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Who Will Manage Your Literary Estate?

Not to go all spooky town on you, but I have a feeling that both Robert Burns and Robert Donald Thornton want me to ask: who will handle your literary estate?

​It's a gorgeous day to read The New York Times in Central Park. And today at lunch, I thought I would meander around in the West 60s. This is not far from where the police, within the last several days, pulled a second body from a pond. And okay, if I am really honest with you, yes, I'm writing a murder mystery; so, I thought maybe I'd pick-up a few investigation tips at the crime scene.  

There. You know the truth. 

​Now, I'm not suggesting you'll meet an untimely demise. Rather, somewhere between surveying the crime scene, interrupting my walk to correct a park tour guide that Sir Walter Scott is not known as Walt Whitman in America, and locating a suitable park bench to read the newspaper, I consider how short our time is in this world.

In this blog post, I am suggesting that you consider how to protect and preserve your scholarship, which is the foundation of your literary estate, especially in this digital age.

Here's why.

NYPD tape

Within the last several days, the NYPD pulled two bodies from this pond in Central Park.

Robert Burns and Robert Donald Thornton

After defending Sir Walter Scott's honor (and Whitman's, for that matter), I turn around and notice the statue of Robert Burns. The park bench I choose has a plaque dedicated to Robert Donald Thornton, an author and scholar on the works of Robert Burns (blog header image).  

In the spirit of the moment, I query Thornton using the Amazon application on my iPhone. Thornton's book, William Maxwell to Robert Burns, is represented by a dead entry. ​With a deep breath, I query Google. As part of the University of Michigan's library, the book was digitized by Google in 2006. There is no context about Thornton as the author. Further, there is no metadata  beyond publication date (1979) and page length (263). As a publishing professional, this is heartbreaking to me because this waste of scholarship is so unnecessary. 

Managing Copyright is Beyond Most Executors

​On Thornton's plaque, I ask that you note the seven names of children, grandchildren, or a mix of family and friends. While they cared enough about Professor Thornton to dedicated a park bench in his memory near his beloved Robert Burns, this loving gesture does not mean any of them are qualified to manage his papers, letters, unpublished and published works.

Managing copyright, including the subrights contained within it, requires specialized skills. At the time of your death, the task of sorting out your contracts, copyrights, and royalty disbursements will fall to your estate executor. This person is not likely to know the first thing about how to navigate the publishing world in service of what you wanted or your best interests. It is also unlikely this person will know how to maintain and to maximize the discoverability and visibility of your work on Amazon and Google. Or, any library databases for that matter. 

Robert Burns

The statue of Robert Burns is inside Central Park.

The Role of the Literary Executor

In their excellent article, Final Drafts: Selecting a Literary Executor, ​Lloyd Jassin, a publishing attorney in New York, and Ronald Finkelstein, a tax attorney, quote one court's description of the literary executor's role as "requir[ing] a delicate balance between economic enhancement and cultural nurture."  The ideal literary executor is someone knowledgable about copyright, royalty statements and disbursements, contract negotiations, and your specific intentions for how your work can be used and in what contexts and formats. 

Don't Be John M. Ford​

It's human nature to avoid thinking about death. For some writers, there is the faint whisper of "no will be interested in my books and papers, so why bother?" Or, "I'll think about it tomorrow." ​

Writing on his journal blog hosted by HarperCollins, Neil Gaiman mentions that science fiction writer John M. Ford knew he was ill and did nothing to plan for his literary estate. It's an unfortunate situation, but also a common one. Gaiman provides a simple will document that he suggests all creators can use. This is a helpful starting point. However, I think it is always best to have a conversation about your situation with an appropriate legal adviser. ​

Follow the Example of Doris Lessing​

In regard to her literary estate, Doris Lessing is a marketing genius. She specified that her future biographer is the only one who can break the seal on never-seen diaries. Wow. As a publisher, I cannot imagine publishing a biography more exciting than this one. The speculation around never-seen diaries will create unprecedented word-of-mouth. Of course, a biography of this scope will take at least ten years. I'll wait. How about you? 

My point being that Lessing put a great deal of effort and time into appointing a literary executor and preparing specific instructions. To help you get started, consider the following questions.

  1. As things stand today, who will inherit your copyrights?
  2. If you have an agent, how will the agency handle your literary estate? Is this covered in your agency agreement?
  3. For any works you have in progress, who are the best candidates to finish them and to carry them forward to publication?
  4. How should your royalties be distributed and to whom? ​
  5. After your death, how do you envision your digital presence? Who will update your Amazon author page? Do you want your website maintained or removed? To make life easier for those responsible, how will they access the passwords to your accounts? 

What Would Professor Thornton Think about PoetryReincarnations? 

It seems right to end this blog post with a reading of A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns in honor of Professor Thornton. I chose this animation by Jim Clark, founder of PoetryReincarnations. While I am not smitten with it, I give Clark credit for experimenting with animating a wax figure while stylizing the video with early-film overlays. A very interesting approach to content that will endure "TIL 'A THE SEAS GANG DRY."  Take the necessary steps to say the same for yours.