Saturday, October 12, 2013

Readers: What are you missing that's just a click away?

Not too long ago, I belatedly became aware of something that has changed the way I approach reading books on my Kindle.  It was this:

A friend, writing to tell me she was enjoying my novel A Thing Done,  made a few comments about the story and then said, "But I still have no idea where you got that title."

Wait - hadn't she read the Dante excerpt at the beginning?  The one that included the famous quote my title comes from?  (A phrase Dante didn't originate, by the way, but was quoting.)

No.  Obviously, she hadn't.  Because, as it turns out, she was reading it on her Kindle, and starting where it plonked her down when she opened the book.  On Page 1.  Which meant no Dante quote, no dedication, no acknowledgement page, no table of contents for her.

Curious, I checked out a bunch of the books on my own Kindle.  (Most of them are historical novels, which probably influences the kinds of information authors offer their readers.)  I found the same situation throughout:  the book is handed to you, open to Page 1, and anything before the pagination starts, you need to page-back to find.

But do you want to?  Does anybody actually want to read a Table of Contents unless they're using it to navigate within the book?

If it consists of things like "Chapter 20:  Page 240; Chapter 21:  Page 252" etc., then probably not.  But some people give their chapters names, and those names form an interesting pattern - a pattern the author intended for you to see.

And it isn't just Tables of Contents, either.  Among the things I found when I systematically went back through all those books and did the requisite page-backing were these:
  • Maps
  • Quotes
  • Character lists
  • Author notes
  • Author bio
  • Glossaries and pronunciation guides
  • Lists of previous books, sometimes with review quotes
  • Dedications
  • Acknowledgements
  • Disclaimers
  • Awards
  • How an army was structured (in a culture that would be unfamiliar to most readers)
  • Significant information about the book - for example, that it was a retelling of a classic novel in a new time and place
I don't know if this is true of all e-readers.  I don't even know if it is true of all Kindles.  But it clearly is true for at least some of us reading in this way.

For me, many of these are not throw-aways.  I want to see them.  And I will, from now on, because I will page my way back until I reach the cover, every time, to make sure I'm not missing anything I don't want to miss.

It seems to me that if an author puts a map, or a glossary, or a list of characters, or a quote, or information about the nature, structure, or purpose of the book at the beginning, it's because he/she wants the reader to have that information.  Naturally the reader can refuse this gift, just as the reader can decide not to read the book at all.  But if these things are placed there, is it not likely that a reader might want to at least be aware of their existence before making that decision?

Take maps, for example.  Maps can be beautiful.  They can be interesting, and surprising, and offer information that will make a big difference in your reading experience.  I actually bought a globe when I started reading Dorothy Dunnett's novels, the better to try to keep up with her characters and their travels.  Maps, if you know they exist, may well be something you refer to repeatedly as you go through a book.

Information about the author, her previous books, her award history - I've done internet searches to learn these things, only to find out later that the information I wanted was right there in the front of the book.

Dedications.  Okay, many are private in nature, but they can be oddly poignant, or funny, or in some other way revelatory.  And they're brief.  If it takes only a nanosecond to find out whether a dedication is something you want to read or not, why not take a look?  You're committing to an entire book, after all.  An extra line or two won't hurt you.

Acknowledgements.  Sure, some authors will thank their entire family, each individual member of their critique group, their publisher, their editor, their agent, their first-grade teacher, their Facebook friends, and their dog, but this, too, can be surprisingly interesting.  You can learn the strangest things about people, things which may affect the way you view their work.  Again, why not take a look?   Aren't you just a little curious?

If there's a quote, it will be there for a reason.  Similarly, historical notes, glossaries, and punctuation guides are not placed there to try your patience, but rather to offer you useful tools for approaching a book that may take place in a setting you're less familiar with than the author is.  (At least, one may hope that's the case!  Who wants to read a book written by somebody who knows less about the subject than we do?)

And this front matter can radically affect how your book is received.  In the case of the author who had written a skillful retelling of a classic novel (but classic in another country and another language, so not well known to many of her readers), she was perfectly honest and up-front about what she had done.  But a quick scan of her reader reviews on Amazon made it obvious that most people had no idea that the book was not completely original in all of its aspects.  Her retelling was well done, but it made me uncomfortable - and probably made her a bit uncomfortable, too - to see so many people praising the depth of her characters (actually the original author's characters), the intricacies of her plot (the original author's plot), and the sparkle of her dialogue (much of it, at least, from the original book).  As it happens, I had read the classic novel, so I was aware of these things.

These readers gave her credit for what was not her own, and failed to recognize what she had actually accomplished, in her well-crafted retelling, because they simply didn't know what she was trying to do.  

So my advice would be to take those few seconds to page-back and see what's there before you start reading that next book on your Kindle.  You may not find anything that matters, but then again, you just might.

Illustrations in this post are in the public domain.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tinney, thank you for highlighting this - from an author POV this could be a real problem - in my case it might explain why some folk didn't know I had a glossary until they'd finished reading the book and why some found it hard to get a grip on who was who among the characters - tricky if they hadn't seen the character list.

I shall be tweeting and sharing and any other way sending folk to read this because it may affect lots of HF authors, without any of us being aware.

Lauren Gilbert said...

Excellent post! I try to always go back to the beginning when reading a Kindle book after I realized that I had missed an important prologue in one novel. I don't know why Kindle books are set to start automatically at chapter one.

Tinney Heath said...

Thanks, Margaret and Lauren. I agree, as readers and also as writers we need to know this, and exercise control however we can. It's a shame to see so much material, lovingly provided by authors, getting missed by readers.

Kris Holtan said...

I, for one, always page back to read any dedications and other stuff. This starting on page 1 annoys the the heck out of me... Kindle also (often) take you back to the Homepage before you can read anything like Author's Notes and other info.

Julian Rixon said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Often there is essential information in the pre-paginated pages that contributes to the whole essence of the book. It's a major omission not to include this in the electronic versions.

Anonymous said...

This is a really useful piece of digging, You've done, for authors and, most of all, for readers. Maybe Amazon and other e-book providers will read it as well.

Martin Lake

Tinney Heath said...

The information is there - it's just not obvious, and you have to go looking for it. When your Kindle starts you on Page 1, there's a tendency to just go along with it and start reading there. I guess one possible moral of the story is, don't let your gadgets make decisions for you.

Jeffrey Marks said...

Many eBook producers want all of the typical front matter to go at the end of the book, so that the Kindle "Look Inside" feature shows the story and not the acknowledgements, etc. I doubt some people are aware of that either.

Tinney Heath said...

Good point, Jeffrey. I hadn't thought of that. But it seems to me that there ought to be some way to program the "Look Inside" feature to start on Page 1, and yet have the Kindle open to the cover for the reader holding the whole book (or a downloaded excerpt). Some authors have a strong preference for placing certain materials at the beginning. I just wish there was some way for readers and ebook producers to all be on the same page with this (sorry...).

Dorothy said...

Hmmm. Looks like I get to play the role of the Fool here. I'd never even noticed the "Page 1 rule" in my Kindle app, and I love acknowledgements, etc. I really hadn't given it any thought. Thanks for pointing this out -- I'll have to go take a look through my Kindle library and see what I've missed! PS: Strange but true: The "non-robot" code to get this comment online says "Read 1"!

V.E. Ulett said...

What an excellent article. When I read a book, I want to read ALL the content.

SueL said...

Thanks Tinney for this. I enjoy reading on my Kindle - though I always page back to the cover first as I want to read the whole book.

Interesting to think of the potential impact of ebook readers on the way we read...