Readers Speak

The other day I shared one of those screenshot memes on my social media. The ones that come from Tumblr or someplace like that, where people are discussing something. Not all of them are obnoxious, some are fun, and this one was very illuminating to see the responses.

I wound up getting a lot of conversation, not only from the readers on my feed, but other authors as well. It sparked a great conversation and I wanted to bring that, here, for a more permanent basis. I lose things over there. It’s an ephemeral conversation and sometimes you want to keep things where you can find them. Instead of rifling through infinite desk drawers muttering ‘I know I had it. I saw it last week. Or was that a month ago? It has to be here!’

To quote from some of the responses:

Emma P. said:

-Chapter titles are cool but unnecessary, and I am fine either way
-As long as the synopsis is actually accurate, jeeeeez
-Maps, glossaries, indexes, and the like are awesome if the worldbuilding supports it
-A table of contents is good if there are the aforementioned chapter titles, glossaries, indexes, etc.
-I do really like the idea for quick timelines or summaries of the previous material

-Resounding yes to printing the series numbers somewhere

Nelson B. said:

I hate coming up with chapter titles. If you can easily come up with titles for all of your chapters, go for it. But I don’t think they’re that important, and if trying to come up with a name for one chapter is slowing you down, just throw them out.

Since when have they stopped putting synopsis’ on the backs (or in the dust jacket for hardcover) books? But yes, please keep doing that.

Yes please for numbers on the spine.

Peter G. suggested:

A wiki? Probably not done by the author but fans could be encouraged to create and run one. With link in the books.

Andy W. said:

I think you can’t have too many hand rails for readers, especially if you want a series to age well.

Ruth K. said:

Chapter titles are cool and can help me find where I was when I lose my spot, but I can live without them

Actual synopsis instead of reviews on the back: YES PLEASE! As long as its accurate anyway.

Maps, cool, but I can live without them

Indexes of characters/places with pronunciations: if I need this to read the book I’ve probably stopped reading it halfway through because I wasn’t able to keep track of who was who in my head. So while cool, definitely not required for me.

series numbers on the spine: YES PLEASE

TOC: see chapter titles

Glossaries: this falls close the indexes issue, if I can tell whats what from the story then its fine, I’ll read the actual definition later, but if I have to reference the damn glossary every time I word is used then you lost me before I got halfway through the book

Timeline: cool, but I can live without

Chrissy A. put in the library perspective:

As a humble librarian who fields many questions about books she doesn’t have a clue about, the numbers on the spine would be a GODSEND. Not just that, but actually indicating somewhere that a book is part of a series at all. You’d be surprised how many still don’t do that.

Kathleen S. suggests:

Here’s another, very basic thing: Some indication when the point of view character changes! More than just a new paragraph! It gets confusing….

Tom Rogneby commented:

I’m not creative enough to have chapter titles that are both spoiler free and interesting. You’ll get Roman numerals and like it.

Maps make sense if the characters are traveling.

If you’re using a fantasy language enough that it can’t be figured out in context, then a glossary makes sense.

The general consensus was:

  • Chapter Titles are optional

  • Synopsis on the back of the book is vital, but DO NOT include spoilers

  • Maps are fun but totally optional (and may not be possible in ebook)

  • Indexes of characters and places are meh, and for some readers an indication that the book is more complex than they want.

  • Pronunciation guides are nice

  • Numbering books in series, and especially on the spine, is VITAL.

  • Tables of contents are a yes, please (These in an ebook come at the end of the book, but Amazon (don’t know about other ereaders) put it at the drop-down menu if it is inserted correctly. Very useful)

  • Glossaries are ok, but see Ruth K.’s comment on them above.

  • Timelines are ok, but not if they take up much time and space in the new book when they come at the beginning

Richard C. had an excellent question:

Ok somebody has to be the East German judge. First, I love all the suggestions. That said, how do we make it work for ebooks and avoid cutting into the sample chapters that you want to hook the reader into buying or KUing the book?

My answer to him, and reprinted here for clarity:

By putting most of this at the end of the book. If you insert the ToC properly (and again, at the end) into the ebook, Amazon (at least, not familiar with the other ebook retailers) will pick it up and put it into the dropdown menu you can access while reading. You can then navigate easily to, say, the glossary at the back.

All together, they are great suggestions. Some won’t apply to your book. None of them are things you should dwell on while you are writing the book. But when you are in the editing and formatting phase? Heck, yeah, you should do some (probably not all!) of these. I know the number on the spine for series is something I hadn’t done, but I will now.

What’s your pet peeve as a reader for books these days?

57 comments

    1. OOf, yes, that would be annoying. I know the bad old days of trying to find series when you couldn’t just go to Amazon and order used copies, well, it was nearly hopeless if it was an obscure series.

      1. And then there’s the case of ebooks vanishing and no hardcopy ever existed – I missed out on getting a copy of a bunch of P.M. Griffin’s ebooks, drat it. I got Survivor, but I wanted Bad Neighbors and several others….

    2. …that, or the book not being marked as part of a series, and then picking up where the previous book left off, leaving the reader without a freakin’ clue as to the backstory, other than bits he can guess. I understand tradpub authors don’t have control over covers, but it’s something you can fix with indie.

      No, you don’t need a novella-length forward describing what has gone before, but a couple of explanatory paragraphs sure wouldn’t hurt. And for that matter, they’re handy even if you’re reading them in order, and the last volume was a year or more ago.

      And for that matter, the “standard generic writer web site template” loves to show thumbnails of all an author’s book covers, but usually all in alphabetical or publication order, and almost never in *series* order, which is usually the reason I searched for the author’s web site in the first place. What, is everyone using the same site builder service or something? I guess I’m getting short of patience, but those generic “establish a web presence” pages really annoy me.

  1. Lack of maps (non-fiction). No page numbers—This was a trad-pub print title, which really made me boggle. A brand-new, e-book short-story collection formatted badly so you can’t jump to a different story. It had title page, contents, and about the authors. No chapter access, no way to go to different sections. (I understand that happening on an OCR scan of an older book, but it’s not acceptable on a new work.)

    1. I ran into that second one recently and it was very annoying. I was wondering if it was an artifact of how Bundle Rabbit formats anthology/collections, or a newb that didn’t know any better.

      The lack of page numbers boggles me, too!

  2. I think that chapter titles can go a long way to setting the tone.

    Location//Date//Time as a chapter heading can help the reader keep things straight, and fit the “mission briefing” feel of a Spy Thriller or Police Procedural.

    In Tim Power’s Last Call, the chapter titles are all a line of dialogue that one of the character’s speaks during that chapter. It’s subtle enough that I didn’t realize it right away, and then I started waiting for the title line to show up when I read each chapter and wondering about the context, which oddly enough had the net effect of making me think more about the story instead of distracting me from it.

    In Donald Westlake’s Dancing Aztecs the chapter titles are all brief prepositional phrases. In the first part they describe time (“At The Start…”, “After That…”, “Next…”) in the second part they describe location (“In The Bedroom…”, “Up In The Air…”, “Down In The Dumps…”) and the third part they describe manner or causality (“Because Of That…”, “Unfortunately…”, “In Conclusion…”) It gives the novel a comic book kind of feel, particularly because the chapters are very short and bounce from character to character.

    Michael Moorcock used sentences taken advertising copy for the chapter titles in his Jerry Cornelius trilogy, deliberately at random. It fit the feel of a deconstructive New Wave novel.

    In Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts each chapter is an individual short story with its own title, but I also gave each one a case number, which I think helps the stories feel connected.

    1. I think chapter titles are a good choice for some books, and no for others. The one I am writing this week – just numbered chapters. I might go back and add names, as my chapters break when I flip from one POV to another.

      It’s a highly individualistic choice for every book.

      1. I do like having a signifier that the POV has changed. I think that Bran Stroker’s Dracula handles that very well, with each chapter described as an excerpt from a journal or a letter or some such. The last third or so of The Left Hand Of Darkness handles this very well in my opinion, with the heading of the date in local numbering being enough to tell the reader that those are Estravan’s journal.

        1. I’ve recently read a book (unfortunately, I don’t remember which book …) that had multiple POVs within each chapter. The author used a line with a dingbat on it to indicate the POV change. It was a good choice – indicating the change without making it intrusive.

      2. Indeed. I’m giving chapter titles to the WIP (which is set in the lead up to, and in the American Civil War) by using lines from popular wartime songs.

        1. Ooh. Could you put up a list of the songs on your blog at some point? I’m not as familiar with civil war era music as I would like.

        2. Civil War song titles? Great idea! I generally use some line from within the chapter for a title, but there are so many other options that I really ought to explore. The most fun I ever had was using equations for chapter titles in Mathemagics.

          1. I’m using lines from the songs – which have a meaning for events within the chapters. Using the song titles would be … unsubtle. Although, given the current prevailing ignorance about the ACW and events leading up to it among the attendees of most American colleges these days, maybe not subtle at all.

    2. I’m currently quite confused in sorting out my current project. I have a high level, forest view of what is happening, and a bunch of tree level details generated, or possible to generate, but am not sure how to record/describe intermediate level structure well enough to understand the implications of a design iteration.

      At one point I had an outline of the first few chapters, and had decided I would try to title each chapter with four word selections of appropriate songs and poems. I spent a lot of time trying to find appropriate songs, before concluding that I was working on the wrong part of the problem for what I’m trying to do.

    3. Chapter titles are useful for the reader who’s lost his/her place, and frankly well done work as advertising when the TOC is at the front of the book. The browser can look at the TOC and and see the chapter titles. And hopefully get curious and buy the book.

      IIRC, the TOC at the end of the book, while useful so some part of the actual story showed in the preview of short stories, it only became common when Amazon counted KULL pages read as the last page read.

    4. They can help you define a unified chunk that would make a good chapter. (I keep forgetting to put in chapter breaks. . . .)

  3. > -As long as the synopsis is actually accurate, jeeeeez

    In the last few years, most of the synopses I’ve read have been so generic they could, after changing a few names, apply to any book in their genre.

    If your book is so generic that you can’t even differentiate it from the crowd, why should I be interested? I’ve read it before, or close enough not to matter.

    Though I know some readers want “more of the same” and would probably be delighted. My wife loves JR Robb’s “Eve Dallas” books *because* they’re all the same book with only a few things changed… she knows what she’s getting. Which makes her happy, but they drive me nuts.

    1. The example cited – I’m not sure I quoted it in the post – was on a book where the synopsis seemed to have been for an entirely different book by the same author.

      Yes, generic blurbs aren’t good either. Unless your readers just want comfort reads, I suppose.

  4. I think that maps can add to the feel of the world (I included a Thomas Brothers style map of Dracoheim County in Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts), but I think if a reader actually needs it to follow the action it’s a sign that the author isn’t writing clearly.

    Glossaries and character lists are a big red flag for me–particularly if they are full of hard to pronounce names. If a word isn’t clear from context it’s another sign of unclear writing in my opinion, and if a character is so forgettable that I need to look up a name then why name the character at all?

    1. I would rather like a list of character names in the back, because I often put down a book while I’m reading it– and I am terrible with names. Add in made up names and…well, my gaming buddies on Final Fantasy 14 (Japanese world-wide video game, for non gamers!) get a big kick out of my summaries of stuff.

      “K, was that before or after Ruben sandwich tried to kill the little Lulu guy, and we found out that spoilery thing about the Quaker elf? Wasn’t the obnoxious one in the hoodie out on the exploding island?”

      **New guy is very confused**

      **someone comes in to save him**

      “…Flame General Raubahn. Lolorito. Urianger Augurelt is not a Quaker. And do you mean Krile?”

      (Uri speaks with thee-s and thou-s, just like the family in Friendly Persuasion….)

    2. Where maps come in quite handy, I think, is stories that are serious traveling adventures. In Tolkien, for example, it’s useful to be able to reference how far it is from Rivendell to Mt. Doom, what percentage of the trip they’ve completed when they get to Lorien, when they’re debating between Caradras or the Gap of Rohan exactly what they’re arguing about. In other stories, they’re mostly useless: I never thought the Hunger Games would be enhanced by a map of Panem.

      Where maps become annoying is in a long running series where, as per the Guide to Fairyland, the author decides that we absolutely must visit every named location on the map…

  5. > Pronunciation guides are nice

    And they need to be in the front if you include them. And if it’s a series, it needs to be in the front of the *first* volume. Steven Brust’s Dragaera books left the pronunciation guide far too late, and it annoyed the hell out of me when he revealed many common names and places were pronounced in ways different from standard English, including the name of the main character…

    1. This is true for a print book. Ebooks are formatted differently. In an ebook it would go with the end material, linked to TOC for easy navigation to it while reading.

    2. I dislike pronunciation guides, especially up front, most especially in the first book in the series. Because if you’re trying to tell me how to pronounce a character before I care about them, my basic emotional reaction is “Why should I care? I don’t even know if this story is worth reading past the first page yet.”

      1. I’m afraid that I prefer to leave it up to my readers. WIP is a good example. I have multiple Siberian tribal names. I’m going to let the readers choose how to pronounce Alaadi, Algyr, Ubcu, and the like. Because honestly I’m not 100% sure myself.

        1. I never think about how anything is pronounced until I’m going over the audiobook files from the reader who does my books. Nine times out of ten I just go with his pronunciation.

      2. Same here. Pronunciation guides, detailed genealogies, long character lists all make me feel that the author is asking me to invest in way too much work before I’ve even decided whether I want to read the book.

  6. Given what I write, a glossary of terms might be helpful to some. If a reader doesn’t know what “entanglement” is, or Schrödinger’s Cat, it might be nice for them to be able to see that at the back. (Although if they don’t know that its unlikely they picked up my book.)

    Here arises a technical issue with Amazon Kindle: If you hyperlink words in the body of the text to a glossary in the back, that is a no-no as I understand it. That puts the reader at a disadvantage with an e-book, they don’t come to it until they’re all finished. Unlike a paper book, where they can flip to the back and see the explanation of the thing.

    Chapter titles, I put those in for my own and hopefully the reader’s entertainment. They sometimes allude to what’s happening in the chapter, or sometimes its a joke.

  7. I tried to put the series name and number on the spine of my first book, but there simply wasn’t enough room, not unless I made the book title practically microscopic. The information is, however, on the cover. And while I would have preferred to put it on the spine as well, I’m not convinced that that’s important for Indies. If you’re reader is going to encounter your book for the first time on a bookshelf, then yes: the spine is what makes them decide if they want to pull it out and look more closely, and I could see a fair amount of annoyance if they have to pull out every book you wrote in order to find out the next one in the series. For Indies, however, the reader is most likely going to be seeing the book on a website, where`they won’t even be able to see the spine.

    As far as summaries on the back go, I tend to interpret, “I don’t have one” as “My book doesn’t actually have a plot. This is the sort of meandering ‘slice-of-life’ crap you would have to read for English class, except you aren’t even going to be rewarded with a good grade for making it through.”

  8. Interesting. I do most of these things, although usually not all of them in any one book. I think Fate’s Door may be the only one that has named chapters and table of contents, character list, location list, language list, glossary, translation list, timeline…ah, but no map or pronunciation guide. And it’s standalone, so no series number on the spine.

    The constellation of extras varies, depending on the project. Some stores call for chapter titles; some don’t. Some need a map; some don’t. The Tally Master actually has an illustration as a frontispiece. 😉

  9. I was trying to think of what I want from the back of the book– I don’t want a summary, exactly, I want to know what the book is about. Give me a hook.

    I don’t care if other folks liked it, there’s a LOT of books I like that other people don’t so it’s gonna be the same in the opposite direction!

  10. so many mil SF books would end up with a chapter titled “So no s**t, there i was….”

    1. Bwahahahaha! Oh, so true!

      and
      “The Lieutenant had a Good Idea…”

  11. Similar character names, I hate having to stop reading and try to sort out names that look similar. Unless there is a good reason not to, make the names visually different. I don’t care how the names are pronounced, I don’t even think about the sounds of the name, I can think of multi-book series I’ve read where I couldn’t pronounce many names or places. Same for places, races and the like.

    No more than one name for a character, I can live with Mr. Sam Something, Sam and Sammy if the situation warrants but Rock as a nickname unless it is the primary reference with other forms used only as necessary aggravates. Maybe Thing but why? Smiling Sammy or Sam the Snake I’d be good with.

    Want to distinguish a race/nationality with unique names? Use a common prefix or ending but set it off from the unique name so it can just be scanned without a pause to break up a string of letters.

    What I really hate is a story or series so good I can’t put it down but I need a cheat-sheet to keep the names straight.

  12. Well, chapter titles aren’t going to be an issue for me. Part of my process is to title each chapter when I’m still in the “forest” level. Those are in the high level book synopsis, along with an 8 – 11 line chapter description. Which then get chapter level synopses, when then are broken down into scenes, and then finally written. (Okay, that is the general process, from my IT days – “top down writing.” Like programming, I have a lot of bits of writing laying around waiting for connection into the whole.)

    On the current WIP, that I (should be) doing, the chapters are all one word: Alex, Elena, Grub, Refugee, Ensign, Settlement, Promise, Emissary, Assignment, Commonalities, Diplomat, Betrayal, Countermarch, (In)decisions, Snipers, Relief.

    Note that some of those have already changed as the plot lines clarified, or I found a happier word for one that wasn’t good to start with. (Commonalities is certainly going to change before I’m done; it’s descriptive of the plot development in that chapter, but sounds clunky to me…)

    PoV changes – at least right now, with my skill levels, I mostly don’t change PoV mid-chapter. A very few places where I will need to do it mid-chapter, but that will be at scene breaks – a different place, a different time, a different set of characters dialoging, something.

  13. For me, the biggest thing that I’ve come to hate about ebooks (and this is, so far, only true of tradpub works) is that, after seeing the huge success ofregion coding in the DVD/BluRay market, we’re now seeing it happen in the ebook market.

    There are ebooks that I know exist, but which aren’t listed in the US Amazon. But, if I go to amazon.co.uk, I see that the book is for sale there, both as a physical book, and an ebook. I can buy the dead tree version, and Amazon will be glad to ship it to me. But Amazon looks at my address, and the fact that I’m coming from a USA IP address, and says, “We can’t sell you the ebook; you need to go to Amazon (US) to but it, because we know you’re a US person”.

    Yes, given Amazon’s checking mechanism, there are ways around it — but that really shouldn’t be necessary.

    And this isn’t just true for obscure UK authors, or contemporary writers. An old American author like Hal Clement (who died in 2003, so it’s not like this is new work) has half of his major works (including books like Needle (70 years old; published 1950) or Iceworld (almost as old; published 1953)) only available in ebook form from Amazon UK.

    It’s bad enough that the classics go out of print — one of the advantages of ebooks is that they tend to stick around. It’s worse when they’re available — just not in your country.

  14. Ruth K here. To clarify a bit- I meant my responses to be for scifi/fantasy, stuff I’m reading for fun. Non-fiction in most any form: indexes, glossaries, etc are VERY useful. But for stuff I’m reading for fun? If I have to reference that stuff constantly then I’m constantly being thrown out of the story. Pronunciation guides fall into this category too. Mind, I like reading this stuff, but AFTER the book is done. If I need it to keep track during the story I’m going to stop reading.

    1. So you are saying you don’t want a list of references, and a bunch of self study problems at the end of every chapter? 😛

      How do you feel about Omake? In fanfiction, some stories end one or more chapters with a non-canonical section of fiction semi-related to the main story.

      I’ve been a little tempted to a series of ‘bad ends’, for if the events of the chapter had gone otherwise, which are more or less the same scene with different characters. So, yeah, I’m basically nuts, am missing some fairly fundamental clues about what I’m doing, and tempted into all sorts of bad taste. 😀

      1. No idea what Omake is. And never really got into fanfiction. I’ve always kinda liked watching the deleted scenes and alternate endings on movies though, for what thats worth. So I guess its ok if I already know the story and am interested in more details. But on the first run through the story it bumps me out of the story to much.

        1. It literally means something like “bonus.”

          The bonus content on a DVD is a very good idea, yeah.

          The example that comes to mind for me was actually used for the ending credits in an anime– the entire cast is in a fairly classic magic-and-samuri style setting, several are very obviously Not Human, and the artist redrew them as modern day school-or-college kids who would only get drool-type second glances, while making them recognizable. I can’t even remember the anime, but I remember being wowed by that skill.

  15. Maps are all well and fine, I suppose, but if I must flip to a map or pronunciation guide or dictionary to make sense of the rest, reader trance is broken.

    A work of fiction should be readable as it is on the page. Larry Correia is really good at this: after reading Son of the Black Sword, oh, cool, map. And everything was where my brain had it from the story. David Weber, I had a couple countries in the wrong places versus the map in the Oath of Swords. Both involve a lot of travel.

    I personally don’t care about chapters, but page numbers are important. (We Few? Yeah. Didn’t even notice there weren’t chapters on first reading.) Cool chapter names are cool.

    Synopsis is more important than quotes from authors, definitely. I may not recognize the quoted author’s name. These days, if I do, it may be because I encountered the author on the web and developed an abiding personal dislike. Not over politics, necessarily, there are plenty of folks who are just unlikable. (I’m probably one of them to a lot of people!)

    1. I like chapters and TOC, especially in e-books. This is particularly important in books, like the ones written by Lawdog, that are really collections of anecdotes, short stories, etc.

      However, at least with a Kindle, if the author doesn’t provide, you can improvise by putting a bookmark at the start of each one.

  16. If you’re going to add a map, make it useful! I remember a tradpub quartet that came with maps, the one of the fortresses was useful, but the one of the country was worse than useless. Couldn’t even tell where named places were.

  17. My favorite fantasy map is from My Father’s Dragon.

    I prefer the table of contents at the front even in ebooks.

  18. No quotes (from a real or fictitious person) at the beginning of each chapter. Personally I like chapter titles though.

    No songs/poetry anywhere.

    Skip the battle scenes.

    Skip the Introduction/Preface, if applicable.

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