Writing Tips: Borrowed Titles, or How to Make an Unmarketable Clone

So you know how picky I am about my titles, right? Well, well. The other day I spotted an interesting-looking book called On the Road. You know, that fantastic beat novel by Jack Kerouac. Except it wasn’t. It was a novel by . . . some guy. I’ve forgotten his name and guess what happened when I tried to google it? I got thousands of hits about Jack Kerouac. And another book called On the Road. Which is also not by Jack Kerouac.

Starting to sense the problem? Yes. Naming your work the same title as a very famous work is a great way to make your book unsearchable. Maybe you’ll get some hits from someone looking for the other book. Or maybe readers like me will forget your name and have no way to find you again. But what about similar titles, you ask. These can work. Except when they don’t. A similar or punny version of a famous title is a cute way to say, “Hey, I’m adapting this into a new story, so I’m going to make you think of the old story and then twist it into something clever and new.” What if the other title isn’t that famous? Well, you’re still going to confuse your market.

It can also be a problem, because fans of the original are going to compare you every step of the way. And if the adaptation isn’t clever enough or isn’t close enough or is too close or isn’t whatever-they-think-of enough, you will be judged. This is often used in fairy tale adaptations, often to a good effect. Let’s look at some books that do this well—and not so well. Remember: your title has to work with your cover and your story! So this is also a little rant about modernizing old stories.

Bad Examples

On the Road (who the hell knows! I can’t find him anymore!), On the Road (Angela White). Not Jack Kerouac. Stop it.

Prom and Prejudice (Elizabeth Eulberg). At surface level, okay, it’s a cute idea. Make Lizzie into a high school girl and the country lords into rich kids. However, as the reviews will tell you, the plot is basically a duplicate of Pride and Prejudice, only with different characters. Maybe that’s what you want. Or maybe you love Austen and are wondering why you just don’t go read that instead, since the plot points are all the same. The title tells you that you should be expecting something Austin-esque in a modern setting—but what you get is an Austen clone. If you’re going to adapt, make it new!

Good Examples

Cinder (Marissa Meyer). Great example of the title working with the cover. Alone, the title would just bring up images of fire, maybe some ash. With the title plus the image of a girl’s leg in a high heel and cyborg parts peeking out from the flesh, it’s clear: this is Cinderella, but Cinderella like you’ve never seen her before. This is cute and clever. It makes a statement, but isn’t just rewriting the original. This Cinderella is made of metal and has got lots more on her plate than just evil stepsisters.

Prada and Prejudice (Mandy Hubbard). First of all, check her out on twitter (@mandyhubbard); she’s delightful. Second, great title! It hints at the main plot, a girl getting stuck back in Regency England, but also says clearly, “Hey, this is not some Jane Austen character. This is a modern girl who has no idea what the heck she’s doing.” And how cute: she falls into the past because she buys a pair of cute Prada heels to make herself more popular, and trips. It’s a clever title that wraps up all the important elements into a punchy line.

Say you still want that duplicate title. Then you’re taking a risk that fans are going to get confused, or be unable to search you. Duplicate titles may work best when they’re subtitles for a series. For example. I really wanted to title my second book Dark Moon: The Dream Thief. There are, however, two other books that use this title: one in the Drakon series and the other in the Abadazad series (both book two . . . is that a sign?). So I could probably get away with using the title, because if a fan wants to find me, they can stick “Dark Moon” in the search box and get the right one. But there’s the other question . . . do I really want to use the same title already used in two other fantasy series? Isn’t that a bit lame? We’ll see what I decide . . . but hopefully by now, you have a good sense of the problems associated with duplicates.

Here’s a great article on duplicate book titles and what that can do to your market. I’d also love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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