Can You Publish a Book for a Deceased Person?

publishing a book for a deceased person

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

When a loved one dies, family members may want to preserve the deceased’s memories or extend their legacy by publishing their manuscripts, diaries, poems, and/or letters. While publishing a book for a deceased person can allow for the preservation and sharing of the author’s work, it is a delicate endeavor that requires careful consideration and adherence to legal and ethical guidelines.

Publishing a book for a deceased person involves several important considerations.

Copyright laws and inheritance laws

Before publishing a book for a deceased person, it is crucial to understand the applicable copyright and inheritance laws.

Copyright laws vary by country, but generally, the copyright duration extends for several decades after the author’s death. In the US, for any copyright-eligible work of art created after January 1, 1978, that term is 70 years after the author’s death. In works created by multiple authors, that term is 70 years after the death of the last living contributor.

Works that were made anonymously, under a pseudonym, or as works-for-hire are protected for either 95 years from the year the work was first published, or 120 years after its creation, whichever comes first.

If the copyright has not expired, these works are treated as property and local inheritance laws apply. Unless the deceased’s will states otherwise, ownership is typically transferred to the heir of the estate.

According to the Copyright Alliance:

Once ownership has been passed on, the new owner may generally use and license your works in whatever way they wish. If the rights to the works are co-owned, any profits made from the use of the work might need to be split amongst all of the rights holders, but usually permission will not need to be secured from the other co-owners if one of the rights holders wishes to use the work non-exclusively.

If the copyright has expired, the works usually go into the public domain.

So, before you do anything, familiarize yourself with the relevant laws — or better yet, hire an estate attorney — to ensure compliance and respect for intellectual property rights.

Respecting the author’s wishes

Respecting the author’s wishes is paramount when considering posthumous publishing. If the author expressed a clear intention to keep it as an unpublished work, it is essential to honor their wishes. However, if the author’s intentions are unknown, it may be necessary to consult with a family member or estate representatives to make informed decisions.

Impact on the author’s legacy

Publishing a book for a deceased person has the potential to shape and extend their literary legacy. It allows their ideas and stories to reach a wider audience and contribute to ongoing discussions in the literary world. Consider how publishing the work aligns with the author’s legacy and whether it accurately represents their intentions and artistic vision.

Preservation and restoration

Depending on the condition of the author’s manuscript or existing drafts, there might be a need for preservation and restoration efforts. It is essential to ensure that the text is accurately represented, maintaining the author’s voice and style.

In addition to copyright and inheritance laws, there may be other legal aspects to consider when publishing a book for a deceased person. This can include contracts, agreements, and any existing licensing or permissions that need to be addressed. Getting legal advice from professionals experienced in intellectual property and publishing law can help navigate these complexities.

Intellectual property rights

When publishing a book for a deceased person, it is crucial to understand and secure the necessary intellectual property rights. This includes obtaining the rights to publish, distribute, and reproduce the work. If the author had previously assigned these rights to a publisher or other entity, it may be necessary to negotiate and acquire the necessary permissions.

Examples of successful works from a deceased person

Numerous works have been published posthumously. Notable examples include:

  • The Diary of Anne Frank. Anne Frank’s diary, written during her time in hiding during World War II, was published after her death and has become an influential testament to the human spirit.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series was published after his death, winning international acclaim and captivating readers with its complex characters and gripping storytelling.
  • The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. This collection, published posthumously, contains previously unpublished stories and presents a fresh perspective on the Grimm brothers’ renowned fairy tales.
  • The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Published after Wallace’s death, this novel showcases his distinctive style and explorations of contemporary society.

How to ethically publish a posthumous book

six months to publishingPublishing a posthumous book raises ethical considerations that should be carefully addressed.

  1. Consider the impact of publishing the book on the author’s reputation and personal life. Evaluate whether the content aligns with societal standards and values. In some cases, additional editing or contextualization may be necessary to ensure the work is presented ethically and respectfully.
  2. Balance artistic integrity and editorial decisions. When publishing a book for a deceased person, it is important to strike a balance between preserving the author’s artistic integrity and making necessary editorial decisions. This can include proofreading, copyediting, and even completing unfinished works based on the author’s existing material or notes. Collaboration with editors and literary scholars can help ensure the final product remains true to the author’s vision.
  3. Transparency and disclosure. Communicate transparently with readers about the book’s posthumous nature. Provide clear information about the author’s death, the circumstances surrounding the publication, and any editorial choices made. This transparency helps readers understand and appreciate the context in which the work was created.
  4. Consult with the author’s estate or designated representatives. Engage in open communication with the author’s estate or designated representatives. They can provide valuable insights into the author’s intentions, preferences, and any specific instructions related to the publication of their work. Collaborating with them can help maintain the author’s legacy and ensure the book is published in a manner consistent with their wishes.
  5. Sensitivity to cultural and social contexts. Different cultures and societies may have varying views on posthumous publication. Consider the cultural and social contexts in which the author lived and their work was created. Be mindful of any potential sensitivities or ethical concerns that may arise, and take appropriate steps to address them.

How do royalties work with deceased authors?

The issue of royalties with deceased authors depends on various factors.

  • Copyright ownership. If a copyright is in effect, the royalties typically go to the copyright holder, which may be the author’s estate or designated beneficiaries. Ensure you understand the copyright ownership and royalty distribution agreements before proceeding with publication.
  • Negotiating rights. If the copyright has expired and the work is in the public domain, there may not be any royalties to be paid. However, it is crucial to clarify the rights and permissions associated with the work to avoid any legal issues.
  • Estate planning and financial arrangements. It is advisable to work closely with the author’s estate or designated representatives to address financial arrangements, including the distribution of royalties. They can provide guidance on the appropriate handling of financial matters and ensure the author’s legacy is properly managed.

If you are considering self-publishing a work on behalf of a deceased individual, consult legal professionals, estate representatives, and experts in the publishing industry to ensure a thoughtful and responsible approach. By doing so, you may be able to share the author’s work with the world while honoring their memory and artistic vision.

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    • That was the first book I thought of! I almost thought to add that when editing, but felt there was enough included as it was.


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