Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Preserving Your Literary Legacy

We hardly had but a minute to absorb the earth-shattering publishing news that Harper Lee's second novel will be published this summer, before social media was buzzing with questions : How could the manuscript go missing for 50 years? Who discovered it? Why now? And more importantly: Did the 88-year-old Ms. Lee, who is reportedly deaf and nearly blind provide adequate consent to having her work published?

Many of these questions have come from Ms. Lee's fans, whose interest in preserving her legacy has trumped their curiosity about reading this long-lost manuscript. I suspect Ms. Lee's representatives will have a lot of questions to answer before the public is satisfied that the beloved writer is not being fleeced. We should all be so lucky to have such loyal fans.

Whether or not Ms. Lee's manuscript is being handled properly, this situation should sound a warning bell to all of us who write. We need to think about the work we've produced--both published and unpublished--and how we want it handled when we are no longer around or unable to make decisions on our own.

Protecting Your Legacy

As we age, acquire property, and start a family, we are often encouraged to create a will and sign advanced care directives. The reason behind estate planning is to protect your assets for your heirs, but even more importantly, to assist your heirs in decision making. You may not realize it, but your creative works--even unfinished ones--are potential assets. Therefore, it's important to include them in your estate planning. Often, our literary heirs are people who don't know the first thing about the publishing business. It only makes sense to put a plan in place that helps them in the decision-making process. Literary estate planning is about more than just posthumous sales, it's about protecting your reputation.

Think about the unpublished works kicking around in your drawer right now. Do you have the first draft of a short story? Maybe it looks complete to the casual observer, but it's not up to your standards of quality and you plan on revising it. Would you want your heirs to publish it?  Maybe you have an editor you trust, who knows your style and vision. Would you trust them enough to revise it for publication? Or maybe the thought of anyone reading your unfinished story is horrifying and you'd rather have all copies of it destroyed.

What about a half-written novel? Would you be comfortable with having it published as-is, or would you want someone to finish it for you? Maybe you wouldn't want it published as a novel, but wouldn't mind if finished chapters were published as short stories.

What about published works? Would you want your work turned into a movie or a TV series? A stage production? A video game? What about merchandizing? Would you authorize someone to write a sequel on your behalf?

Would you want your characters made into action figures?

Right now, while you're of sound mind and body, think of your most trusted advisors. Who cares more about the quality of your work than the money it produces? At least one of these advisors should be named among those who will have decision-making power over your estate, preferably as your literary executor.

Put It In Writing

Once you have given a little thought to your literary legacy, you need to find good counsel. If you have many manuscripts and books, it might make sense to hire an attorney that is familiar with publishing law. If you're like me and your oeuvre is less extensive, you can simply add a rider to your will detailing how you would like your works handled.

Discuss Your Intentions

Like any good estate plan, it's better to discuss your intentions openly with your spouse, dependents, executor, agent, etc. than to rely just on the will. Be honest and clear about how you want your works handled and what kinds of decisions would align with your values.

Organize Your Papers

Did you know that your rough drafts, notes, and correspondence might be valuable some day? Special collections and universities often purchase and archive these papers for research purposes. Or maybe you'll have plans to donate your papers to a particular organization. Gather all your materials relating to a particular project and store each project's papers in a well-labeled sturdy banker's box in a cool, dry, secure place. Be sure to let your loved ones know where they can find it.

Have you thought about your literary legacy? What steps have you taken to protect it?