Honoring an Author’s Work Through Posthumous Publishing
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.
If publishing is tricky, however, posthumous publishing can be downright daunting, as you’re dealing with not only the business side of things but also the emotional side. You want to make the author’s legacy the best it can possibly be, to honor the person who is gone and to share a bit of the person you loved with the world—but you may know next to nothing about writing, let alone publishing. Today, we’re going to walk you through the process, step by step.
Before we begin, please note that this article assumes you have executor powers over the author’s estate. If this is not the case, you will need to work with—and gain written permission from—someone who does. If you have any questions about this process (or any other legal issues), please consult a lawyer who is familiar with literary executorships.1
As an executor, the first question to answer is whether the manuscript you’ve found is complete and in its final form. The only way to know for certain, unless you’ve been previously told by the author or someone else in the know, is to research. Take a look at the author’s hard copies and computer data. Are you finding lots of rewrites? Sticky notes or annotations with ideas for changes? Files with different dates? Discrepancies in chapter numbers and content? When you read the manuscript, does it feel finished, or are there gaps within the text that lead you to believe there is still work to be done?
In the best-case scenario, the manuscript is finished, edited, and ready for publication, which leaves you only with the task of finding a suitable publisher. The second-best scenario is that the work is complete but has not yet been edited, in which case your job is to find a reliable editor with whom you can work closely, have the book copyedited, and then decide on the best publishing route.
In the case of an unfinished manuscript, however, you, as the executor, will have to decide if there is enough material to move ahead with publishing or if the project is simply too underdeveloped to pursue in its current state (i.e., the last half of the book is missing or hasn’t been written yet). Again, the best course of action is to consult with a trusted editor, who can help you weed through what you have, what’s missing, and what the next steps should be.
If you decide to go through with publishing an incomplete manuscript, finding and working with an experienced ghostwriter may help you bring the project to a successful conclusion.2 What you’re looking for is someone who will study the overall style and tone of the manuscript, then complete the project in a similar voice, using the author’s notes and research as guidance. And remember: The author’s name—not the ghostwriter’s—will be the one on the cover.
There are no easy answers when it comes to losing a loved one, but finding ways to keep their memory alive can help us move forward with the grieving process. Posthumous publication is one way to accomplish that. But it’s not the only way, and if you find yourself overwhelmed by the road ahead, take time to process the loss before moving forward—and never hesitate to ask for help from a qualified and impartial third party. Remember why you’re taking on this task: to share your loved one’s work with the world and help them find a small piece of immortality.