Edited May 9, 2018: Author Kevin Kneupper has a legal background, and he explains the details of this situation which sums things up much better than I ever could.
This post is inspired by a very unfortunate situation that has developed recently in the indie author community. An author took a commonly used word and trademarked it. I won’t go into specifics, but suffice it to say now this author wants other indie authors (as far as I know she’s only gone after indies) to remove this specific word from the titles of their books.
I’m not affected by this because I’ve never used this word in a title of one of my books. However, it does make me concerned about the future of indie publishing. Are we to expect more of this stuff to happen in the future from other authors? Will we wake up one morning to an email sitting in our inbox from the author or Amazon telling us we’re in violation of a trademarked word because we used it in a title?
That scares me. I’ve been doing this since 2009, and I have never come across anything that’s scares me like this, which is why I feel like I need to write a blog post addressing this topic.
A title change Is NOT simple.
This would be a nightmare if someone asked me to change one of my titles, and I only have ebook and paperbacks. So we’ll forget how much authors spend on making audiobook versions for a moment. Let’s just think about how much other work and money would go into changing a title.
You have to redo the ebook and paperback covers. Then you have to fix the interior files (the actual book itself). You’d have to update the title page, the copyright page, and any headers with the title in it. Then (this is where it really gets time consuming and scary), you’d have to change the back matter in all of your other books, including the one you just changed the title on.
I currently have sixty-nine romances published. Some will have the book with the title I need to change in the back matter. I’d have to search through them to find out where they are, change them all, and republish them. While D2D updates back matter for you, Amazon and Smashwords don’t. I don’t know if Kobo, iBooks, or Barnes & Noble do since I rely on Smashwords to go wide.
Then you have to update your blog and/or your website to reflect this change. You’d also have to update all of your swag material such as bookmarks and pens. Then, as if that isn’t enough, you’ll have explain to anyone who asks you, what happened and why the title is now different.
This is time consuming and can get expensive.
Also, since I have registered my copyright to all of my books with the US Copyright Office, what happens to the copyright? Will that copyright still hold up? I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know.
I’m just a writer who publishes my own books. I don’t have a lot of money. In fact, I’m losing money overall. I could seek out an IP lawyer and get a consultation, but how would things shake out? Is this a slam dunk win for me since I never set out to copy another author by taking a commonly used word and putting it into my title? Or would this result in tons of money being spent in court–money I don’t have in order to prove my innocence?
Do you see why this kind of thing could be a nightmare for authors if this becomes a trend? Every single author could be vulnerable. That’s why I’m addressing it.
The nature of indie publishing
I’ve been publishing on Amazon and Smashwords since 2009. And I’ve noticed some things along the way.
Similar (or even the same) titles get used a lot. Stock photo images from places like Dreamstime.com and Shutterstock.com get used a lot. Same/similar character names get used a lot. Certain fonts get used a lot. Plot ideas (such as a hero and heroine who are forced into marriage or “the beauty and the beast” scenario) get used a lot. Aliens attacking earth, a hero going on some kind of quest in a fantasy, or vampires falling in love with mortal women get used a lot. These types of things are broad. There’s lots of room to move within these basic plot ideas. The authors then take the basic premise and spins a unique story from it. As long as the story is spun in their own way, everything is fine.
Now, here’s when red flags should be going up. If someone plagiarizes your book or if someone outright steals it, then yes, you have a problem. If someone takes your exact cover and uses EVERYTHING in it the EXACT same way you did, yes, that would be problematic. If someone uses your actual series name word for word, you have a problem. If someone uses all of your characters’ names (the first and last) in their books, you might have a problem. (I would be super worried if the other author took multiple characters that were in one of my books. Just one or two with the same first name would not bother me.) If someone takes your author name and uses it as their own author name, you could have a problem. (You have to really look into this one.) You’d have to see if this person’s name is legally theirs, too. There are people who have the same first and last name out there. My suggestion is to either have a unique name (one that isn’t common) or use your middle name to help make you distinct. Ruth Nordin is very common. So I put in Ruth Ann Nordin. The chances of you and this other person have the exact first, middle, AND last name would be suspect.
My personal experience
In the past, I have gotten emails from a few readers who thought someone stole my book because there was a similar cover. The cover was a bride holding flowers. It wasn’t my exact cover, but it was something I could have picked. Keep in mind, there were A LOT of romance books with brides holding flowers back in 2010-2012 when I was getting my feet wet in indie publishing. Now, it’s mostly the hero and heroine in some kind of embrace. And often, the same models are used in these covers today. This is very common. And it is acceptable because the license for that stock photo allows other authors to use those photos. If you want to make sure no one uses that exact picture, then you’d need to get exclusive rights to it. But even then, you might end up with other authors using the same models in other poses.
Anyway, I think it’s only been about five people (a low number) over the course of my indie publishing career that thought another author was stealing my work and putting it under a similar cover. I went to check the books out to see if the readers caught another person stealing my books. Most of the time, the author name’s was different, the actual cover was different from mine (though it was “similar” or had the same model(s), and the title wasn’t one I had used. Fortunately, most these weren’t my books. It had the same “look” but a lot of covers in romance have the same “look”, esp. when you narrow down the sub-genres. It’s just the nature of the romance market in general. Upon looking inside these books, I saw the stories were totally different from mine. So no, these were not a violation of my copyright.
However, I actually have had a couple of cases where my books have actually been plagiarized or stolen. It does happen on occasion (unfortunately). So it’s smart to investigate these cases. Sometimes readers catch something we need to know about.
Also, I’ve have other authors who used my name in a keyword so their books come up when someone searches for my books. This happened early on in my writing career. (Like back in 2011 and 2012 when I hit the radar of the indie community. Since then I’ve pretty much faded into oblivion, so this doesn’t happen anymore.) I’ve heard marketing gurus tell new writers to mention popular authors in their genre order to attract their target audience. So I’m not surprised a new author would put a popular author into their keywords in the meta data for the book or in an ad they’re running. This is common practice. Some authors will even put, “If you like POPULAR AUTHOR A or POPULAR AUTHOR B, then you’ll love my book” in their book description. Usually, they put in traditionally published authors like JK Rowling. Sometimes, they’ll put the popular author’s book title or series instead of the author’s name. So it would read, “If you like Twilight or The Hunger Games, you’ll like my book, too.” As long as the authors aren’t copying your actual book, I wouldn’t worry about it.
I don’t know what the future of indie publishing is going to look like. Will trademarking a popular book series, which will then be used as an excuse to tell other authors to change their titles, become a trend in the future? I hope not. But I don’t have control over what another author does. I can only control what I do. I’d like to say this isn’t going to happen again, but I can’t.
The main thing comes down to support. If indie authors supported and cared about each other, it would be a nicer place. I think understanding that readers have a lot of authors they love to read is important to keep in mind. There’s no reason why a reader can’t enjoy Author X’s AND Author Y’s books. There are more readers than there is a single author who can write books for them all. This is especially true in romance. As soon as I publish a book, a reader finishes it within a day or two. What is that reader supposed to do while they wait for my next book? They read other authors’ books. This is why I don’t think we are in competition with each other. There’s enough room for everyone. Sure, some authors will pick up more fans than others. I write more for a niche within romance anyway, so I don’t appeal to the largest fanbase.
My advice (for what it’s worth) is to focus on your own books. Concentrate on writing the best stories you can. Don’t worry about what another author is doing with their titles. Your fans will find you. They will stay with you. The world is big enough for all indie authors.