Digital Reading: Getting Behind Front Matter

Anne Kostick

By Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND

Ed note: to listen to the audio from last Thursday’s Roundtable, go here. Digital Book World members can access the video presentation here. If you’re not a member yet, you can join for a full year for only $99.

Last week at the DBW Roundtable Peter Meyers and I conducted a joint review of design and format issues in e-books. We divvied up the points, and I got to discuss the part we called “Greeting the Reader.”  I had a lot to say about all the things a book reader traditionally sees first, from the cover to the first page of text. Or you could call it, all the things an e-book reader doesn’t see on her way to the main event.

As we developed the presentation, I realized what a powerful tool for reader engagement, book enhancement and marketing, and publisher autonomy the section known as front matter could be. This column is a call to action for e-book publishers: Liberate your front matter!

Front matter, traditionally, contains information the author and publisher would like the reader to see before getting to the main text. It may include introductions, prefaces, and so on, as well as information about the publication history of the book, information from and about the author, copyrights, credits and acknowledgments.

Back matter or end matter may contain reference material the reader might use while reading the main text (such as notes, bibliography, and, of course, the index), stowing it away so it doesn’t interfere with the main text.

As with so many other organizational features of a book, honed over generations, front matter/back matter makes sense when you picture a print book held in two hands or resting on a table in front of a reader (especially a right-handed reader of text in a language that reads left to right). Each hand is the monitor of its own end, and assists the eyes in working through the main text. Lovely.

But it begins to feel like a relic when transferred to a digital environment. We want and need the information, but not necessarily where and how it is presented.

I know, I know: e-book producers usually just crank the existing book files through the ePub conversion machine, taking existing front matter along with the rest. But in our presentation, Peter and I urged e-book producers to start giving special attention to those overlooked parts of their books.

Most reading devices and systems offer a navigation menu that includes standard items such as “cover,” “contents,” “beginning,” “book,” “notes,” and so on. That menu may accurately describe a book’s parts, but more often it ignores and, in effect, hides some book information of value to publishers and readers. If a publisher includes information about the author, the reader will probably never know it without a link labeled “About the author.”

Kindle’s Mac reader menu for Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together

Turkle’s table of contents reveals much more, although in an odd styling

Alas, clicking the first link on the TOC leads to this dead end.

E-book readers don’t necessarily encounter front matter first (or ever, thanks to devices and apps that allow you to launch your book at the last page read and to sync that spot in the book across all your devices).  But elements such as the card page (listing the author’s previous publications), the publication history, (including date of first printing and revisions and editions), or the colophon (including publisher’s contact information) are marketing tools as much as anything else, and should be highly visible and reconfigured for the digital age.

One way to do this is to expand a hyperlinked Table of Contents (a must; there’s just no reason for a static or uninformative TOC anymore) to include absolutely everything in the e-book, including each element in the front matter. That way, a “contents” menu item in a device’s navigation will yield the full array of elements.

Next is to rethink the discrete order of front matter “pages” inherited from print books. Reject that static list of the author’s other titles, especially if the prolific author runs over the device’s page dimension, leaving an orphan title (often the most recent) stranded on the next “page.” Group these titles and hyperlink them to publishers’ book information pages; add author bio, dedications and links to the author’s page. Make the card page an author information center.

It follows that the publishers deserve their information centers as well. It’s surprising that so few publishers create colophon information for their e-books, and equally surprising that they don’t seem to see publisher pages as a fine opportunity to invite readers to visit their catalogs of print and digital works.

Publishers should collaborate with their digital production departments to develop a new template for e-book front matter that takes advantage of e-book readers’ habits and abilities. The new template would become part of the production workflow.

This will all just get easier to do. Soon, Epub 3 will make linking within text even easier and more granular, down to word and phrase level, and in the future, possibly inter-document linking as well. And whatever new developments are waiting down the road, these files will be ready.

Publishers often worry about loss of control of their books in the digital world. And with digital devices, publishers really aren’t much in control, not just of how the reader experiences the product but how they find it or buy it. But here’s a chance to make a standard e-book not merely a transfer of text to screen but a well crafted digital product that considers the reader, demonstrates value, and packs in information that travels with the work and is platform-independent. Changes like these are not so much enhancements as improvements, but they’ll make a big difference.

NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group for editors and others working in trade publishing to discuss standards, workflow, best practices, and the general Qs that most print people feel when confronted with terms like “workflow.” The Forum is moderated by Anne Kostick and David B. Schlosser. Anne’s weekly column, Digital Reading, discusses the field of User Experience and explores what it offers to trade publishers.

Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the editor in chief of Dulcinea Media, an online publisher in the educational market, and is the current president of Women’s Media Group.


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