Does Your Novel Need a Table of Contents?

Table of contents on the right-hand (recto) page in a book

From our own reading, most of us know that some paperback and hardcover novels have a table of contents page in the front and some don’t. Lurking online, I perceive a widespread notion that tables of contents are old-fashioned and pointless for fiction. There’s also fear that a contents page wastes valuable marketing space in online “see inside” previews, preventing readers from getting to the good stuff that will tempt them to buy.

Why then do some best-selling, award-winning novels have a table of contents, sometimes several pages long? As you’ll see, sometimes it makes sense.

The Chicago Way

Tables of contents for printed nonfiction books are traditional for obvious reasons. Readers of a guide to wildflowers or a history of Angola can consult the TOC both for a concise overview of the entire book and to locate specific information. Reviewers and scholars may use the contents to find their way back to passages they want to quote or cite. CMOS 1.38 lays out the conventions for compiling and placing a contents page.

Novels, however, aren’t reference books. CMOS 1.38 skirts the issue of TOCs for novels, but it does note that “a table of contents may be omitted for books without chapter or other divisions.” Let’s take that as permission to omit the TOC from any book where it’s unhelpful.

Indeed, in hardcover and paperback novels a table of contents is of limited value compared to a TOC for nonfiction, especially when a book has only chapter numbers, not titles.

But before we declare the TOC irrelevant to printed novels, let’s take a closer look at why some current best-selling writers (or their editors or publishers) decide to include one.

When a Table of Contents Is Helpful in a Novel

As a guide to a complex narrative

In some novels, especially series fiction, the plot and chronology can be so intricate that devoted fans appreciate having a guide to the action. Such books may include maps of the imaginary world, as well as family trees or lists of characters. Many readers appreciate a table of contents that will take them to the chapter they want to read and reread.

In Diana Gabaldon’s latest addition to her popular Outlander series, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone (Delacorte Press, 2021), the table of contents takes seven pages to lay out the book’s five parts and 155 chapters. Show that to those who worry about wasting valuable marketing space. In this case, the contents pages are marketing, with evocative chapter titles like “The Women Will Ha’ a Fit” and “Dead or Alive.” The TOC appears in both the printed and electronic editions.

Start of table of contents for Gabaldon, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone: hardcover (left) and Kindle (right).

The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois, by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Harper, 2021), has an even more complex structure, featuring eleven parts, eight untitled “songs” (each divided further into titled sections), and fifty-three titled chapters (also with titled sections). Following two full pages of family tree, the three-page table of contents saves a few pages by omitting the song and chapter sections.

Opening page of the table of contents for Jeffers, The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois: hardcover (left) and Kindle (right). Photo courtesy Sara Pitcher.

When chapters are stories in themselves

Sometimes a novel consists of linked stories, in which each chapter can stand alone and may have even been published previously in a literary journal or the like. A reader might well consult the table of contents seeking a specific chapter. Brandon Taylor’s novel Filthy Animals (Riverhead Books, 2021) is a good example: The hardcover edition features a TOC with chapters like “Potluck” and “Proctoring.” The copyright page acknowledges which chapters were previously published elsewhere.

Taylor, Filthy Animals, hardcover edition, table of contents (left) and detail from copyright page (right).

When chapter titles are a creative plus

Above, we saw Diana Gabaldon making the most of her table of contents. J. Ryan Stradal does the same in a different way in The Lager Queen of Minnesota (Penguin Books, 2019), with intriguing chapter titles in dollar amounts: “$20,000,” “$31.00,” “$15.00,” “$92.27,” and so on. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t wait to get to “$1,020,000.” This contents page simultaneously previews the writer’s wit and hints at one of the core emotional issues in this story about a disputed inheritance.

Table of contents for the hardcover edition of Stradal, The Lager Queen of Minnesota.

To communicate locations in a book

Sometimes a publishing decision has less to do with what readers “like” and more to do with practicalities. Any writer who hopes their book will be talked about, reviewed, quoted, cited, judged, or taught has reason to help reviewers find and share memorable passages in any way they can. Reviewers and teachers also check for a TOC when wishing to refresh their memory of a book. Providing a list of the contents is one way to make their job easier.

As part of your writing process

Finally, whether a table of contents ends up in your book or not, some writers find it useful to name their chapters (if only temporarily) and make a TOC for private use. It’s a way to see at a glance the structure of your book, the arc of the plot, what might be missing, or anything else that such a list might highlight.

How to Make a Contents Page

A table of contents for a printed book typically lists the page number of every section of the book that follows the contents page. That usually means excluding the title page, series page (or the list of the author’s previous books), copyright page, epigraph page, and pages containing quotes from reviews or other marketing materials. Listing chapter sections and subsections is optional. (See CMOS 1.38 for more details.) It’s traditional to title the contents simply “Contents” rather than “Table of Contents.”

TIP
Before you type out all those titles, see the “Bonus” section in Shop Talk’s post on organizing book chapters.

Where to Put a Table of Contents

In most books published in English, the TOC is placed in the front, beginning on a right-hand page (see CMOS 1.4). It follows the title and copyright pages as well as a few other elements that are typically placed up front in printed books:

Book half title
Series title, other works, frontispiece, or blank
Title page
Copyright page
Dedication
Epigraph
(Table of) Contents

FUN FACTS
French publishers have traditionally put the contents page in the back, which makes sense if the chapter titles contain spoilers. In 2016, Amazon caused protests by taking down e-books whose TOCs were in the back —something to do with royalties based on the “last page read.” Amazon quickly responded that putting contents in the back was “not in itself outside of our guidelines,” but as of this writing, their KDP guidelines fail to make that clear.

E-books and Audiobooks

Publishers of e-book and audiobook fiction routinely require a table of contents to aid readers in navigating the chapters, even if the hardcover and paperback editions don’t have one. In e-books, the TOC consists of hyperlinks that jump to coded locations, not to page numbers. Even if an author or publisher decides not to display a contents “page” at the front of an e-book, a table of contents will be generated for the e-book’s menu so readers will still have a way of getting to different sections in the book.

Audiobook narrators tend to skip the front matter of novels (other than an epigraph or dedication), but like e-books, audiobooks normally include a contents menu to help readers move to different chapters or other sections in the book.

FOR SELF-PUBLISHERS
Instructions and templates for compiling electronic TOCs are provided at indie-publishing websites like KDP, Smashwords, and Apple Books. See DAISY’s Accessible Publishing Knowledge Base for best practices for tables of contents as an aid to navigation and accessibility in e-books. For audiobooks, start with these recommendations from the W3C.

When to Omit the Table of Contents

Many if not most novels that feature a table of contents in the e-book edition omit it in print. This is especially true when the chapter labels reveal nothing aside from location in the book. Angela Jackson-Brown’s When Stars Rain Down (Thomas Nelson, 2021) is a good example. The chapters are numbered simply 1, 2, 3, etc., without titles. Accordingly, the paperback edition of the book has no TOC, but the e-book edition does.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down: paperback edition opening to chapter 1 (left); Kindle table of contents (right).

Novels that are told from more than one point of view commonly title each chapter with the name of the character who narrates. Amor Towles does something like this in The Lincoln Highway (Viking, 2021). The chapters, which are curiously numbered backward from ten to one, contain a varying number of sections bearing character names. Chapter 9, for instance, has sections titled “Emmett, “Duchess,” “Woolly,” “Sally,” and (again) “Duchess.” All these sections are listed in the table of contents for the e-book, which does not appear in the hardcover book.

Towles, Lincoln Highway: Kindle table of contents.

A similar issue arises when years or dates serve as chapter titles. Rebecca Makkai’s chapter titles in The Great Believers (Viking, 2018) consist of years that alternate between two story lines: 1985, 2015, 1985, 2015, with the earlier year gradually creeping into the 1990s as the chapters roll on. Thus, many are duplicates. Five chapters are titled “1985”; a couple of dozen are titled “2015.”

Perhaps in recognition of its relative uselessness, the hardcover omits a table of contents. Yet there it is, in the e-book.

Makkai, The Great Believers: hardcover edition chapter opener (left); Kindle table of contents (right).

Takeaway

Most novels do fine without a table of contents. But don’t reject the notion out of hand as old-fashioned or pointless. Considered case by case, a contents page may be another opportunity to aid navigation, showcase creativity, and even sell a book.


Top image of open book courtesy Pixabay, modified for this post.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

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