Dear O’ Abby,
I am a published author with three novels published and a fourth coming out later in the year. I also have at least five completed (but not entirely polished) manuscripts in my hard drive and several more that are in various stages of draftiness. I would be utterly mortified if any of those drafts or unpolished manuscripts were to be published after I die or became too dippy to fully understand what I was doing.
Sorry if this is morbid or weird, but I was wondering about how to protect my work (and my author name) when I die.
With COVID-19 still rampant in much of the world, I imagine this is something a lot of people are thinking about, so thank you for sending in such a timely question.
It is important that all artists consider their creative work when they are writing their wills. Even if you are not a household name now, or even at the time of your death, there is no way to know if your work might strike a chord at some time in the future. In his lifetime Van Gogh bemoaned the fact his paintings never even sold for the cost of the paint he used…
And if that happens, suddenly your unpublished horrors have value they didn't previously have and every Tom, Dick and Harriet will be sniffing around trying to find the lost [insert name here] novel. Just think how many artists' letters, diaries and other personal papers have been published over the years. Personally, the last thing I want after I die is for my diary or letters to my friends to be published in any way, shape or form.
Famously, Terry Pratchett ensured his unpublished work could not be published post-humously by getting the manager of his estate to destroy the hard-drives it was stored on with a steamroller. While this was a great dramatic statement, you don’t need to go to such extraordinary lengths to ensure your cringeworthy drafts or immature first novels don’t ever see the light of day.
The most important thing is to ensure your wishes are clearly expressed in your will. If you are published, you need to outline who will receive any royalties after you die and what you would like to happen to those published books if and when your publisher allows your book to go out of print.
You also need to make clear your wishes for any unpublished work that your family and friends might uncover. This won’t necessarily mean they won’t publish (or try to publish) your embarrassing drafts if they think they might be able to make a buck out of it, but at least your wishes are on record and anyone wanting to protect your memory can use this in any ensuing legal contest in relation to the publication.
It would be useful to name a single person to manage your creative work rather than leaving it as part of the estate that may be apportioned between a number of people. It may be that this is not a family member, but someone who does not stand to directly benefit from publishing your work. It may be you have some works that are closer to being ready to publish than others, books you might have been close to sending out, maybe, or even in the process of querying. You might be happy for these ones to be published after your death, while others are not even close.
But someone needs to know.
At the end of the day, the most important thing you can do is have a will and to include anything and everything you want to control after you die as a part of it. Anything not specifically mentioned in your will is fair game. If you spend a large portion of your life working on something like writing, surely that thing is important enough to mention in your will.
And one last tip, if you do have some writing you wouldn't mind publishing, maybe save that in a separate folder, something named "ready to publish" or something useful like that. That way, if you do pass away suddenly, there can be no questions about what you thought was good and what you probably don't want seeing the light of day.
Hope that helps!