Thursday, February 27, 2014

You Can't Copyright A Title...

...which is why I'm calling my next book "Star Wars Episode VII: Harry Potter And The Avengers."

I recently was checking to see if there were any new reviews for any of my books on Amazon -- that's the authorial equivalent of googling oneself -- and I came across this:

Which is a screenshot of a new series, made just for Amazon, called (of course) "The After."  It's a series by Chris Carter, the guy who did the X-Files a million years ago.

Which is bad news for a guy like me, who (a) did not do "X-Files", (b) doesn't have Amazon backing him financially, and (c) has a book called "the After."

(Note the lower-case "t" starting the book title when I write it.  That's the actual title of the book: the After.  But when I did the cover, Amazon wouldn't let me lowercase it probably because (as I only just realized now) I used all-caps in the title.)

My "After" is a 448-page book about a woman who dies and in her afterlife goes on a quest of sorts to try to leave and get back to life, helped by William Howard Taft and her young son.  Chris Carter's After is about

Eight strangers are thrown together by mysterious forces and must help each other survive in a violent world that defies explanation

Wikipedia also says it's post-apocalyptic.  Of course it is.

This is actually not the first time this has happened to me.  Back in 2007 or so, I wrote a serialized story about an astronaut drifting in space and thinking back on how he got there.  I posted that on a blog, and then later put it into a book, publishing it on Amazon on April 5, 2009.

I called that story "Eclipse":

Because, you know, science, plus it had to do with the sun plus there's a whole actual reason in reading the book that you come to realize why it's called "Eclipse" etc. the point is that when I first started writing Eclipse in 2007, I didn't know that someone called "Stephanie Meyers" would in 2009 publish this:


Copyrights -- which protect your intellectual property the very moment you publish them (so putting a story onto the Internet grants it copyright status immediately, and you don't necessarily want to pay to register it, but that's for another posts) -- don't protect titles, slogans, or short phrases.  That doesn't necessarily mean you can copyright your book using popular slogans, either -- you can't say "It's the real thing" because slogans, logos, and the like are subject to trademarks, not copyright.

So why don't you want to simply call your book "Breaking The Walking Dead Bad By Neil Gaiman"?

Three reasons, two sort of obvious, one not.

First, calling your book something that seems an obvious bid for publicity, page rank, or sales figures might backfire with readers and with internet companies.  Google, for example, used to (and might still) punish pages that tried to game the system by removing them from search results; retailers might do the same, or readers might simply decide that your book is more marketing stunt than real book.  I read once, for example, a (non-spec fic) book called

but I was more drawn by that subtitle than the title, and I'm not sure that trick would work on other books. (I also don't remember really anything about the book, other than I think it was about a librarian?) (That lack of memory, too, is probably unrelated to the title.)

Reason two is that readers who are drawn to your book by the title might be more than turned-off by finding out that it's not what it purported to be.  If you really were to call your book "Star Wars Episode VII: Harry Potter And The Avengers," and it had nothing to do with those things, either readers would read the book description and not buy it at all, or (assuming you lied in the book description) would be angry when they found out your book is in fact about a scuba diver who falls in love with a mermaid, but isn't accepted into her world because merpeople don't believe that humans exist and if his love ever confesses to her family what's happened they'll think she's crazy (COPYRIGHT ME, 2014), I'm pretty sure the beauty of your story and it's inverted expectations will be lost on those readers who wanted more lightsabers and/or Hulk.

Reason Three is more subtle but possibly the most important.  If you go to Amazon right now and search simply for "the After" or "Eclipse," you won't find my book anywhere on the first page of results.  The same thing happens with Google.  And probably every search engine.

This is not that big of a problem, as it's unlikely that I will find readers by them randomly searching for a title they don't know exists, which is to say: if you are looking for a book of mine, you probably already know the title and won't end up being confused.  But it does mean that people who hear about my book might have more trouble than usual finding it, and that's not good.  Why have my book buried behind a bunch of other similarly-named books?

My past naivete shows by what I assumed would happen when the "Eclipse" name-doubling occurred: I figured people googling "Eclipse" would come across my book, too, but I quickly learned that search results don't work that way.

(A better way to have your book found is to use good keywords, advertise a lot, and, as I'll discuss in an upcoming article in the magazine, pay Amazon a lot of money.)

In the end, the title of your book counts for a lot; in this month's magazine (our first issue!) I'll have an article that talks about how your title impacts your book sales (so watch this blog for information about that issue, coming out March 1), and this is yet another thing to think about: does your title come too close to another title? Is it likely to be mirrored by another title in the future, because it's so common?

I know, I know: like you needed ANOTHER thing to worry about.

Briane Pagel did actually write "the After" and "Eclipse," which have nothing to do with the apocalypse and/or sparkly vampires.  Find them here, on Amazon.  He also wrote a series of 250-word stories each called Skyfall, after Andrew Leon complained that the James Bond movie of the same title had nothing to do with the title.  You can find those here.  He's currently working on a set of stories expressly titled after sci-fi classics, the first of which is called The Thinking Man's Blade Runner, because the only thing worse than cribbing someone else's title is to do that and then imply your story is smarter.  Find that story here. He is a contributing writer not just here but at Inky, which publishes unique, compelling short stories and essays.


  1. Wow, your title luck sucks! I called mine Finding Esta and searching that gets lots of information of esta financial wotsits instead of my book. The next one will be called Finding Luna so we'll see what happens with that. :)

  2. Yeah I had a good snicker when I saw that show advertised. I remember I wrote a book called First Contact and then like six months later along comes the movie Star Trek: First Contact. I am gratified that no one has taken the title "Time Enough to Say Goodbye" yet. Though the other day I noted ANOTHER book using a Scarlet Knight character, this one a kid's picture book. People are so unoriginal.

  3. Yep, I've had the same thing happen to me with my short story "The Book of Beasts," which is also the title of a classic children's book. The original title of Twinned Universes was going to be Across Two Universes, which I changed because I thought it was too close to Beth Revis's Across the Universe (which she obviously got from the Beatles). I recently learned that a book coming out this year will have a title I plan to use in my forthcoming Season Avatars series: Fifth Season. Time for another title change....

  4. When I was first deciding on a name for Shadow Spinner, I was going to call it ShadowSpinner. There is no other book called that, and I liked it as one word. However, my wife did not like it as one word and kept logic-ing me on it until I decided to make it two words. I did not, however, check for other books called Shadow Spinner. Until after I'd released it with that title. Then I found that there is an older book called Shadow Spinner. But, oh, well.

  5. I think the goal woukd be to create a title that is iconic, like "Catch-22".

    PT, Heinlein had a book called "Time Enough For Love", which was a pretty good book. Where your book dealt with time travel, his starred a man who lives 2000 or so years.

    The thing about the Scarlet Knight is actually interesting. I wonder why scarlet is the predominant color for knights. You should talk about why you chose that.

  6. Titles are tough anyway. Thinking about them strategically makes my head spin. I might name my next release "book" and be done with it.