Touchy, Touchy: Links in Ereaders

I don’t care all that much for touchscreens. I love my Kindle Paperwhite and am enchanted with the Kindle Fire, but the touchscreens? Not so much. It’s ingrained in me to keep my greasy fingers off glass–the tv, monitors, windows, cabinet doors–and I’ve spent a lifetime cleaning greasy fingerprints off glass. A part of me recoils at the idea of using my fingers on a glass screen. I haven’t figured out how to read one-handed either. I have to use one hand to hold the device and the other to manipulate the screen. And there are the cats, who love to interfere with my reading to the extent that little paws are always sneaking around to explore whatever device I’m holding.

Given the manual dexterity of my kids, their fingers flying and twitching over tiny smartphone screens, I imagine they laugh at my preference for buttons. So my personal problems aside, touchscreens are here to stay.

One area that really drives me nuts, though, and I doubt I’m the only one, are hyperlinks. I use the tables of contents*** in ebooks, and when I’m using the Kindle Fire, I like to follow links around the internet–that puppy is fast! What I don’t like is when the links are so close together it’s hit or miss as to whether I touch the right one. I also don’t like touching them accidentally. You know, reading along, touch to turn the page, then zip, I’m somewhere else in the ether. I suppose with practice that won’t happen as often. I hope.

The problem with tables of contents will remain. I’ve started increasing the line spacing whenever I have a list of links. Not a lot–unless one has elephant foot sized finger pads, even a millimeter or two can make all the difference.

Look at these tables of content side by side. The difference in line spacing isn’t major, but with the ToC on the left, I have a tendency to want to go to, say, Chapter 12 and end up on Chapter 13 instead. The slight difference in spacing in the ToC on the right eliminates the problem.

link2The Kindle Fire defaults with wide spacing (if the ebook is built properly) so lists of links aren’t much problem for less than dextrous fingers. Not so in the Paperwhite. I’ve started adding space around links to author websites and other links. Again, the difference is subtle, but it does help.

link1It’s a small touch, but given that many readers who’ve turned to ebooks are in an older demographic and their fingers aren’t as adept as the young’uns are, spacing the links can be helpful.

I’ll figure out the greasy fingerprint problem another day.

***Tables of Contents for a novel? Yay or nay? Even though a properly built toc.ncx (the internal table of contents that allows the device to jump from section to section) serves as an excellent table of contents on some devices, it doesn’t show up on every device. A table of contents doesn’t take much time to build, it doesn’t take up much space, and it’s one more thing to make navigating the ebook easier. My vote is Yay, always include a table of contents.

Leading Readers By the Hand: Navigating Ebooks

So Thomas Pluck contacted me last week about formatting Lost Children: Protectors, a charity anthology. Even though I am a tad on the busy side (as in Big Dog and Bigger Dog are a tad shaggy, and Mt. Rushmore is a tad large), how can I resist donating my time to such a worthy cause?  So I said sure, and he sent me a buttload of stories. 38 stories, to be exact.

With so many stories and so many stellar writers (Joe Lansdale, Charles de Lint, Patricia Abbott, and many others, many of whom are my literary heroes, so some drooling was involved when I saw the line-up) I wanted to make it super easy for readers to find their favorites. So I decided along with a linked table of contents, to also insert links from the copyright page and the author bios back to the stories. Why? Why not? It doesn’t take much effort and it makes it that much easier for the readers. To my way of thinking, anything that makes it easier for readers is a very good thing.

Which, of course, got me to thinking about why so many writers do NOT include a useful table of contents for their books. I’d say 80% of the short story collections currently on my Kindle do not have a table of contents, or if they do, it’s not linked to the stories. (and it annoys me very much) Part of the problem is the nature of ereaders and how they handle ToCs. If you have the standard CHAPTER ONE, CHAPTER TWO, etc, and upload your file to Amazon or Smashwords, little magic hamsters snag those and generate a ToC, and then when the reader uses the Go To feature the box for the table of contents will show as live and they can click it and find CHAPTER ONE, CHAPTER TWO, etc. If you make your own ToC–including such things as forewords, introductions, afterwords, author bios, upcoming attractions, extra bonus stories, what have you–the ereader doesn’t recognize it as a ToC so the box isn’t activated. If you have all those extra goodies and use CHAPTER etc., the extra goodies don’t show up in the automatically generated ToC.

(If anyone knows how to force the issue and have the conversion programs recognize the user generated ToC, I’d love to hear it. I haven’t gotten around to figuring that one out yet.)

One advantage of the custom ToC is that you can put it at the beginning and when the reader first opens the book, it is right there. They don’t have to page back or use the Go To feature.

How to do it? All you have to do is bookmark the text you want as a destination–the beginning of a chapter or story or the afterword or whatever–then insert a hyperlink that links to it.

Is easy. Trust me, kids. It really is.

If you’re using a word processor, somewhere you have a command to bookmark text. In my version of Word it is under INSERT in the tool bar. All you do is highlight the text you want to bookmark, click on insert bookmark, and it will prompt you to give it a name. Don’t use spaces or numbers or symbols and keep it simple. Then, back at your table of contents you highlight the title, and click the command to insert a hyperlink. It will ask you where you want to link, you tell it within the document, then link it to whatever you named your bookmark. In Word, that’s one click from your list of named bookmarks. Your text will turn blue and on the ereader the text will be underlined as a live link.

If you’re trying your hand at html, it’s also very easy. I am going to cheat a little in the way I show you the bookmark command since it will actually create a bookmark if I write it exactly, so use your imagination:

At the beginning of the text to bookmark:
<a (space) name=”ChapterOne” (no space)>
Then close up the bookmark with </a>

The bookmark will look like this (sort of)

<a(space)name=”ChapterOne”(no space)>Chapter One</a>

To link internally, at the beginning of the place you want your link to appear type:

<a (space) href=”#ChapterOne” (no space)>
and again, close up the end of the command with </a>

In your table of contents, or wherever, it will look like this:

<(space)href=”#ChapterOne”(no space)>Chapter One</a>

The only tricky part is remembering that the links are case sensitive and don’t forget the pound sign.

Once you’ve created a bookmark, you can link to it as many times as you wish. (Such as the way I’m doing in the Protectors anthology in the ToC, copyright page and author bios.)

Now, when you’re linking to the beginnings of chapters and stories, you do want to be careful with the placement of the bookmarks to make sure your links go to the top of the desired page. If you’re using graphics for your chapter heads, and bookmark the first line of text, in the ereader that will cause the chapter head to appear on a separate page.

Personally, I prefer to use running heads with the book title and/or the author’s name at the beginning of chapters or stories, and have the graphics appear below. I bookmark the running heads. (all the running heads are identical, but I bookmark each a unique name–it’s the name that matters in the links, not the actual text) Some writers prefer not to have the running heads, they think it adds clutter. I disagree, and I could write an entire post on just that subject and perhaps I will one day, but for right now, let’s assume you prefer not to have running heads or any text above the graphic.

Once again… is easy, trust me.

In a Word document, insert one paragraph return at the very top of the page you want to bookmark. (turn on the Show feature so you can see what is happening) Type three spaces. Highlight the spaces and bookmark them. Now the link will go to the top of the page even though it looks as if there is nothing there. (I recommend you do the bookmarking after all the other formatting is finished so you don’t accidentally erase your bookmarked text)

In html, you probably use some kind of page break command at the top of the page. Insert a no-break space (entity &nbsp; ) and bookmark that. Again, it’s invisible, but very much there. If you don’t use a page break command, insert a line break (which will add a line, so take that into account)

Let’s talk for a moment about hyperlinks in the text.

I bring this up because I just finished producing a non-fiction ebook for Lawrence Block, and it had many references to other books which just happen to be available as ebooks. So he and I discussed the desirability of inserting hyperlinks in the body of the book itself. On the one hand, any interested reader can click right then and see the book mentioned. On the other hand, links are a distraction. So we decided in the end that yeah, it’s a little distracting, but since it’s non-fiction, readers are looking for information, so maybe it’s not too distracting. If readers complain, I can remove the links, but for now it’s an experiment to see what happens.

In fiction, I recommend wholeheartedly against links in the body of the text. In an eink reader those show as underlined text and (correct me if I’m wrong) in a color reader or tablet or iPad, the links are colored much the way they are on a blog post. Either of those could cause a hiccup in the reader’s immersion in the story, a slight pause while they process what the emphasized text means. That is not a desirable thing and if you go hyperlink-happy, you could ruin the reader’s experience.

Bookmarks, on the other hand, are invisible. You can bookmark every other word in a 150k story and the reader will never know just by looking. There are possibilities here.

  • A pronunciation guide with links back to the first instance the word or name appears in the story. A nice bonus for readers of fantasy epics, hmn?
  • A glossary with links back to pertinent text so readers can see the word or phrase in context.
  • A bibliography or reference guide. This might be overkill, but then again, a lot of novelists are overachievers, so maybe not. List your research sources and put in links to places in the text the reader might find especially interesting.
  • A cast of characters. Nothing prevents the writer from creating short bios of their characters then linking to their first appearance in the book. Series writers might want to ponder the possibilities of this, because if you have a large cast of characters, but not every character shows up in every book, but instead are featured in other books, you can link to the other books.
  • A tour guide. Some writers write beautifully of the places where their books are set. If you used a real location, why not a little bonus in the back of the book? (“Harvey’s Cafe doesn’t actually exist, but if you ever visit Potterville, drop in to the very real Lucy’s Cafe and taste their pie.” Then you can link to a bookmark in your story where you waxed eloquently about pie and create an external hyperlink to Lucy’s Cafe’s website)

Jaye, now you’re just being silly. It’s too much work and readers don’t really care. Who needs all that junk in the back of ebooks and it’s crazy to spend so much time adding links and bookmarking and and and…

That may be true. Ponder for a moment. When people start using an ereader, they are enamored by the device. Like when you get any kind of new toy, the toy is more fun than the content. Once you get used to the toy, content is everything. Readers do get pickier, their standards rise and they start looking more closely at what they reading and how much enjoyment they get out of it. Anything you can do to increase their enjoyment is a plus. You need to take yourself out of your writer head and put yourself in the readers’ place. For instance a writer told me running heads aren’t necessary, to leave them out. Well, they aren’t necessary to the writer who has been living and breathing and dreaming and working on the project for months and who knows it forward and backward and inside out. But put yourself in the reader’s shoes. The story is brand-new to them and it’s only one story out of many they will read. With an ebook, they don’t have in front of them a physical object with a bright cover with the title and author’s name staring back every time they pick up the book. A chapter head with Chapter One tells me, the reader, I’m at chapter one, but what’s the name of the book? Who is the author? By the time I reach Chapter Fifteen chances are good I’ll have forgotten the title and quite possibly the author. If there is no back matter with that information either, I could finish the book and a possibility exists that I won’t check the cover for the information and thus, the important info the writers wants, NEEDS me to know is out of my head.

Like I said, ponder. In the meantime, however you decide to do it, don’t neglect your Table of Contents. Readers will appreciate it.