June 18, 2014

Then Stephen King buys you dinner: two cases of mistaken (author) identity


George Michael from Arrested Development, holding a guitar, not to be confused with George Michael the singer-songwriter, who actually plays the guitar.

George Michael from “Arrested Development” holding a guitar, not to be confused with George Michael the singer-songwriter, who actually plays the guitar.

What do you do when a new book shares the title of your own book, or if your name happens to be the same as a bestselling author? A shared name has the potential to be a nightmare or a major boost for your sales numbers, your reviews, and even your perception of your own career.

In the summer of 2013, Emily Schultz was surprised by a sudden bump in ebook sales for her debut novel, Joyland. The book was published by ECW in 2006 and was several years past its initial reviews. Suddenly, 200 copies were sold in one week.

Stephen King published a print-only book in 2013 with exactly the same title: Joyland. His book was about an amusement park, and hers about an arcade; the descriptions were similar enough to trip up ebook buyers in particular. (Ester Bloom of The Billfold points out that Schultz’s book drew comparisons to King’s.)

Alas, her ebook reviews plummeted as King fans found themselves deep in a literary stream-of-consciousness story rather than the thriller they had expected. Schultz filed with Amazon to try to make these titles distinct. No response. Her magazine, also called Joyland, wrote back to each reviewer publicly. Emily Keeler chronicled Schultz’s story in the LA Times.

“I knew Stephen King had a book titled Joyland coming out several months before it hit. I just didn’t think that it would affect my novel — positively or negatively — it was eight years old. If anything, I thought it was funny and cool,” she wrote to MobyLives.

Since the reviews, Schultz has been nominated for a Trillium award and sold a new novel, The Blondes, to St. Martin’s Press. (I’m sure her publisher joked about alternative titles: Finders Keepers, Revival, Mr. Mercedes, Doctor Sleep….?)

The good news is that the title confusion paid off. After receiving her first royalty check last week, Schultz went out to dinner with her husband.

“It is a different feeling from when someone buys your book intentionally and you receive royalties from that, but also hilarious,” Schultz said. She launched Stephen King Money, a Tumblr to track what she does with the cash and what King might think of her purchases.

“Those negative reviews on Amazon do really hurt, especially since they’re not so much for my work, or even Stephen King’s book, as they are for a wrong ‘product,'” she wrote to us via email. “So this is my way of getting over that.”

Following dinner, she helped her husband with a haircut and bought a few books. She noted King’s potential reaction on Tumblr:

Screen shot 2014-06-17 at 4.35.46 PMThough she’s taken the events in stride, Schultz adds that this is a growing issue in the industry:

In some ways, it’s like our books got stuck in an elevator together… they were books that wouldn’t have met otherwise. As much fun as I’m having with this, it could also be seen as  an emerging problem for publishing, where things like formats, titles, and Amazon’s practices can align in just the wrong way and start to really play havoc with reality.

Schultz received the news with good humor. But other authors may be disappointed when their names are confused in an online search.

This week in the National Post, poet Emma Healey shared her experience of trying to write her first novel while another Emma Healey sold her own first novel. Elizabeth is Missing, by the novelist Healey received publishing buzz, plenty of review attention, and even a blurb from Emma Donoghue.

Poet Healey says a friend wrote to her on Facebook to see if she was writing a debut novel. “I think that’s a different Emma,” she wrote back with a laugh, but she didn’t anticipate the months she would have to grapple with the other Emma’s success.

In “This name ain’t big enough,” she describes her correspondence with media sources asking for review copies and talks with friends around the book launch:

I felt that these people were mistaking me not for someone else entirely, but just a different version — a me who had done better than I had, who had achieved what I hadn’t been able to and might never. I felt jealous and petty and weird and ashamed. “I don’t want to, like, be her,” I’d say to people at parties, who nodded, backing away slowly. “But it kind of sucks that I’m not her. You know?”

This is only going to grow more common as metadata for thousands of books is launched into digital world each year. What steps can we take to be SEO-friendly?

Online retailers should be working proactively to curb negative reviews by readers who have bought something they didn’t intend to order. In the meantime, all potential authors should start filling out government forms to change their names to something wackier (but not too difficult to spell). And publishers are going to have to work hard to come up with weirder titles for their books in a crowded marketplace.

Unless you can figure out a way to share a title with a future bestseller. Then just follow Schultz’s lead and let Stephen King buy you dinner.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.