Creating a Cover – Part I – The Killer Title

Momma Said ‘Knock You Out!’ – Creating a Cover Part I – The Killer Title

When it comes to books, unlike the well-known clichéd saying, they really are judged by their cover.  If you want a cover that shouts “Pick me! Pick me!” then you are going to have to be extremely creative with not only the cover design itself, but the title of the book as well.

Part One of “Creating a Cover” deals with coming up with a fantastic book title.  Often times this step can be as hard as writing the novel itself.  There are several things that writers need to keep in mind when it comes to creating that perfect book title.

1.  Perhaps one of the most important parts of picking out a title is to make sure the title you have chosen has not been Trademarked or otherwise forbidden by law.  According to Lloyd Jassin, “Trademark and unfair competition law protects against confusingly similar usage of source identifying words and designs (including book jacket design) by another. If you wish to publish a book, or launch a series of books, you run the risk that someone may have already obtained rights to a confusingly similar title.”1  In other words, while you cannot copyright a title of a book, Trademark law will prohibit an author from using a previously trademarked phrase or word if people seeing your title will be confused about the sponsorship or source of the book.  It is very important, as an author, to search out your chosen book title to make certain it will not infringe upon any type of held Trademark. (props to Michael C. Laney for reminding me of this crucial step)

Jassin states, “In any trademark infringement case, the key issues are “Who used it first?” and “Was it used on confusingly similar goods or services?”…  Merely descriptive marks are not entitled to exclusive protection without establishing secondary meaning. By secondary meaning, I mean well-known marks that call to mind a particular publisher, producer or manufacturer… Generally, titles of works that are part of an ongoing series are protected under trademark and unfair competition law….Unlike series titles, titles of a single work, whether a book, periodical, song, movie, or television program, normally, will not be protected under either trademark or unfair competition law. This is one of the quirks of trademark law. To quote the USPTO, “Regardless of the actual relation of the title to the book,” courts treat all single title works as “inherently descriptive” at best and “inherently generic” at worst – unless the single title has had “wide promotion and great success.”1

This is to say that a single book that is not part of a series, under normal circumstances, would not infringe upon any type of Trademark or fair competition law.  There will always be exceptions.  As an author, it is always better to be safe than sorry as having to recall a novel after its publication can be costly if done through mainstream channels or if self-published.  Likewise, it can cause a lot of professional embarrassment.  Series titles, however, are normally protected under fair competition laws and Trademark laws.  If you plan to market a series of novels, it is a very good idea to file an “intent to use” or Trademark the series title to ensure that no other author uses the same title for a series of novels.

If you have the resources, it is always best to have a professional do a search on the title you intend to use to make certain that you are not infringing upon any known Trademark.  An extensive internet search, however, can do in a pinch.  If you think you have a particularly clever title or one that possibly has long-term marketability, then you may want to invest in filing for a Trademark to ensure that you not only have full usage rights to that title, but also to ensure that no one tries to take that title and use it to divert sales away from your own novels or other publications.  Trademark not only protects your title, but it also protects the goodwill that has become attached to the title.  Having a filed Trademark keeps other from trying to cash in on that goodwill and not only making profits from the goodwill, but by possibly ruining the goodwill that people have come to associate with a particular author or title.

You can do your own search for Trademarks by going to The United States Patent & Trademark Website

2.  Title Length – Some novels will have long titles, others short.  Generally speaking, a short title is often better than a long one for the simple fact that people can remember a two or three word title better than a title that consists of seven or eight words.  Think of such modern-day classic titles as Stephanie Meyer’s series Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn.  The titles are short and relatively easy to remember.  Other modern classics such as Ulysses by James Joyce, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dune by Frank Herbert all have short, easy to remember titles.  Other titles such as To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien are longer, but they are catchy and descriptive.

3.  Description – Titles need to be descriptive so that they are easier to remember, such as the examples in the last sentence.  A catchy, descriptive title is easier to remember than a title that either consists of non-descriptive words or does not describe or “hint at” the storyline of the book.  Some titles are named after a key character of the book, such as Anne Rice’s Lestat and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Micah.  In the case of my own novel The Red Fang, the novel gets its title from a nightclub that is never actually mentioned in the book itself. 

If you plan to create a series of novels, you may choose to base the titles on a central theme, such as what happened with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series.  Be careful to not choose titles that are so common place that a dozen different novels have been written with the same title.  You also do not want to choose a title that has absolutely nothing to do with the book.  In the case of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Cerulean Sins, the title had absolutely no connection with anything in the book that I, as a general reader, could understand.  Also be careful in using titles that are “inside jokes” or allude to something extremely vague in the storyline that most casual readers will not understand.  ‘Play on words’ can also make or break a title, depending upon whether or not the reader picks up on it. 

However, picking such titles that allude to vague instances in a storyline can work to your advantage.  For instance, the final novel in the BEFORE THE SUN RISES trilogy eludes to a very little known fact surrounding the name of the main character in the first novel, The Red Fang.  Most readers will not make the connection between the main character’s name and the title of the last novel.  However, I plan to use this tidbit of information to my advantage and include an afterword in the final novel that will help bring all three novels into focus and clear up some loose ends that may or may not be plaguing the minds of my readers.

Whatever your title of choice, the title is often the first impression your readers will have of the novel.  Like it or not, that title will either draw the reader in and make them want to find out more about the novel, or it can turn them off to the point that they pass by your novel without so much as giving it a second glance.  You will want to pick something catchy and memorable, something descriptive that will either hint at the storyline or at least give the reader pause to stop to contemplate on what the title could mean.  As a writer, your ultimate goal is to have your novels read.  That first introduction starts with the title.  If you can grab your readers’ attention with a good title, then you will have won the first battle in getting them to read the rest of the story.  Remember, when it comes to novels, you really do only have one chance to make a good first impression.

  1 “Trademark Law and Book Title” by Lloyd J. Jassin


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