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What happens to your books when you die?


by James Scott Bell
@James Scotbell

“Everybody has to die, but I always thought that in my case an exception would be made. What now?” – The last words of the American writer William Saroyan

And now what really! We all have to face it. While the Blue Oyster cult urges us not to fear the Reaper, we should at least respect his use of the scythe.

Which brings up the topic of estate planning for writers. This is a big topic that cannot be covered in detail in one post. I hope to provide you with a general outline that you can use for more focused attention. Although I am a lawyer, and even played on TV once, take this as standard advice to consult with your lawyer and CPA when making plans.

Don’t have a lawyer? You can get it, or you can use a resource like LegalZoom.com. For a modest fee, LegalZoom will help you prepare estate planning forms. For a little more, they offer you a phone consultation. They even have it a set of real estate plans starting at $249.

Now, before you get to the final edit, there’s an intermediate possibility that we don’t want to think about, but we have to – incapacity. You attend ITW in New York and a brick falls on your head, leaving you unable to handle your finances or drink a martini with Gilstrap. You should have a durable financial power of attorney that appoints your spouse or someone you trust as your agent to handle these matters. See this article is from Nolo. (I’m not going to Advance care directivesbut you must have it too.)

First of all

Keep a notebook for your heirs—a physical notebook—that will keep originals or copies of your important documents (such as wills, trusts, publishing contracts) along with a master document detailing things like bank accounts, internet passwords, social media sites and people you can turn to for help with various issues, such as your CPA, your lawyer, your agent, your website administrator, a friend who knows about online publishing. You don’t want your heirs to feel overwhelmed, and knowing who to turn to for help can be a huge relief.

Your books are intellectual property (IP) and as much a part of your property as your furniture, fine china and collection of Beanie Babies. For your notebook, create a list of all your literary works, where and by whom they were published, and include the ASIN and ISBN numbers.

Copyright remains in your name. Once you disconnect that deadly coil, the clock starts ticking. Your copyright (under current law) lasts another 70 years.

At the front of your notebook is a simple letter to your heirs detailing how you want your IP to be handled.

Update this notebook as needed and keep it in a safe place. Put a copy of your notebook on a flash drive and put it somewhere else, like a safe or fireproof case.

Yes, and tell your heirs where they can find these things when you die.

Will and/or Trust

You must have a will or a trust (or both). Deciding which to choose involves a number of factors that you will need to discuss with your tax preparer and estate planner. One of the advantages of trust is that it avoids testament. Another is that you can control how you want to deal with your IP instead of your heirs eventually doing whatever they want with it. Your IP is held in trust and governed by your specific instructions, not the whims of conflicting heirs. (You may not think this could happen in your family, but I vividly remember the first words of my Gifts, Wills, and Trusts instructor in law school: “This course is about greed and dead people!” As in (In the case of contracts—even (perhaps especially) among friends and family—the smartest course of action is to put everything in writing. This goes a long way toward avoiding nasty misunderstandings later.)

The Executor (Will) or Trustee (Trust) should be someone who can understand publishing to keep an eye on your IP and money. If you have an adult and reliable child, you can do business, this is one option. The second case is a friend or colleague who is familiar with the publishing business. It takes time and effort to provide this service, so you set a fee. How much is the current concept. This can be an hourly rate or a percentage of the writer’s net income (10% is a suggested base level). For more details see this article.

Then there’s the email to deal with—fan letters, interview requests, speaking engagements. An autoresponder can be set up to deal with most of these, but your executor/trustee should be prepared to respond to requests that could lead to book sales (eg permission to reproduce a blog post).

And then there’s the matter of social media. You want to keep your website up and running, but you have to figure out what to do with everything you engage with: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Pinterest, Goodreads, YouTube. If you have a lot of these boards going around and want to keep them running, you might want to consider appointing a dedicated social media artist. Anne R. Allen has a tremendous post on this topic.

My advice on social media is to pick one or two that you like and forget the rest. But this is a completely different topic. Sue has some good notes on social media here.

Where does the money go

The money you earn from writing goes into a bank account, hopefully yours. This can be a personal or corporate account. Even so, you will need to set things up so that the flow continues and the money can be distributed to your heirs. Consider having your executor/trustee sign on your bank account. In this way, they become the “surviving primary account owner” and can continue to use the account and the money in it without complications.

I know it takes a lot of thought. But the time to think about it is now. Do a little each week. Read useful articles online (three good here, hereand here).

Take steps. Because, contrary to what Woody Allen once said (“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be around when it happens”), we’ll all be there. Your heirs will be grateful that you prepared properly.

Comments welcome.

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