By BARRY NEWMAN
HADLEY, Mass.—The Green Library at Stanford University houses William Saroyan's mustache clippings. Timothy Leary's Nintendo Power Glove has been acquired by the New York Public Library. At the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin, Norman Mailer's bar mitzvah speech is preserved in perpetuity.
Authors, take notice: Remember those crates of scratch pads and tax returns in the garage? The trunkful of hotel bills and childhood doodles in the garden shed? Don't junk any of it—not before you call up somebody in Ken Lopez's line of work.
Mr. Lopez, who has a book-jammed office in this small town, is a broker—one of a dozen in the country—who deals in the flotsam of authorship. He sells to rich research libraries, which sort it and shelve it so scholars can mine it for clues to creativity.
"If you had William Faulkner's laundry list, would you care?" Mr. Lopez said not long ago. "The answer is, 'Yes.' So if it's true for Faulkner," he added rhetorically, "it could be true for you."
Being dead helps but isn't required. Mailer sold his 1,062 boxes for $2.5 million in 2005 and died in 2007. In 2003, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sold 83 Watergate boxes, also to the Ransom, for $5 million. After 20 years of marketing for the likes of William S. Burroughs (dead) and Peter Matthiessen (alive), Mr. Lopez puts prices for interesting paper piles at $30,000 to $300,000.
His emphasis is on the paper. Digitization has made correspondence more searchable but less revealing. Still, Wendy Cope, a poet of light verse, recently sold the British Library 40,000 emails for $50,000. "A lot of them are extremely boring," she told the BBC. One of her poems explains why. "Don't answer emails," it goes, "when you're drunk."
Libraries Collect Authors' Clutter
Typescripts that used to be cut, pasted and blue-penciled are spotlessly digital now. Word processing has obscured the process of writing. "The archaeology of it, seeing paths not taken," Mr. Lopez said early one Monday. "At this point, that'll all be lost."
Long-haired and 60 years old, he had just driven a Penske rental truck from Arizona with the trove of a Native American writer, N. Scott Momaday. His office this day was crowded with the uncensored (and as yet unsold) dispatches of George Weller, a reporter who sneaked into Nagasaki after the atomic bomb dropped. In tight quarters, Mr. Lopez repacked Mr. Momaday and got him on the road again—for New Haven.
Yale University's Beinecke Library would be the new home of the Momaday archive—100 boxes of manuscripts and shopping lists. "I wish I'd kept it all in longhand," says Mr. Momaday, who is 78 and lives in Florida now. "It would have been much more valuable." Yale won't name its price. Mr. Momaday will: $500,000. Mr. Lopez gets 15%.
Once, writers like Mr. Momaday gave their stuff away. But in 1969, Congress ended tax deductions for creators of their own gifts. Richard Nixon signed the law and, in donating his papers, ran afoul of it himself when his advisers tried to claim a deduction after the law took effect. Dozens of libraries with big budgets have since been bidding up the stashes in authorial attics. Hundreds, less endowed, are left with shelf space reserved for literary altruists.
"Authors would love for us to have their archives, but they want to sell," says Chantel Dunham, who raises money for the University of Georgia's libraries in Athens, Ga. "People ask for hundreds of thousands. We're a state institution. We can't pay anything like that."
Emory University, 65 miles away in Atlanta, can. In 2006, for an undisclosed amount, Salman Rushdie sold it 200 "falling apart, crappy cardboard boxes," as he said at the collection's opening in 2010. After Emory's archivists put his "mess" in order, Mr. Rushdie capitalized on their tidiness to research his own 2012 memoir.
Some authors, like Philip Roth, say they want their scribbles burned after they die, so the public won't root through them. (Kafka tried that; it didn't work.) Some toss their trash, like ordinary folk do. A few devote deep thoughts to the fate of their Post-it Notes.
"What if I'm one of those people that people study?" says Ronlyn Domingue. "What am I going to leave behind for them?"
Ms. Domingue, who is 43 and lives in Baton Rouge, has one published novel with two on the way. She writes in longhand, types it up, makes changes by hand, and dumps it all into a box in her closet marked "Archive." She has willed the box to Louisiana State University, her alma mater. "I never thought of asking for money for it," she says.
Ms. Domingue hasn't met Mr. Lopez.
"A lot of writers don't know about this market," he was saying as he backed the Penske truck into a dock at a Yale warehouse and delivered Mr. Momaday's crates into the hands of their buyers.
Four archivists wheeled them into a room of wood-topped tables. Mike Rush lifted the lid on Mr. Momaday's LP records. "The first few minutes get your heart racing," he said, flipping through them.
On the floor and surrounding shelves, the accumulations of others were in early stages of screening. A box from a photographer, Lee Friedlander, had recently yielded a salt shaker that contained a grayish powder. It turned out to be the ashes of Robert Heinecken, an artist who died in 2006, mailed on his behalf as a posthumous gift.
"That was fun," said Mr. Rush, reaching into playwright John Guare's cache. He extracted an envelope from which slid five watches and three wallets, one containing a note for 200 Greek drachmas. Mr. Rush said, "We get uncashed checks. We send them back, if recent."
The Beinecke doesn't make its own checkbook public, but it buys enough stuff each year to fill 1,000 feet of shelving; 7,000 feet of it has yet to be cataloged. So Mr. Momaday's boxes would have to wait their turn.
Mr. Rush, however, was taking one step right away: Bagging them up to be left for three days, at 30 degrees below zero, in Yale's industrial blast freezer. It's one thing to buy the contents of a living writer's cellar, but the Beinecke Library had to be sure that nothing else Mr. Lopez sold it was still alive.
Write to Barry Newman at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared January 3, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: As Trash Goes, Authors' Clutter In the Right Hands Is Very Bankable.