Giving writers a break

ALL other things being equal, we would like to be on the side of books and writers. The electronic media have their place; so do newspapers and magazines. But nothing takes the place of sitting down and reading through - sometimes wrestling one's way through - a book.

The United States is, however, not a very bookish country. In a typical American chain bookstore, ``literature'' is a specialized section in a shop otherwise given over to self-help and how-to manuals, plus a sprinkling of ``Truly Tasteless Jokes'' and the like. American best-seller lists include tomes of the type that - whatever their merits - would not even be recognized as books in some countries.

The cause of real books needs all the help it can get.

Now it turns out that a provision in the new tax code is likely to put a real crimp on writers' ability to get new projects under way. No longer are writers to be allowed to deduct expenses associated in producing a book - everything from photocopying to research travel - in the the year they are incurred.

Rather, the write-offs can be taken only as income for the project in question begins to roll in - assuming, of course, that it rolls in at all, which is a big assumption. Moreover, the deductions cannot be taken all at once but must be spread over the income-producing life of the project.

Some of the loopholes closed by last year's tax reform bill are just as well closed off. But allowing writers to deduct expenses in the year incurred, as other professionals do, seems a reasonable provision. Anyone trying to write a book has such an uphill road to travel that further disincentives from the tax code seem uncalled for.

Some authors earn so little from their writing that they have other jobs, as we know. Letting them take book-related deductions in the year incurred sometimes may mean they pay less tax on income from their ``regular'' jobs, but so what?

The prospect of a struggling author forced to calculate an ``income-producing life'' expectancy for a project still far from publication is likewise unattractive. The rules will tend to tempt writers to make low estimates of anticipated income in order to write off expenses earlier, and that will only lead to more disputes with the IRS. It's bad enough for tax law to be so complicated that people need an accountant's help with the 1040 form. Now the expectation seems to be that writers will be using crystal balls as well.

If writers tended to the sort of incomes one associates with rock stars, or even local TV news anchors, restoring their deductions might be the kind of ``tax expenditure'' Congress might want to think twice about.

But given that the median author's income is a mere $7,900, with only 4 percent of all authors in the six-figure range, as one survey has it, let's hope the authors' plea is considered kindly when a package of ``technical corrections'' to the new tax code is passed, as expected, by Congress this fall.

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