By Joan R. Neubauer
November, 2007, 10:30
Each month, award-winning author Joan R. Neubauer answers questions from you, her readers. She will answer questions about writing, promotion, publishing, and any other aspect of the publishing industry you can think of. Send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: Neubauer Nuggets, and maybe yours will be the question she answers next month.
I'm in the process of writing a novel, and from the very beginning I had a great idea for a title. However, I recently learned that a novel with that title has already been published. I really like my title. It's perfect. How do I handle this?
Stuck on a title
I totally understand your mindset. Once we writers settle into a title, or the name of a character, or a plotline, we generally don't like to let go, but sometimes we just have to. When it comes to titles, you have to keep a few things in mind.
First, you can't copyright a title; therefore, a title may be used for multiple books. That's one of the reasons we have ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers). These numbers give a specific identity to each book, regardless of title. And while titles cannot be copyrighted, they can be trademarked, which is an entirely different process and a whole different level of protection. A publishing house might trademark a title if they plan to publish a whole series of books with a similar theme or title, such as The Complete Idiot's Guide To … series. To date, Macmillan and/or Pearson Education have published nearly a thousand of these titles, and it has become a recognized, trademarked brand. So, by and large, using a title that has already been used will not create any legal problems for you as long as it has not been trademarked, which most have not.
Second, no matter how safe, there are some titles that you just wouldn't want to reuse because it will so mislead the reader. For example, you might choose to use Gone With The Wind as the title of your Great American Novel. However, since it's so well known as another book, you should probably steer away from it.
Third, if you sell your manuscript to a publishing house, the editor will most likely change the title for a variety of reasons. Once you sign on the dotted line, the publisher has the legal right to do whatever they have delineated in the contract, including change the title.
If you like your title that much, continue to use it while you work on it and then while you market it. However, if you sell it and the editor chooses to change it, accept the change with grace and professionalism. When the book finally hits the stands, you can keep the original title a secret, or you can tell people a great story of how the title got changed. If you do that, I know that you will give credit to the editor for insight and wisdom for the change because that would reveal your professional attitude.
As a fiction writer, I've often heard the term genré, but have no idea what it means. What is genré and why should I care?
Puzzled in Peoria
Dear Puzzled in Peoria,
As a fiction writer, you should care very much about genre because while it may not determine what you write, it can very well help you decide how to write and what publishing house to write for.
Genré is a French word that means type or kind, and it applies to the various kinds of fiction that publishers publish. The main genres are romance, action adventure, historical fiction, psychological, mystery, horror, science fiction, fantasy, western, thrillers, and women's fiction. Each of these has various subgenres, for example, you can breakdown the mystery genre into classic mystery (whodunit), amateur detective, cozy, private detective, police procedural, courtroom drama, and more.
Each genre must fulfill what we call the genre promise, that is, readers of romance read a romance with certain expectations such as a "They lived happily ever after" ending. If your book does not conform to the specific expectations or promises of the genre, your book will be rejected.
If you do a little research, you'll find that most publishers specialize in publishing particular genres. For example, Harlequin only publishes romances—various subgenres of romance—but all romances nonetheless. They have a variety of imprints and each imprint has specific guidelines such as word count, tone, subject matter, and so forth.
As you write your book, make sure you have several particular publishers in mind so that you can write to their guidelines. Otherwise, you might write a great book but find at the end you can't send it to a certain publisher because you have 30,000 words more than they want. Do your homework up front. It'll make marketing your book so much easier.
You may also benefit from joining a writer's group in your area, particularly one that specializes in the genre you write. Many places have romance writers groups or mystery or science fiction writers groups. Call your local library for that information. I have found that more experienced writers are always happy to share information with new writers. You may even find a mentor type program that can help you along your way. I know that the Writers League of Texas located in Austin, Texas, for example, has such a program.
You should also read many books in the genre you would like to write in. That will educate you about word count in specific imprints, point of view issues, plot lines, characterization, and all the other elements that go into writing a genre novel. Once you decide what specific subgenre you prefer, concentrate on perfecting your craft there. Education is the key. Read. Talk to other writers. Write. Read some more.
Joan R. Neubauer is an author, publisher, public speaker, and editor. Her latest books are A Serpent’s Tooth and Shadow Dancing. For information on topics that Joan speaks about or to invite her to speak to your organization, you can contact her at Joan@WordWright.biz