Home > Editor's Corner Podcast > Editor’s Corner Podcast: Posthumous Publishing

In the past months at Dog Ear Publishing, we’ve been working on quite a few posthumous projects. When a loved one dies, so much is left behind, and sometimes, in the midst of mementos and other remembrances, there’s a manuscript tucked away. Maybe it’s complete, or maybe it’s only halfway there. Whatever the case, finding those papers is like discovering a treasure: a piece of someone we’ve lost that can bring them back to us, at least for a little while. Join Stephanie and Angela as they discuss some ideas on how to handle the discovery of a manuscript, completed or otherwise.

Stephanie S.: Today we’re actually going to discuss posthumous publishing and we see a fair number of people come to Dog Ear who are retired and/or approaching the ends of their lives and they want to finish a book maybe that’s been knocking around in their heads for a while. They’ve always wanted to write a book and never had the chance. Or again, they’re seeing the ends or their lives and they want to leave behind a legacy and so they want to write a book about their families or their lives. Especially I think the older generation now who have seen so much change in their lives and so they want to talk about how their lives have, how the world has changed so much and to leave that behind for their children.

And so, and not uncommonly actually these authors die before they finish their books or finish the publication process. That’s kind of where we’re coming from because we’ve actually seen this happen, oh my gosh, I can think of I think three off the top of my head, three projects that in the past two or three months in which this has been the case.

Angela: Exactly. And plus too, it sounds like such a morbid topic but you have to remember how long it can take to write a book. And even if you’re, this is going to sound incredibly morbid but if you are younger and you get sick … I mean things happen.

Stephanie: And we see a lot of those too. A lot of younger people who do get sick. Who write books because they’re sick and they’re seeing the end of their lives or they’re afraid to or they’ve come out of something, you know, cancer patients. We’ve seen quite a few I think books written by cancer patients or people who have, I don’t necessarily want to say conquered cancer but you know who have come out of cancer alive right now.

Angela: Well, I think it’s tricky. I mean, grieving when someone dies is an enormously complicated process but to have that kind of added … I mean it’s a pressure. Sometimes we put it on ourselves, sometimes if we have been made an executor it’s been put upon us, but to have that added pressure of I’ve got this manuscript now and I know this person really wanted it published before they died and trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do with it. How you get it out there. Who can help you get it out there. I think if you are a writer, it’s probably pretty important to do some planning just so that if something does happen you’ve chosen the right person to look after your, not just manuscripts but letters or anything literary that you’re leaving behind.

It’s called a literary executor. We’re not lawyers, Stephanie or I, so we can’t give you legal advice on it but basically you chose someone who you know will be able to handle the task. Somebody who’s probably familiar with writing and publishing or who at least has contacts in the publishing field and you name that person in your will and that is what’s going to give them the right to be able to publish your work after you’ve died.

Stephanie: I really have nothing to add to that.

Angela: It’s so complicated.

Stephanie: That is definitely, it really is. And you mentioned in the article that you wrote for the Editor’s Corner that you know, if you have a loved one who died and you find this manuscript, you can come into this at any stage in the process. Maybe you’re going through papers like Angela said and you find this manuscript and you decide you would like to publish it to honor the memory of your loved one. It can be at any stage. It could be just scraps of paper with ideas, it can be a first draft of a manuscript that really though is rough and needs editing. How do you find yourself … How do you decide what to do?

Angela: Well, I think that’s the very first step is just because you found the papers or just because you’re in possession doesn’t legally give you the right to publish them. Unless you already are literary executor of this person’s estate … Well even if you are, you need to talk to a lawyer. Somebody who’s familiar with literary executorship and I guess educate yourself. Like I said, we’re not lawyers. We know the, I guess the round outside part of it but it is probably incredibly complicated and detailed and a lot of legalese and hurdles to jump through to get there.

But, lets assume that you now have permission. You’ve gone through all that or the person who died already left you as their literary executor in their will so you have permission to publish their papers, letters, manuscripts, whatever. And I think the next biggest task is figuring out what you’ve got. If you’re looking at a manuscript, is it finished or is it unfinished and how to tell the difference because it’s not always as cut and dry as you might think.

Stephanie: Yes. Absolutely.

Angela: Especially, well especially if you’re finding drafts because just because a person has written a completed book, that doesn’t mean that was necessarily their finished or what they had in mind for their finished product. Right?

Stephanie: Right.

Angela: I guess the easiest way to figure it out if it’s finished is just to almost root around. Go through what you’ve got. See what kind of things you’re finding. Scraps of paper that have changes listed on them, files on a computer that have different dates, and then checking those files and seeing what’s been updated, what hasn’t been updated. Differences in chapter numbers or the content that’s in the chapters. I would say ideally you’ve spoken to the writer before all of this has happened so you know where they’re at but if not, I think research is going to be probably the only way to figure that out.

Stephanie: Right. And you may have to kind of be a detective and you might have to think about the person as well. If you know anything about their processes that may be helpful. Some people write on computer and then make notes on paper to go back to change later. Some people keep track of everything electronically. Some people keep everything on paper and it’s some weird system that only they know. That makes sense only to them. You may get into this process and decide that it’s not worthwhile to publish maybe but obviously we are talking about posthumous publishing so we are making the assumption that you have done this and decided that you have enough to go on to publish. But it can be I think very challenging. Even thinking about maybe you’ve written something yourself years ago and you stumble across it and then you realize, “Oh yeah, I never did finish this,” and then you’re trying to piece together your hazy memories. It can be kind of like that only with a little extra challenge.

Angela: I think that’s a very good point and the first thought that comes to mind is you need help. Number one, especially if this was a loved one, you’re going to be in the middle of the grieving process. It’s complicated enough on its own but to throw in trying to publish these things, you’ve got to get some help. An editor, an agent, just somebody who can I guess go through the materials with you, back you up, help you sort through everything, help you figure out what you’ve got and what you are missing. Yeah, that’s what I have to say about that.

Stephanie: Right, because it’s a good point that you mentioned an agent or an editor because you’re talking about people who are used to dealing with manuscripts in all stages. And so they’ve got a more trained eye or even just more experience in saying, “Okay, well, this is a good start but clearly there’s something missing,” which they will tell … We see this with authors that are still living and we have to tell this to some authors as well. They can help you decide as well if this is something that is worth publishing. If it’s going to be worth your time or what you have to do further to even get this ready for publication.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: And so, go ahead.

Angela: I was just going to say, I guess that’s the thing to figure out is how complicated the task is going to be. Because when we’re editing posthumous books I always have to be careful as an editor because my first inclination is to leave questions for the author. Like, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense can you expand on it?” “Hey, this point of view is confusing, can you fix it?” In posthumous publishing, who’s going to be responsible for doing that? Are you working with an editor that can go back and do those things for you? Are you working with a ghost writer who’s going to go back and kind of try to take the author’s same tone of voice and style and mirror that and fix the problems? I guess it really comes down to how much work you think you can handle because it would get kind of enormous. It could get into revision after revision and if you don’t have the right people around you I don’t know that it would be possible to go through it all.

Stephanie: Well and I think it’s impropriate too if you’re going through this process that you do make clear to your editor and/or publisher that this is someone else’s book and that you are making this decision and it can help if you say, “I am comfortable making this kind of decision but not this kind of decision.” And sometimes you will be able to find editors or agents who are willing to say, “Okay.” There are a lot of people who know nothing about publishing a book so they are looking to editors to make suggestions to them.

Angela: That’s true. That’s true.

Stephanie: This is true. Well, some are looking for suggestions. Some are saying, “Okay, I trust you to make the changes.” Some are saying, “Okay, you can make suggestions but I need to go over them,” or, “I need to take it to my family,” because sometimes families as a whole work on this. It really, the situations, the possibilities again are endless. There could be so many different permutations of how it could play out and so I think it really helps if you make sure that your editors or agent or publisher or all of them know exactly where you stand and what you’re looking for. And that can help you to also understand what you’re looking for because a lot of people also they don’t know enough to know what they are looking for so if you sit and make that statement, “Okay, this is what I want help on. This is what I don’t want help on,” that can help clarify it in your mind as well I think.

Angela: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. I’m trying to think in my mind of where to go from there. We’ve chosen some very tricky topics lately. This is a very, very tricky topic. I guess lets, yeah.

Stephanie: Well, something that I see because on the managing editor side I get to see a little bit more than you do as well and so again, as I have mentioned, we’ve seen some books this year where you have seen one where someone found the records of a manuscript that a loved one had written and then I have also seen a case where someone was writing a book and he had had his edits completed and was in the stage of reviewing the edits that had been done when he passed away. Then we move from that point to dealing with the executor and having to navigate those steps with the executor. Okay, here is where we stopped. Here is where we made it in the process of publishing this gentleman’s book. Where do we go from here? And so there’s also that business aspect that you consider. We’re at this point.

It’s different because we had no idea what this gentleman wanted for his edits. How he wanted to handle the suggestions that the editor had made. And another stage, we had someone who had completely written everything and they were almost ready … Everything was to satisfaction and just needed the final touches. Again, it can happen at any point and so we do have where one person is making a decision on a book and we have another situation where three or four family members were working with the person just before they died and knew exactly what the person wanted. And so, I’m not trying to say anything here really, I’m just trying to point out that there this is whole range of posthumous publishing that you may come into and be involved in.

Angela: I guess that’s the ideal scenario too is that it’s been preplanned and you have a really good idea of what the person wanted. But if that’s not the case that you are able to surround yourself not with so many people that indecision takes over because nobody can agree but enough people that knew the person and then including people who know the publishing industry that you can make educated guesses and feel pretty confident and comfortable with those guesses.

Stephanie: Right. And really I don’t think there’s anything else I can add to the situation except to know that every situation is different and like Angela said, legal counsel can help and speaking to publishers who have experience in this. I mean maybe it’s comforting for you to go to a more traditional publisher who would take care of everything for you including all of the editorial decisions or maybe you want to go to self-publishers who can do those for you. As always, really it depends on you doing your research and doing what’s most comfortable for you.

Angela: Exactly. That’s a key for me too is you know if you get in the middle of this and it just becomes too overwhelming, you need to remember that you have to look after yourself first. The manuscript will be there. It is a concrete thing. It will be there when you’re ready. Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to rush and get it out when you’re in the middle of this complicated process of kind of learning what life is like without this person there. And I think almost … I guess there’s kind of like two ways to look at it.

Choosing the literary executor, which I have trouble getting that term out, but that knows you really well and will be very heartfelt in their decisions or choosing one that can kind of turn that emotion off and just make the best decisions for the book. I would say it would depend upon the type of book or the type of relationship you have with the person. But that maybe something for people to think about in the long run is once you are gone, who is going not take care of all these things. Do we even want them taken care of? Do you want your letters and manuscript published after you’re gone or do you want them just kind of hidden away and that’s it? It’s just something to kind of keep in mind as you go through all of this.

Stephanie: Right. And I think, one last thought too is you’ve come across these papers. And if your loved one has not actually started the publication process, ask yourself if they do, if you think they really wanted this work out there. Maybe they did. Maybe it was their dearest ambition and they’ve talked about it for 20 years and you know that they were working on it trying to get it published or maybe it was something they wrote 20 years ago, 30 years ago and lost track of and forgot about it in the business of life.

Angela: Or it’s really private. I mean, just because somebody writes a memoir-

Stephanie: Yes. Exactly.

Angela: Right. Just because somebody writes a memoir doesn’t mean they want it out there for the world to see.

Stephanie: Right. Because sometimes people write for their own benefit, not for anyone else’s.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: There are a lot of things to consider and so if you are trying to get something out there to help I think the phrase you used is to help them find a small piece of immortality, which I really like that phrase, first of all ask yourself if you think they would want that piece of immortality and then remind yourself, like Angela said, this is a concrete thing. It will be there. It will be waiting. It’s still around after your loved one has died and there’s no need to rush into this and things … you can take your time. And to make sure that it is in the best shape that it can be so that you are not acting completely emotionally for example, and trying to rush to get something out there that wouldn’t be the best representation of your loved one and for their immortality.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: And so it will wait and you can just take your time and make those business decisions later and if it’s waited that long, it can wait, even a few more years while you deal with the process of carrying on.

Angela: Yeah, I completely agree. I think this is one of those times that you absolutely have to take care of yourself first. Because if you don’t, you’re going to be a mess through the whole process. It will be a trial and a half. Publishing in and of itself is difficult but take care of yourself first and that’s probably what the person who passed away would want anyway.

Stephanie: I believe so. Of course we can’t speak for everyone but I think I agree.

Angela: Ideally. Ideally.

Stephanie: Yes. I think we’re going to leave it there for now and if you have questions, obviously you can always contact me at stephanies@dogearpublishing.net and please join us next time when we will be speaking about how editors can help you throughout the writing and publishing and process. You know we talk a lot about how editors can be helpful, we’re going to cover specifically from how editors and proofreaders can help you from before you ever put the first word to the page all the way through just before your book is actually printed and sold. Until then, keep writing.

Angela Wade
Angela Wade

I have one goal: to create and shape cohesive, fluid, accessible copy that shifts perspective and makes a connection. With more than twelve years of experience in the writing and editing industry, I accomplish that goal through a passion for brainstorming, researching, planning, writing, and editing everything from grants to novels to marketing materials to websites. My articles, interviews, poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in various print and online publications, including Calyx Journal, Inkwell Magazine, Mindful Homeschooler, and Home Education Magazine.

Stephanie Stringham
Stephanie Stringham

As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on, and I dreamed of getting paid to read books and of helping people. With this dream, I propelled myself through college to earn bachelor’s degrees in English (minor in Writing and Publishing) and Business Administration while working as a peer tutor in the university writing lab and interning with a publishing company in college. After graduation, I stayed on with the publishing company, where I fell in love with book publishing. Editing is my avocation. I began freelancing right after college, while earning a master’s degree in Health Communication and then working as an editor for Eli Lilly and Company and for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. I have edited everything from class materials and newsletters to master’s theses, scholastic imprints, professional journals, and books in all genres. I feel my calling as an editor is not only to improve text but also to teach those with whom I work so they can constantly improve their writing. When I’m not editing books, I’m planting and growing things on a small homestead in Indiana with my husband and two children.