Monday, 14 May 2018

Guest post on book titles, 'Sense of Entitlement' by Helen Matthews

I'm delighted to welcome Helen Matthews to my blog for a very interesting guest post on book titles.  Over to Helen... 

'Sense of Entitlement'

There’s no copyright on book titles so why is it so painful for a writer when we discover our perfect title has already been chosen by someone else? 

I’m not the world’s speediest writer. Developing themes and researching the background to my novels is part of the joy of writing. Sometimes it takes me years, not months, of hard labour – creating, workshopping, editing, rewriting – to hone a novel into a shape where it’s ready to meet the world. During this incubation period, I grow to love my characters and their stories. I also become attached to my working title and convince myself it’s ‘the one’.

Back in October 2017, I attended the Killer Women crime writing conference in London. The novel I was working on had been in its gestation period for eighteen months and was close to the final draft. The conference was inspiring, and I left feeling positive and upbeat, clutching my goodie bag of free books – Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of upcoming titles.

On the train home, I dug my hand into the bag to explore my haul. The first book I pulled out was The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan, scheduled for publication in early 2018. Feeling a little bit sick, I read the blurb, then turned it back over to the front cover. No, it definitely was still called The Ruin - the exact, same title as my own novel-in-progress. That title was perfect for my story, which opens with a family impulse-buying a tumbledown property in France. But Dervla’s book was coming out before mine and she’d also scooped #TheRuin hashtag.

I went back to the drawing board and scribbled more spider diagrams and mind maps until I came up with a new title Lies Behind the Ruin. If anything, this strikes me as slightly more menacing than the original. I’m hoping this novel will be published in the near future so you can tell me if it fits.

But why was I so bothered? With no copyright on book titles to worry about, I could have kept the same title. I guess I like the idea of exclusivity.

Recently I pre-ordered a brilliant debut novel called She’s Not There, by a writer I know called Tamsin Grey. A few days later, an alert popped up in my Twitter feed, telling me that She’s Not There had been published. This seemed earlier than I was expecting. I checked it out on Amazon and discovered this particular book entitled She’s Not There was by Joy Fielding, a bestselling author of psychological thrillers. I scrolled a bit further and discovered a list of books with this identical title by writers including P J Parrish, Marla Madison and even She’s Not There: a life in two genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan!

It troubled me that someone who wanted to order Tamsin’s novel might click on the wrong one, though the covers are distinctive. You might think that no one would be that daft, or tired, or drunk to make such a mistake, but I’ve done this myself, so perhaps I’m all of those things.  
A while back, and I’m sure it still happens, scammers published books with identical or similar titles to novels that were a commercial success, trying to cash in and divert sales away from hard working novelists. These cloned titles often contained badly-written stories or pure drivel.

I was caught out by this scam, when a novel called Stoner by John Williams was republished and hailed as ‘one of the great forgotten novels of the past century’. I downloaded it onto my Kindle with one-click. I read the first page, furrowing my brow. It wasn’t what I expected of a literary novel. It was a trashy tale about a junkie, permanently stoned on weed and other substances. The prose broke all Stephen King’s rules in his book On Writing and was weighed down with ponderous adjectives and adverbs. I gave up and went back to Amazon. Sure enough, the garbage I’d downloaded wasn’t by John Williams at all but by a fraudster, cynically trying to confuse customers and divert profits into his own bank account. And the saddest part of this saga? I never went back to download the correct John Williams version of the eBook. (Several years later I bought it in paperback).

Titles are important because they set expectations for the reader and help to answer the question Is this for me or not? To use a recent example, if a book has the word ‘secret’ ‘missing’ or ‘girl’ in the title, it’s sending out a signal to thriller fans.

A few years ago, I had a one-to-one with a literary agent at a writer’s festival, discussing the novel I was writing at that time, called Disconnected.
“That’s a Young Adult title,” the agent informed me, asking if I could shave a few years off my protagonist’s age and lighten the plot so it could be marketed to YAs. I couldn’t. But in the end, she did me a favour because that novel, a suspense thriller with themes of human trafficking, modern day slavery and digital detox, has now been published under the far better title of After Leaving the Village.

Available now in paperback and eBook from all good bookshops and from Amazon 

 More about Helen:

'After Leaving the Village' was published by Hashtag Press in October 2017. It is my debut novel and won first prize in the opening pages category at Winchester Writers' Festival. My novel is a gritty contemporary suspense thriller so won't suit all tastes but it's been hailed by reviewers as 'very much a novel of our times' and 'powerful' of the reasons 'why it has been endorsed by anti-slavery charity, Unseen.'

As a writer, I often ask the question - how can a life change in an instant? Sometimes this leads me to explore some dark places. I'd love to know what you think, so please leave a review.

I've won several short story prizes and my story 'Coal' was published in Artificium literary magazine. You can read my travel blogs over on where you'll also find my contact details and can tell me what you loved - or hated - about my novel. 

Thank you so much, Helen, for your fantastic post on my blog. It has definitely got me thinking about my own book titles and how I'd be devastated if someone else chose the same one before I published the novel! Maybe it's best not to get too attached to start with and call the book Untitled? With 'Letters to Eloise' the title almost arrived before the novel even began but with my more recent, 'Rafferty Lincoln Loves...' the title came along after the book was finished.   

Let me know your thoughts fellow authors about your own book titles in the comments...

Emily x

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