about. She's an awesome accountant in case you are looking for a UK accountant for your own business or personal accounts.
Choosing an Address
When I first moved into the guesthouse back in June I was already in the process of buying a house and didn't expect to be here any longer than a few weeks, but I needed to have an address so that I could forward on any post from my previous address. I already had my accountant Helen and I knew that they offered a service whereby I could pay them a set fee each year and have my mail sent to their address so that they could then forward it on to me (and could use it as my business address - lots of accountants offer this to their clients but it was news to me). This was a lot less than me paying to have a P.O.Box because you had to pay for the year upfront with the post office, so when it came to setting up a registered address for my publishing business I decided to use the accountants address as my registered business address and added the guesthouse address for personal mail. So this isn't costing me any more than what I was already paying, and it means that I can use the address on my newsletter and on any publicly available documents. To be honest, even if I was in my own home now, I would still use a different address as I wouldn't want people just turning up at my home. That way, if I ever move house again, it will save a lot of paperwork because everything will still go to the accountant.
That way I wouldn't lose my branding even after my death (see the example of Enid Blyton as a case of interest). It's worth thinking about what will happen to your books after your death, even if you just want the royalties to continue providing for your family, so I don't think it is ever too soon to think about these things, and will be one less thing for others to worry about later.
Joanna Penn and M.L.Buchman did a great podcast episode on this topic, not just for writers, but for all creatives, and there is a book and audiobook to refer to as well. Definitely worth checking those out, even if you haven't published any books yet.
Website Building and Email Addresses
Next on my to do list was to build a website and to set up a professional email address. Not my favourite thing to do, but it was relatively painless and now it is done, it should serve me for a long time to come. I've had websites with Wix, Wordpress, BlueHost, and others before, but the one I prefer for its ease of use is Weebly. It allows you to simply drag and drop and can be set up for free initially. You only start to pay if you want your own branded domain name and any extra features, but it can be paid for monthly, though you will save a little bit if you pay for a year or more at once.
I built this website on Weebly too. I bought the domain name sarahweldon.co.uk from Go Daddy first before I even started building the site. (I also bought islabritannicabooks.com). I would have preferred the .com for my author website but it had already gone. If I had kids right now or nieces and nephews and wanted a christening gift for them, to be honest I think I would buy them their own domain name so that it then belonged to them in the future. And I would buy it for them in .co.uk and all the other versions too!! Nothing worse than ending up with a more complex domain name because your name has already gone.
I then built the website over a few hours, and then upgraded so I could add my own domain name. I built all three websites as my charity's site was ready for a fresh look and I wanted to move it back from Wix. At the moment I'm paying between $8-$18 dollars a month per website for the hosting and domain names, but as and when funds allow, I plan to pay for these in one go because it will reduce the costs, and once my business bank account is set up I want to get all of my outgoings to leave my account on the 1st of the month, rather than random dates. This will help me to keep my accounting as simple as possible.
I then needed to set up my email so it looked professional. I had looked at buying the email address from Go Daddy at the same time I bought the domain name, but since I use Gmail for my emails I found it really complicated and frustrating to set up the email address redirection. In the end I signed up for a free trial of Google Suite, and will then be paying £6.99 a month (I think it was?). This gave me the email address I wanted firstname.lastname@example.org and was set up in seconds. I would have been paying for the email address on a monthly basis from GoDaddy anyway, and though it might work out slightly more expensive each month, I didn't mind because it was the simplest way to set things up. Plus everything else was waiting on me setting up the email address before I could move on.
Opening a Business Bank Account
I tried to open a business bank account online twice before, but nothing ever came of it. I then had an appointment to see the bank to set up the account, but then discovered that I could only set up the Sole Trader bank account in branch, but not the limited company one. So they gave me a phone number to call.
I then called and spent a long time on hold, eventually getting to just before 5pm when they shut down for the day. On my second attempt, I got through but discovered that I had to wait three days after registering as a company before I could set up the account. Finally, I called and went through the whole application over the telephone. It took about thirty minutes and because I was already a customer with Lloyds bank, I didn't need to take any extra documents to the local branch. I now have to wait to see if the application is approved which could take about 10 days before I hear back. This is probably the most frustrating part of setting up as a business for now. Everything else has to wait until this stage is gone through.
The next part of the process is probably going to be the hardest part of the transition for me. Right now I get paid on a daily basis for my author services and I live hand to mouth from one day to the next. This transition will be made a lot easier if I can get an overdraft facility on the account because it would mean that I could set up all of my outgoings to go out from that business account on the 1st of the month and that all money coming in would also go to that account instead of my personal account. The tricky part is that I've never really had a salary, but will now have to set up payroll so that I get paid a set amount every month regardless of how much or little goes into the account. This is the scary part. I need to cover the guesthouse rent and I need to change the timings of everything. But nothing can happen until the account is set up, I may or may not get a debit card, the charges will be huge if I go overdrawn, and I don't know if I'll be able to get an overdraft to help me as a buffer whilst I transfer everything to that account.
Other Business Expenses
There are other costs to take into consideration as well. The bank account will be free to use for the first 18 months but then there will be a charge of about £6 a month. I also need to set up payroll, and will need to invest in some accounting software. Thankfully my accountant provides access to such software (Quickbooks is one) for about £6 a month, and they will also be able to submit the second tax form as I wasn't able to do this online myself so far. These are all little amounts that will soon add up that I wouldn't have if I ran things as a Sole Trader, but if I expect that my income will increase in time, the books I publish, then setting things up from the get go will make my life easier in the future.
I still have a lot to learn, but it's a really exciting journey so far!!!