To TOC or not to TOC

Open any printed novel on your physical book shelf and tell me if it has a table of contents. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Does it? Probably not. Now open a novel on your digital reading device. Does that have a TOC? Does it consist of nothing but a list of numbers? Is that helpful to you?

I have never referred to a TOC in a digital novel. Not once. As I read, I barely notice the chapter numbers. If I’m reading a good book, I may not even be aware when I progress to a new chapter, so I certainly couldn’t go to the table of contents to find my place the next time I pick up my Kindle. Fortunately, my Kindle opens to the point where I left off. It also has a bookmark function, and a “Sync to Furthest Page Read” function.

I understand a TOC in non-fiction book because usually those chapters have titles, or at least subtitles. I do find those helpful. I even understand a TOC in a novel when each chapter has a descriptive name or subtitle—though I doubt I would ever refer to it anyway. But what is the purpose of a TOC in a novel when the chapter headings are numbers only—no subtitles? Apparently, I’m missing the point. Someone enlighten me, please.

37 thoughts on “To TOC or not to TOC

  1. I’ve never used a TOC in any of my books, even when there were chapter titles instead of numbers. I think they’re totally useless because, as you say, there’s a bookmark feature on an e-reader. And even with a physical book, I use a paper bookmark because….who can remember what chapter they left off at?
    I did read somewhere too that some of the venues require a TOC, but I don’t care. I’m not putting one in. Truly, I think TOCs have more to do with non-fiction titles than fiction.


  2. I just happened to come across a print version of a novel that has a TOC in front, but the chapters have titles, not just numbers. The book is “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize). But most of the printed fiction books I know of don’t have one.


  3. I’m going with the TOC in non-fiction is good and in a novel it has no point vote. I don’t see it’s use other then to take up space and have readers complain about it. I put most of my front content at the end so that readers can have a larger sampling of the book.

    Amazon is a venue that is asking for TOCs, although I’m not sure where the documentation is for it. I just know that I have a few writer friends that were contacted and told that they had to add the TOC even though they number their chapters. Seems there were some readers that complained that the books didn’t have them. You can put the TOC at the end of the book though.

    Smashwords is a venue that places it in for you and will require you to put it at the beginning if you do it yourself. I usually let them do it. Barnes & Noble doesn’t require it and to the best of my knowledge doesn’t add it.


    1. If I had to add a TOC to an ebook, I’d do it at the end too, Stephanie.

      This must be a new requirement at Amazon (since July 2011) because my novel, published through KDP, doesn’t have a TOC. It doesn’t make sense to require one for a Kindle novel, since the device syncs to the furthest page read.


      1. She started to get emails that she needs to have them sometimes this year. She has about 20+ books out so she’s been going through them and adding them. I don’t understand the need either. I have started to add them to my stuff just to forestall the need to go back and do it.


  4. Ok, I’ll be the first to offer a reason for a toc in a novel: Some e-reader apps that I’ve tried do not show a readers’s progress as they move further into the novel, and I for one always like to know where I am in the novel. The app I use has a bar at the bottom that shows my progress with a dot that moves with it and the number of pages read out of the total (very inconspicious, I realize it doesn’t sound it, but it is.) If I didn’t have this feature I’d be referencing the toc at many points during my read to see where I was.


    1. Which apps were those, Jennifer? I just looked closer and realized that for some books the Kindle has tiny marks in the progress bar indicating the beginnings of chapters or divisions, but not all these books include a visible TOC. For my book there are only tick marks where the divisions start: Part I, Part II, etc. I never noticed those before. I’l have to look at the coding I used for the parts. If I can have an “invisible” TOC I don’t mind.

      I understand, now, how these tick marks help you decide if you have time to finish the next chapter, but how would referring to the TOC help? Even in novels that do contain a TOC, they don’t show page numbers.

      I just opened a novel that used a TOC at the beginning with only chapter numbers and it took up three pages on my Kindle, which means three pages of story sample were sacrificed. In all, the first FIFTEEN pages were taken up with images, front matter, and TOC. The purpose of the sample is to hook the reader, so they’ll buy the book, but if the reader has to skip past the first half of your sample you risk either annoying them, or not giving them enough story to hook them.


      1. Hi Linda, I really can’t remember the apps–I played with a lot of different devices and apps when I was looking for an e-reader before going with the ipad. It’s been about one year since I made the purchase so probably the apps have been updated and are not the same at this point anyhow. I do occassionally look at the toc, generally just to see where I am in the book, not to see how pages are left in the chapter, that’s shown for me in the bottom bar of my reader. I’m just one of those readers who likes to see where they are on the path.

        As a reader, when I look at the sample pages I skim over the first few pages of what I consider ‘nothing’ as an automan. I know this doesn’t help your situation but perhaps it’ll reassure you because it seems like with amazon you might be wihtout an option to put in a toc. But, that said, I’m pretty sure I’ve come accross a few samples that came without all those intro pages–is it somehow possible to seperate them from the sample read?
        And, btw, if I find a sample too short and am frustrated that it came to an end I know I want to buy the book! Usually if I make if past the first 2-3 pages I know I’m hooked. But that’s just one reader over here.
        Good luck–sounds frustrating!


        1. Sorry to stick my nose in here again–you must be baking delicious cookies I think 🙂 —
          but as the comment below indicates, I have used the toc many many times because my devices did not sink and I was able to quickly locate my last read section much easier for it.
          I’ll slink away now….


        2. Well, Jen, it seems Amazon insists on a TOC now, so I have no choice about including one. I’ve already researched how. It’s just a bit more to learn.

          On what device/app do you read ebooks currently? It would be wonderful to own each of the ereader devices, so I could see what others see. To be honest, I rarely fully learn to use any electronic device I own. That’s sad, I know. I rarely even glance down to see what percentage of the book I’ve read. On my Kindle, I never noticed the tick marks indicating chapter breaks until this discussion. I suppose that’s why I’ve never felt the absence of a table of contents.

          But then, I don’t read on my Kindle the same way I read print books. I generally read only fiction, and only fiction I doubt I’ll ever read again. If it’s a book I think I’ll want to read again or fill with notes or mark reference points, I buy the print version.


          1. When I was searching for an e-reader I spent a few hours at Future Shop (your Best Buy?) playing with them all. They had them all except the one that Barnes and Nobles makes (what it’s called?) cause we can’t get it here in Canada. It was worth it–I found them all really different. It’d be a good way for you experience it first hand.


  5. I really think a linked TOC is important for a Kindle book and should always be included at the beginning rather than the end. I’d like to share a few observations, which in my experience are not nearly common enough among those publishing on the platform.

    1. WhisperSync’s “furthest read location” is not the same as “last read location.” If a reader has ever accessed a point later in the book than their furthest progress within the main content then they will not be able to pick up where they left off when switching devices. It would be necessary for them to “page through” the book to find their place, which I hope we can all agree is extremely tedious.

    A linked TOC at least makes this a bit easier, as long as they have some idea of where in the book they where last reading, which would hopefully be the case. A few common use cases that would cause this disparity are endnotes or when the book is read for a second or third time. This can of course be resolved by resetting the “furthest read location” via the Manage My Kindle page on Amazon, but it seems like an unnecessary hassle to impose on readers, many of whom will not even know that such an option exists.

    2. WhisperSync is not always guaranteed to sync the “furthest read location” for the reader. If an Internet connection is not available when the reader puts the book down or picks it back up on another device the location will of course not be able to sync properly. Even when such a connection is available it will still on occasion fail to update for whatever reason. Again, this leaves the reader tediously flipping through the book to get back to where they were reading.

    3. In some cases providing an NCX table of contents can alleviate some of these issues, allowing a direct table of contents on readers such as Kindle for PC or a chapter skip function on many eInk Kindles. However, even more Kindle readers fail to surface navigational functions for this feature and most self-publishing authors don’t even include one in the first place. Obviously they should, but eBook self-publishing isn’t exactly lousy with best practice practitioners.

    4. Amazon can and will take action against titles that lack a linked TOC, should it come to their attention. Rather than put yourself through the trouble of fixing this simple defect once it’s been called out, you’re better off just including one properly from the start.

    The most common reasoning I see being raised for omitting the TOC is because it eats up too much (or all) of the sample. I don’t find this at all compelling, since it won’t be an issue for any work long enough to warrant the title of “book.” I can however see the value in not forcing a reader to wade through front matter to get to the actual content. Fortunately, Amazon saw fit to handle this with the “start reading location” (SRL), which is simple to implement and works on almost every Kindle reader, including the Look Inside preview on the Amazon detail page.

    Ultimately it’s up to you, as the publisher, what you want to do with your book. However, I’d strongly recommend including a linked TOC in every book. There are rare exceptions (such as children’s books and comics, perhaps), but none of them include being a “novel” or “fiction.”


    1. Thank you for bringing up several points I was unaware of, MrLasers. It seems I have no choice but to include a TOC. I have two questions though:

      1. From researching the subject this morning, I’m confused on the terms NCX and linked TOC. Are they the same thing? If not, how do they differ?

      2. Why should the TOC always be at the beginning? I understand that’s the traditional (print) placement, which is easily flipped to, but in an ebook you don’t page to it, you access it by “go to”. And if, as you said, the SRL skips the front matter and goes directly to the first page of book text it also skips the TOC, so why does it matter where it’s placed physically? (I’m only acquainted with the Kindle reader, so maybe the experience is different with other readers?)


      1. 1. The “linked” TOC is the standard table of contents that appears in the linear reading order of the book. It’s what you’d get to when using the “Goto > TOC” menu option on the Kindle reader. The NCX (or “logical”) TOC is a table of contents that exists outside of the linear reading order. It’s also the standard TOC for ePubs, though many ePub books contain an HTML TOC as well, either as a convenience for the reader or because it makes source file reuse easier when doing both ePub and Kindle.

        Since the NCX also enables the 5-way navigational controller featured on many Kindle devices, sometimes the NCX is used for part/act navigation, rather than for a full TOC. The “Hunger Games” books do this, as a high profile example. The NCX navPoints will appear as a sidebar TOC in Kindle for PC/Mac, as well as in the menu overlay on some Kindle apps (Android, for instance) so I’m not sure if I would use it in this manner, but it’s certainly an option.

        2. As I mentioned, when placing the TOC in the back of the book you’re running the risk of breaking the “last read location” that is saved with WhisperSync. If a reader accesses the TOC and it’s placed at the end, the furthest read location will then be synced to the end of the book. When switching devices this would prevent the reader from using WhisperSync to get directly to the last place they were reading.

        Since the book would still have a TOC, making navigation to the start of a chapter fairly easy, this is of course not a huge defect. But it’s something to be aware of and, in my opinion, something to avoid. Like I said, I don’t know how many readers are going to encounter this issue, but it’s definitely been a problem for me when reading books on my Kindle and then moving to my phone.

        I personally think that print “tradition” of locating the TOC at the beginning is a relatively strong argument for doing it in eBooks as well, but that’s of course a matter of individual preference to some extent.


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