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Say that again? Books recycle titles

Coming up with a great title sometimes means well-worn cliches
/ Source: The Associated Press

Choosing the title of a Harlequin release can be as challenging as actually writing the book, with the author and editors sometimes sparring for weeks over the precise word or words to entice that imagined reader on the supermarket checkout line.

But when romance-suspense novelist Heather Graham submitted the manuscript for her latest, an exotic thriller about piracy and murder set in part off the Florida coast, everyone agreed that Graham had chosen the perfect name: "The Island."

"Nobody here can remember any sort of resistance over that title," recalls Margaret Marbury, executive editor of MIRA Books, a Harlequin imprint that released Graham's novel earlier this year. "It seemed almost too easy."

Easy, perhaps, because so many others have used that title before.

According to the American Library Association, dozens of works have been called "The Island," including a children's book by Gary Paulsen and a thriller by "Jaws" author Peter Benchley. Marbury acknowledges that she didn't know the title was so common, but she wasn't surprised.

"Most really good titles have been used before," she says. "It's very hard to find something completely original."

The library association, responding to a request from The Associated Press, compiled a wide range of popular titles. "My Sister's Keeper," for example, has been used by Shirley Lord, Jodi Picoult and at least five others. Other familiar names: "Not Guilty," "Judgment Day" and "Time and Again."

Writing about your life? Watch out for "My Life," claimed for millions of readers by Bill Clinton, but also used by Marc Chagall, Magic Johnson, Burt Reynolds and Isadora Duncan. Other books have the more formal "The Story of My Life," most famously Helen Keller's, but also works by Clarence Darrow, Ellen Terry and Giacomo Casonova.

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Romance, mystery and other genre books are particularly likely to have recycled titles, because of the vast numbers that are published and their brief lives in the public's memory — meaning a name can be brought back within a few years.

"The main thing is not to choose a title that's memorably associated with another book," says Harlequin executive editor Leslie Wainger. "In theory, you could call a title `Gone With the Wind,' but why would you? Some titles have been used a number of times, but there's no single book that's been called classic."

Inevitably, repeat titles cause confusion. A library patron in Fremont, Mich., requested a copy of "Leap of Faith," the memoirs of Queen Noor of Jordan. He instead received, and read, a Danielle Steel novel of the same name. Karen Traynor, director of the New York-based Sullivan Free Library, acknowledges that she was thrown off by the release this year of two books called "Gone," by Jonathan Kellerman and by Lisa Gardner.

"In the system where we order books, you can do it by title or by author, and because we weren't aware that two books called `Gone' were being published, both suspense thrillers by popular authors, we only ordered the one by Lisa Gardner," she says. "It was only when patrons started asking for the Kellerman book that we realized we had made a mistake."

D.W. Buffa, who writes courtroom thrillers, recalls trying to think of a title for one of his works featuring San Francisco district attorney Joseph Antonelli. The author's original idea was "Trial by Ordeal."

"I liked it because the book touches on English law questions and titles ought to reflect something about the story itself," says Buffa, whose novel was published last year by Putnam. "But they didn't like `Trial by Ordeal,' so somebody at Putnam came up with `Trial by Fire.'"

According to the American Library Association, at least 20 books have been called "Trial by Fire."

"I had no idea how many other books had that title," Buffa says. "I suppose it's because `Trial by Fire' is a fairly common phrase and any time somebody's had to go through some difficult ordeal, among the three titles that pops into somebody's head is `Trial by Fire.'"

"They're all cliches," Harlequin's Wainger says of commonly used titles, "but cliches become cliches because they so perfectly encapsulate an idea. It's a phrase that resonates."

Titles cannot be copyrighted, but authors have been known to claim rights. In the early 1990s, publisher Otto Penzler was ready to release Stephen Solomita's "A Good Day to Die," only to be contacted by the lawyer for a writer who had already used that title.

"The lawyer said, `This is our title' and `You can't do that,'" says Penzler, who currently runs Otto Penzler Books, a Harcourt imprint.

"So I looked the title up and found there were 13 titles that preceded his book. And I said, `Which of those writers did you steal that title from?' And I never heard from the lawyer again."