The Business Rusch: Fearless Inventories
First, an anecdote:
It 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.
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.
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 Noble.com 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.
“The Business Rusch: “Fearless Inventories” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
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