Thursday, December 3, 2020

What happens to the books after an author dies?

Leather notebook

A few years ago, a favorite author of mine and Steve's passed away. He was young and it was tragic. A battle against cancer he lost. With his death, he left behind a barely started manuscript of his latest book. Now, this author is a bestselling author, and he's rather famous in the thriller genre. They were even in the process of making a movie from one of his books. I was thinking about his passing and what happened to his books because the story didn't end there.

With this particular famous trad pub author, the rights to all his books went to his estate, which was managed by his wife, who I assumed was named a beneficiary in his will. The publisher continued to publish his books, and the movie was made, and more books were planned. They contacted another particularly successful author and asked if he would take on the mantle of his unfinished book and continue the story. This has led to the completion of the one unfinished manuscript being published and five more new books over the years. But this is with a traditionally published author with a powerful publishing house behind the author and the books, and more importantly, the brand. What about when this happens with an indie author? I know this is not a particularly cheerful topic, but it bears thinking about because we never know what could happen in life.

Estate with grass

Now, I do not pretend to know the law regarding deceased estates and wills, and how these differ from country to country, and within a country, from state to state. I am not an expert. From my perspective, I'm raising points that an author might want to consider when thinking about his or her legacy and what that means for their family and estate.

In traditional publishing, I know of books of deceased authors who have continued to be published after many years of the authors' passing. I expect that publishers have a process in place to deal with such situations and may even have clauses built into contracts. That and the combination of what the authors have prepared in terms of their will would help with handling the rights of the books, the continued publication of the books, treatment of royalties, and taxes.

I'm going to break this down into several parts so that it's more easily digestible. To begin with, there's no publisher, so the rights of the books belong to the author. I expect copyright laws differ around the world, and while the author is alive, the rights would belong to the publisher and the author, and if the author passes on then, the rights might revert to the author's family or beneficiaries. I'm guessing that the estate of the author is the author's and his or her family's issue to deal with. When I refer to rights, I am generalising. There are print rights, digital rights, international rights, and audio rights. There could be more rights that I'm not even aware of since I'm not a published author and don't work for a publisher. In saying that, there are a number of items, the author would need to consider in having everything squared away.


Let's start with the will. Again, I am not saying I know the legal requirements and what's right or wrong. All I'm saying is that the author will need to have an updated will, which includes a section dealing with the author's books and who the beneficiary of the rights of the books belong to after his or her passing. That beneficiary will then own the rights to the books and will be able to determine what to do with them, whether it be to keep them published on whatever platform the books have been published on or to pull the books. And if you're in need of a template for a will, Neil Gaiman has a great resource that he's made available here.

There's access to the books to consider from where the final copies of the books are stored and saved on the hard drive in case those copies are needed for whatever reason. The beneficiary will need access to the author's computer and files for that.

Aside from that, there's also access to the various platforms the books have been uploaded to. This will require links to the the platforms' publishing management systems, email addresses, usernames, and passwords. These will need to be noted down in a secure location and updated if any of the information changes. With two-factor authentication now, the beneficiary will also require access to the secondary device or platform where the second authentication method is sent, be it the author's mobile phone or an app.

Skyscraper skyline

There's also the matter of the bank accounts where the royalties are being paid into. This could be a bank account or even a PayPal account. Whatever that account is, the beneficiary will need to be able to access it. If it's a bank account, he or she might need to be added to the bank account of the deceased author so that he or she can access the funds in the account, and potentially change the account where the royalties go. If it's something other than a bank account like a PayPal account, they will need the email address, username, and password.

In these instances where email addresses, usernames, and passwords are left for the beneficiary, this would make access a lot easier. However, if a situation arises where the beneficiary has to verify their identity, then further documentation might be required. I do not know exactly what documentation might be required, but I'm going to guess that things like birth certificates and death certificates and a copy of the will might be needed. This will all depend on the organization asking for the information.

If the books remain in publication and continue to sell or be read via something like Kindle Unlimited, where they are generating income, then taxes will need to be paid on that income based on the deceased and the beneficiary's place of residency where taxes are filed and paid. Depending on whether the deceased author is set up as a business, a limited liability company, a sole proprietor, or an individual, taxes will need to be reported and paid in different ways. The other thing to take into consideration is whether the beneficiary is another company, a trust, or a person. These will all have different tax implications, which will needed to be sorted out with the help of an attorney and an accountant.

Fountain pen

One final thing is if the author in question writes under a pen name. Who has access to that pen name and that brand? Is that brand transferable, and can someone else take on the mantle of that pen name and continue to publish books of a similar ilk using that brand. What are the legal rights regarding that? It's also something to consider and look into.

I'm sure there are other things that I've left out and have not considered because I'm not an expert. I'm merely an interested individual who started wondering about what happens to books when an author passes on. These are only some of the things that I've thought of while considering the implications of such an event. If there are any experts reading this, I'd welcome your insights.

I'm sorry if this topic is a little on the depressing scale, but it's something worth thinking about when considering the legacy you are leaving if you are an author. Tell me, have you thought about this? What have you done to prepare for it?

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  1. Something I need to think about, definitely. I recently lost a favorite author and they're pushing her books more to help pay for her medical expenses.

    1. I'm always very sad when an author passes away. The world loses their talent and it's such a shame.