It’s no surprise that authors agonise over the title to their book. There may be just a few, or perhaps only one, words involved, but whatever is chosen carries a disproportionate amount of weight compared to the 80,000 plus words which will be inside the cover. Titles set the tone of a book, hint at the genre and pull the reader in. It’s the first opportunity to market the book and entice someone to pick it up.
What then, when the ideal title is carefully chosen and a quick Amazon search reveals, oh horror, it is already taken? Well, don’t panic. If you continue your trawl of Amazon, you’ll notice there are dozens and dozens of books with the exact same title as others. Some are by some very established authors too. Stephen King, for example, released Joyland in 2013, just seven years after Emily Schultz published her debut novel of the same name. So, as you can see, it is possible and not at all unusual to use the same title.
Now comes the big BUT….
It is not a complete free-for-all and there are certain rules that govern what you can and can’t do. There is also some basic common sense involved too.
Firstly, with a nod to the marketability of a book, which is what a title can do so effectively, the powerful effect will be somewhat diluted if it is the same title of a book in a similar genre. There is a risk of annoying and alienating readers who pick up one book expecting another. No one wants a reader seething with frustration. (Interestingly, Ms Shultz did see a sales spike when King published his Joyland.Surprisingly, some of the people who went on to read her book even thought it had been written by the bestselling author of horror and suspense and left reviews praising his new ‘warm’ style!)
When it comes to copyright law, book titles are not deemed to be copyrightable. It has been decided that names, titles and other short phrases do not meet the requirements. As long as the words and phrases inside the book itself are not copied or adapted, there is no danger of copyright infringement.
One law which it is possible to fall foul of is trademark infringement. While it is not possible to register the title of a stand-alone literary work, there is provision to register as a trademark for a series of works. For this, think of something like the distinctive ‘For Dummies’series. For Dummies is a registered trademark for a series of ‘non fiction books, guides, manuals and catalogues on a wide variety of topics’. Oh, and if you are drawn to writing a book with Harry Potterin the title, forget it. Harry Potter is trademarked as a series of novels for young people.
The final consideration is a rule concerning passing off. If you were to call your book Conspiracy, that would be fine. It is a general (although often used) title that doesn’t really separate it from the others. However, if you opted to call your thriller The Da Vinci Code, you could get yourself into a lot of trouble. A specific title like this is very much associated with a bestselling series and it is more than likely that any reader would be expecting to read a novel by one Dan Brown.
As a rule, I would generally steer away from a title that has been previously used, unless the book is entirely unrelated to its ‘twin’. Apart from anything, you don’t want to risk inadvertently getting another author’s bad reviews. Or, worse still ‘giving away’ any five star reviews of your own work.