What do readers really want from e-book frontmatter and endmatter?

A while ago I stumbled on this post from Eric Hellman exploring the question of what sort of front- and endmatter makes sense for e-books, given that many of the pages that we see in the front of paper books have a purpose related to the printing process. Hellman gives the example of the bastard or half-title page: 

“This is a page, usually printed with only the book's title, that precedes the title page in the book. When dinosaurs roamed the earth, the function of the bastard title was to identify and physically protect the paper text block until it was bound. Sort of like the tissue paper they still put in fancy wedding invitations. I daresay that e-books do not require any such protection. It is utterly without use in an e-book. Begone!”

The title page is another anachronism, he says, which functions as “a declaration of bookiness”, inviting the reader to “get, ready [and] find a comfy chair".

That got me wondering, so I set up a short questionnaire. Rather than try to guess what people might want, I thought it was easier to just ask them, and 137 people gave me their opinions. The results were in some ways surprising and in other ways, quite predictable. 

For the front matter, people mainly want to see:

  • cover
  • dedication 
  • table of contents

Several people on Twitter made the point that the Kindle dumps you in at the first page of text so you don’t see the cover. These readers said that a link to the cover in the table of contents would be rather useful.

Although people aren't massively keen on seeing a copyright notice, I think it's only fair to tell people what they're getting up front, so I personally think that should be retained. And the title page, which Hellman suggests could be replaced by a "start" page, got a good response despite the fact that it serves no real purpose in an e-book. Perhaps it's just that a title page is for many people a key part of the visual language of the book. That "declaration of bookiness" is still important in an e-book, so while removing it might make logical sense, does it make emotional sense?

For endmatter, people wanted to see: 

  • about the author
  • other books by the same author
  • acknowledgements and other credits
  • information about the author's mailings list, blog etc
  • sample chapters of other books

Interestingly, some of the material that an author’s—or publisher’s—ego might be tempted to include scored very badly, such as the blurb and quotes from reviews. There was little interest in offers and discounts, which surprises me. Who doesn't like a bargain? Book readers, apparently.

When I started the conversation about front- and endmatter on Twitter, it provoked some vehement reactions about 'share this' links, so in the questionnaire I asked specifically asked what people thought of them.

Some people said that they appreciated 'share this' links, and a lot of people said they were nonplussed by them or ignored them, but even the most positive responses were quite muted:

"I think they're fine. I like to share things I like with friends."

"I like the idea of sharing what I'm reading with my friends/followers."

"Just seems natural to me."

But the less positive responses were right at the other end of the spectrum (and I’ve left out some of the more sweary comments!):

"I'm trying to read. Leave me alone!"

"Really irritates me. Naked attempt at marketing, very off-putting. If a book is good I won't need reminding to word-of-mouth it."

"HATE, HATE, HATE them. I don't "share" every minute of my time on FB or Twitter, and resent the assumption that I might want to."

"I find it extremely irritating—I have no desire nor need to 'share' everything I buy with everyone I know or might know!"

"Basically, these links are a bad thing, probably the worst thing about e-books from a reader's point of view, and I am against them."

Although many were entirely unbothered by 'share this' links, the intensity of emotion among those who disliked them was so fierce that I think it's just not worth risking antagonising readers by including them. If someone has taken the trouble to read my book, the last thing I want to do is accidentally leave them with a sour taste in their mouth. 

Readers, it seems, do care about front- and endmatter. The real takeaway lesson for me was that frontmatter should be short so that people can quickly get to the story, but not so short that the traditional book-y signifiers are lost. Endmatter can be longer, but should be relevant and not intrusive. 

For a slightly longer version of this post, including more colourful reactions to ‘share this’ links and pretty graphs, visit Suw’s blog

 

Comments

Frontmatter

Amazon's "look inside" feature has led many authors such as myself to eliminate all frontmatter from the ebook version so as to facilitate a better experience for the browsing potential reader/buyer.  This, unfortunately, relegates the dedication and other niceties to the paper version only.  Another unintended consequence of ebooks, I'm afraid.

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