Table for One ~ why orienting your reader at the front of your book will lead to more pages read, not fewer

Confused

By now we’ve all heard: Amazon has cracked down on authors and publishers who design their Kindle books with the table of contents (TOC) at the back instead of the traditional front. This has sent authors and publishers whose books are enrolled in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, paid-per-pages-read program into various versions of tailspins. Instead of allowing their plane to crash, they should see this decision by Amazon for the beacon on the self-publishing horizon that it is, pull up, and fly headlong into the Valley of Better Publishing.

Let’s digress. Almost from the moment the technology existed for The Everyman to sell a book online through a major retailer without having to go through the gates of an agent, who escorted the book through the doors of a Legitimate Publisher, who vetted it and beat it into shape for the Major Bookseller, who made final demands for tweaks for the best experience for The Reader, creative folks—both the talented and the developing—began offering some pretty astounding works online, with the adjective applying to good and bad works. In too many cases, it led to a typo-riddled, poorly formatted, and overall horrible reading (and, arguably, shopping) experience for end-users who hoped to purchase a quality book and settle in and enjoy the read. The pendulum of publishing swung so far away from traditional norms, it was as though independent publishing were an indictment of the latter as opposed to a high-quality alternative.

But Amazon remembered what many indie publishers forgot: the above-noted gates and doors and vetting—in the form of agents, publishers, and bookstores—set the everyday standard by which readers have measured the books they’ve purchased since “buying books” became a thing. Readers haven’t been in the custody of those who maintained standards; they’ve been in their care, and Amazon’s general requirements that independent publishers not cause any undue harm to innocent readers is a healthy thing for the entire industry. Good books sell more books. The traditional system that has existed forever is what has kept readers interested in buying books, an interest that feeds the indie publisher, who shouldn’t then turn around and tank the standard that supports the system that feeds the indie publisher. Dizzy yet? Poor logic—scuttling what has worked while you use and need what has worked—usually is confusing.

Which brings us back to tables of contents, which are, by definition, orienting devices. They tell us where we’re going and how long it might take to get there, while allowing us to use backstreets to cut across town, if we wish. They get us ready for our journey through the book and provide a little peek into what we’ll see on the road.

That anyone would find a tool designed to familiarize a reader ahead of time helpful if it’s placed at the end of the road is its own kind of astounding. More germane to the subject of this post, a back-of-the-book TOC could cost the author readers because a table of contents at the back of the book is not helpful. Some readers will find “leaping to the back” over unread material anytime they want a contents refresher—essentially reading from back to front—counterintuitive to normal front-to-back reading and either give up or just refuse to buy the book. Indices at the back of a book are helpful because they are designed to allow a person to find one standalone item, and they keep an endless list of book minutiae from interfering with getting the read on and getting on with the read. A reader using an index may have no interest in the overall book. He or she may just need to read the section on such-and-such topic and forever close the book. The continuity and clarification provided by a table of contents is superfluous in those cases.

Tables of contents, however, tell a reader who intends to stick with the book from start to finish what’s ahead. For that reason, readers love them, which is why they’ve existed since books have. That last fact makes it safe to say that the average reader confronted with a table of contents in sample pages is not going to consider the table an interference with deciding whether to purchase the book. She is likely going to find the table a wonderful addition to the sample pages because she will be better able to assess whether she is going to enjoy the read. Are there just four sections for a 500-page book (a possible slog), or is this 300-page page-turner broken up into 35 quick-read chapters? A reader who has to hunt around for this information and guess that your table of contents is at the back of the book and not just missing altogether may skip your book altogether. Imagine if the Periodic table were just a mish-mash of elements thrown onto a chart, forcing scientists to figure out each time they encountered an element how it related to the other 118 (at the time of this post). It makes more sense to be able to read across the top of the table, find a group, and say, “Okay…Noble gases…yep! Helium, Neon. There they are.”

Meanwhile, if you hide your TOC, you’ve lost an opportunity to entice the reader with wondrous and wonderful chapter titles. Let’s take J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Here’s a smattering of its TOC: I. An Unexpected Party; II. Roast Mutton; …V. Riddles in the Dark; …VIII. Flies and Spiders; …XVI. A Thief in the Night, and so on. Why on Middle Earth would you hide such fictioney-good hooks in the back of the book? A good TOC is your first chance to tell story and gain a reader.

And if a back-of-the-book table of contents is designed to “get your money for pages read, no matter the quality of the material”, then that seems in violation of the implied term in every contract to deal honestly and fairly. If you agreed to be paid for pages read, shouldn’t those pages actually be read? Akin to the discussion above, cheating the system doesn’t help the system. Readers will not flock to a system that cheats them. You might make short-end money on one book, in “this time around” fashion, but you’ll be spoiling future…spoils, not only for yourself, but possibly for a whole lot of other honest folks.

Tell the reader where they’re going and let them decide if they want to take the journey. If you’ve followed the other tenets of publishing and have a catchy title, a great cover, a well-formatted book, and superb writing, the average reader will likely be willing to get through your table of contents to read those first juicy sample pages, even if there are fewer of them because the TOC squeezed out some. Most readers are so used to seeing TOCs, they might even just skip over yours for the sample read, feeling comforted that it will be there when it’s needed for the Big Read. Indeed, the reader may even realize they’re in the capable hands of a pro, who published—independently—a book that met the standards of tradition, and click the “Buy Now” button.

Sally forth. (And tell us where we’re going. We can’t wait to get there!) EL

Amazon’s table of contents policy can be found here.

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