The Business Rusch: Fearless Inventories

Business Rusch free nonfiction On Writing

First, an anecdote:

Business Rusch logo webIt comes from the November issue of Vanity Fair. The magazine published an excerpt—if that’s the right word—from Truman Capote’s legendary unfinished novel, Answered Prayers. In an accompanying article, Sam Kashner describes the history of the novel, why it remained unfinished from the 1960s to Capote’s death in 1984, and how it became one of those legendary unfinished works, more imagined than realized.

He also describes what happened right after Capote’s death that August. Capote’s lawyer and literary executor, Alan Schwartz, along with Gerald Clarke, Capote’s friend and biographer, and Joe Fox of Random House searched for the manuscript.

You know why Schwartz was there: he needed to find the manuscript to deal with the estate. Fox was there primarily because Random House had invested $775,000 in the book from 1966 through several revisions of a contract for the book. (The $775,000 was in two advances, one of $25,000 in 1966, the rest in a renegotiation in 1971.)

Remember that at this point, manuscripts were individual items. They didn’t live on computers and flash drives and “in the cloud.” The typed (or handwritten) manuscript was all that remained of an author’s intent. The men started their search in Capote’s New York apartment:

[They] looked among the stacks of art and fashion books in Capote’s cluttered Victorian sitting room and pored over his bookshelf, which contained various translations and editions of his works. They poked among the Tiffany lamps, his collection of paperweights (including the white rose paperweight given to him by Colette in 1948), and the dying geraniums that lined one window (“bachelor’s plants,” as writer Edmund White described them). They looked through drawers and closets and desks, avoiding the three taxidermic snakes Truman kept in the apartment, one of them, a cobra, rearing to strike.

The men scoured the guest bedroom, at the end of the hallway—a tiny, peach-colored room with a daybed, a desk, a phone, and lavender taffeta curtains. Then they descended 15 floors to the former maid’s studio, where Truman had often written by hand on yellow legal pads.

They didn’t find the manuscript in the apartment.

I can tell you, from the procedures Dean went through with our friend Bill’s much smaller and less famous estate that searching through stuff isn’t something done quickly or cursorily. You must look at every scrap of paper, under every single cushion, in every box.

If you’re the estate’s executor, you also have to make an inventory of what you find, because you don’t want to open yourself up to an accusation of stealing from the estate you’re supposed to manage—particularly if other people know the estate is a valuable one.

The most valuable property in the Capote estate—or so these three men thought at the time—was that manuscript. Even if it was unfinished, it had curiosity value. So the men searched and searched and searched.

They followed the same procedure at Capote’s “rustic beach house” in Sagaponack. Rustic, maybe, but the beach house sat on six acres, all of which had to be searched.

They found nothing.

Capote’s long-time friend, Joanne Carson, “claims that Truman had confided to her that the manuscript was tucked away in a safe-deposit box in a bank in California—maybe Wells Fargo—and that he had handed her a key to it the morning before his death. But he declined to tell her which bank held the box. ‘The novel will be found when it wants to be found,’ he told her cryptically.”

Apparently, the novel still doesn’t want to be found, because it still hasn’t turned up, despite decades of searching. Although fragments have been found, one of which is the one that Vanity Fair reprinted.

Here’s what no one knows about Answered Prayers. No one knows if Capote had hidden it like he said or destroyed it after the early controversies about it ruined his relationships or if he had never finished it and the existing fragments were all that ever existed of the novel.

Why does no one know? Because Capote didn’t leave a roadmap to his estate, even after he realized he was sick and possibly dying.

All of the books on estate planning tell you to make a written inventory of your property. They say “it’s a good idea” because it reminds you of what you own, and because it helps you figure out the value of your estate (which is necessary for tax purposes: with the new change in the federal tax law, estates valued at $5 million and over will be subject to estate taxes).

Buried in the list of reasons these lovely books give for making an inventory of the estate is this one from Nolo Press’s Plan Your Estate is this lovely sentence:

“[Making an inventory] helps you have your assets organized in case you later consult an estate planning lawyer.”

In the previous two installments in my series on estates, we’ve already established that if you want your writing business to continue after your death, you’ll need to contact an estate planning lawyer to help you. In the short term, I asked you to make sure you had a Cover-Your-Ass document—a short will or whatever—so that your friends and family know who your heirs are and what to do with your stuff. Your stuff includes your writing.

As I’ve been researching all of this, I’ve been talking with lawyer friends, and all of them stress preparedness. One lawyer told me that the clients who come in with lists of their stuff and an idea of what they want to do in their estate planning have a much smaller legal bill at the end of the process than those folks who go to see a lawyer long before they know what they have or what they want.

Last time, we dealt with figuring out what you want.

This time, we’ll figure out what you have.

Okay. This is the point at which I get up from the computer and walk away. Every time. Or I drop the book I’m referencing. Or I go eat lunch. Because when it comes to real property, Dean and I have yours, mine, ours, and Bill’s. And right now, that’s two large buildings filled with stuff. We’re selling much of it off, and we’re consolidating, but the idea of doing an inventory of all the books, comic books, digest magazines, games, toys, art, and movie posters makes me crazy.

It would also take years of my life if I were to do it.

As it is, it’s going to take the assistance of some great people to have it all written down and all out there.

And that doesn’t cover the stuff people generally have, like their house, their cars, their furniture, their clothes, their jewelry…

Okay. I’m walking away now.

Seriously, the Nolo Press book I just cited (and listed with others below) has photocopiable forms so that you can do this work. I prefer to download something from the internet, and most estate planning websites have these documents as well as do most websites for estate planning lawyers.

A quick Google search also turned up free forms on insurers websites, for fairly obvious reasons. You also need an inventory of all your stuff if something god-awful happens, like a house fire or you lost everything in a hurricane like Sandy and Katrina. (Yes, these inventories need to be in a place other than your home. Backup copies are good.)

As you do this, it would also be good to have a list of your online accounts (money and otherwise) and their passwords.

In your basic CYA will, you can list things globally. You can say that my spouse inherits everything of mine. If he predeceases me, then my son will inherit everything. That covers it. For now.

As you develop your complete estate plan, however, you need to know this: Copyrights are property. And copyrights aren’t nearly as straightforward a piece of property as this chair I’m sitting on or the computer I’m typing these words on.

Dean calls copyrights his magic bakery. In his Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing ebook (also free on his blog), he writes:

Every story we write, every novel we write, is a magic pie full of copyright.

We can sell parts of it to one publisher, other parts to another publisher, some parts to overseas markets, other parts to audio, or eBooks, or game companies, or Hollywood, or web publishers, and on and on and on. One professional writer I knew sold over 100 different gaming rights to different places on one novel. He had a very sharp knife cutting that magic pie.

With indie publishing, most writers are only focused on one tiny aspect of their pies, the electronic rights. But interestingly enough, when a story or novel gets published electronically, it gets spread out to many, many stores, and sometimes other publishers see it and want to buy it for their project, or a movie producer sees it and options it, or a game designer sees it and makes an offer. So in this new world, getting stories up electronically can help out other sales given time.

So each professional writer has this Magic Bakery, making magic pies that can be cut into as many pieces as we want and many of the pieces can return as if never taken, even after being sold off. (You must learn copyright to really understand this.)

I know that most writers don’t understand copyright. And the heirs of writers certainly won’t. It’s best if you understand what you have as you proceed in this career, so do get yourself a copy of The Copyright Handbook from Nolo Press and read it, okay? You won’t understand all of it at first, but you’ll slowly get an idea.

Let me give you a second anecdote to help you understand how copyright can be sliced up.

The thriller writer Len Deighton published a Kindle Single called James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search For His Father. In it, he describes what Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had to go through to purchase the rights to film the James Bond novels. What you need to realize in this story is that Fleming is still alive as all of this happened. I doubt that Broccoli and Saltzman would have been successful had Fleming been dead.

Some screen rights were assigned by Ian Fleming to several different trusts for his son and other rights were in separate trusts for other members of his family. If that weren’t enough of a tangle, he had assigned conflicting agency rights to different people at the same time….

It was into this snake pit of obligations that Harry and Cubby fearlessly trod. Harry told me that he and Cubby were determined to keep the various lawyers, family members and representatives apart. To do this they took over a London hotel for six daytime hours. Each [book] title was assigned a room and occupied by lawyers, trustees and beneficiaries according to who was entitled to sign the agreement. Cubby and Harry and their lawyer went from room to room, and sometimes back and forward, always with the threat that unless there was agreement of all, there would be money for none.

So, if you ever have trouble envisioning all of the possibilities that copyright’s magic bakery can hold—on each title (story, book, article)—think of that London hotel, rooms filled with people who were empowered to sign legal documents for the various book titles that Fleming had assigned them.

Hotel. Rooms. People.

If the bakery metaphor doesn’t work for you, maybe the hotel metaphor will.

Think of each property you’ve created—article, story, novel—as a hotel or bakery filled with various copyrights. Your book doesn’t just have one copyright. It has as many as you can sell.

And here’s where it gets dicey for the list you’re about to make. Because what these estate inventory lists want is this: they want the name of the property and its approximate value.

In his blog on writer estates (which you should all read), The Passive Guy, a lawyer, writes this:

The fair market value of copyrights is based upon their income producing potential, discounted to present worth. A general rule of thumb used by estate tax experts for computing fair market value of a copyright is to calculate the average annual earnings of the copyright over a 5 year period then multiply that annual amount by a number usually falling between 3 and 7.

For example, if a copyright earned an average of $100,000 in each year during the 5 years prior to the author’s death, the fair market value of that copyright for estate tax purposes would range between $300,000 and $700,000 depending on factors such as the length of the remaining copyright term, the prior uses to which the copyright was put, and the likelihood that income from those uses would either increase or decrease in the future.

But you’re not dead yet. So the worth of your copyrights could change from one day to the next. As writer Hugh Howey mentioned in a comment on Dean’s blog, Howey was earning $10 per hour at his bookstore job on January 7, 2012. On January 7, 2013, he’s finalized a seven-figure book deal. The value of his copyrights this year is significantly greater than the value of his copyrights last year. Taking an average of the past five years and multiplying that number by three to seven probably doesn’t even come close to what his copyrights are really worth.

So…as you’re compiling an inventory list of your writing properties, here’s what I suggest. Put your writing properties on the inventory without a value listed. Let the estate worry about the value of the copyrights after you’re dead. Maybe an estate attorney will give you different advice. Make sure he’s used to dealing with copyrights before you take his advice—but remember, I am not a lawyer, so what I say here is just my opinion.

Here’s what I believe should be part of your inventory:

1. Your bibliography. That’s your published work (indie and traditional). In your bibliography, make sure you keep track of all editions (foreign, domestic, etc.) and of other rights sales, as well as award nominations and wins, and anything else that might help the copyright’s value.

For example, here’s the bibliography entry for my Kris Nelscott novel, A Dangerous Road:

•  A DANGEROUS ROAD, written under the name Kris Nelscott, St. Martin’s Press, July, 2000. Paperback edition, St. Martins Press, June 2001. Favorably reviewed in Kirkus, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Philadelphia Inquirer.  Picked by Barnes and as one of the top ten mysteries of 2001. Published in Japanese by Hayakawa as an Hayakawa Pocket Mystery Book, 2001. Edgar nomination for Best Mystery Novel of 2000.  Winner of the Herodotus Award for the Best U.S. Historical Mystery of 2000.  Chosen for the New York Public Library’s prestigious 2002 Books For The Teenage List.  Brazilian edition published by Editora Landscape as Estrada Perigosa, 2004.  French edition published by Éditions de l’Aube, as La Route de Tous Les Dangers, 2005. Greek edition published by Kedros, 2005.  Spanish edition published by Tropismos Negro as Carretera Peligrosa, 2006. French mass market edition published by Points as La Route de Tous Les Dangers 2010. Motion picture option with Trisquare Film Productions Ltd., 2011.Ebook and trade paper editions from WMG Publishing, 2012.

 As  you can tell, I just added things as they happened.

Include works that are under contract and about to be published in this bibliography as well.

2. Your finished unpublished and uncontracted-for works. State length, genre, and if they’re part of a series. Also where they can be located (and thank Mr. Capote for that).

3. Relevant notes: If you’re planning to write a 12-book fantasy series and it’s completely outlined, have that outline listed and where to find that outline in relevant notes. You might die between books six and seven, and if you have a following, your fans will want to see the rest of the series, even if someone else has to finish it. You want that someone else to finish from your notes, not from their guesses.

4. Character status. This probably won’t be important for most of us, but it will be for some. If one of your characters has been trademarked (“Martini, Mr. Bond?”), then your estate needs to know this right away, rather than find the trademark documents buried in your papers. Also, if you no longer own the rights to your character, that needs to be listed here as well. Some authors have not understood the contracts they signed with Hollywood and sold the rights to their characters. That means they can no longer write about those characters without the permission of the studio. If you’ve done this, those characters are no longer part of your estate.

Then, on a separate sheet, do this for your writing business:

5. List the existing (active) contracts

6. Print out a list of titles available on the various e-pub and POD sites, along with log-ins and passwords.

7. List your websites, blogs, twitter accounts, etc., again with log-in and passwords. Just today on Facebook, I read a nifty little short essay by a friend on The Big Bang Theory. If I were the literary executor of her estate, I’d want to include that piece in a collection of her miscellaneous work. I’ll bet that piece only exists on Facebook, and she thinks of it as ephemeral. As executor, I might not. I would want the opportunity to find and use it.

The good news, in this month’s estate installment, is that you don’t have to do a lot of extra work to fulfill the writing inventory. Provided, of course, you already have an existing bibliography and various lists of your unpublished work that you can find quickly.

The bad news is that if you don’t have any of this, you’ll need it anyway. Not just for your estate planning, but for your insurance records and your business planning.

Last week, I told you to look at the year-end numbers only. If you’ve done that, you’re partway to making these lists anyway. You might as well finish up.

Get this part done, especially now. If you’re at the beginning of your career, you’re particularly lucky, because you won’t have a lot of work to do. If you’ve been around as long as I have and have never done this, well, have fun with it. I know I am.

Now I really am going to get up from the computer. Not because I’m running away from lists, but because this month’s estate installment is done. I’ll have more next month.

Until then, as Dean says, please remember that this blog has just entered my magic bakery as part of my inventory. I just exercised copyright in that blog by posting it here. I would like compensation for that to encourage me to continue.

So, if you’ve received anything of value from this post or previous posts, please leave a tip on the way out.

And thanks for all the comments, tweets, and discussions. I greatly appreciate them.

Click Here to Go To PayPal.


“The Business Rusch: “Fearless Inventories” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.


Book/Website Estate Links

The Copyright Handbook, Stephen Fishman, Nolo Press

Guide To Wills and Estates, The American Bar Association

Plan Your Estate, Denis Clifford, Nolo Press

The Wall Street Journal Complete Estate Planning Guidebook, Rachel Emma Silverman

What Happens When An Author Dies? The Passive Voice blog

The 101 Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes, Herbert E. Nass


23 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Fearless Inventories

  1. Uh oh. I’d made my peace with the first two estate articles (make a will: done, if imperfect; decide what I want to do with my writing: everything possible; buy a fireproof safe: on the to-do list). But cataloguing my writing and digging up all the contracts seems like a daunting task. I know I have to, and I keep something of a log, partly because Access Copyright pays a dividend for printed work in Canada, but…yikes. Thanks for the heads-up, as always.

  2. Another timely and informative post, Kris. I never thought about listing some of the things you covered here, so thanks for that as well. I need to get on the ball and get things inventoried now while there’s still relatively little to document.

    One never wants to think of dying, of course, but the incentive to leave our heirs a tidy estate should motivate us all. Just reading all that about Ian Fleming made me shudder. Of course, we ended up with the scrumptious Daniel Craig on the screen so it worked out well. 😉

    1. Only Fleming didn’t get to see him! Not that it would have mattered to Fleming. 🙂

      But if you look at all that’s happened to the estate since Fleming died, and then think what would have happened if he hadn’t had estate planning, you can see the difference.

  3. Er, wasn’t the name of his unfinished novel Answered Prayers, not Unanswered Prayers? That’s the title I remembered, & what the Vanity Fair article you link to says it was.

    The chore to inventory your estate must have distracted you…

    1. You know, normally, Geoff, I’d thank you and fix it in my piece. So thank you. But given what happened to that manuscript, i rather like the way that my mind switched the title, so I might leave it, at least in one spot. 🙂 Or at least, leave your comment. 🙂 This, by the way, is why all writers need proofers

      1. Maybe the fact Capote’s complete manuscript vanished was the answer to someone else’s prayers?

        And thanks for fixing my own typo. (I think the fact you had to fix a correction in my correction illustrates some old Internet rule.)

  4. Of all the great material you put on this blog, Kris, these estate posts may turn out to be the most helpful to writers. Not just for the nuts and bolts of real estate planning, but for example, in this post, of taking a serious inventory of your writing. That can be an incredibly beneficial exercise for every writer, simply because a writer who writes a lot probably doesn’t realize just how much copyrighted material he/she owns. And not just that: How much practical working experience they have. It’s an epic way to update your resume.

    Example: Back in 2001, I took a staff writing position at a big magazine. I was there for 5 years. In 2006, I went full-time freelance. The economy sent me back into the workforce in 2011. When that job search had to begin, I of course needed a resume. Well, I realized that I hadn’t updated my resume in 10 YEARS. I hadn’t needed it.

    You can imagine what a holy shit moment that was when I finished it and saw just how much output I’d had in my career and across virtually every genre you can think of in both fiction and nonfiction. I simply hadn’t paid attention (write the next thing! Invoice! Move on!) to my own back catalog of books, essays, short stories, humor pieces, unsold proposals, and on and on.

    Does the average working writer realize how much practical experience they have over many areas? How much they may be underselling themselves? Ignoring potential income streams? Doing even a cursory inventory can remind a writer, like I reminded myself, that they may have untapped potential they simply forgot about.

    Doing a detailed inventory, for me, at this point is a big job. But I think I’ll enjoy it. A good excuse to put on some tunes and have a beer on a crappy Saturday afternoon (or seven, or ten…afternoons, I mean, not beers. Or do I?). The nice thing is, once that inventory is done, updating it year to year is a much smaller job.

    And once you have that inventory…how many potential ideas might you get for assembling, say, mini-collections as eBooks, or other cool stuff you might not have thought of.

    ‘Cuz, you know, maybe tomorrow you DON’T die.


    Mike Zimmerman

    1. It is quite a job, isn’t it, Mike? I have kept mine from the beginning, although not for my non-fiction (long story) and I have to recreate all the time. It’s amazing how much copy one writer generates in a year, let alone 30+

      Thanks for the post!

  5. Thanks Kris. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve got eleven published books and about forty stories and though they aren’t making that much now (although I must say when I added up the yearly earnings I was pleasantly surprised) they can only appreciate in value. My kids may benefit more than I do. Though I would love to do a rudamentary will I lack the financial resources right now. Throwing the question out: Is it possible to have at least a bare basics will written out and witnessed for free somehow? Anyone know? Also I have in mind a literary executor. How would I have that formally acknowledged?

    1. John, I dealt with this in my first post on estates. REad the comments as well. The short answer is this: Where do you live? Because it all varies by state. So you’ll have to do research, which I believe, Annie Reed addressed in the comments.

  6. Okay, this is a geeky question from a poli sci major who worked as a TA and a writing lab advisor in college: what is the best style guide for doing a fiction bibliography? I used to use Turabian (reference list, not bibliography–we didn’t use footnotes, those were for history majors), but I’ve since forgotten the particulars. I think the English majors used MLA, but I’m not sure (they had their own writing lab).

    Also, how do you properly cite a self-published ebook? Do you need to do different editions for different retailer sites, even though you uploaded the same file to all of them? My gut says no, but some take ISBNs while others don’t, so it’s hard to say. I’m sure my 2009 self would have an enthusiastic answer, but I’m not quite sure.

    At the risk of answering my own questions, it’s worth pointing out David Drake’s bibliography as one example of how to do it.

    1. I just do my bibliography for my use, so I use my format. I think I started out formal, which is why what I have seems formal, but isn’t. There are a million ways to do it, and it all depends on what you need it for. See CE’s post here, though, for other additions.

      1. Concerning bibliography format: Get yourself a good bibliography program (I used EndNote Plus, but there are others). Keep every biblio item in its database (backed up off site, of course). The software will let you choose any one of literally hundreds of formats with a few keystrokes, so you don’t have to make a choice in advance. Just enter all the basis information and let the software worry about formatting.

        Also, start NOW and keep it up as you create new inventory items. I have more than 1,000 items in my bibliography, and it would kill me if I had to enter all those items from scratch.

  7. This is a very helpful piece that I’d like to add several things to, in no particular order:

    (1) For every US work — and if you don’t know what that is, read The Copyright Handbook, and I’m a meany so I won’t tell you which chapter is relevant (read the whole thing) — in that bibliography, list the exact date on which you signed the contract for first publication. This is the critical date for you and/or your heirs to exercise termination/revocation rights under § 203. (I don’t recommend reading § 203 unless you’re a lawyer… and even then only if I hate you. It’s a mess.)

    (2) If you live in California, the state provides some helpful PDF forms for inventorying an estate. The one you’ll absolutely need is available for free at GC-041 Inventory and Appraisal (Attachment). Go ahead and use it: Your executor is going to have to.

    (3) A will is good. A will is essential. A will is not enough. You also need a medical care directive and a limited power of attorney, for dealing with your affairs while you’re still alive but not legally competent to manage your affairs. That can result from an automobile accident… or years of substance abuse. Every step that Our Gracious Hostess has described above is essential if you die, but insufficient if you don’t. As a general rule, don’t let an attorney who does not know intellectual property talk you into just using a living trust — without some very careful additional steps, a living trust will not be sufficient, and actually complicates things for you taxwise when dealing with continuing payments from works you created in past tax years.

    (4) Keep an indexed file of your publishing-related contracts. Even the dead ones. Even the ones for which the publisher went out of business before you even turned in the final manuscript. Staple the reversion letter (or whatever) to the contracts. This is in addition to noting status on the bibliography.

    (5) Keep an off-site backup of every critical index, bibliography, and so on… and not in a safety deposit box (which will be sealed upon your death or incompetence, precisely when your executor needs that data the most).

    1. Excellent, CE. Thank you. And I’ll be getting to all that other if-you-don’t-die stuff a bit later, although power of attorney, even limited, is a dicey, scary, usually unnecessary thing. So that one worries me.

      Great (scary) point about the past contracts. Sigh. Even more work for my inventory. Sigh. But thank you!

      And fantastic point about the safety deposit box. I don’t think we can stress that point enough.

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