Trending: Clash of the book titles

What's worse than seeing someone at a party in the same outfit? Writing a book and finding out another author's pinched its name, says John Walsh

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The Independent Culture

In 2007, the design critic Stephen Bayley published a book written with the CEO of The Conran Group, Roger Mavity. It told readers how to put zip and excitement into their business dealings and was wittily entitled Life's a Pitch. It sold 50,000 copies. Five years later, the co-authors felt understandably put-out when they discovered, in the Penguin catalogue, that in May 2012, Philip Delves Broughton will publish a guide to selling techniques around the world, entitled Life's a Pitch.

Of all the bloody cheek. But Bayley's reaction was admirably cool. "It's like being mugged by your granny, disturbing but harmless," he told the papers. "But shouldn't books about enterprise and creativity have an element of originality?"

He and Mavity sought help from m'learned friends, but got nowhere because – rather surprisingly – there's no copyright in titles. If you self-publish your thoughts on religion and call the work The Bible, nobody will stop you (though I wouldn't recommend choosing "The Koran").

If you want to call your fictional debut Middlemarch or Dombey and Son, you're allowed to by law, though your publishers may dissuade you on the grounds that you'll be laughed at for your presumption. (This hasn't stopped the poet Craig Raine from titling a 2000 poetry collection A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, and his new novel The Divine Comedy.)

Literary folk in the past occasionally borrowed titles from book history, but seldom for the same literary form. T S Eliot published his poem "Portrait of a Lady" secure in the knowledge that readers wouldn't confuse it with the 600-page Henry James novel. Joyce could call his masterpiece Ulysses unconcerned that it might be confused with Lord Tennyson's majestic two-page poem.

Modern writers are less fastidious. When Amanda Craig, the author of A Vicious Circle and Hearts and Minds, published her third novel, Love in Idleness, in 2003, readers objected that the title had been bagged already by Charlotte Mendelson for her debut novel, published two years earlier. Craig's publishers said the title was perfectly appropriate for her novel, being a modern re-telling of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the ancient pansy gets a famous name check ("a little western flower,/ Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound,/ And maidens call it Love-in-Idleness"). It looked as though an ugly confrontation might be imminent – like two duchesses meeting at a ball, wearing the same gown; but peace was restored when someone mentioned Terence Rattigan's play Love in Idleness, which had its premiere in 1945, and a collection of gay poems published in Brooklyn last October with the same words on the cover. Titles, it seems, are shockingly promiscuous. They'll attach themselves to just anything.

When it comes to popular non-fiction works such as cookbooks, originality isn't easy. There's a limited number of permutations you can ring on the formulas: How to Cook/ Cooking for Beginners/ Cooking in a Bedsit/ Cooking in a Hurry/ Cooking in a Rage/ Food for Thought/ Food for Health/ Food for Cooking/ The Healthy Cook/ The Modern Cook/ Thoughtful Healthy Modern Food Cooking....

So when the award-winning Hattie Ellis publishes her new book in May about what food does to us and calls it What to Eat? nobody could object, could they? Except, perhaps, for Joanna Blythman, whose book on "what's good for your health, pocket and plate", entitled What to Eat, came out from 4th Estate on 1 March.

And, when word reaches her ears, the US foodie Marion Nestle (good name for a food writer) whose "definitive guide to making healthy and informed choices about food" came out in April 2007 under the title What to Eat.

Only a question mark separates Ellis's book from the others. Is it enough to stop the dreaded phrase "passing off" being muttered by lawyers? I must declare a personal interest. In 1999 I published a memoir of my extended Irish family and the confusion I experienced growing up between British and Irish cultures. I needed a title to express my parents' predicament of having to leave Ireland's stagnant economy after the war, their inability to acclimatise to England but the impossibility of their going home. I thought of the rebel angels in Paradise Lost, flung out of heaven but spared hell, ceaselessly falling through the universe.

That was it! I called the book The Falling Angels. It was, I told myself, a brilliant image.

Imagine my surprise, two years later, when I noticed the American novelist Tracy Chevalier was bringing out Falling Angels. I wouldn't have minded, but it was in the spring list of my own publishers. I cursed. I swore. I remonstrated. They shrugged. They pointed out that, well, at least Chevalier's book had actual angels in it, albeit stone ones in a Victorian graveyard, so the title was perfectly appropriate.

There is, in short, not a damn thing you can do except seethe for a while and get over it. But I'm not going to let it happen again, which is why my next book will be called The Szygrmgy of Dr Lodraqopf Glockenpfalz. I don't think anyone will be able to pinch that. (Or, unfortunately, ask for it in a bookshop.)

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