So I’m feeling a little grumpy today, and the reason is that, once again, one of my titles has been stolen. Stolen. Well…not stolen exactly, but used by another author before I could finish the book I was planning to use it on.
The first time was last fall, when I learned that Greg Benford had a new book coming out by the name of The Sunborn. My stomach flip-flopped when I heard this. Anyone who’s been following my work knows that I’ve been working, roughly forever, on the fourth book of The Chaos Chronicles—said volume to be titled, Sunborn. I often struggle to find titles for my books, but this was one of the rare ones that came to me like a gift from Heaven as I was outlining the story, about a century ago. And now here it is, on the cover of someone else’s book. (Benford’s novel The Sunborn has been published, to good reviews I believe—which is unsurprising, since Benford’s an excellent writer. My novel, Sunborn, remains in my office as a rough draft, with a great deal of heavy rewriting standing between it and publication.)
I suspect no foul play, I hasten to add. Writers come up with the same or similar titles all the time. Titles can’t be copyrighted, and some of them get recycled over and over. (In fact, it was only after my novel, Strange Attractors, was published that I learned the title had been used by young adult SF writer William Sleator, and by Australian SF writer Damien Broderick.) Still, I was plenty frustrated.
Today it happened again. I was reading some industry press, and what do I see but a new book from Robert Reed, called The Well of Stars—which just happens to be the title I’d already given to the not-yet-written sequel to Eternity’s End, or close to it. (Journey to the Well of Stars was how I’d put it in my notes. Another title that I knew was just right: Eternity’s End, er, ends with a distinct pointer toward a future journey to a place called…mm…the Well of Stars. You can read it—it’s right there in the book.) Augghhhh! How does this keep happening? I sent an exasperated note to my editor, who also is Reed’s editor, saying, roughly, “Gahh! Robber! Thief! Criminal activist!” I got back a note saying, “Gosh, sorry, I’m the one who gave him that title, didn’t know you were planning to use it. Next time, tell me.” Gaahhhhhhh!!! I know exactly where his subconscious got that title to pass on to his other author—from me, because I did tell him. Gahh!!! That was when I wrote back and promised to do terrible things to him for his sins.
Which, of course, I would never do, because we’re friends and we’ve worked together for years and he’s done plenty of good things for me. (But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a strong desire to wring his neck.)
So. What’s a title worth? Should I throw up my hands and concede the territory and think up new titles for both of my novels? Or dig in my heels and say, no, those titles are perfect for my books, and I’m going to use them no matter who else has used them first? Honestly, I don’t know, and I have a while before I have to decide. Legally, there’s no issue. Ethically, ditto. It’s more a matter of perception. Do I want it to look like I’ve copied someone else? By the time my books make it into print, will anyone even remember, or care? Will the titles evoke what I want in readers perusing the shelves? Will they sell copies? I dunno. I just dunno.