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.


21 thoughts on “Leading Readers By the Hand: Navigating Ebooks

  1. A glossary with a link back to the first use of the word. Not sure I understand your explanation of how to do it, but the idea is excellent.

  2. I agree that a TOC is something we should all include in our ebooks. Now, as a reader, I hate it when I open an ebook and it starts at the first chapter, where, supposedly, most folks DO want to start. But I want to admire the cover for a few seconds. Read through the dedication, acknowledgements and, yes, the TOC. I like to browse that stuff. It gets me in the “mood” of the book. The Map of Time uses this space well for that by including a story introduction and poem for the reader. I don’t like missing that stuff and always have to scroll back to the cover image. It would be nice if that was a preference thing on the ebook device and not the ebook itself. Is it?

  3. I’m with you there, Nila. I’m a front matter/back matter junkie. If it’s in there, I want to read it. That’s the problem with the automatically generated ToC. They cause the book to open at the first item in the ToC. That can mean if there is a foreword, introduction, epilogue, dedication, epigraph, whatever then those will be skipped and the book will open on page one of Chapter One. I’m sure someone has figured out how to force the ToC to accept items that don’t fall under the Chapter heading, and I’d love to hear it, or if someone knows how to make the converters accept a user generated ToC so that it shows up in the Go To feature, I’m all ears. In the meantime, I’ll keep putting in my own ToC.

    I have some theories about chapter headings, too. I’ll cover that in another blog post.

    On the other hand, writers do need to be careful to not put in TOO much front matter because that eats up the samples. For instance, in the Protectors anthology with so many stories the copyright notices take several page screens. Rather than have that eat up sample pages, I listed a standard copyright page with the overall copyright for the book (one page), then linked to the individual copyright notices that I put in the back of the book.

    • Calibre allows you to set classes for up to three levels of TOC content, so when I need those extra levels, as I did in The Little Book of Self-Editing for Writers, I create a couple of classes for content I want linked, but not otherwise treated like chapters. And then I keep my extras in backmatter, linked to from the (front) TOC to save that precious sample space. Thanks again, Jaye, for another wonderful post full of good indie information.

      • Thank you, Bridget. I haven’t had time to explore all the features in Calibre. Now I know what to look for. Very helpful.

  4. A Thousand Agreements with “tmso” above (and Jaye, of course) regarding wanting to begin at the beginning, the *cover*, then introductory matter, etc. I do think that the copyright and all that legal stuff *could* be put at the back, though I am used to looking for it in the front, but if there’s an introduction, preface, foreword and other important stage-setting stuff, we need to begin there. Perhaps an additional author-chosen sample segment could be included (kind of like an abstract in an academic journal article) for e-vendors to display. There is definitely nothing less useful than a sample consisting of a bunch of blurbs for the author’s other books, copyright listings for every single song and poem quoted, chapter headings for all 147 chapters, and finally the acknowledgement section. What a way to present a sample of the author’s writing! Makes *me* want to spend money on that one, yeah. Umm…no.

    Links and other things that “…could cause a hiccup in the reader’s immersion in the story, a slight pause…” should definitely be avoided. For epic fantasy or even historical novels that require a major acquisition of personal/place names, languages, terms, etc. (e.g., Tolkien, McCaffrey), *I* would like to see a separate-but-integrated encyclopedic dictionary included as part of the package (or an add-on for a premium)–one which would function like the current default dictionary on a Kindle…simply use the cursor (probably poke at it on the Touch) to select a word and up pops a definition, to which one can navigate if more detail is desired. No text formatting issues, no distractions to the reader, *unless* it’s an unfamiliar name or term; then the option is there to pursue. I love the possibilities with e-books, so much can be done that is unwieldy with printed books, BUT to be suddenly taken out of the story by a different color, font style, or formatting oddity is NOT RIGHT. Even using footnotes can be hazardous.

    The first time I experienced footnotes in a semi-fiction (printed) book was one of the late Will Cuppy’s excellent and humorous books, and although there were many, they worked well, primarily because of the content. Jen Lancaster uses them with similar effect, and she has discovered one way to deal with them (see the middle of http://www.jennsylvania.com/jennsylvania/2012/06/an-experiment-of-sorts.html and ignore the expired free story offer but buy her books). I do not think this is an ideal solution, but given the nature of the technology, it may have to suffice for a while. For a title that doesn’t quite work, see John Green’s “An Abundance of Katherines”, which also contains a large number of footnotes. They work fairly well, except for several which are incorrectly numbered or that just don’t link at all, and (more irritatingly) those with graphics. The text for the latter instances refer to diagrams which do not appear in the footnote. The graphics remain within the text block, as if they were at the bottom of the page, i.e., right below where the footnote *would* have been had it not been hustled off to the end of the e-book. So, one does not get the graphic referred to within a footnote and it isn’t even located immediately following the actual footnote in the text. It appears somewhere down the screen in the middle of unrelated text. *I* would prefer to have footnotes and accompanying graphics in brackets (as Jen has done) than this mess. Bouncing back and forth between a list of footnotes (which thus have become endnotes) is a distraction that one really shouldn’t have to endure, especially given the nature of these examples, which are really part of the authors’ stories. The great thing, of course, is that when the technology allows footnotes to “float” with the text and thus appear at the bottom of each visual page as formatted according to the reader’s preferences via device settings, copies can be corrected (no doubt for an additional fee, but ideally as a free upgrade) virtually instantly.

    • Good points all, Chris. There is much technology to exploit, but it has to be done for the reader’s pleasure and not just “because.” I don’t know if this generation of ereaders will comfortably support such things as footnotes. One suggestion I would have for non-fiction folks wanting to insert footnotes would be to list the pertinent notes at the ends of chapters, then link them back to the text they apply to. That way there is not too much separation and no bothering with numbering the notes in the body text. As long as readers are aware that the additional material exists for their convenience/edification, they might not mind the different organization. It could work. Worth a shot to find out.

      As for the custom dictionary, that would take somebody with far more knowledge than I have, but what a great idea. I’d especially love a pronunciation guide.

      • Oh, and I hit the post button too soon. There are those who say that many features are already doable on iPads and fancy tablets. That’s all well and good, but I personally prefer my dedicated reader and know a lot of readers who prefer their dedicated readers, too. Zero interest in the bells and whistles. I personally think my Kindle is the best thing since sliced bread. That’s where my focus goes. Not slamming iPads and tablets. Just not interested in having to endure (and pay for) all the extra features I will probably never use. And I adore eink screens. So if it seems I’m eink reader-centric, indeed, I am.

      • I’m with you on the not needing the pay features (games, video) of the lovely wonderful exciting tablets. All I want to do is read the text, and while I’d *like* to have better graphic rendering, whiter background, higher contrast, and a larger screen, the e-ink devices do work fairly well and affordably. Being able to enlarge an image sufficiently to read the fine print (the maps in “The Lord of the Rings”, for example) would be nice. But focus on the text until we get that working right.

      • And don’t forget, Chris, how easy eink is on the eyes. I spend 8-12 hours a day staring at a glaring screen. Turning on the Kindle is so soothing, like slipping into a spa tub and feeling the fatigue drain away. Not only that, but I can read outdoors again without eyestrain (do have to watch for sunburn, though!).

  5. I am new to your blog, but I must say you have help me overcome the near-terror I have been facing in formatting my own ebooks! I can do a bit of HTML but having the specifics and how you explain them is a very good resource. I look forward to going through and reading all of your entries and will definitely recommend it to others!

    • Thank you, Fanny. I do all this for really selfish reasons. I’m a reader. A HUGE reader. I love my ereader and take it very seriously. Yes, there are tons of frustrations and headaches involved with producing a beautiful ebook, but I think every hair ripped out of my head is well worth the cost when the result is a beautiful ebook that does the story justice and makes the readers happy.

      • Right now, my biggest headache is figuring out how to put illustrations in my eBooks. I am currently using Scrivener and right now it still feels like a tangled mess. I guess I have a bit more reading to do! 😉

      • To insert an image in Scrivener, the command is Control-Shift-H. In the tool bar it’s under EDIT>INSERT. I get the best results when I set up the position before I insert the image (center, left justified, right justified). If you have a repeating image such as a scene break indicator, always use the insert function rather than copy/paste. If I have a lot of the same image, I’ll put in a placeholder (a pound sign for scene breaks, for example), get the book formatted the way I like it, then do a FIND for the placehholder. Ctr-Shft-H and on to the next.

        I’m still trying to figure the exact right image sizes that will work across the board. Since I only have a Kindle and don’t have access to a lot of other devices to check the ebook “live” it’s sometimes finger-crossing time. The more devices you can find to test your results, the easier it will be for you to determine which size images work best on which devices.

  6. Can I pit it a bit more succinctly for you sweet pea….

    Listen up you dumb ass authors, stop pissing about, send me your books with a check and I’ll Frigging do it for you, it aint rocket science” Well to some it may well be, but that’s not the point….


  7. Hi Jaye:

    Just a couple of little HTML quibbly-wibbly points that might (a) make things a bit easier for folks and (b) save some headaches, formatting-wise.

    First, the destination anchor can be simplified — it doesn’t need to wrap the text. It can be a short entry, too — the href/name values just need to match (and need to be unique within the document as well):

    <a name=”Ch01″ />

    Insert this into the code just before the actual text for the chapter heading (or whatever is the destination).

    Now, my (limited) experience has been that the anchor tag (<a>) doesn’t like formatting codes, preferring instead to inherit them from the paragraph tag (<p>). Therefore, if one wishes one’s TOC entries to appear — exactly — just like the rest of the text, the <a> should be “wrapped” in a <p> tag:

    <p><a href=”#Ch01″>Chapter 1</a></p>

    Of course, the <p> can have a class applied to it and the following text will acquire the related formatting.

    And additional formatting, if desired, can be included following the <a> tag by using a <span> tag:

    <p><a href=”#Ch01″>Chapter 1: <span class=”i”>My Italicized Chapter&lt/span></a></p>

    (Jeez — I hope these examples appear correctly. I’m trying to enter the named entities values instead of the less-than/greater-than symbols and I’ve got no way to preview this!)

    I hope this helps and doesn’t confuse the issue more.

      • Hi Jaye:

        Glad that you find it a bit of a help. And it’s sad that I even had one goof-up, ’cause I thought I’d proofed it. Oh well — the combination of neuropathy and carpal tunnel strikes again.

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