For My Publishing Business Heirs
As a sole proprietor with a successful publishing business and no employees who know the ropes, it's time to do a little estate planning. Should I get run over by a Smith College courtesy van while out running through the campus, I'd hate to look up from, I mean down from heaven, and see that some con artists had taken over my websites and that my books had all gone out of print that year. While it's difficult to predict the future, if I stopped writing tomorrow and simply allowed the business to wind down with minimal supervision, I estimate it would bring in couple hundred thousand dollars before losing commercial relevancy. Yet I would roll over in my grave with surprise if you could find somebody willing to fork over just $50,000 up front for the whole shooting match, and I'd be very disappointed if you took it.
Running the business in a holding pattern will require very little money or time. There's the $10/month for hosting my three websites ($360/year) and $12/title/year for the five books I currently have in print through Lightning Source. The eBook download service I'm using, e-junkie.com, automatically charges my business PayPal account $5/month. Some years down the road, you may want to extend the registration of the Internet domains, but I've paid for the next ten years in advance on the important ones. It's a good time to mention that any mail you get stating that a domain is expiring is probably a scam, it’s easy to check expiration dates with WhoIs on the networksolutions site. That's it for regularly occurring expenses.
On the income side, whoever is assigned to administer the business will have to get a new EIN from the IRS (free) and plug it into the payee information for the existing corporate payers, Lightning Source, Amazon, Google and PayPal. Since all of those payers are tied into my current business bank account, hopefully the bank will let you substitute that EIN for my social security number without changing the account number. If the account number needs to be changed (or if you choose to use another bank for the business account), you’ll need to plug the new bank account number into the payer accounts as well. Note that they all make automatic monthly deposits or send checks, with the exception of PayPal which requires manual (online) transfers.
Somebody should be assigned to do a daily check of e-mail, the eBook download site and a few other items - less than fifteen minutes a day all told. You should set up an autoresponder on e-mail telling people I should have been more careful crossing the street, but it's still important to check the mail in case there's a customer who wants to order a ton of books or is asking for a refund. Other than those two things, ignore all e-mail that's not personal or from a business affiliate (like Amazon, Google or PayPal) and never click on links in those e-mails because they are often fakes. Just go to the affiliate site and log in, if there are any genuine problems, that's where they'll show up. The reason to check the eBook download site every day is to make sure that customers have actually downloaded the ebook they paid for. Maybe twice or three times a month, somebody misses the download link and their spam filter eats the confirmation e-mail. You can contact them and resend the link or you can just issue a refund through PayPal, takes two seconds.
You should also visit the fonerbooks.com website once a day, just to make sure it's up and hasn't been hacked. It wouldn't hurt to get into the habit of choosing a different page to look at each day, just to get an idea of how things work. If something appears wrong, call my Internet host, he actually answers the phone or returns calls. He would be able to restore the site from a back-up if it's been hacked and give you a new password. If a couple years go by and he's quit the business or his area of the country has made the Internet illegal, sign up with another $10/month host who answers the phone, and have somebody upload the exact copies of the websites that I'll leave you. The websites are all simple HTML, which means they don't require any special hosting or setup, the whole thing won't take a half hour. Then go to NetworkSolutions, where I registered the domains, and change the addresses to point to the new host, or call cousin Ernie and ask him to do it. Everything will be back to normal within a couple hours.
Don't sweat the small stuff or start thinking about cosmetic changes. I've been doing this since 1995 and everything is the way it is for a reason. Some small, well meant changes could end up costing me, I mean the family, a lot of money. If something goes wrong, like one of the services the business depends on goes out of business, between family and the friends contacts I'll leave you, it can all be worked out in short time. Don't go shopping for new partners without the need, that’s just looking for trouble. Don't bother replying to people who want to advertise on the site, most are only semi-legitimate and even the serious ones will do more harm than good.
It would also be a good idea to check the in-print books on Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com once in a while, though dealing with the occasional problems or errors that creep up there will be a job for one of my publisher friends. In general, the printed book part of the business changes more slowly and runs into fewer glitches than the electronic side, but those problems are harder to get corrected.
My fondest hope is that somebody in the family will take a genuine interest in the business and continue to grow it. There are plenty of published authors in the current generation, and given the educational paths their kids are taking, work that doesn't require a degree and offers flexible hours would be right up their line. Between the three websites, there's plenty of groundwork laid for different businesses, and maybe someday I'll write up another plan suggesting the best way to expand without accidentally damaging the ongoing revenue. If the book designers in the family want to start a business offering services for self publishers, owning a site that ranks in the top 10 in Google for "Self Publishing" is a great place to start. Anybody in the family who's really interested should start watching the website traffic every day to learn the who, what, when, where and how of why people visit and what they might be interested in that we don't already have. It would also be a good idea for that person to read through my publishing blog, starting with the oldest posts. Would take a couple months at a half hour a day, I wouldn't advise going faster.
Don’t try to make any sense of the stuff on the hard drive of whatever laptop is left behind. There aren’t any business records you need, just historical data, and the last back-up website copies I leave on DVD are best for emergency repairs. I have also started (today) to make a conscious effort to keep an official copy of each website in the “/websites“ directory on the C: drive. There are multiple other experimental copies and fragments on the laptop, ignore those.
Various contacts and accounts:
I didn't see the need here to share all of my account log-ins and emergency contacts with the general public, but it came to about two pages of accounts, with brief descriptions of who they are and what they are for. You may have noticed that the basic continuity plan has a disaster recovery plan mixed in - how to cope with hacked websites, book catalog problems, and a reference to the contacts to call in case some expertise is required.
If I knew that my heirs would be in a hurry to either sell the publishing business for quick cash or to take it over as a career for one or more of them, I would have taken a very different approach. This business continuity plan is written for what I currently see as the most likely scenario, a gentle wind-down. The fact that the business has no debts and no employees means that my heirs aren't under any pressure to do anything, other than comply with tax laws. If you're currently pouring money into a business investment that you believe will pay off big if it can only be completed, you should try to line up somebody who will be able to do that work and make them part of your continuity plan.
The amount of detail you need to put into contingency planning depends on both the complexity of your business and the probability of your heirs actually following your instructions. If your family never takes your advice while you're alive, it's probably a waste of time to go into great detail about what they should do once you're dead. My own goal was to provide enough detail to get the job done without getting into so many specifics that it starts looking too difficult. I know my family well enough to know that in the latter case, they would ask people in their community for references, and end up hiring some clown who makes a good appearance. The clown would then find ways to squander the income, claiming I left things in a mess, and then destroy the ongoing business in an attempt to look proactive. Good thing I won't be around to see it.