No, I’m not talking about titles to land, honorary titles, or one-word titles for what you do, like Doctor, Headman, Hangman, or Exorcist. I’m talking about the ethics of writing titles to books, and by extension, titles to shorter works of fiction.
For fiction writers, titles are not everything, but they are pretty close. They can sell books, excite readers, attract publishers, shorten your career, and get you in trouble with loved ones. And they can change your literary life forever. That’s why we give them a good deal of thought.
But is there an ethical component to picking a title?
Do the same ethical norms apply to titles in the same way they apply to content? Plagiarism is using someone else’s work without giving proper credit—a failure to cite adequately. But does plagiarism apply to titles? No. Copyright infringement is using someone else’s creative work, without authorization. But does copyright law apply to titles? No. But, trademark law does. Copyrights cover works fixed in a tangible format. Titles are short and don’t have copyright protection. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office applies trademark protection to words, phrases, symbols or designs identifying the source and the author. It distinguishes them from others. Titles can be thought of as brand names. And some authors seek trademark protection to their titles. Think “The Da Vinci Code,” or “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
Copyrighting and trademarking are legal standards, not ethical ones. While it’s rare, and often ignored, there is at least one ethical norm that could apply to titles—outright theft. There are hundreds of books that bear the same title, innocently, and not as a product of outright theft. For example, James Jones won a National Book Award for his title, From Here to Eternity, in 1951. It was set before the attack on Pearl Harbor and chronicles the attack through the eyes of an army regiment stationed there. Caitlin Doughty wrote a micro-history called From Here to Eternity in 2017. It is about various death practices of different societies or subcultures throughout the world. Clearly, the second title was not stolen by the second author. It just happened.
Picking a “good” title for a book is a widely discussed topic. Because it’s an important decision, authors spend lots of time and energy trying to find a good title. Most “how-to” books advise picking a title that will ensure the best possible chance of success. That’s good business advice but says nothing about the ethical parameters. There is almost nothing available on the ethics of writing titles for good reason. Titles, as an abstract proposition, are neither ethical nor unethical. They work or they don’t, but no one criticizes the author for an ethical impropriety. That said, there are crossover norms that should apply to title writing:
One, don’t write a title that is not appropriate to your genre. Don’t make your reader think it’s a romance when it’s a western. That’s unethical because it’s intentionally misleading.
Two, don’t write a title that doesn’t pique your reader’s interest. That’s unethical because it’s a misrepresentation.
Three, don’t write a false title just to attract buyers. Truth is always an ethical issue in writing. Lies are unethical.
Four, don’t fool your reader by your title. For example, titles that are adult rather than YA are efforts to trick buyers based solely on what the title implies. That’s unethical.
Last, never write a title that is already in use by another author hoping to get buyers on mistaken identity and false pretense. That’s really unethical.