To Warn Prospective Buyers or Not To Warn: That Is the Question
This week, the outstanding American novelist Claire Messud published her fourth book of fiction. It is entitled The Woman Upstairs. My first novel (1989) is also entitled The Woman Upstairs.
The publication of Claire Messud’s new novel is an event that I, along with thousands of others, have eagerly anticipated. I read The Emperor’s Children, and was impressed. Messud has won several prestigious writing awards and, according to Wikipedia, was even “considered for the 2003 Granta Best of Young British Novelists list, although none of the three passports she holds is British.” That’s how good she is.
Little did I know that the publication of Messud’s newest book was going to be of some modest financial benefit to me. But it has been: ever since the pre-promotion started on her latest novel, sales of my first novel have increased. Not enough to save me from financial ruin, by any means: we’re talking maybe ten books a week total on amazon, including both the Kindle version and the paperback. (And who knows? Maybe one or two of those book buyers really did intend to buy my book.)
Nonetheless, it makes me uncomfortable. I feel like my book is selling under false pretenses, and that I should put some kind of warning on my book’s page on amazon – BEWARE: THIS MAY NOT BE THE NOVEL YOU THINK IT IS!!!
On the other hand, my name IS on my Woman Upstairs. I’m not trying to impersonate Ms. Messud. And I was there first, having chosen my title very carefully many years ago. (It refers to three entities: to the mother of my protagonist, who is dying in an upstairs room; to the protagonist’s landlady and friend, who lives on the main floor of the house where Diana has the basement suite: and — of course — to the female correlative of “The Man Upstairs,” which is how some people refer to God.)
Occasionally someone returns a copy of my Woman Upstairs to amazon, and I can hardly blame them: in fact, I am surprised more of the people who have bought my book by mistake have not returned it. Maybe they don’t know they can.
Friends and loved ones tell me I should not feel guilty, but should just accept it. Not much else I can do, short of adding the warning, which is a silly idea really. (Titles are not copyrightable, by the way, and even if they were, I wouldn’t, so don’t even go there.) I sometimes wonder what will happen if Claire Messud’s Woman Upstairs wins some big award. (You go, girl.)
I also hope that, having bought my book by mistake, perhaps a few people will accidentally read it, and will like it enough to purchase something else I’ve written — like The Whole Clove Diet: A Novel or The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid.
On the other hand, they might well intentionally read my novel, like it, and then go off and buy other books that Claire Messud has written. I guess that would be fair.
In the meantime, I’ll use some of my ill-gotten gains to purchase The (Other) Woman Upstairs, and maybe that will help to salve my conscience. Even though I was going to buy it anyway.
And I guess I’ll get back to work on my next novel (working title: Moby Dick).
Hi Mary, this made me laugh – and made me think of the opening chapters of If On A Winter’s NIght…..–a quite distant connection. I hope your sales go through the upstairs ceiling –
Eunice!! How wonderful to hear from you! It’s been decades since I read If on a Winter’s Night but I’ll find it and have a look at the beginning. Have you read 2666 by Roberto Bolano? Brilliant. (Totally unconnected to this discussion: I just know you’d love it.)
And I tried so hard not to use the same title as a book that had been nominated for an award in my genre the year before! What was I thinking! (I can’t even remember what it was.) Maybe Pride and Prejudice for the next one?
Good one. Or Fifty Shades of Grey (A Middle Aged Woman’s Struggles with Hair Colour)
Mary, you’re funny. Didn’t you have the name first? No guilt necessary.
Thanks, Marjorie. :)
I agree with your friends and loved ones. Your book was there first, so you have nothing to feel guilty about and there’s no need to warn prospective buyers.
Thank you, Sarah. I know they’re right (and you are) but I feel better having at least put my cards on the table here. :)
The perfect title for the book I am working on now (which is about a volcano that destroyed a town) is Gone With the Wind. Do you think I could get away with it?
I am thinking maybe some titles have been copyrighted (such as Harry Potter and the….) or trademarked or something, but I don’t imagine Margaret Mitchell thought of that. So … keeping in mind that I am not a lawyer … go for it, Merna. :)
The actual title — unless we change it — Is Avalanche of Ash: The Biography of a Volcano. That’s not bad, I think, but Gone With the Wind is better.
Avalanche of Ash is an amazing title. Which volcano?
Mount Pelee in Martinique. It erupted in 1902, destroying a city of 28,000. There were two survivors. But I am using it as an introduction to a discussion of volcanoes in general. (Needless to say, I have expert consultants for the latter, since my knowledge about things geologic — especially when I began this book — was pretty limited.))
Hilarious. I have always had a hard time thinking up titles for short stories. I always look on google to see if my title is already taken. I suppose that famous artists do not have to worry about that. =)
You’d think they’d have “people” to take care of it. :)
Can’t wait to read your Moby Dick (working title), although it sounds a little fishy.
Au contraire. It’s a whale of a story.
Thanks, you two, for my afternoon chuckles.
Some people have all the luck! The day I published my first book I learned that the title was in use—wait for it—by a wildly popular video game. No benefit there, but I did experience a number of visits to my website by undoubtedly disappointed gamers.
Please add my voice to those advising you not to feel guilty. I further advise you to just take the money and run :)