We Don’t Need No … Front Matter

I thought it was a simple question, just like my answer. Kat Brooks mentioned that while sampling books using the “look inside” feature at Amazon she’d been seeing a lot of books front loaded with reviewer quotes among the front matter before the start of the actual book. Her question was whether the reviewer quotes were going to influence our buying decisions.

I rapidly tossed off my answer, that the reviewer quotes ought to be at the bottom of the book blurb or in the editorial reviews section of the book listing, not in the book, and returned to what I was doing. (Our gruel was especially good that day and I was hungry.) The other minions started chiming in with their thoughts and I listened while looking for a chance to steal some extra gruel from those deep in discussion. (Sorry Rich Meyer, you were eating too slow.)

My thought was that by the time I’ve reached the point of clicking to “look inside” or sending a sample to my Kindle, that I’ve potentially already gone through several other steps. I’ve read the book description. I’ve scanned some of the reviews, both positive and negative. Before pulling up the book listing I may have read a review on a blog, had a friend comment, or seen something else to make me aware of the book. Any one of these things could have pushed me off the fence in either direction, deciding it wasn’t a book for me or 1-clicking. When I decide to sample, anything that isn’t a part of the main book is junk I have to page through that is going to decrease the amount of real content I have to help make my decision. A table of contents in some kinds of non-fiction books might help. Anything else is going to decrease the value of the sample. If your goal is to maximize your chances of a sale to potential buyers who have reached this point, pushing all the traditional front matter to the back seems like the best move.

If only things were so simple. A few days after the discussion J.A. (Joe) Konrath raised the same issue on his blog. However, his recommendations, while aimed at maximizing the sample size, considered another situation. That is maximizing your chance of getting picked to read from the often large to-be-read stack many readers have. His suggestion is to have cover art, your book description, the title page, the table of contents, and dedication (if any) upfront. Other than the table of contents, which serves little purpose in a book of fiction that I can see, and the dedication, which is going to take very little space anyway, I think his ideas make sense. The cover, description, and title page are going to refresh the reader’s memory of what the book was about and why it appealed to them enough to buy. Konrath also formats his books so that a reader opening one on their Kindle is automatically positioned at the start of the content (something I’d recommend all authors do). A potential buyer sampling or using the look inside function isn’t forced to page through the front matter while a reader looking through their to-be-read stack can page back through the minimal front matter he includes to refresh their memory. I checked the formatting on Bloody Mary (one of the books in Konrath’s excellent Jack Daniels Mysteries) and found that he sacrificed 11% of the sample to front matter.

A few days later we ran a poll at Indies Unlimited to see what you thought. http://www.indiesunlimited.com/2013/02/24/iu-survey-do-reviews-belong-in-the-book-preview/ As I’m writing this roughly 40% of those expressing an opinion thinks reviews at the beginning of the book are okay. But when you consider what you want to accomplish when a reader is sampling or looking inside your book, I’d suggest those people should reconsider. Toss the reviews out and minimize the front matter.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

31 thoughts on “We Don’t Need No … Front Matter”

  1. I came across several blogs discussing the topic From what I’ve gathered, it is becoming a hotly contesting thought process. I will agree, some authors go overboard with the intro, dedications, thanks, condolences and the like. It become a bit redundant for those who want the “meat of the product.” Now, when it comes to a table of contents, whether fiction or non-fiction (perhaps I’m from the old side of town) I relish a table of contents. For me, it provides a good glimpse of the work. When I discuss other books with friends or associates, I find it difficult to find a connection when we fall back to chapter six (out of sixty). “What did you think of Chapter Six?” I get a blank stare. Now, if I say, ‘What did you think of the chapter titled, “Melding?” They make an immediate connection and the debate is on. For me chapter titles are as important as the title of the book.

    Time to retire to the days of “yester years” and my dark dwelling. . .

    1. Thanks, Jeff. This is an interesting perspective, Jeff. I agree, the ToC in a non-fiction book is useful for sampling purposes. It can (should?) give a good overview of the content and an idea of the relative amount of space dealing with different subjects.

      As for the ToC in fiction, I get your point and can see that. I can see how a ToC could be useful in fiction, and you’re the first person who has given me a reason. However, I believe the ToC could be relegated to the back of the book and still serve your needs, right? Knowing the chapter names isn’t going to help you decide whether to buy a book of fiction, is it?

      1. I don’t think there is a definitive answer to the question. When it came to books such as “Unbroken” by Laura Hildebrand or “Hunt for Red October” Tom Clancy, I actually did look at the Toc after reading the back cover. Now, with “Toys” by James Patterson or “The Infinity Bridge” George Mann,” I might have thought twice before reading them. Luckily, they were loaned books, so they didn’t cost a dime. Being heavily outnumber by non-fiction works on WWII, I always examined the Toc to garner a sense where the author was traveling. For me, it’s the blueprint of the book. If the author chooses to offer 15 to 20% of the book as a sample, the Toc shouldn’t be an intrusion, provided they haven’t encumbered the potential buyer with too many frivolties in the beginning.

        I’ve noticed some authors are doing this. I’m still not sure I’ve embraced the new format. Perhaps with time?

        1. Every thing in life is a question of trade offs, Jeff, and I think you’re making a case that not every reader is operates the same. If an author optimizes to maximize the chance of making a sale to a certain kind of reader, then they might make the sale, but not get read. Or they’ll leave a reader such as yourself wishing they could see the ToC.

          I guess that means there is no definitive answer. However, I’m also thinking this is a hot topic (specifically with reviews in the front) because many authors have started putting those in the front and many readers have reacted negatively to it.

          1. I will agree with the reviews in the beginning, especially if the author is wanting to shower themselves with accolades. That is a bit overbearing. I have seen a few where they have combined a very short synopsis along with the copyright page in perhaps two short pages. The Toc will occupy about the same. That leaves say (depending on the length of the work) eighteen to twenty pages of the product. If the author hasn’t caught the readers attention in those pages, then yes, the chances of a purchase are slim at best. If I remember correctly, if an author hasn’t pulled the reader in with the first paragraph, I don’t think the buy button will be an option.

            Good topic and excellent discussion. Carry on.

  2. I’m with you, Al. I HATE scrolling through all the hype. Hey, if I’ve gone so far as to look inside, I’ve read the reviews and want to get a sample of the actual writing. Is that too much to ask?

  3. Very informative post. Thank you! You mention: “Konrath also formats his books so that a reader opening one on their Kindle is automatically positioned at the start of the content (something I’d recommend all authors do).”

    I formatted my book, but I’m not sure how to do this. Would you have any links to a how-to?

    1. rasanaatreya, thanks for the comment. This is way beyond my limited expertise in formatting ebooks. Maybe someone else can answer your question.

        1. Kindles will open at the first bookmark. So the way to make them open at the 1st chapter and not the ToC is to not give the ToC a bookmark.
          This means you can`t use the chapter titles as links back to the contents but I don`t think that matters unless it`s a text book.

  4. Konrath makes the point that ebook readers tend to download books — especially free ones — that they don’t read right away. I know I do. Unless i read a new book right away, I often forget why I downloaded it. Front matter that includes a few reviews and a synopsis remind me why I was interested and renew my excitement for and expectations of the book. I added these to the latest version of my first novel, Dead Blow Hammer, but I deleted the Table of Contents since the chapters weren’t titled and the TOC didn’t add value. It’s a balancing act between serving the “Look Inside” readers and those who buy the book.

    1. I agree, Steve. It is a balancing act and I suppose almost anything done in moderation can be okay, but when I’m trying to decide which book to read next, I’m looking for a reminder of what inspired me to buy the book to begin with. The cover and description are going to do that. I’ve already been sold on reading it. But your point that a free book is a different situation (the reader may not actually have been sold) is a good one.

      1. I like to read chapter titles, it`s a bit like a map of the journey, and I can decide whether I am intrigued or bored by where we`re going. The ToC definitely helps me decide whether to read the book or not. But, I definitely feel cheated by reviews.

        1. All very well Carolyn but some of us have enough trouble thinking up a catchy and appropriate title for the book (there’s a post about that somewhere here!), never mind twenty for the chapters! Of course, we could do as the Victorians did and provide a summary at the start of each chapter: “Chapter Six in which John finds a hidden parcel and Jane discovers the truth about Dick’s accident”

  5. I agree. I hate fluffing through opening matter to get to the sample. Reviews are on your Amazon page. Or your website. A blurb, okay, since I have many books in my TBR and the memory could use refreshing. But the other stuff? No.

  6. Great info Al. I am one who can’t stand to read reviews in the front. They don’t belong there at all. If I want to know what reviewers said about the book, I will read them on Amazon or elsewhere. I want to get to the sample to know if I should spend my hard earned money on it. The cover, the pertinent info you’d normally see in a book and acknowledgements are all that need to be in the front of the book, taking up perhaps 2-5 pages max. Then the book should start. Table of Contents in a fictional book are a waste of time, in my opinion; you rarely ever saw them in print books by the big six or any other publisher for that matter. I definitely voted NO in the poll.

  7. I even hate it when *dead-tree* books have pages and pages of reviews in the front. It’s just cruel to do the same thing when I “look inside” an e-book — you end up with only a page or two of the actual story. I’m with you, Al.

  8. I was thinking of having my books open from the back, since that’s how I was raised to read – in Hebrew. Clearly that solves the front matter issue. 😉

  9. I agree Al. I didn’t put anything at the front of my last book, not even a dedication. I get fed up reading reams before the story. If I pick up or download a book it’s because I’ve already decided that I am going to read it, usually because I have heard it is good or have read reviews. The gruel was good that day, wasn’t it?

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