In 2004, a division of Random House published a book by an Irishman named David Mitchell, who'd chosen the evocative title Cloud Atlas. It was later shortlisted for the Booker prize. That same year, another division of Random House published a book by an Irish-American (me) titled The Cloud Atlas. I thought my title was also evocative—I just didn't realize it would so clearly evoke another author's work.

Chances of this happening, the same title, the same year? One in a million, publishing insiders tell me, but then publishers are notoriously bad at math. So I haven't even asked them to calculate the odds of what's happened now.

Earlier this month, a division of Random House published my second novel, All Saints, and that other division of Random House—the one that published Mitchell—published a first novel by another author, Alex Espinoza. Its title? Still Water Saints. Sure, it's not as close a match. But try saying both of the titles in a mumble—the form of address most customers favor when speaking with bookstore clerks—and you'll hear them fall into a kind of symmetry: those L's, that "saints." While, yes, I'm overreacting (did my wife tell you to say that?), keep in mind my history.

It turns out having a title in common with another writer means I have much in common with many writers. Award-winning author Nancy Huston published her Plainsong in 1993, six years before Kent Haruf's same-named blockbuster. Russell Banks and James Houston each published novels titled Continental Drift less than 10 years apart. Author Richard Bausch pointed out the Banks-Houston connection to me; the topic is dear to him, too. Browsing a bookstore about a year after he published In the Night Season, Bausch discovered another novel with the same title—published years earlier by pioneering heart surgeon Christian Barnard. And Tobias Wolff's Old School, which was on bookstore shelves at the same time the Will Ferrell movie appeared, does not have a naked Jell-O wrestling scene. Wolff told me he "had second thoughts about the title after I heard about the movie, but I didn't really want to change it.... and my editor, Gary Fisketjon, wanted very much to keep Old School. He thought there would be little overlap between the audiences for the book and the movie. In my case, at least, he was wrong—I've seen it twice."

All these duplicate titles made me wonder: isn't there such a thing as copyright? Yes, but, says Anita Fore, director of legal services for the Authors Guild, "there's no copyright for titles, short phrases or slogans." What about Harry Potter? Or those yellow books for people who self-identify as dummies? Or all those souls served endless helpings of chicken soup? Trademarks. Fore clarifies: "while the title of a stand-alone book can't be registered for trademark, sometimes the titles of book series are."

So I can't get upset with David Mitchell. In fact, I wound up feeling quite grateful for his success—as did, I imagine, the authors of several other Cloud Atlases (there have been at least four others). Who knows how many bookstore customers were handed our books and not David Mitchell's?

I'm not sure how many other authors answer reader mail as I occasionally do with "Thank you for your kind words; I'm just not sure they're about my book." I had a recent flurry of such correspondence when a character on As The World Turns promised to read to her boyfriend from Cloud Atlas, calling it "the greatest book since Ulysses." As much as I'd love a blurb that united me, James Joyce and the second-longest-running soap opera on American television, I just can't lay claim to the quote with confidence.

After considering a number of titles for my new book, I decided on All Saints, even if it wasn't unique. I can't predict how much confusion, if any, will result now that the book's on sale. With experience as my guide, though, I'm predicting Still Water Saints will be shortlisted for a major prize or two. Me, I'll sell some extra books by mistake.

And maybe Karen Palmer will, too. Who's she? An author who recently wrote to tell me about the novel she'd published. Its title: All Saints.

Author Information
Liam Callanan's All Saints (Bantam Dell) is on sale now.