What to do with (unpublished) family manuscripts

Every now and again I get inquiries from family members dealing with a loved one’s possessions who have found a manuscript. Typically they want to know what to do with this compilation of work—and if it’s any good. Sometimes the family is really enthusiastic about the project. Sometimes they haven’t even read it yet. And that’s fair.

If you’re here, maybe that’s you. Don’t worry—you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. But if you’re looking for someone’s opinion on it, try going to a family member or trusted friend before seeking assistance on how to polish the unpublished manuscript. You’ll be able to make a better decision by getting a few opinions on this from people who know you, your family, and ideally the author.

Is it any good?

This one. This question really doesn’t matter as long as you’re getting what you and the family needs out of the process. This question does matter if you’re looking to get it published posthumously and you care about the sales numbers. If you’re looking to monetize the manuscript, it’s going to be an uphill battle. We’ll get into that more later on.

The question you should ask yourself is not “is it any good” but “what does it invite me to think about” because it is a unique look into the interior processing of this person who is no longer with you. Oftentimes it’s a memoir they’ve been poking at for years that contains tons of anecdotes about their life and family. Other times it’s a fantasy story or a thriller or some analysis of their favourite hobby or political opinions. This is also why you should read it before sending it on to someone else . . . you never know what’s in it!

If it’s exceptional, or you just really want to bring it into the world to share beyond the scope of your family, the next steps are very similar to what you’d do if you were the author.

Next steps for handling a manuscript left to you

You need to have permission to publish the manuscript, to start with. This might seem obvious, but that permission typically lies with the executor of the estate or the specific person the manuscript was left to. If that’s not you, you’ll need their go-ahead. Assuming you’re legally entitled to put this manuscript out there, your next steps are pretty consistent with regular publishing.

  1. Define your goals—What do you want the outcome to be? Table book for family and guests or a marketable product or both?
  2. Decide how much work you want to do—Editing is a two-way (or more) street. There will be revisions, questions, comments, and suggestions. Are you prepared to make significant changes or is that thought anathema to you?
  3. Set your budget—There’s a cost to publishing, from the back end editing to the front end design and, ultimately, marketing. It’s hard to say how much this is “worth” to you and the family, but it’s really important to at least ballpark it.
  4. Find the right editor—This comes back to your goals. Pick an editor that matches those as well. Do they work on this type of book? Is their workflow a match for yours?
  5. Research your publisher—It’s important to know your publishing options and rights. Read the contract carefully, ask questions, and make sure you’re happy with your level of control over the project. If you get it traditionally published, you’ll need to research your agent first, and then be extra careful in your reading of the contract.

What to watch out for in a family manuscript

Another push to reading the manuscript yourself (or having a family member do it) is to watch out for anything that’s potentially defamatory. There’s been a lot of media lately about defamation, and maybe you’re sick of it, but it is certainly an important consideration. Guess who’s on the line?

Defamation is more common in memoirs and auto-biographies, but fictional works can step on toes when the characters and events hit too close to home. It’s an expensive headache to give yourself, so be preventative.

Another thing to consider is updating the manuscript. This again comes back to how much work you’re willing to put into it, or pay someone else to put into it. There might be content that isn’t as reflective of their values or current society’s values that should be adjusted or removed. Maybe you’ve got a better plot twist for chapter 13. Since you’re at the helm, it’ll be your call to decide what’s included and what’s to remain a family matter.

It’s a tough balance between following what you think your family member would have wanted and what feels most cathartic to you and the family, but it can be a rewarding process.

Good luck! If you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Published by M Gardner

Editor and writing coach. I'm keen on helping establish and grow unique authorial voices for maximum impact in the reading world.

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