The Sweet Revenge of Recycling a Book Title

Let’s say you read a review of a novel called Pure. The review prompts you to buy the book. But you’ve forgotten the name of the author.

Amazon to the rescue. Search word: “Pure.”

Do that, and you’ll find no fewer than four novels published in 2012 under the title Pure (and countless more published before 2012).

Of the four published this year, one is set in Thailand, another in France, the third in the future, and the final one in a really scary place: Teenageland.

Book titles are endlessly recyclable. With a few exceptions, copyright law doesn’t cover book titles. So it’s fair game to “rip off” Fyodor Dostoevsky and title your novel The Double. Many have.

Other perennials: Twilight (though the series may change that); Nemesis (Phillip Roth wasn’t the first novelist—and he won’t be the last—to call his novel that); The Innocent; The Fury; The Awakening.

There’s a biography of music and TV mogul Simon Cowell out called Sweet Revenge. That’s also the title of at least 15 romance novels written in the past decade.

There are, of course, what appear to be blatant attempts at deception. In the UK, you can buy an ebook called The Vampire with the Dragon Tattoo. And guess what? The cover art resembles the cover to Stieg Larsson’s bestseller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

There are protections. Trademark law, it it turns out, is more useful than copyright law. The Harry Potter books fall under trademark law, partly because they’re a series, partly because they’ll also a movie series, and partly because of all that Harry Potter merchandizing.

Does all this mean that even with more books and ebooks being published, there will be fewer titles? Probably not. There’s still likely to be plenty of books called Pure and Nemesis.

But with the rise of marketing localization, it is possible that in the future, a book may spawn several titles. Already, some books in translation are known by two titles. The 1992 Danish thriller Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne was translated in most parts of the English speaking world as Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.

The American version was snappier and more alliterative: Smilla’s Sense of Snow. It was a huge seller.

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