How to Future-Proof Your Writing

Written by A Guest Author | September 9, 2017

By James Aitchison

When books come back from the dead, who gets the money? Or doesn’t it matter? As a working author, I think it matters greatly. As history has often proved, you never know when something you’ve written will be rediscovered and dusted off long after your death.

A case in point is Maigret, the French detective created by Georges Simenon. Global bestsellers in the 1950s and 60s, the books were adapted for a black-and-white television series starring Rupert Davies. Then, following Simenon’s death, came a long fade into obscurity. You could only find Maigret novels in secondhand bookshops, and then only rarely. Fast forward thirty years and not only is Penguin republishing the books, but Rowan Atkinson stars in a new TV series.

Somewhere in the development pipeline is Peter Jackson’s remake of The Dam Busters, with a script by Stephen Fry. It’s been 60 years since my old friend Paul Brickhill wrote the book and Richard Todd starred in the iconic movie. Both Paul and Richard have died, but the book keeps calm and carries on.

In 1927, Herbert Asbury penned a long-forgotten cult book titled The Gangs of New York. In 1979, long after the author’s (and the book’s) death, a passionate young filmmaker bought the film rights. Another 20 years would pass before Martin Scorsese saw the cameras roll on his pet project.

Okay, you can argue you’re not Simenon or Brickhill or Asbury — and you can’t afford teams of specialized attorneys to safeguard your work — to which I would reply, Irrelevant!  As authors, we should care that our work not only thrives but also survives. And there are simple, inexpensive precautions we can take to ensure it does.

Many famous deceased Australian authors left their estates in capable hands — Patrick White is but one example.  For most of us humble scribes, however, we can take some simple steps to future-proof our work’s future exposure:

  1. Make sure your family attorney or your executor stores your contracts securely. Don’t leave them to rot in a box in the garage!
  2. Make sure your attorney or executor is briefed to properly monitor incoming royalty payments, foreign rights sales, et cetera. Make sure they are familiar with payment due dates.
  3. Make sure your attorney or executor understands the importance of your contracts and royalties, especially in relation to copyright law and proof of authorship.
  4. Make sure your manuscripts and correspondence with agents and publishers are stored just as securely for future reference. Make sure you list your key contacts, their telephone numbers and email addresses.
  5. Make sure that your literary estate will be marketed responsibly after you’ve gone. Leave written instructions.  Make a note about which items of work could be re-marketed profitably in future years.

Maybe your work will lay idle for years. Maybe it won’t. Maybe, 20 years from now, a film director will read one of your stories in a secondhand bookstore and come searching for the copyright owner. That’s why you need a little literary estate planning.

Sure, it’s a grim subject.

But, as authors, isn’t it important to know we’ve done everything possible to preserve our work and make sure it can be readily sourced and enjoyed “a second time around”?

Bio: James Aitchison is an Australian author.  His children’s mystery and horror stories have sold more than three million copies in Asia. Non-fiction books include titles for Pearson and John Wiley.