Every time I’ve given a talk on the topic of estate planning, I see fear and panic abound. Even mentioning it gives authors hives. Here is a low-stress strategy.
The legal stuff
Yes, you need a will (or your estate can disappear into contention for years). You probably need a living trust to move all of that IP neatly forward to your heir(s). But those are both matters for a lawyer. Find a lawyer and do it. Do it now! But this article isn’t about that. It’s about the other “stuff” that is completely in your control.
- If you make it hard on your heir(s), your IP will probably be left to dwindle into oblivion. Just a quick reminder, copyright (with few exceptions these days) can keep earning for 70 years after the time of your death. That’s your great-grandkids at least (or your favorite charity or whoever). You don’t want it to go to waste.
- This isn’t about your legacy because, to be blunt about it, you’re dead. This is about the earnings that your IP can continue to produce for others.
- Do not assume that your heir(s) speaks “publishing.” All communications need to be in everyday English.
Step 1: Basic heir education (the tour)
This is literally what it sounds like. The next time your heir is visiting, take 10 minutes and walk them through your office. Here are a few points to cover:
- My will is here. Here’s the lawyer’s contact information.
- All of my accounting is in this drawer. Here’s the accountant’s contact information (or just knowing you don’t use one and your prior tax filings are in that cabinet).
- All of my IP is stored on this computer (we’ll get to that in a moment).
- My backups are stored here and here. (You do have a daily onsite and a weekly offsite backup, don’t you?)
Step 2: More heir education (key contacts)
Are these on your phone, in your address book, in your e-mail addresses, with your friend…? If you’re like me, it was yes to all of the above, often without overlap. Pull all of this information into one place; it will be a list you send to your heir. Include:
- Publisher, agent, and/or virtual assistant
- Publicity firm
- Accounts at bank(s)
- And, I think this may be the most important: three close publishing friends willing to give your heir advice
- As a bonus: retirement accounts
- As a second bonus: write out a short list of where everything physically is in your office (see No. 1 (the tour), above).
Step 3: Organize – Level one (in the physical world)
Think about the tour. How messy was it? Are all your past taxes on the same shelf?
Some of us have old IP that only exists in paper form. Fine! Put it all on a shelf marked “no electronic copy” so that it is findable. Better yet, get it scanned.
Fixing most of this is actually a very short project. It would probably take you longer to clean the house. Take an hour to gather, organize, and label. The real surprise will be how much time it saves you as well when you can go to one place and know that all of your physical IP is on that shelf there.
Step 4: Organize – Level two (on the computer)
But most of your IP in this day and age is electronic: the final Word document you sent to your publisher, your Scrivener or Vellum file, your cover designer’s work, your blurbs, your reviews… You get the idea. How well organized is it? How well labeled is it?
Is it even all on one “master” machine or are your files spread around on the desktop, the laptop, but the Vellum files are on the Mac, and…? My wife’s computer has all of the money (Quicken and QuickBooks), mine has all the IP, so we have two main machines. But I dutifully copy every Vellum file I create on my Mac (third machine) to my PC so that all of the IP masters are always in one place.
On my computer, I then created a few master folders and spent a few hours just dragging files into the proper places.
- Master folders: Books, Audio, Business, Marketing, Other Writing (like this article, my PowerPoint talks, and notes from conferences), Personal
- And within the Books folder? I have: Series Name, Book Title inside that, and maybe a further subfolder for covers and translations.
This project won’t take much longer than Step 1 above. Magic, now you can find everything quickly! (Totally worth it!)
Step 5: Organize – Level three (the tracker)
If you want your heir to have any real chance of managing all that you’ve created, they need two pieces of information about every book or story you’ve ever written:
- A list of titles and where they are
- The detailed metadata of those titles
This may sound easy, but these two steps are far and away the most laborious task: simple, not stressful, but not fast.
I do this in two parts: a spreadsheet for the first and a series of Word documents for the second. However, you can do this in any form that works for you; pages in a notebook is another common method. First in importance:
List of titles (if you want a spreadsheet, download a free Excel template from my site at https://mlbuchman.com/mybooks)
- Publication date
- Number of pages if in print
- Date of rights reversion, including 35-year reversion date if traditionally published. Here’s an excellent post on that: Reclaiming Your Copyright After Thirty-Five Years (dearauthor.com).
- Markets/distributors published into. For an indie published wide, this might be: Amazon, Apple, B&N, D2D, Google Play, IngramSpark (print), Kobo, PublishDrive… I have a column for each one.
- Also I list if I’ve done the audio or translations, just for easy reference.
Step 6: Organize – Level four (the metadata)
I recommend a single document (Word or on paper) for every single title. I prominently place META in the file title along with the IP’s title (My Cool Title–META.docx). This content may be simpler for a traditionally published title, but you’ll still want most of it.
- Title and subtitle
- Series name and number
- Elevator pitch (the one-line hook)
- Blurb (now being called Description by most retailers)
- Categories (The choices are different for different distributors, e.g. Amazon vs. Kobo.)
- Keywords (I have three versions: B&N [100 characters maximum], IngramSpark [delineated with semi-colons], everyone else.)
- Important reviews (both full and pull quotes)
As I said, these last two tasks look daunting. However, it lets the heir or the heir’s designate (like a VA or an estate manager), understand what you have created. It can also save you time by having it organized. I keep my master spreadsheet in the Books folder on my computer, and the META file in each IP title’s individual folder.
Step 7: The letter
I would argue that this step is of equal importance to any of the work above. But I think it is best composed after you’ve done the organization. This is a letter, in your words, to your heir(s). Again, this must not be instructions, but rather guidance.
Think of my third premise above: “Do not assume that your heir speaks publishing.” How many would even know what phrases like IP and D2D above refer to?
Write your letter in conversational English. You’ll never guess what it had for sections:
- Who do I contact?
- Where can I find the key stuff: will, trust, bank books, passwords?
- Vocabulary and basic publishing education
- Where is the money?
- Where can I find all the publishing crap?
- Master file explanations
Then sit down with your heir(s), and read through the letter together. Their questions create new paragraphs.
Step 8: The last step (keep it updated)
Now when I write a new title, it is logged in my master spreadsheet and I create the META file in the title’s folder. My cover goes in the same folder (Books > Series > Title).
When I moved states recently, I had to change my lawyer and CPA. I updated the contact list and sent a copy to my heir(s).
I’ve also included an IP management path. “Here’s the VA to send everything to.” Or, “Here’s the charity that is willing to manage it and give you a percentage as a completely hands-off income.”
I’ve worked with several people who are trying to create IP estate management firms, but this is still an unformed industry. I have heard too many horror stories of share-based operations where the agent or firm gets a percentage for life no matter whether or not they pay attention to the estate. My suggestion is that there are two ways to pay for these types of services: fee-based (pay by the task they do) or commission-based (they get a share of profits if they grow the estate).
Do these simple steps and your IP could well live on to benefit several generations to come. If you have questions, contact me through my website.
More detail on all of these topics and a sample letter are included in Estate Planning for Authors by M. L. Buchman.