Estate Your Business, Please

Estate Your Business, Please

Christopher Anvil, Jerome Bixby, Raymond Z. Gallun.

raymond-z-gallunA couple of years ago, Michael Capobianco, then President of the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), approached me for help on a project.

See, I’ve sort of acquired a reputation as a genre historian, and a fair number of editors and publishers have come to me over the past decade in hopes that I might know who was in charge of dead authors’ literary estates so that they could gain permission to reprint a story and make payments.

I had already run across a few agents and individuals while writing about one Past Master or another.  I also had access to a network of other sf tweaks who might have data on the ones I didn’t.  This put me in a good position to research the list and not only correct it but add to it.

P. Schuyler Miller, Ross Rocklynn, Wallace West.

What Capo wanted from me was my help in updating and correcting the list of estates that SFWA publishes each year in the SFWA Directory.

This is important to the organization, as the information is vital to keeping classic material by founding members available to a new readership, not to mention making sure that the information on writers who had passed more recently stayed current.

p-schuyler-millerI had noticed several inconsistent and outright erroneous entries in the Directory listings, as well as formatting that made it very difficult for anyone to find the names of the deceased authors.  As it stood, the Directory listing was sorted by agents’ names, not the authors they represented.

So, I was predisposed to taking on the task and was subsequently appointed SFWA’s Estates Liaison, authorized to track down and contact heirs, agencies, editors – both pro and semi-pro – and former agents in order to make the Estates list a useful and usable database.

Kris Neville, Wyman Guin, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach.

It went slowly at first, I’ll freely admit.

I was unsure how to approach these people, reluctant to be a pain in the ass about it, and I had to feel my way through source after source blindly, hoping that the information I got was valid.

“Well, I’m not really sure where he went after he left us,” I’d hear from this agent or that rep.  “I think he had a grandson, though.”

sorceress-of-scathI heard horror stories from an anthologist at a major publishing house about an agency that didn’t even know they still represented an obscure (but eminently reprintable) fictioneer.  After checking through decades-old paper files they decided that, since their primary business was representing Hollywood screenplays, their fee for a four-thousand word short story from 1954 must necessarily be thousands of dollars.  In many cases this was more than the editor had budgeted for the entire book.

In at least one case, the heirs of the author in question were so ashamed of his sf books that they have adamantly refused to allow anyone to reprint any of it.  This was no obscure pulpster, but a top-list writer with a strong following.  Nevertheless, his family was convinced that he was an embarrassment, a humiliation, and so his books are out of print, almost certainly until his family passes away.

At which point the question that arises is, well, who owns the literary estate then?  Did he or she leave word in his or her will that it should pass to a friend or colleague if the family dies out?  Was it even mentioned it in the will?

Ronald Anthony Cross, Colin Kapp, Rog Phillips.

Nobody thinks about their will when they’re young, of course.  It’s the farthest thing from their minds.  And what have they got to pass along, anyhow?  Furniture, a few books, a raggedy-ass old Corolla?  Who would they leave it to?

rog-phillipsBut sooner than they think, they’ve got a back-list of a couple of dozen books, most of them still in print, a burgeoning new market in e-books, and contracts for the next four novels in the series from Mishegoss House.  They have a place in some community that sort of resembles the Hamptons if you squint, three kids in college and an ex-wife, all of whom will fight tooth and nail over the copyrights and royalties until fur flies and blood spatters the walls.

When that time comes, and they feel those pains running through their chest and up and down their arms, or that rabid fan they can’t seem to get rid of shows up at their door with a gun and a copy of Catcher in the Rye, it’s too damn late to make plans.

If you are a creator of any kind – visual, verbal, or musical – you need to consider this situation very, very seriously.  If you have already made a will, add a codicil (talk to your lawyer, he/she will guide you through it) that addresses your intellectual rights in a way that will be hard for anyone to challenge after you’re gone and can no longer speak for yourself.

Andre Norton, one of the best-known and most highly regarded authors in the field, left us in 2005.  When I spoke to her agency a few months ago, they had only just settled her estate after an intense battle between two individuals, both of whom had at least some legitimate claim.  The weary agent told me that even so, the literary estate was in such a mess that it would be a year or more before they could figure out what was still protected by copyright and what had fallen into the public domain as a result of the dispute.

George H. Smith, Angus Wells, George O. Smith.

Forget for the moment what you, as a writer/artist/whatever, owe your families.  Forget whatever confidence issues you may have about the relative size of your footprints in the much-trodden Harenae Temporis.  If your work is still in print and earning you royalties, you owe it to yourself to make sure that your wishes are clear.  If you take the time and effort to do that – to name an executor, for example, or appoint a trustworthy and responsible family member to handle your interests through a legitimate and experienced agent – you will have done much to ensure that your legacy will successfully outlive you by decades.

nine-hundred-grandmothersFred Pohl in his practically infinite wisdom, not to mention his experience as writer, editor and literary agent, has often given his younger colleagues this sound advice: regardless of how friendly you and your publisher are, write your contracts as though both of you were to die the next day and your heirs already hate each other with a passion that passeth all understanding.

That should be the touchstone for your decisions.  Straighten it out now, while you’re still here and compos mentis.  Make certain that your heirs know what you’re doing, and – this is important, pilgrim, so listen tight – make damned sure they are willing and able.

Recently, there’s been something of a scandal in the sf field about the literary estate of R. A. Lafferty, author of Nine Hundred Grandmothers and Not to Mention Camels.  It seems that over the past few years, the owners of the Lafferty estate, reportedly divided among almost 100 family members, have been allowing his works to fall out of print so that they could – wait for it – sell it at auction to the highest bidder.

No, I’m not making this up.  There was a rumor for a while that the high bidder might be Neil Gaiman, but as it turns out, the winner was the Locus Foundation with a bid of $70,000 for everything, including film rights.  I hope they do well with it.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I have been contacted by the Locus Foundation, who tell me that although they are currently the high bidder, the auction has not yet been finalized.  In addidion, I have learned that the Lafferty family has, indeed, held back  on signing most new contracts as a courtesy to the eventual buyer, and not merely to raise the value.  To quote Liza Groen Trombi of the Locus Foundation, “They have also been very generous in general, and are transferring the rights mostly because they are unfamiliar with publishing and would like Lafferty’s works to be better represented, something I’m sure you would appreciate.”  I do absolutely appreciate that, and am happy (if humbled) to make this correction.]

Do you want your intellectual property rights to be so profoundly screwed up that your heirs sell it off just to be rid of the bother, or so unutterably confused that it will take years to straighten out?  Okay, then, start thinking about what to do now, while you can still make phone calls, send e-mails and sign papers.

Don’t leave it for me to have to cope with; I got enough tsuris with three cats.

Wilmar H. Shiras, T. L. Sherred, Chester Geier.

wilmar-h-shiras1See those names scattered around up there in Itals and bold?  Those are authors, all of them popular in their day with many books and stories in print.  I’ve received queries from editors and publishers about all of them in the past few years.  In these cases, and more I haven’t mentioned here, I’ve been unable to track down exactly who represents their work.  Although in a few instances I have the name of an heir, I’ve had no luck finding contact information.

I’m not done with the SFWA Estates Project, not by a long shot.  In just the past year, we were able to expand the list from fewer than 150 names to more than 300.  It can be frustrating, yeah, but whenever I’m able to finally nail down the right address or present an eager anthologist with the names and e-mail data he or she needs in order to secure the rights to a great old yarn, the reward is well worth the irritation.

Oh, and by the way, if you have info on any of those names up above, feel free to let me know care of Black Gate.

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

This was an eye-opening article. Can’t wait to track down some of these books.

BTW, Bud: I saw the estate info on the SFWA website, but do you have any idea where to go for the estates/publishing rights of past British Science Fiction Authors?

Sarah Avery

This is incredibly important advice. Non-writing relatives, or non-pro aspiring writer relatives, can have really weird ideas about how publishing works. If you think your relatives have given you a hard time about this stuff in person, imagine what they’ll do if they’re making decisions about your work when you’re gone.

My main critique partner and I have agreed to be one another’s literary executors, to the great relief of our respective spouses, who find the business side of fiction to be counterintuitive and daunting. Thanks for the reminder to get that officially into my will before it matters.


Bud: E.C. Tubbs is the author I’m interested in. He recently passed away. It would be nice to find Planetoid Disposals Ltd. is in the public domain. 🙂

[…] estate? That has already been answered on this site in Bud Webster’s illuminating first Estate Your Business post. In it he documents his hard work on the SFWA Estates Project, and all I can add is, […]


Well, that explains why my long-time desires for seeing Kris Neville, Wyman Guin, and Rog Phillips collections go unfulfilled. *sigh*

Thanks, Bud Webster: this was a great article to read, even if it was ultimately immensely saddening. (Looking forward to hearing any updates about the Lafferty situation though — he’s one of my absolutely favorite authors.)

[…] already know I’m a bibliophile, and a stfnal historian, and Estates Liaison for the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I probably wouldn’t be here […]

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x