Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. I’ve just read one of the scariest books I’ve come across in a long time. The title is The Author Estate Handbook by M. L. Ronn and it lays out all the ways a professional novelist can screw up when it comes to the copyrights and other literary assets he or she leaves behind.
I thought I had this whole legacy thing pretty well in hand. I keep good records. During Covid, I organized even more and self-published all the unsold manuscripts traditional publishers didn’t want to buy. My will, although it was written quite a few years ago, specifies who gets what and deals with the issue of a literary executor.
It turns out that I haven’t even scratched the surface of what needs to be done before I croak.
For one thing I need to find an attorney who not only specializes in estate planning but also in intellectual property and copyright law. First, though, I appear to have a lot more organizing to do.
I already have electronic files (and printouts) of what I call manuscript histories, and I have lists of my publications with descriptions of the plots. Those files include a lot of information, but apparently not enough. Without me to translate and tell my future literary executor where to look for more details, there could be problems. So, I need to sit down and add, at least for the books I’ve self published or reissued, things like ISBN numbers, production information—cover designer, editor, and the like—and format-specific metadata like paperback trim sizes. I also need to include links to each book at all retailers (or in my case, to the two companies I use, Belgrave House and Draft2Digital, to handle distribution to retailers).
My book manuscript files need to be better organized so that it is easy to find the version of each book that is actually current, especially since it may not be the one that originally appeared in print. I can’t forget short stories and other writing, either. I think I’m glad I never made any videos to post on the Internet. They would apparently be part of my estate, too, and would be likely to disappear after my death, as the wonderful “Signing in the Waldenbooks” with the late Parnell Hall already has.
I have a ton of reversion letters as well as current contracts. I need to make sure my literary executor knows where to find them and what to do with them in the future. More important still, I need to find out what each and every entity I receive income from (agent, publisher, conduit to retailers, etc.) has in place as a policy when the recipient kicks the bucket. Assuring that income goes where I want it to after I’m gone isn’t just a matter of making a will and it would be even more complicated if I dealt directly with a retailer like, say, Amazon. If you do, beware!
I’ve been consolidating my domains into just one, which still makes sense to me, but I need to be darn sure my literary executor knows to keep renewing that domain name and paying for hosting. If future readers can’t find me, there goes my legacy. Same goes for any social media. I don’t do much, but keeping my presence on Facebook, or creating a new one after I’m gone, couldn’t hurt.
Don’t even get me started on the importance of recording passwords so there will be access to what I leave behind. According to The Author Estate Handbook, it is possible that if there is no way to get at an account, money can keep going in and never come out. If your heirs can’t access it, they lose it. Ouch! The author singles out several other “silver bullets of doom” that can really screw up an inheritance. Fortunately, he also suggests the best ways to avoid them.
There are many helpful tips in this 210 page book. I fully intend to follow all those that apply to me, although I have to admit that knowing how much work that will involve has given me a bad case of procrastination. Nevertheless, I strongly advise every published writer to buy a copy of The Author Estate Handbook for themselves. If our literary legacies aren’t preserved after we die, what was the point of writing all those books in the first place?
P.S. As backup, you might also want to buy M. L. Ronn’s The Author Heir Handbook.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others, including several children’s books. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her most recent publications are The Valentine Veilleux Mysteries (a collection of three short stories and a novella, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries (written as Kathy). She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com.
I took a workshop on this. Did I do any of it? No, I did not. Your post is just the nudge I need. Thank you!
Thanks for this, Kathy. I spent 21 years as a probate/estates/trusts paralegal and thought I had a good handle on it all. Much of this is new information to me! Not sure my records are that good.