October is always American Archives Month, which is of course when archivists don their colorful costumes and dance in the stacks after assembling their shrine to Henry the Record Keeper, as portrayed by Ernest Borgnine in the classic film RED. May his cozy cardigan keep us warm in the year to come.
Am I the only one who’s ever actually created a shrine to Henry? Yes.
Will I ever stop trying to make it a thing? No.
After the celebrations, we take time to talk with our friends and family about what it is we do (no, we’re not anarchists, well not all of us at least). Given my connections to the romance community, I always like to talk about how authors can preserve their own literary papers. Thus the topic of today’s post!
I have heard from countless authors that because of their relative level of fame, they don’t think their papers are worth saving. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even if your papers don’t end up at your alma mater or some other institutional archive, as an author, you are a business, and archiving your papers is a good business decision. Beyond keeping a record of your work process as an author, keeping good records can help you be ready for things like rights reversions, contract negotiations, or even chasing that scammer who copied and pasted from one of your books. Also, under the current copyright laws, copyright can last for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. Keeping good records will help your family protect your intellectual property! What I’m trying to say is, it is not vanity to keep copies of the hard work you’ve done.
So what stuff should you be keeping, whether it’s for posterity or business purposes? I tend to split it into three categories. The first is anything that documents your creative process, such as:
- Story ideas, notes, and research
- Query letters and other early-stage correspondence with agents or publishers
- Contest submissions
- Drafts and manuscripts
- Correspondence with publishers
- Edited manuscripts and foul matter
- Galley proofs and ARCs
- Anything relating to cover art such as publisher information sheets, sketches or artworks, and proofs.
The second is promotional materials:
- Conference/signing swag like bookmarks, buttons, cover flats, promotional postcards. NOTE: It’s okay to throw out perishable stuff or anything that smells. You’ll get tired of having that in your archive real fast.
- Clippings of reviews, interviews and profiles. If you have recordings of TV interviews or podcasts, those are great to hang on to as well.
- Fan mail/emails- in addition to making you feel good, it’s great to have for posterity!
The third is business papers. These are less for posterity and more to make sure you’ve got everything in order:
- Financial records- bank statements, cancelled checks, royalty statements, bills, etc. These should generally be kept for a limited period of time. Check with your tax professional for advice on how long to hold onto these items.
- Contract materials- given the nature of the publishing history, you should hang onto contract related items permanently, and be sure that your family knows where to find them.
This advice applies to electronic records as well as paper records. If you’re working mostly with electronic records, make sure you’re keeping multiple copies of things- just make sure you’re not relying entirely on cloud storage or hard drive storage. Remember that those things can go away at a moment’s notice!
For paper records, you can find acid-free boxes (and sometimes acid-free folders as well) at Staples and other supply stores. Remember that paper, like digital bits, is decaying all the time whether we like it or not- our goal is to keep it for as long as possible. So keep it out of light and in spaces that don’t have wild swings in temperature and humidity. This goes for print books as well. The ideal temperature for paper is something like 65-72 with a humidity of 40-55 percent, but that’s not always possible- consistency is often a more achievable goal.
This post is far from comprehensive, but it should give you a place to start. Lynne Thomas wrote a more comprehensive post a few years ago for science fiction writers; I highly recommend taking a look. If you’re looking to actually donate your papers, the Society of American Archivists has a helpful outline of what to think about and look for.
If you’re an author and you’ve got questions about your literary papers that I didn’t cover here, I am always happy to try and help or point you in the right direction, just shoot me an email. I hope this is helpful! If there are other topics relating to archives or collecting you’d like me to cover, just leave a comment!