The table of contents... is perhaps the single most powerful element in the buy/bye decision.
This is the last in the Taming the Ideas series of blogs about structuring your non-fiction book, and it focuses on an under-appreciated tool that brings it all together (for the earlier blogs, see here and here).
If the title of your book has caught a potential reader's attention on Amazon, their next step will probably be to 'look inside this book', that is, open a preview. This will include your book's prelims and a sample of text: the table of contents, front and centre in the preview, is perhaps the single most powerful element in the buy/bye decision.
Just as you might browse the menus outside each restaurant on a Parisian boulevard, deciding which suits your style and your appetite best, so potential readers flick through tables of content - known as tocs - to assess what they can expect from each book, and which they most like the look of.
This is where the work you’ve done on structure (see earlier blogs) can really help – if your table of contents shows a clear, well-thought-through and consistent structure, the reader will take this as a signal that the book itself is clear and well-thought-through, and trust you to guide them through the material. A long list of chapter headings makes them think they’re on their own, that you’re not going to help them make sense of all this stuff, at which point they will possibly lose the will to live, and almost certainly the will to read.
So your toc needs to reflect your structure, but it also needs to convey your meaning and ideally something of your personality. The clearer you can be in the headings you use, the more the reader will be able to see the value of the content – it is a ‘taster’ of what’s to come.
Try it for yourself: take a look at the preview of a few books that catch your eye on Amazon, and assess whether their tocs whet your appetite, or make you want to walk on.
Here’s an example of a table of contents that I think does the job of setting out the structure and drawing in the reader very well (and the content does not disappoint): this is the toc from Steve Peters’s The Chimp Paradox, as seen in the Amazon preview. You can see it sets out very clearly the structure of the book – it’s in three parts with six chapters in each, and some chapters are broken down further into two sections, to keep the length and balance consistent. Each chapter is given a subtitle of its own so you get a sense of exactly what it covers. There’s also some preliminary matter, including an intriguingly titled introduction.
If we jump to the end of the same table of contents you can see the final section and endmatter, including an epilogue which picks up and rounds off the sun theme from the introduction. It's very obvious that a great deal of care has gone into the construction of the book, it's clear what it covers, and just as importantly you get a sense of the author's personality and his approach.
I’m not going to select an example of a poor table of contents – that would be unkind – but I’m sure you’ll be able to find one without too much trouble, particularly in self-published titles: too many consist simply of a bald list of chapter headings that tell you almost nothing about the structure of the book or the personality of its author.
The toc is one of the key heuristics readers use when they make barely conscious, lightning-fast decisions about where and how to direct their attention. Make yours do your book justice.