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Chapters in e-books? Yes

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About once a year and again in this season one or more writers will assertively inquire in the writer boards: Why do I need chapters in my eBook? Can I do without them? Why can’t I get rid of the Table of Contents—it seems like a lot of work to produce? Or why can’t I move it to the back of the eBook?

Ebooks seem to be so flexible as to handle almost every creative challenge we throw at them. But doing away with chapters, or front-of-book tables of contents, are a bad idea.

You will see arguments to the contrary.

A year ago author Kevin Lomas wrote on the Lulu self-publishing board, “Not everyone wants chapters. There are none in my print fiction books.” The idea of eliminating chapters or tables of contents seems limited mainly to works of fiction, and the discussion seems to be centered around eBooks rather than print.

On September 27 this year, author Lala Corriere sparked heavy discussion on the Murder Must Advertise board when “I would not print my softcover books without chapters. But I finally asked my readers. So far, NONE of them look at, need, or want a TOC in an eBook. As a READER, I agree. Who cares?”

The concept of experimental formats, at least, isn’t foreign to traditional book publishers. Book editor Erin Lale said four years ago that, “In modern times, not all books have chapters. Most nonfiction books which naturally have sections, such as different historical periods in a history textbook, do still have chapters. Most fiction novels also have chapters, although some comparatively recent books have a modernist deconstruction of chapters. There are books with one word chapters, and books that begin with a Chapter 1 label and have no further divisions. There are books with nonconsecutive chapter numbering, books with backwards chapter numbering, such as ‘God, A Users Guide’, and even chapter numbering systems that border on a parody of the form …” Variations on these ideas have only expanded since.

In contrast, the provenance of the chapter is ancient. A 2014 “New Yorker” article about the history of book chapters argued that, “The chapter is tied intimately to our notions of literacy … More than this, the chapter has become a way of looking at the world, a way of dividing time and, therefore, of dividing experience. Its origins date back to long before the printing press or even the bound codex, back to the emergence of prose in antiquity as both an expressive and an informational medium.”

The chapter may have been developed then, as it still serves now, to help divide masses of material into easier bites, just as paragraphs do. Imagine reading this article as one unbroken paragraph … or, better, don’t.

But there are still other compelling reasons for sticking with the normal approach, including the technical and commercial.

One of the Murder Must Advertise writers recently advised, “If you publish with Amazon exclusively, they require a ToC, and they want it up front. I just got a notice to change a ToC from the back to the front of my book.” MMA authors warned in the same conversation that books might be flagged (on their online sales page) as technically deficient, or even removed from sale, if these chapter and contents rules aren’t met.

Amazon includes this in its Kindle formatting directions: “A working table of contents allows your readers to jump directly to the chapter or section they want. This feature is so important to Kindle customers that Amazon requires all Kindle books with chapters or sections to have a working table of contents. You can build one using Microsoft Word.” That same page includes detailed instructions for setting up a table of contents.

Other eBook providers have imposed similar requirements. Production requirements for Ingram-Spark eBooks reference requirements for the table of contents as well.

On top of all that, authors who try to skip the use of chapters may be bypassing a useful commercial tool.

Many fiction authors title chapters only by number. (That’s one of the reasons some authors disdain tables of contents for those books.) But effective chapter names can help you sell your book – even your fiction book.

In my first article for BookWorks, I wrote about chapter titles: “The cover and the title will persuade someone to peruse your book – but if you’ve titled the chapters, they can help turn a browser into a reader. A table of contents tells a prospective reader what to expect from the reading ahead.” It described a list of compelling chapter names as a series of hooks to help pull the reader into the book.

There was the example of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, which used only chapter numbers. One online editor suggested chapter titles, such as “Chapter 1—The Truth of the Green Light,” “Chapter 2—Among the Ash Heaps,” “Chapter 3—The Host.” “Chapter 4—The Pursued, the Pursuing, the Busy and the Tired” and “Chapter 5—Ghostly Heart.”

My reaction: “Had those chapters been so named when I first considered reading it (at that time, and for some years, I passed), they might have drawn me in sooner.”

I still think so.

Chapters may be the traditional approach, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost any of their usefulness, or necessity.