May 21st, 2018

The Murky Waters of Series Branding

June Stevens Westerfield

I had hoped to avoid the particular topic I’m about to broach completely; however, as I always talk to you guys about branding, I would be remiss if I ignored the current publishing climate and didn’t take the time to discuss book branding as it relates to your cover and title.

As you likely know, the publishing industry is currently in an uproar over an author who has reportedly trademarked a certain word and is now attempting to prevent all other authors (not just indie-authors) from using said word in book and series titles. I will not be speaking directly to this situation as the legalities are murky, I do not know all of the specifics of the case, and I am not a lawyer or an expert in copyright or trademark law. However, I am a veteran of the publishing industry and a branding specialist, and what I can do is try to give some of you a little perspective on how things generally work in the publishing world and in the plainest terms possible.

Authors are, understandably, upset. Even those unaffected by the current trademark debacle are in a panic. I’ve seen questions all over the place, on Facebook, in forums, with authors scared this could happen to them and wondering if they should start trademarking their own titles.

The quick and dirty answers (in my professional, but non-legal, opinion) are: A. Yes, it could happen to you, especially if everyone panics and starts registering trademarks willy-nilly. B. No, you should not start filing trademarks on your titles. Not yet, and possibly not ever. (SIDE NOTE: There is a difference between copyright and trademark. If you aren’t sure of the difference or whether you are violating one or the other, consult a lawyer. Always.)

In my personal opinion, as someone who has been in and around the indie and small press publishing industry for 14+ years, trademarking a specific word or combo of words in order to prevent them from being used in a book title and/or series is both in bad form and shows a deep misunderstanding of the concepts of copyright infringement and writing to market as well as a lack of understanding of the book publishing world in general.

Books on table in bookstoreFirst off, let’s start out by saying something every creative should know: There are no original ideas. There aren’t. If you think you are unique and special because all of your ideas are one of a kind, you are deluding yourself. This is not meant to be cruel; it’s just fact. There are only so many basic plot lines in the history of spoken and written language and storytelling, and there is no way there is an idea out there that has never been thought of and used. What IS unique is your spin on it—your voice and how you tell the story. Now I’m not going to go into plagiarism or copyright infringement as it pertains to book content. Those are deep and murky waters. For now, let’s focus on titles and covers.

In the terms of cover art and book titles, the ability for 100% uniqueness narrows considerably. Why? Well, in the case of titles, there are only so many words in the English language and only so many coherent combinations of those words. There are going to be books with same or similar titles as yours. There is a very good chance that, despite any due diligence on your part, there was, at some point, a book with your title published previously. It happens. It’s not copyright infringement, and it does not mean that an author is copying you or that they are trying to deliberately deceive YOUR readers. Regardless of the legalities of the action, trademarking or attempting to trademark a specific word to prohibit others from using it in order to prevent books having similar titles as yours is, at best, an over-reaction and, at worst, a really nasty thing to do to your fellow authors.

Vintage book cover art: TRUE LOVEAnd then, when we move into the realm of cover art, the world narrows even more. This is perhaps the hardest concept for people to understand, especially readers who have no idea how the industry works. The overwhelming majority of book covers are made from stock photos. Even some of the large traditional publishers go this route. There are only so many stock photo outlets in the world, even with more and more photographers popping up and creating stock sites specific to the romance genre (and its many sub-genres). Unless you pay huge sums of money for a personalized photo shoot, there is a huge likelihood that someone else will use the same photo in their cover. Even if you do have that kind of money (very rare for indie-authors), you would also have to find completely unknown models who will never participate in another photoshoot. This is highly unlikely.

A cover designer will do their best to take the chosen photos and create a cover that is unique to your book using design elements, font, and often other images. There are specific licenses attached to stock photos. Each license type has its own “dos and don’ts” spelled out. As long as the cover designer adheres to the requirements of the license type purchased, then there are no copyright infringements being made. Yes, a cover may be similar to yours, but as long as the cover is not an exact replica (meaning it uses all of these elements: same images, same design techniques, same font, same title words), then the cover itself is probably not a violation of your copyright. (If you are unsure, consult a lawyer immediately.)

Now, let’s discuss marketing and writing (or designing) to market. But first, I would like you to open another tab and go over to Amazon.com. When you get there, I want you to pull up the best seller lists of any fiction genre you choose in the Kindle Store. Then browse through the top 100 of both paid and free and look at the covers. Then go to another genre and do the same thing. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Now, let’s talk about what you saw there. I don’t know what categories you chose, but regardless of what you chose I can pretty much guess what you saw. You saw a bunch of covers that, while each was unique, were also similar in ways. You saw a bunch of similar colors, fonts, and you may have seen the same basic image in a couple of covers if you looked through the whole top 100. And you probably saw titles that had similar wording. And when you changed genres you likely saw more of the same, though depending on the genre the similarities of these covers and titles were probably different from the previous genre you were looking at.

The main goal of book publishers (traditional, small press, or indie-authors) is to sell books. This is done through marketing.

If you’ve ever had a branding consultation (from me or another consultant) you’ve been told to go look at the brands and websites of big-name authors who are selling well in your particular genre. This isn’t to copy their brand, but to see what works. If you’ve ever talked to an agent or a publishing consultant, you might have heard the term “write to market.” This basically means, choose a best-selling genre and write within that genre. Write what readers are reading. If readers are clamoring for three-headed vampire werewolf teenagers, then you write about a three-headed vampire-werewolf teenager who falls in love with three different guys (one for each head, of course).

To effectively create titles and cover art that sell, you must follow the same concepts: see what else is out there and design/create to market. If you write vampire-werewolf teen romance and all of the best-selling covers in the genre have bats and wolves on them, you might want to put a bat or a wolf on your cover. You may also want to choose a title that speaks to the genre as well as the content of the book. In that particular genre you might see a lot of titles with variations of the words vamp, bite, bitten, hairy, howl, cold-hearted…the list could go on.

Word Cloud

So, yes, this is really silly, but you see my point, right?

While it may suck that your gorgeous cover model is on other books, that is just how it works. The thing is, readers don’t know this. And yes, you might get some emails from readers who think other authors are copying you. First, you investigate. Then, if all is kosher (and there is not actually someone selling YOUR book as their own), then it’s your job as an author (and a decent member of the publishing community) to just gently let those readers know that it is okay for other authors to use similar images and there isn’t anything wrong going on.

The same goes with similar titles, though you are unlikely to get many reports of this. To assume your readers can’t tell one book with the word Vamp in it from another book with the word Vamp in it is actually an insult to your readers. On a personal note, I use the word Moon in a particular series and in every book in that series. I have utter confidence that my readers will be able to tell my books from others with similar (or even the same) titles, if for no other reason than the fact that they can easily read the author name on the book.

When choosing titles, it is always a good bet to do a search on the title. If there is a very popular series that uses that exact title you may want to rethink it. And avoid a word combo — for instance, “Shadow Hunters” or “Twilight Saga” or “Hunger Games,” etc. — which could lead a reader to reasonably assume meant your book was a part of that series. And again, if you have ANY doubt, contact a lawyer before proceeding.

I hope I’ve given you a little better understanding of a very confusing topic. I know everything is kind of blown up and scary right now but try to stay calm and just carry on as normal. If you are really unsure about something you are doing, contact a lawyer that specializes in copyright or trademark law. Certainly, do so before doing anything drastic.

And please, try to be a good member of the publishing community. Protect yourself; but try not to do so in a way that hurts others.

How have you branded your series in a way that achieves uniqueness and marketability at the same time? What questions do you have about series branding?

About June

June Stevens Westerfield writes romantic fiction with strong, confident heroines. Her non-fiction work includes collections of real life stories that help give other women a voice. In addition to writing, she runs two small businesses designing greeting cards and websites. When not working she can be found reading, making jewelry, or snuggling on the sofa with her husband and six furbabies binge watching Netflix.

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Author Branding Essentials is dedicated to offering comprehensive author centric branding and design services at competitive prices. As an Author, your name is your brand. Building your Author Brand is key to success. Many agents encourage authors to begin building that brand long before they are published. At Author Branding Essentials we understand the unique criteria it takes to build an author brand, versus another type of business. We can help you decide on the best options for your author brand and help you implement them.

13 comments to The Murky Waters of Series Branding

  • Great comprehensive analysis with no attorney words! We get so wrapped up in our words, in our babies – it’s hard to step back and see it objectively, and the almost nothing is the end of the world (Teutonic shifts and nuclear winter excepted)

  • I definitely think this is something readers don’t recognize, as well as newbie authors. We want to believe that each book is a completely unique creation. And yes, it is, in the same way that snowflakes are all different — but they’re all made of snow! Story ideas, stock photos, market forces, etc. mean that there are always similarities, and the goal is to figure out how to be in the crowd and still stand out enough for readers to grab your book over the one on the shelf next to it.

    It’s at least positive that this one author’s faux pas has given experts like you, June, the opportunity to explain branding so well. Thank you very much for breaking it down!

  • Thanks! I strive to always try to use plain speak (mainly because it’s all I know). However you’d be surprised (or maybe not) how hard it was to write this without cursing! It’s a very frustrating subject. But i’m glad that since I wrote this (a bit over a week ago) there have been strides in the current controversy that will hopefully bring it all to a close soon.

    The upside is we will all be a little more knowledgeable now, and we can gently educate our readers as needed.

  • jamesr403

    Thank you, June. What a topic! Scary and confusing, but you helped a lot. i myself use “Surf City Mysteries” and I think I’m safe because here in Huntington Beach it’s all over the place. And I applaud the last line — “try no to do so in a way that hurts others.”
    Thanks again.

  • Great information!

    denise

  • Many thanks, June. A great explanation of series branding.

  • I love the way you broke this down, June! Especially, as Laura says, without all the attorney words. At the end of the day, it is about writing great books. I try to focus on that being my biggest job, because marketing stuff is fun and shiny for me…and I will do it over writing almost any day of the week. It’s a sad but true fact of my life…

  • I agree with everyone here, June. Thanks for such a clear understanding of this subject. I can’t wait until I get to the point of needing a book cover for my memoir about attending college as a mother of five. All best to you!

  • I had a reader mention her surprise that so many books have the same title. I know mine isn’t one of them because I researched it ahead of time, at least of books in print or available as ebooks right now. Personally, I think the trademark/copyright issue that one writer has stirred up will go away, when the expensive lawyers have their say and point out how ridiculous it is. Thanks for your input on a challenging subject.

  • Fae Rowen

    When I finally decided to check out the copyrighting of a single word in a title, I shook my head. Really? And to tell authors that books released before that copyright came through were liable for court action, well, that is truly unbelievable. Our legal system doesn’t put anyone in jeopardy of a “crime” committed before the law came into effect. Thanks for clarifying and bringing this up, June, so we can view it in the light of day.

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