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What is a Literary Executor?

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Q: I was recently approached by one of my relatives (my father's cousin), who asked if I would be her literary executor. I don't really know what this means and thought you might be able to shed some light on the subject. Do you know what this might entail?—Anonymous

A: Often people choose executors of their will to carry out their wishes and oversee the handling/distribution of their estate. A "literary executor," as defined by Merriam-Webster.com, is a person entrusted with the management of the papers and unpublished works of a deceased author. In other words, a literary executor specifically handles all your literary property, including overseeing your copyrights, contracts with publishers, outstanding royalties, etc.

While you can designate anyone to be your literary executor—your child, your neighbor, your old English sheepdog whom you affectionately call "Tots"—it's best to assign it to someone who knows a thing or two about publishing and copyrights. After all, this person will be in charge of all your published and unpublished writings. You want to be certain that your work is handled with care, so the money generated goes to your heirs and favorite charities instead of being "donated" to the bottom line of the publishing houses (unless, of course, you want the publishers to have all your money).

So where do you find someone with the wherewithal to handle your posthumous publishing affairs? If you have an agent, start with him. If he's 20 years your senior, a heavy smoker and likely to pass on long before you, his agency should be able to handle it. Just ask them how to go about setting it up. If you don't have an agent, turn to a friend who has publishing experience. The more knowledgeable the person is with rights, the better off your literary estate will be. And if both of those options are dead ends, select the family member you trust the most to contact/contract the proper professionals (e.g. lawyers, agents, editors, etc.) as needed.

For a more in-depth breakdown on the subject, you can read Copylaw.com's "Final Drafts: Selecting a Literary Executor" by Lloyd Jassin and Ronald Finkelstein. It's filled with great tips and advice to make sure that the value of your writings stay intact after you type that last word and head to the big writer's lounge in the sky.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

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