Monday, January 20, 2014

Yes, it’s an ebook, the table of contents still matters

I hear a lot of squawking one way and another about ebooks vs paper books, and why should one be a slavish imitation of the other. Or maybe one is a pale copy of a form that’s functioned for centuries and has a more or less standard format. It’s an ebook, shouldn’t it be its own wonderful self?

Yes and no.

I’m all for innovation, I’m all for utilizing the tools available. What I’m not in favor of is throwing out a useful item or using it so badly that it might as well have been thrown out.

So whatever else an ebook has or doesn’t, a table of contents should be there doing its job.

Right now I’m mad, because I just finished an anthology. Here’s a form that lends itself to hopping around, reading a story here, skip a story, read a story there, come back and read one by that author who’s name caught your eye. Which is easy with a functional, meaning clickable, table of contents. TOC from here. For a lot of books, it might not matter so much, although just being able to get to “Cover”, “Chapter 1”, “author bio” might be enough. Basic navigation. But for non-fiction or anthologies or for anything where you might not read linearly, make the damned thing work. And make it work right.

What’s right, you ask?

Let’s start with internal links. If I want to get to Chapter 11 Understanding the Export Code, or the short story Great Balls of Fire by E. Lectriceel, give me something to touch and get there. And a name so I know where I’m going. If it’s part of what I can get to when I punch up the navigation pane on the Kindle, fine. If it’s an underlined blue link on the page, also fine. Don’t give me a non-linked line of text and expect me to flail around playing “guess your location”. A “back to TOC” button could be useful in some applications.

Just because ebooks don’t have page numbers doesn’t mean navigation is irrelevant. It just has to be done differently. Kindles will open to the last read location, and that’s important too. Because if the TOC is at the back of the book, and you consult it once, now every time you open that book, straight to the TOC you go. No picking up where you left off, even if it takes you days to finish the book. Even if you left off at a section break in the middle of the chapter, and you don’t recall which chapter. No, now the reader gets to flail around hunting, if she (ok, I) didn’t set a bookmark because I expected to be able to pick up at the last read location.

Will I use a bookmark in the future? Probably not, because most books don’t require an extra step to make this work, the Kindle does what the Kindle does. So I’m likely to forget. What’s more likely to happen is that when I choose books I’ll only remember that anthology=aggravation last time. Anything that gets between the reader and the story is a bad thing.

This one was particularly aggravating because there was a nonfunctional TOC at the beginning, starting me off with “hunt the location” because I wanted to read the stories in the order I wanted to read them, and I couldn’t just go “Click! I’m there!” And if one is looking at a TOC, does one think to look for a TOC? No you do not. You curse the unclickable text and play hunt the location. Which is not a fun game, I might add.

And then when I went to find the next story, I did click go to TOC, because I had to have some idea where to flail to, and guess what I got? Yes, a clickable TOC in the back of the book! Now my last read location function is useless! Even if I didn’t click!

So obviously a working TOC is possible to build in an ebook, and equally obviously, it is possible to put a TOC at the front where readers have been trained for a couple of centuries to look for it. And where it doesn’t screw up newfangled Kindle features.

So can we please have these two things at the same time?


  1. Having done the whole self-pub gig, I can testify that doing a TOC well is a pain in the heiny, but I've never considered going without (even if it were permissible on sites like Amazon and Smashwords.)

    A TOC isn't an attempt by ebooks to be a "slavish immitation" of print books. It's absolutely critical. I've lost track of the number of times an ebook or my Kindle has glitched and that I've found myself back at the front matter of the book and have had to find my place again. If I had to try to do that by paging forward or entering loc numbers I would have lost my mind.

    Seriously, this is the sort of thing people complain about?

    1. Maybe I'm hanging out with a bunch of whiners? All I know is I hear people moan about having a TOC at all. Cuz it's so much work, or such a nuisance. All Pam's books have them, and I don't hear her whining. And thank you for making sure you have them too. It's a courtesy to the reader if nothing else.

      And yeah, my cat hops in my lap and pats the screen, and suddenly I'm 900 locations from where I was, so, it's not always the Kindle's fault even that a TOC is handy.


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