What’s in a Name: What to do when the title of your new novel is already taken?

The title of a book can do so many things. Most importantly, it can attract readers. Sometimes the title alone can make you read the summary and hopefully, buy the book. A bad or strange title can also make you skip over that book entirely. I mean, Yellow Foam might be a great thriller, but the title doesn’t scream thriller or suspense or science fiction to me. You don’t even want to know what it makes me think of – ewww!

Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 11.28.50 AMSome titles are particular to an author’s style. The Firm. The Client. The Racketeer. You know it’s a Grisham book without even seeing the cover. The title is important. But what if the title you’ve chosen is taken?

Most articles on this subject make it clear that titles can be used more than once unless it is uniquely associated with that product.

From Writer’s Digest:

Searching the Internet, I found a published thriller with the same title I plan to use for my own thriller. Can I still use it, or is that illegal?
—Gilbert G.

Much like names, slogans and ideas, titles are not protected by U.S. copyright laws (which is why so many books have the same titles). To qualify for copyright protection, a work needs to possess “a significant amount of original expression”—and while “a significant amount of original expression” isn’t fully defined by hard-and-fast rules, the courts have ruled that expressions as short as book titles do not qualify. This doesn’t mean that you are free to title your next book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, though.

So, my take is that it’s okay to publish a book that already has the same title. Here are some examples from Dawn Embers’ blog:

  • “Book of the Dead” – (2007) Douglas Preston, (2007) Patricia Cornwell, (1991) Tanith Lee, (1990) Robert Richardson, (2004) Ashley McConnell
  • “The Moving Target” – (1949) Ross MacDonald, (1963) W.S. Merwin
  • “Fallen” – (2010) Lauren Kate, (2008) Erin McCarthy, (2008) Claire Delacroix, (2006) David Maine, (2001) Celeste Bradley, (2009) Laury Falter  [at one point I had a wip novel with this as the wip title]
  • “The Fallen” – (2006) Thomas E. Sniegoski, (2006) Paul Langen, (2008) Gwen Hayes, (2006) T. Jefferson Parker, (2010) Mark Terry, (2006) Joshua Dragon and Arthur Breur
  • “The Dragon Reborn” – (1991) Robert Jordan, (2002) Kathleen H. Nelson
  • “Hero” – (2009) Perry Moore, (2010) Mike Lupica, (2007) S.L. Rottman, (2009) Derwin Gray, [was the initial wip title for my adult mutant novel]
  • “Aftermath” – (reprint 2010) James Lane Allen, (reprint 2010) Hilaire Belloc, (2002) Peter Robinson, (1999) Charles Sheffield, (1997) Levar Burton, (2009) Scott Campbell, (2007) Brian Shawver
  • “Against All Odds” – (2009) Irene Hannon, (1991) Kay Thorpe, (2000) Barbara Riefe, (1988) Patricia Rosemoor, (2002) Tricia Pursell, (2000) Russel Keith, (2005) Jasmina M. Svenne
  • “Taken” – (2009) Anya Bast, (2007) Chris Jordan, (2008) Selena Kitt, (2008) Jet Mykles, (2006) Barbara Freethy, (2002) Thomas H. Cook, (2002) Kathleen George, (2010) Debra Lee, (2010) Chloe Stowe

Still, using a title that’s already taken is a personal decision. When I published A Guilty Mind, there were titles that were very close but none were well-known, so it wasn’t really an issue. When I began writing my second novel, I had the title even as I wrote the first chapters. Stay of Execution. When asked what I was working on, the title rolled off my tongue. It fit the work. Earlier this year, I checked and saw that there were other books with this title, but most were non-fiction and had to do with the legal issues associated with execution. Still, Stay of Execution was also the title of a well-received thriller by Quinton Jardine. I wasn’t overly concerned though since it was published almost 10 years ago and it was set in Scotland. The title still worked for me. However, this summer, another thriller titled Stay of Execution was reissued as an e-book. This one is by the deceased and well-respected author, Michael Gilbert. Now that’s two thrillers with the title I had chosen – both by very good authors. The only pro I can take away from this is that I picked a darn good title!

Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 11.27.35 AMI haven’t decided yet whether or not I will tweak my title, leave it, or abandon it altogether. I wonder if it’s even an issue for readers. It still fits the plot beautifully and I can picture the compelling and gripping cover. I am not concerned about copyright issues. I am not concerned that either of those books are top sellers currently, but I do respect both authors. However, like any author, I want my book to pop up immediately if a reader types in the title – not three or four others along with mine. What’s in a title? Maybe only a little. Maybe a lot.

What do you think?

Published by K.L. Murphy

Author of Her Sister's Death and The Detective Cancini Mysteries