The Table of Contents in the digital age

Oftentimes when I send out a finished e-book to a client after I completed the formatting for them, I get an email that asks me, “Why is the Table of Contents in the back?”

The more I thought about it, the more I felt it is something I should probably talk about here on my blog, because there are a number of reasons why placing the Table of Contents — or TOC — at the end of an e-book makes a lot of sense.

Traditionally, in print books that is, the TOC served for readers to orient themselves within a book. You would simply crack the book open, go to the TOC, look for the chapter of interest and then go from there until you got to the chapter you were looking for. We all know where to find a TOC in a print book — in the front — and through years of practice we have learned to use our eye to estimate a position of a certain page number within the whole of a book.

In an e-book things look a little different, however, because if the TOC is in the front, and you are currently reading on page 560, you will have to do a lot of paging to do in order to get to that Table of Contents. Hundreds of button presses are in order… That doesn’t sound cool, does it? No, instead e-book readers have a button that takes you to the TOC, so that a simple button press takes you to a menu from which you have direct access to the table of contents. From anywhere in the book. And you won’t even lose your current reading position.

Hold on a minute, doesn’t that mean…? Yes, it does. The word menu means that the TOC does no longer have to be in the front of the book, because no matter where it is, the e-book reader always finds it for us and displays it in its Contents menu. In fact, it does not have to be part of the actual book text itself at all anymore.

Yeah, but you’re traditional-minded, right? Like, you never thought you’d be using a digital thingie-ma-whatsit to read books on anyway, because you like the feel of a bound book. And because you are a traditionalist, you want your TOC in the front nonetheless, just for tradition’s sake.

Well, not only have you obviously made the switch to digital despite your traditional preference of the printed book, but take it from me, you also want to adapt to modern TOC usage. There is a very good reason why you would not want your TOC in the front of the book.

Apart from the fact that it can potentially give away major plot points through chapter titles, which would be the first thing people see when they open your e-book, the main reason is a thing called reading samples. How does that make sense? Well, think of it this way. When Amazon creates an excerpt of the first 20% of your book to allow people to sample it for free, they take it from where in the book? The front, that’s where.

So, instead of using that exceedingly valuable space to hook your potential future readers and clue them into the premise, your style and the story of your masterpiece, you are boring them to death with a Table of Contents that contains — at its worst — nothing but a three-page list of the numbers 1 to 85. Perhaps you also threw in about five pages of legalese and credits and acknowledgments and such.

Honestly? I don’t think that’s a particularly good way to win over potential readers, let away convince them to give you their hard-earned money for the effort. Therefore, it makes sense to put non-essential things, such as a Table of Contents, in the back of the book where people can reach it but are not forced to sit through it and most importantly, where they are not bored by it when they first open your e-book or reading sample. First impressions are vital — never forget that.

This is no longer the world of print books. Things have evolved and the Table of Contents has evolved with it. Not only has its placement in the book become irrelevant, it has become interactive and therefore deserves special treatment in every possible way.


15 Replies to “The Table of Contents in the digital age”

  1. Werner

    Like the ereader itself, it took a bit to get out of that “traditional book” look and feel mindset. Now that I have, I have no problem with the TOC being at the back of the ebook because as you stated, we can easily pull it up at our discretion.

  2. Paul Salvette

    Hmm, maybe I should retract my previous comment. It sounds like a lot of authors are using both an HTML TOC and an NCX TOC. I guess it can’t hurt to have both. Maybe I should change the way I format my eBooks. Anyone else have an opinion on this?

  3. Guido

    That’s probably because Calibre automatically generates both. I don’t mind having an HTML TOC at all, as long as it’s in the back of the book.

  4. Sissym

    Hi Guido,

    That’s interesting. I think now I will pay more attention to where is the TOC and I will do my trial. In fact, I have a habit of first flipping through the printed books and then I start to read. Depending on what my eyes have seen, I’ll “locate” using the index.


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  5. V.K. Scott

    I have to admit, I was confused at first as to why the TOC was showing up at the back instead of the front. It hit me eventually, but it just goes to show that old paradigms die hard.

  6. Mark

    Amazon does say the TOC should be up front in their guidelines. The “Beginning” link takes you to where you should start reading if you want to skip the TOC. I think this decision should at most be made on a case-by-case basis. Fiction or books where the chapters are named 1, 2, 3, yes, you can put it at the back. Non-fiction, up front. I think for overall consistency and given that there’s a Beginning link, all TOCs should be up front in e-books.

  7. Shawn

    I came here to receive exactly the answer that the website laid out for me. Thank you.

    I also have another question now though. Preanble first. I am really frustrated at the in ability to jump to specific places in a text ebook!! With that in mind …

    How would i go about taking my one teaching chapter [made up of several pages, hence several ‘chapters’] and combine each of the other chapters so i take what is effectively 11 mini ebooks and make them 1 ebook with a simple TOC, followed by a defined/detailed toc?

    Even if someone can pioint me to a video site / text site explaining that I would be immensely grateful.

  8. James J Parsons

    Really interesting idea–I’m not sure I’ve read any eBooks with the TOC in the back, but I can attest to being frustrated at the “previews” that only show contents and legal stuff. Kobo is especially bad for that sometimes–or so I thought. Now I’m wondering if it’s more the person formatting the book.
    I might have to experiment with putting the TOC at the back. Or what about putting a sample in front of the TOC, so the reader gets that as a sample?

    • Guido

      Since you never know how much of the book each distributor uses to create the preview, and because they might be changing the algorithm at any time, putting the reading sample in front of the TOC doesn’t really work. Apart form that you would essentially cut your narrative into pieces, interrupting it with the TOC somewhere in the middle. Not a good idea.

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