Thursday, 7 April 2016

Advice for Authors: What's in a Name?

On Friday afternoon, I opened Twitter and Facebook and was shocked to see posts on both from a popular and top selling Australian author who had just received a very unpleasant, and unwelcome, shock. This author had discovered that on Amazon a poorly written and put together book was for sale by someone who had the same name as her, was passing itself off as being the same genre and, to add insult to injury, was linking to the popular Australian authors books on both Amazon and Goodreads. My first thought? Ouch. I can completely understand why this author was upset. As authors, our names are our brand. They are what make us identifiable to the reading public. If someone has read one of our books and loved it, then there is a good chance that they might be willing to pick up another one, especially if it is aimed at the same audience. 

The only thing is, none of us can copyright a name.

In the United States, anyone serious about wanting to work as an actor at anything beyond amateur level registers their name with what is, essentially, their trade union. The rules are pretty simple--only one name can be registered once. That's a big part of the reason why there are so many stage names, and may possibly explains why Australian actor Simon Denny changed his name to Simon Baker when he moved to the United States--because there was already somebody, famous or not, working with that name. There is no union or similar system for authors. For example, I am not the only author out there named Kathryn White. There is also Kathryn White, a children's author from Bristol in the UK, Kathryn White a journalist and author of chick-lit from South Africa, Kathryn White an academic and literary critic with a keen interest in the works and lives of the Bronte Sisters, Kathryn White who designs crochet pattern books, Kathryn M White who writes thrillers, and Kathryn V White whose books have a spiritual and artistic bent, and who also works as an artist. Then, of course, there is also an American artist named Kathryn White and someone who is quite high up in Richard Branson's Virgin group of companies. Anyway, none of these other Kathryn Whites have ever bothered me in any way, or at any times made me feel as though my own work has been compromised in any way. And so far as I know, I do not bother them. In fact, I actually wouldn't mind reading Emily Green and Me, which is by Kathryn White of South Africa and the only thing stopping me is the fact that it is not currently available in Australia. But it is also true that most of these Kathryn Whites have separate Amazon and Goodreads pages, and work to maintain them. Any work that has been wrongfully attributed to my page has usually been corrected, just as I have always tried to work any accidental corrections to mine, and I always ensure that at least some biographical detail is available that separates me from the other authors.

And perhaps that is the real source of the problem that the popular Australian author experienced last week. In the Amazon profile for the book (before it was removed,) the about the author section was completely blank. Apart from a name, there was nothing to tell readers anything about who was the author of this book. At best, it may have been an ignorant move by someone who knows little about book promotion, at worst, it could have been a calculated attempt to cash-in on the name of a successful author, thus exploiting fans.

So what can we authors do if we find ourselves in the situation where another's work is linking back to yours on Goodreads and Amazon? 

Do:
  • Check for biographical information. Is there a short biography of the author that would help identify them and their work? Does the author have a website that clearly identifies them and their work? Are you able to contact the author and talk to them direct?
  • Contact Amazon, it usually takes less than a day for them to act on any reports.
  • Contact a goodreads Librarian. You can even post links in the goodreads librarian group. Most of the people there are knowledgable and super helpful, and can separate your work from the ones by a different author. They can even create the other author a new goodreads page.
  • If you are certain that the other person is trying to pass themselves off as you, then report via all proper channels, and follow those reports up. 
  • Speak with your publisher, and your agent if you have one. 
  • In serious and obvious instances of fraud, seek legal advice.
Don't:
  • Publicly accuse the other person of fraud. It's okay to state that this is not your work, but always stick to solid, concrete facts. (The kind that cannot land you in court, or leave you looking stupid later on.)
  • One star the work, unless you've read it and it reflects your clear feelings about the work. 
  • Ask others to one star the work, to publicly accuse the author of fraud or do anything that might be classified as cyberbullying. Not cool, ever. Fraudsters aren't going to care, and if it is a genuine mistake, then the other person could end up very hurt.
At the end of the day, authors cannot copyright a name. There is nothing to stop anyone from self-publishing and releasing a book under the names JK Rowling, Enid Blyton or EL James, apart from the fact that the majority of retailers would probably refuse to stock it, and that the likes of Amazon, Smashwords and CreateSpace would probably refuse it, or should it slip through, remove it from their catalogues as soon as it was reported. 

As for the author concerned, I'm sorry it happened to them. It must have been a rude shock. However I was also very, very disappointed with how they handled the situation in public, and not only the request that author made to their fans, but the way it was followed through with only one of two people stopping and asking the possibility of it being a mistake. Because if it was, someone out there is probably hurting right now ...