Tables of Contents in Ebooks: Yes!

There’s a big brouhaha going on now with Amazon. Scammers and other crooks have flooded Kindle Unlimited. Amazon is making one of their sweeps in an attempt to root them out. As per usual, when automation is unleashed, innocents get caught up in the net–sometimes with very expensive consequences.

One of the ways publishers are being dinged has to do with the tables of contents. Crooks are manipulating them to game the Kindle Unlimited page reads, so Amazon is going after ebooks that lack a standard (in form and in placement) ToC. Amazon highly recommends that every ebook has an active (publisher generated) table of contents, and requires an internal table of contents (this is what you see when you use the Go To feature on a Kindle). For more information on Amazon’s policies, start here and don’t forget to read this.

ToC Blog 1

The two most common arguments I get against building a Table of Contents in an ebook are (1) It’s a novel. It’s stupid to put a table of contents in a novel. And (2) A long list of chapters eats up the sample/Look Inside features at Amazon and hurts my chances at a sale.

My answer to #1 is: Novels don’t need tables of contents, but ebooks do. A reader can’t just open a book to the middle and leaf through a few pages to find Chapter 9. They have to navigate. An ebook without a ToC requires endless paging through to navigate and that’s no fun. As a reader, an ebook without a useful navigation guide is a broken ebook, and it’s irritating. For those who point out that the internal ToC is the navigation guide, my answer is that not every Kindle device (or other reading devices) displays the internal guide. Instead the device points to the user generated table of contents and if there isn’t one, the link is grayed out–useless.

The answer to #2 is not so easy. For non-fiction, it’s a no-brainer. A comprehensive table of contents IS a sell point. Readers want to see what they are getting and a solid ToC in the sample/Look Inside can often tell them everything they need to know.

ToC Blog 2

For novels, especially with a lot of chapters, it does get trickier. I’ve read ebooks with up to ten “pages” of chapter lists. Endless Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3… This does eat up the sample/Look Inside. It’s useful once the reader has purchased the ebook, but for tempting them into buying in the first place, it can be harmful. The temptation is strong to forego the ToC altogether or to move it into the backmatter. Normally, I’d recommend putting the ToC in the back of the book, but with the current Amazon crackdown, I would say that for any ebook enrolled in Kindle Select/Kindle Unlimited, DO NOT DO THAT. Any perception that you are somehow gaming the system or bending the rules can cause you to run afoul of Amazon’s policies.

Let’s explore some practical options.

The Internal ToC (required by Amazon)

If you’re building your ebook from scratch, you will hand-build your internal ToC (tocncx). It will look something like this:

Blog ToC 4

This produces the NCX view/Go To list, along with giving a strict order to display the sections of your book. (If you want to learn how to do this, which will allow you to create more sophisticated and better ebooks, check out The eBook Design and Development Guide, by Paul Salvette.)

For those of you formatting in Word, onsite conversion will build your internal ToC. The conversion seeks out sections based on styles and/or chapter headings (It picks up “Chapter” for instance). For a full explanation, look here. The easiest way to do this is to use Word’s built in heading styles: Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, etc. Apply these to the chapter/section starts. Conversion will do the rest.

The Publisher-Generated (active) Table of Contents
(highly recommended by Amazon)

If you have up to thirty entries in your ToC it’s not going to eat up too much of the sample/Look Inside (about two “pages” worth). I would build a standard ToC and call it a day, having done due diligence. Where to put it? As long as it’s in the front matter, it’s up to you. (My personal preference is to have the title page be the start page, so I generally place the ToC before that.)

What if you have thirty+ entries? A simple solution is to put all the entries in a block.

Blog ToC 3

The above example is for a seventy chapter ebook, and the ToC takes up one “page”. This can also work well with non-fiction that contains a large number of sub-entries:

Blog ToC 5

In Word, if you use the built-in Heading styles, all you have to do is style your table of contents to look the way you want it, then use the automatically generated bookmarks to link to the entries.

Blog ToC 6

Don’t forget to test all your links–no matter how you build your ebook. It’s easy to mis-link an entry, but even easier to fix it. So test, test, test.

A Word for those who are Dead Set against a Chapter List

There are those who just cannot bring themselves to include a ToC that contains a list of chapters. If you are one of them, include, at least, a truncated ToC. It can be very short. For example:

Title Page
The Story
About the Author

It won’t be very useful for your readers, but it will put you in compliance with Amazon.

 

 

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Managing File Sizes for Ebooks

The majority of fiction writer/publishers will not run into overall file size problems. Text doesn’t create monster files. Using graphics or illustrations can add significantly to the overall file size, but I’ve yet to create an ebook that exceeds –or even comes close to–Amazon’s 50MB limit (which may be changing due to the introduction of the new Fire HD tablets). Even with illustrations and graphics, I do my best to keep the overall file size under 5MB because of Amazon’s delivery fees ($.15 per MB). Those fees are charged against the publisher and can eat up royalties quickly.

As I said, most fiction writer/publishers will not run into problems with overall file size.

Where fiction writer/publishers do run into problems are with the size of individual chapter files within the ebook. When you use <h1> or <h2> tags in html, or the Heading 1 or Heading 2 style in a word processor, you are alerting the conversion programs (such as Calibre or KindleGen) that this is a new chapter and should be split into a new file.* If you don’t use the headings or tags, the conversion programs look for certain words–Chapter, Part, Section, etc.–to determine where the file should be split. What is NOT reliable at all is using page breaks (in a word processor) or the “page-break-before” command in html/CSS. (I have absolutely no idea why those work sometimes, but sometimes they don’t–my best guess is the whims or moods of the Digital God.)

I always split html (text) files into chapters or parts, which manages the overall ebook very nicely. Even though this example is from a novel (Prophet of Paradise by J. Harris Anderson) that is almost 200,000 words long, notice the size of the individual chapters:

File Size

What happens if you don’t use tags or headings and your chapters have titles the conversion programs don’t recognize? What happens if you don’t have chapters at all and your ebook is deliberately one long tract? If it runs up against the 300KB file size limit (approximately 45,000 words), several things could happen:

  • Your file fails to convert
  • The conversion program inserts page breaks whether they are appropriate or not
  • The file converts, but some devices tell the user the ebook can’t be loaded

If your files are less than 300KB, but still largish (over 150KB) your readers could experience serious screen lag as they page through your story. This is an important consideration for genre fiction writers since the chances are your readers are Super-Readers and might have hundreds or even thousands of ebooks loaded on their devices. They will not be happy if your file sizes and their addiction cause several seconds of lag every time they “turn” the page.

What to do?

  • If you are using a word processor to style your ebooks, use the Heading 1 and Heading 2 styles for your chapters, parts and sections. (Do NOT depend on the conversion programs to recognize your inserted page breaks!)
  • If you are styling in html, use the <h1> and <h2> tags.
  • If your project does not have natural breaks such as chapters or parts (it’s long short story or novella) consider a minor restructure. Use the page count as your guide and try to find natural breaks around the 15,000 word mark–a scene break or time or pov shift or even an illustration that sits on its own “page”.

* If you are using Calibre to convert your ebooks, you can check the file splits in Calibre’s EPUB editor. You’ll see the list of individual text/html files and can open each one on the viewer/edit screen. If you are experiencing inappropriate page breaks, you can manage the fixes in the editor.