I live in a city that is, by and large, comprised of retirement communities. Many members of the local writer’s group are retirees. As such, our group tends to get a somewhat regular (and sobering) reminder—writers we may be, immortal we are not. About two months ago we lost another member. This past week, a loved one came to the meeting and presented us with a two-part conundrum.
Conundrum Part 1: Writer had kept a handwritten list of who he’d queried (with contact information). Loved One would like to notify agents that he is deceased. Trouble is, Loved One does not have access to Writer's e-mail address, does not know when his queries were sent, does not know which projects he’d submitted to whom, does not know if he sent out fulls or partials, and is not comfortable with e-mail (even though Writer was).
1. Should Loved One contact the agencies on the list?
2. If so, what method would be an appropriate way to contact agencies regarding the death of Writer? Phone? E-mail?
3. What would be the best/ most helpful way to break the news? Should she just give them his name and e-mail address and hope they can track him down in their inbox?
I’m not sure contacting an agency( especially a no response means no agency) with the bad news is a good idea, especially if things are at the query stage/if a form rejection had already been sent.
Conundrum Part 2: Despite Loved One’s desire to notify agents of Writer’s death, she does not want to pull his work from consideration. She has access to his manuscripts. She would really like a fellow member of the group to take charge of Writer’s manuscripts. No one in the group has said yes. I certainly don't plan to. That said, I understand Loved One’s desire to have Writer’s work repped and published posthumously.
4. What steps can Loved One take with Writer’s work, if any, to keep it on the road to traditional publication?
5. Is there anything the members can do to help?
Conundrum Part 1:
1. It's polite to give it a try, just in case things had moved beyond query/form rejection.
2 and 3: Email ONLY. Tell them the author has been checked out of the Library of Life, and thank them for their consideration. This doesn't happen all that often, but it's not unheard of. You'll need to provide his name, his email address, and where he lives (city, state.) The agent can cross-reference from there.
Conundrum Part 2 is less easy.
4. It doesn't matter what the surviving spouse wants here. Almost no agent I can think of would take on a client who is actually not-alive. The work doesn't need to be pulled, most agents will take "I'm sorry he's no longer alive" as a reason to pass.
The death of an author before submission generally means the work isn't going to be published by a trade publisher. Self publishing is still an option, but generally a debut novel after death is a remote possibility.
5. Partnering with a surviving spouse for the publication of the absent spouse's work is a recipe for pain and suffering (yours) bar none. Plus, it's all done on spec. As you mentioned in your first line: long life is not granted to all. Using your time wisely seems like a good idea. In other words: on your own writing.
Bottom line: don't offer to help with the manuscripts. Don't make encouraging noises. Just let the surviving spouse talk and be as gently comforting as possible.
I did have a prospect who checked out on me some years back. A writer whom I liked a great deal was revising a novel (we'd done several rounds) when he went silent. I didn't really worry, but then his brother got in touch with the bad news. I did appreciate knowing that he had stopped returning emails cause he was gone, not because he'd lost interest or had moved on to another agent.
I still think about the writer and wish I could get that novel into print somehow. It certainly wasn't ready for publication, but with some more work we would have had a chance.
Yes, there are isolated instances of books being published post-life, but they are ISOLATED and, at least the ones I know of, happened quite a while ago.
This should serve as a reminder to every writer out there: keep good query records. And make sure someone else knows where they are and how to read them.
And one of these days I'll tell you the story from the other side: what happens when an agent kicks.