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.
First 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.
And 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.
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?
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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