When Authors Die…What Happens To Their Books? By Angela Hoy

Unfortunately, when you own a company that has more than 800 clients (authors), you’re forced to deal with the sad loss of a few of those clients each year. While it is sad to lose someone I’ve exchanged dozens of professional and often personal emails with over the months or years, the aftermath can get pretty ugly. You see, authors of published books leave behind a legacy. And, that legacy is an asset that is often bringing in some money. What’s more, most people tend to think all authors are rich (ha ha). And, any asset that is bringing cash in each month will likely send the survivors in that family into a frenzy.

When our first author died, we learned that the royalty checks were being paid into his estate which wouldn’t be settled for months, or years. The author’s widow desperately needed the money, but because of the way her husband’s affairs had been set up, she couldn’t access money that was made payable directly to him. We, of course, had to keep making the checks payable to him.

After that mess, we changed our contract, adding a clause that states, “If I die while this contract is still in effect, please assign editorial and contractual control and future royalty checks for this book to:…”

And boy oh boy, were we glad we did that! Over the years we’ve had siblings of deceased authors try to convince us to send the royalties to them (instead of the person listed on the author’s contract). We even had the brother of one author tell us his brother was dead and that he was supposed to get the money now…but the brother’s name wasn’t on the author’s contract. I mailed a letter to the author’s last known address, letting the family know we can’t change the royalty recipient on a contract just because someone sends us a letter telling us to do so. I was pretty shocked when the author himself wrote me back telling me his brother was a troublemaker and had just tried to pull a fast one.

Last week, I exchanged emails with the executor of one of our deceased author’s estates. She wanted to let the book contract be terminated and allow the book to go out of print. I asked her about the author’s family’s wishes. You see, an author often considers their book their legacy (you know the old saying: plant a tree, have a child, write a book…). I know if I died, I wouldn’t want my books taken off the market just because my “executor” thought they’re too much trouble to keep track of.

Well, I was shocked when the executor told me there was no family…but then admitted the author had left behind a literary executor. Say what?! Then why in the world was this person trying to handle the author’s literary affairs and why was that person also talking about the author’s royalties? If I hadn’t become suspicious, persisted and asked more questions, that author’s book would be out of print today and the literary executor wouldn’t have known anything about it. I wrote back, directing the executor to immediately put me in touch with the correct executor. She apologized and complied.

So, fellow authors, these are all things you need to consider doing when publishing your book(s):

1. Provide your publisher with a legal document specifying who will have control of your book, literary contracts, and royalties should you die.

2. Let your family know your wishes. Don’t worry about looking vain. If you want your book to stay in print, tell your family that’s what you want. And don’t think your family won’t fight over your assets when you’re gone. Money does terrible things to people. I’ve seen it happen over and over again (and not just with authors’ books, but in my own extended family as well). If you do have any family members that you suspect may try to take advantage of your beneficiary, tell them if they try anything funny, you’ll haunt them by reading passages from your books into their ear each night at bedtime. Heh…

3. If you have a troublemaker in your family, you might want to mention this to your publisher so they can be wary of any possible communication from that person.

Let’s face it. We’re all going to fly away someday. Protect your interests, and your baby (your book), and most importantly your heirs, before you take off.