1 Thing That SHOULDN'T Go at the Front of Your Ebook

InterrobangSo I’ve written about what you should put at the back of your ebook. Over on LinkedIn, Denise Wakeman raised the issue, sparking an excellent discussion. (She suggested a great possibility that I hadn’t thought of: an opt-in link for your newsletter/mailing list.)

The discussion then turned to what should go at the front of an ebook.

You know those pages at the front of a print book that get lowercase roman numerals instead of regular arabic page numbers — the boring stuff that you usually flip through so you can start reading? That’s called the book’s front matter.

Now, tradition has set the front matter of print books fairly rigidly for a while now. According to my trusty Chicago Manual of Style, it runs something like this, with each item given a separate page or section: half-title page, series title or frontispiece, title page, copyright page, dedication, epigraph, table of contents (TOC), list of illustrations, list of tables, foreword, preface, acknowledgements, introduction (unless it’s part of the body of the book). Then you get, you know, the book. (Except for the title page and copyright page, these are all optional, by the way.)

In an ebook, where navigation can be non-linear, we often move some of the less essential, bulkier bits (i.e., TOC, lists of illustrations and tables) to the back, trusting that the reader will be able to find them easily using the Contents button. (I often link to the appropriate entry in the list of illustrations from the image’s caption.) The half-title page (the one often signed by authors and gift-givers) has been jettisoned. Not too many ebook signings.

You’ll notice, however, that there’s a commonly used section that’s missing from that list, and it became a major topic of debate in the LinkedIn discussion: blurbs.

Blurb pages are commonly used as a way to let a bookstore peruser know what reviewers or other early readers have had to say about the book. “Best book ever!” “I laughed. I cried. It was better than Ulysses.” That sort of thing. Most commonly used in low-priced second paperback editions, they usually appear immediately after the half-title page — in other words, they’re the second thing the person riffling through the pages sees after they open the book.

Do such pages make sense in a print book? Sure. I find them annoying, the publishing equivalent of the irritating ads you sometimes have to wait through before watching a video on YouTube, but it’s a way of putting the marketing material at the dilettante readers’ fingertips, giving them another reason to go from potential purchasers to buyers.

How about in an ebook?

The thing to consider is when exactly potential readers are going to be looking through the front matter of an ebook: in an online store, where all of the reviews are already displayed — not just the ones from that site, but, hopefully, the juicy ones from elsewhere, which the author and/or publisher can almost always add either to a separate dedicated “Editorial Reviews” section or, at worst, to the description. So if you add a blurb section, those reviews are redundantly taking up room in the preview.

Remember that (except for Apple and Smashwords) bookseller sites don’t give any control over how much or what parts of a book to include in a preview. Usually it’s the first 20%–25%. If you fill that up with what a reader may justifiably see as filler and they barely get to “thumb through” the book, reading only a few pages’ worth instead of a chapter or two, then adding those reviews will have had the opposite effect from what you’re shooting for. This is especially true in a shorter book, where the cover, title page, and copyright page are already taking up valuable space.

That’s why I almost always put the TOC, etc., at the back of the book — so they don’t needlessly take up space.

So not only are front matter blurbs redundant — potential readers already have access to them before they download a sample or “read inside” — but they they may hurt sales because they delay the reader’s entry into the text, and because they take away from the amount of the actual book the reader can peruse before buying. I’d rather give the reader a quicker, longer taste of what the book is about.

However, that’s MY reasoning. I decided to test that against the practices in the best sellers on Amazon’s Kindle Store. I went to the bestseller lists for fiction, non-fiction, and short story collections (since I’m in the process of publishing a few of those). Using the Read Inside feature, I perused the first half dozen or so ebooks on each list — most were corporate published, but a couple of the stories were indie titles. I didn’t find a single blurb in the front matter. Cover, title page, copyright page, TOC, text. (A couple had short dedications or epigrams.)

Those are the BEST sellers — books that, in print, often carry multiple blurb pages. So I’ll stand by my conviction regarding the needlessness of blurb pages in the front of ebooks.

(I was surprised to find so many contents pages in the front, I will admit, especially in novels, where they generally serve little purpose to a potential reader, except as a tease. As I said, I generally place the TOC at the back, since it’s easily accessible to the reader by clicking a nav link.)

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