Next week The Bookman’s Tale will be published in paperback. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the hardcover was published, but you may find it harder to believe that The Bookman’s Tale, as such, almost didn’t exist. My original title for the novel was Marginalia. I thought this was a great title, not only because it referred to the markings in the margins of the rare book that the protagonist Peter Byerly finds, but also because I felt that, at the beginning of the novel, Peter is living at the margins of life, and the book is really about his moving back into the text of his own existence. And I was right. Marginalia would have been a great title—provided that the publisher had only wanted to sell the book to a small group of antiquarian booksellers and English professors.
As it turned out, both my agent and my editor thought the book might have a wider appeal than the title Marginalia. When my agent began to send the book out, he changed the name to The First Folio. I wasn’t crazy about this name, since Shakespeare’s First Folio played only a marginal (if you’ll excuse the expression) role in the narrative. I liked it as a title, I just thought it was misleading. Nonetheless, Viking/Penguin, along with several foreign publishers, bought the book as The First Folio.
The first time I met my amazing editor, Kathryn Court, we had lunch at a restaurant on the Lower West Side. We only talked about the book a little, but one of the first things she said was, “I’m not sure about the title.” I suggested Marginalia. She said we’d think about it.
During the editing process I continued to suggest names, and for quite a while the novel was being edited as Pandosto (the name of the Robert Greene book that becomes central to the story). But again, this felt too obscure. If anything, it would appeal to fewer readers than Marginalia. With the editing process complete, it was time to get serious about picking a title.
Kathryn suggested The Lost Folio, which had a nice ring to it, but which I, rather pedantically, rejected because the lost book in my novel is a quarto, not a folio. Two days later, after talking to colleagues, she came back with The Antiquarian’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession. I loved the subtitle—it immediately made me look at the book in a new way—but I wasn’t crazy about the main title. I responded to Kathryn’s latest suggestion with a three page letter in which I lay down all my thinking about titles, beginning with Marginalia. I pointed out that antiquarian booksellers don’t usually use the word “antiquarian” as a noun, but would rather use bookman or bookseller. Among my many suggestions was The Bookman’s Tale.
Kathryn responded (again after polling colleagues) with A Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession or The Bookseller: A Novel of Obsession. I preferred the first, suggested we use the definite article at the beginning, and the decision was finally made, almost exactly a year after my agent began sending out The First Folio.
It’s possible to get so close to these decisions that one fails to see other advantages or disadvantages to a certain title. Since the novel’s publication, I’ve yet to meet anyone who thought Marginalia was a better title. I’ve also heard from readers who pointed out that the title has echoes of Chaucer and of course of the Shakespeare play that features so prominently in the text: The Winter’s Tale.
So, the next time you read a book’s title, don’t assume that naming it was an easy task. There was probably more time spent choosing those few words on the cover than working on any ten pages of the text that lies therein.