Editor Robert Runte is sharing an important reminder for us authors: we need a will.
One topic that most writer's advice columns never get around to addressing, but which is fairly crucial, is estate planning. Yes, I know, you are immortal and are never going to get sick, let alone die, but let us for the sake of argument talk about a couple of simple steps to save one's family a fair bit of trouble, and to perhaps ensure one's literary immortality.
First, write a will. No one likes to think about wills much, and certainly don't feel it's something they need to address today...sometime in the indefinite future will be fine, they think. But, stuff happens. So, right now, make an actual appointment to draw up a will. And then, in addition to the usual content, put in a couple of clauses outlining who gets the literary property, and what they should do with it.
There are four issues here: (a) who gets the royalties (if any) from the work; (b) who has artistic control over one's published work; (c) what is to be done with any unfinished manuscripts that are left lying around after one is gone; and (d) what is to be done with one's online presence.
The simplest approach, of course, is simply to leave the estate up to a single executor, but the individual charged as executor for dealing with the regular sort of assets, may not be the best person to look after one's literary legacy. It is not uncommon, for example, for an executor to quickly glance at the current revenues for a title and conclude that it is valueless...missing that commercial or not, what happens to the book still matters to the deceased. One may, therefore, wish to designate a specific individual (and a backup, just in case one's first choice was in the same car accident that took you out) to manage one's manuscripts/publications. Choose a collaborator, or a sympathetic colleague, or a trusted editor, or even a dedicated fan, who understands one's work and one's preferences (e.g., editing the Christian references out of Narnia to reach a wider, modern audience would not be acceptable!) and can manage one's life's work as closely as possible to one's own wishes. Of course, that fan or collaborator may well be one's spouse or close relative, and so the general executor, in which case, great; but if not, it is perfectly okay to appoint someone else -- who "gets" one's genre or vision-- to manage one's literary legacy, even while still directing the royalties to one's dependents.
The crucial factor is to put in writing who is responsible for what, because otherwise, one's literary friends and royalty-hungry relatives could be at odds for years over every little detail. One has only to look at the long and bitter dispute between the girlfriend/collaborator and the family over the literary estate of Stieg Larsson to see just how bad these conflicts can get in the absence of a proper will. Or, just as undesirable, one's books could be left to languish as an uninterested executor fails to promote them or even keep them in print.
My advice would be to leave all one's literary work to be managed by a single literary executor, rather than designating specific titles to specific individuals. For one thing, specifying titles would require frequent updates to one's will as one finishes additional manuscripts (an unnecessary expensive, as well as a nuisance); for another, there may be opportunities for omnibus editions or reprint series or e-re-releases or etc., that require package deals that could be fatally stalled if the holder of one or other copyright demurs. Appointing a singe literary manager also facilitates determining which unfinished manuscripts should be finished, by whom, and how and when published; decisions that one can't really make in advance, since by definition, one cannot know how things are going to evolve after one's death.... (The exception here is if one is absolutely certain that one doesn't want anyone else tampering with one's manuscripts, in which case one could simply order unfinished manuscripts left as is. I would strongly advise against ordering unfinished work destroyed, however.)
Similarly, the literary executor should be empowered to take down, close off, or maintain one's various online activities. If one's books are selling well, it may be sensible to maintain Facebook, Twitter, blog, webpage etc. presence, though hopefully making it clear that the author is deceased and the reader is now dealing with the executor, speaking on the author's behalf. On the other hand, if the executor is closing up the estate, being able to take down all one's sites can be very important -- particularly if one's last post was a rant, and not necessarily how one wishes to be remembered.
Of course, one needs to check with the person(s) one is thinking of designating as one's literary executor to ensure that they are able and willing to take on this responsibility, before assigning them in one's will.
Second, having drawn up a will, put a copy somewhere where people can find it! Lawyer's offices and bank safety deposit boxes sound sensible, until one realizes one's survivors may not know the name of one's lawyer, or be able to gain access to the safety deposit box without a copy of the will appointing them executor, which is in the safety deposit box -- an astonishing catch 22. So leaving a duplicate in an envelope in one's desk drawer makes a lot of sense.
Further, it may be useful to have a list of one's online passwords in the same envelope, so that various social networking sites can be immediately updated. This is particularly important if one is self-publishing, as orders, queries, complaints and so on must be addressed, or at least the explanation posted, so that customers are not left hanging, or fans left to speculate.
Third, with the emergence of many indie publishers, one should be alert to the possibility that even the best intentioned micropublisher could suffer a sudden mishap or illness that could leave one's book tied up in limbo for years. At a minimum, one must ensure that any contract signed includes a revision clause, such that if the book is out of print for more than 1 year, the rights revert to the author. Similarly, it doesn't hurt to inquire about the publisher's estate planning, especially when dealing with one-person operations. If the publisher passes away, who is going to take over? Anyone? Someone that could be trusted to take the same care with cover art, editing, marketing, and so on? Even if there appears to be a half dozen individuals involved in the press, if the owner passes without a will, the other members may be powerless to carry on. So ask. (Asking may even trigger them to develop a will and contingency plan!)
And while on the topic, if one is self-publishing, one needs to make provisions for having someone take over and manage one's inventory in the event of illness or mishap. A week's delay while one is abed with the flu will go unremarked; but any extensive illness or absence could create devastatingly ill will if no one is responding to queries, filling orders, or addressing complaints. So, I strongly recommend that along with a will, all self-publishing authors should draw up a contingency plan.