What’s in a Title? (Writing Question #4)

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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.

0 Responses

  1. Harry
    | Reply

    My only concern with popular titles is that many purchases are made on the internet nowadays and the possibility for someone ordering the wrong book, or for an online bookseller mixing up your book with someone else’s would be higher with the same title than with a different title. I say higher because I ordered your book Panglor and got Pauline Ashwell’s novel Project Farcry instead and those titles share only the first letter.

    I say use the title you want.

  2. Harry
    | Reply

    And they still have those ones goofed up at some retailers. Looking at http://www.booksamillion.com/ncom/books?pid=0812551672 I see the cover of Project Farcry, by both Jeffrey Carver AND Pauline Ashwell but the description is of Panglor…

  3. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    I have been trying for years to stamp out that erroneous linking with Project Farcry. No matter how many emails I send to various people, including Amazon and my publisher, the error never goes away. All I know is that it lies deep in the bowels of some widely used database, apparently immune to repair.

    Maybe someday I’ll meet Pauline Ashwell and we’ll comiserate together.

  4. Tim
    | Reply

    I actually nearly purchased Project Farcry a couple years ago because I thought you wrote it at first.

  5. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    I hope Pauline Ashwell doesn’t read your comment, Tim. 🙂 Actually, I was thinking of ordering Project Farcry myself, just to see what book this was that kept getting my name attached to it. Never got around to it, though.

  6. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    I just thought of another title…um, overlay. A couple of years after my Star Rigger’s Way was published, John DeChancie came out with a book called Starrigger. I was mildly irritated at the time, but I got over it soon enough; after all, it was his right. (His riggers, unlike mine, were interstellar truck drivers!)

  7. Harry
    | Reply

    I have Pauline’s book and quite enjoyed reading it. It is not the most sophisticated SF book ever written, and likely has a youth audience, but it contains some interesting concepts and keeps the reader interested. I was not unhappy about the mixup after reading the book. I eventually got Panglor which I also enjoyed reading.

    Pauline has only one other novel in print so I assume she moved onto something else.

  8. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Unless “Pauline Ashwell” is a pseudonym, used and put out to pasture. (I actually have no idea.)

  9. Harry
    | Reply

    You’re right. I looked it up and her real name is Pauline Whitby. She published a few short stories in Analog and Asimov at least as recently as 2001. Her birth year is listed as 1928 so she is wise but I believe she is still with us.

  10. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Pauline Whitby? Huh. She’s not in my SFWA directory. You know anything more about her?

  11. Harry
    | Reply

    Just what I’ve found online, nothing more. There is no “about the author” blurb in the paperback of “Project Farcry”.

    Harry

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