What Happens to Your Books When You Die?

by James Scott Bell

“Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” – Last words of American author William Saroyan

Now what indeed! We all have to face it. While Blue Oyster Cult tells us not to fear The Reaper, we at least have to respect his use of the scythe.

Which brings up the subject of estate planning for writers. It’s a big topic, all the details of which can’t be covered in a single post. I hope to give you a broad outline which you can use for more focused attention. While I am a lawyer, and even played one on TV once, take this as the standard admonition to consult with your own lawyer and CPA as you make plans.

Don’t have a lawyer? You can get one, or you can use a resource like LegalZoom.com. For a modest price LegalZoom will help you prepare estate planning forms. For a bit more, they offer you phone consultations. They even have an estate plan bundle that starts at $249.

Now, before you go to your Final Edit there is an in-between possibility we don’t like to think about but must—incapacitation. You attend ITW in New York and a brick falls on your head, rendering you unable to handle your finances or have a Martini with Gilstrap. You should have in place a Durable Financial Power of Attorney appointing your spouse, or someone you trust, as your agent to take care of these matters. See this article from Nolo. (I’m not going into Advance Care Directives, but you should have that, too.)

First Things First

Start a notebook for your heirs—a physical notebook—which will hold originals or copies of your important documents (e.g., will, trust, publishing contracts) along with a master document detailing things like bank accounts, internet passwords, social media sites, and people to contact for help in dealing with various matters, e.g., your CPA, your lawyer, your agent, your website admin, a friend who knows about online publishing. You want your heirs to not to feel overwhelmed, and knowing who to ask for help will be a tremendous relief.

Your books are Intellectual Property (IP) and as much a part of your estate as your furniture, fine china, and collection of Beanie Babies. Create a list for your notebook of all your literary properties, where and by whom they are published, and include both ASIN and ISBN numbers.

The copyrights stay in your name. After you shuffle off this mortal coil the clock starts ticking. Your copyrights (under current law) last another 70 years.

At the front of your notebook have a simple letter to your heirs, detailing how you’d like your IP to be handled.

Update this notebook as needed, and keep it in a secure location. Put a copy of your notebook on a thumb drive and put that somewhere else, like a safety deposit box or fireproof case.

Oh yes, and tell your heirs where they can find these items when you’re dead.

Will and/or Trust

You should have a will or a trust (or both). The decision on which to choose includes a number of factors you’ll need to discuss with your tax person and estate planner. One benefit of a trust is that it avoids probate. Another is that you can control how you want your IP handled, rather than have your heirs end up doing what they want with it. Your IP is placed in the trust and is governed by your specific instructions, not the whims of infighting heirs. (You may not think this could happen in your family, but I well remember the first words from my Gifts, Wills and Trusts professor in law school: “This course is about greed and dead people!” As with contracts—even (maybe especially) among friends and family—the wisest course of action is to get things down in writing. This goes a long way toward staving off ugly misunderstandings down the line.)

The executor (will) or the trustee (trust) should be someone who can understand the publishing business in order to keep watch on—and bucks flowing from—your IP. If you have a mature and trustworthy child you can train in the biz, that’s one option. A friend or colleague conversant with publishing is another. It takes time and effort to perform this service, so you’ll set up a fee. How much is a fluid concept. It can be an hourly rate, or a percentage of the net writing income (10% is a suggested baseline). For more details, see this article.

Then there is email to deal with—fan mail, requests for interviews, speaking requests. An auto responder can be set up to deal with most of these, but your executor/trustee should be prepared to respond to requests that can result in book sales (e.g., permission to reproduce a blog post).

And then there’s the matter of social media. You’ll want your website to stay live, but you have to figure out what to do with whatever else you’re involved with: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Pinterest, Goodreads, YouTube. If you have many of these plates spinning and you want to keep them going, you might consider appointing a distinct social media executor. Anne R. Allen has a tremendous post on that subject.

My social media advice is to pick one or two you enjoy and forget the rest. But that’s another subject altogether. Sue has some good notes on social media here.

Where The Money Goes

The money you make from writing goes into a bank account, hopefully yours. This can be a personal account or a corporate account. Regardless, you’ll need to set things up so the flow continues and the monies can be dispersed to your heirs. Consider making the executor/trustee a signer on your bank account. That way they become the “surviving primary account owner” and can continue using the account, and the money in it, without complications.

I know that’s a lot to think about. But the time to start thinking about it is now. Do a little bit each week. Read helpful articles online (three good ones are here, here, and here).

Take the steps. Because contra Woody Allen’s dictum (“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens”) we’re all going to be there. Your heirs will be thankful that you made the proper preparations.

Comments welcome.