Chapter Titles Are a Great Marketing Tool in the Age of E-Books

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog with Ruth Harris:

“Chapter titles!?” sez you. What is this, the 18th century? What am I supposed to write? Something like this?

Chapter the first, in which our hero is born, discovers that fire is hot, learns to pull up his own breeches, and slays a smallish dragon.

Hey, those 18th century writers knew their marketing. A reader flipping through a book in the shop could get an idea what kind of things were going to happen in the novel if it had descriptive chapter headers.

But yes, I know chapter titles went out of style in the age of modern minimalism.

Hemingway didn’t need no stinkin’ chapter titles. Neither did Fitzgerald or Faulkner.

However, some of the postmoderns later ventured into chapter title waters. David Foster Wallace used them in Infinite Jest, and John Barth titled his chapters in The End of the Road.

And in the 1990s, Annie Proulx used chapter titles to great effect in her Pulitzer Prize winner The Shipping News. Most of the chapter titles are the names of sailors’ knots, or other naval terms. Each chapter embodies a certain kind of knot, like “Love Knot”, “Strangle Knot” and “A Rolling Hitch.”

These literary authors used the chapter titles to enhance and comment on the content of the chapter.  Even though they wrote before the era of e-books, they used the chapter titles in a reader-enticing way.

Chapter Titles are Essential for the “Look Inside” Feature on Your Buy Page

But chapter titles are making a big comeback in the age of the e-book.

Why?

Because of the “Look Inside” function on a book’s buy page at most online retailers. This is where you make or break your sale, as Ruth showed us in her great post on How To Lose a Book Sale. Most retailers insist on a Table of Contents in your opening pages. And the average Table of Contents of a novel looks like this:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Bored yet?

Is that really what you want taking up the valuable real estate in your “Look Inside”?

Compare that with Rick Riordan’s current #1 Bestseller, The Red Pyramid

  1. A Death at the Needle
  2. An Explosion for Christmas
  3. Imprisoned with my Cat
  4. Kidnapped by a Not-So-Stranger…

Which table of contents is more likely to intrigue a reader?

Chapter Titles Aren’t Just for Children’s Books Anymore.

“Yeah, well,” sez you. “Rick Riordan writes for kids. I write for adults!”

It’s true that chapter titles are much more common in children’s literature, but savvy adult authors are using them too.

Delia Owens used chapter titles as well as titled sections in her runaway bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing. The titles intrigue readers as well as orient them in time and space.

The Crawdads Table of Contents looks like this:

Part 1—THE MARSH

Prologue (Yes, there’s a dreaded prologue. Owens breaks pretty much every rule, and sells millions.)

  1. Ma
  2. Jodie
  3. Chase
  4. School
  5. Investigation
  6. A Boat and a Boy
  7. The Fishing Season
  8. Negative Data
  9. Jumpin’
  10. Just Grass in the Wind…

The chapter titles tell us who the chapter is about, and then show how the story will develop — without offering any spoilers. Owens’ chapter titles also give the reader a sense of place. 

It sure is more interesting than a list of numbers isn’t it?

Delia Owens not only hit the NYT bestseller list with a debut novel — an amazing feat in itself — but she stayed there through 2019 and part of 2020. I wonder if her chapter titles had anything to do with her initial sales?

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog with Ruth Harris

17 thoughts on “Chapter Titles Are a Great Marketing Tool in the Age of E-Books”

  1. All my chapters are titled and have epigraphs. One more level of complexity for those who care. There is a whole layer external to the main story. And the prologues to the trilogy plus the epilogue give the final wrap up in a faux New Yorker article which the reader can examine knowing the real story. Great fun creating the linked layers.

  2. I’m writing book 3 of a not-yet-released long series (releases will start when this book completes) so this is perfect timing to reconsider my boring numeric chapter titles.

    However… I do multiple POVs, and typically (not absolutely always) there are several per chapter. This means that the focus of the plot jumps around, and there is no uniform “mini-summary” per chapter to base a chapter title on. It’s not that the scenes in a chapter are completely unrelated, but the relationship shouldn’t be overt (“People are worried about the hero”). And when addressing thematic similarities in a chapter I find there’s a certain condescending distance about, say, “Love is in the air” when various characters meet new friends — I don’t like the external authorial comment that refers overtly to what’s going on. Even temporal/locational metaphors don’t strike me well (“At the same time…”). I want the reader immersed in story, not reflecting on structural issues or taking a step back to look at things.

    So I’m stumped for how to approach the opportunity. Ideas? (I’m not changing the whole way I approach story-telling just to map to a marketing concept.)

    • I don’t see chapter titles (and epigram/quotes) as a marketing tool as much as a hook and a promise to entice tbe reader to go “one more chapter”. It also helps when it leads to the chapter opening.

      Me, I rather like a bit of whimsy (“meanwhile, back at the ranch” for a big location shift, “post mortem” for a meeting over a caper gone wtong, etc) but only it fits the tone of the work so the heading doesn’t have to telegraph plot or theme. A bit of consistency with the narrative helps.

      Some narratives, a chapter heading might break immersion rather than draw the reader in deeper, so it isn’t something to be used everywhere. If a common theme for the headings doesn’t come to you, you might be better off without them. Plenty of good works do without headings.

  3. I solved the TOC real estate problem simply: I don’t list chapters at all; I just list the Parts (usually four in my case) and the Part titles. For example, from my NYC historical fiction, I’ve got:
    — Part One: The Visitors (1609)
    — Part Two: The Traders (1612–13)
    — Part Three: The Settlers (1625–26)
    — Part Four: The Warriors (1640–44)
    + Afterword, Acks, About, etc.
    Works well for chronological HF.

    With my Sci-Fi, it’s a little less on the nose:
    — Part One: The Ring
    — Part Two: The Stranger
    — Part Three: The Return
    — Part Four: Are You Gook?

    And I’ve never had one person ask me: “Where are your chapter numbers/titles in the ebook Contents?” (the chapter titles themselves are done only with numbers)

  4. There is a technical problem with the OP’s suggestion, at least for the “look inside” on Amazon.

    Whenever I “look inside”, the sample opens either at the start of chapter one (or the prologue, introduction or whatever) or gives a brief flash of the cover before moving on the the start of the meat of the book. The ToC is normally there if you scroll back to find it, but it’s not going to be much of a marketing tool if potential readers sampling the book do not see your carefully chosen chapter titles.

    As a reader I like chapter titles where they are helpful or just fun. For non fiction – or at least for history which makes up most of my non fiction reading – they are really helpful and I often scroll back in the sample in the hope of finding a table of contents with descriptive chapter titles. For fiction though I can get by without them. The most helpful ones are typically just a character name saying who is the POV character for the chapter (which can give rise to short chapters and this approach will not help Karen if she really mixes things up).

    As for “fun”, I find the this mostly comes from carefully chosen epigraphs which can serve many purposes, including the foreshadowing that might be provided by a chapter title. Of course, these cannot appear in the ToC, but the carefully chosen one for Chapter 1 may be the first thing the potential purchaser reads.

    • I checked two I knew had TOCs and, yes, LOOK INSIDE started me at the beginning of the narrative. But…
      …it’s a bit easy to miss…
      …on the upper left hand corner…
      …there is an icon that pops out a contents panel…
      https://www.amazon.com/Moon-Harsh-Mistress-Robert-Heinlein-ebook/dp/B07CWGBZ4R/ref=sr_1_1?crid=7RFH5UF7NKCP&dchild=1&keywords=moon+is+a+harsh+mistress&qid=1634594397&sr=8-1&asin=B07CWGBZ4R&revisionId=cfc9cbb6&format=1&depth=1

      Dunno if all LOOK INSIDE books have it but both I tried (very old books) have it.

      Amazon doesn’t publicize all the bells and whistles of their web site.

      • Yep, there it is: an “Explore Contents” pull-out. And interestingly per your example, it/they use: “Book One”, “Book Two”, “Book Three”… no chapters (if there are any; don’t know). Not sure, but this seems new to me.

      • That example was a bit odd as it seemed to be the ACE Kindle edition and had a slightly different table of contents from that in the Hodder edition which I assume is what they sell you. Still both versions had the three horizontal line icon to display the contents and I think that this has been there on all the books I’ve looked at recently, at least on the UK page, and I guess that it’s the same in the USA. How many readers will click on it though, or even notice it?

        One oddity in the UK is that Amazon cannot decide how to scroll the look inside text. Sometimes you just scroll up and down and sometimes there are right and left page turn arrows. It feels like an A and B version software test that they forgot to turn off.

        • Amazon got a lot of pushback from the BPHs when they introduced LOOK INSIDE so they are probably leery of drawing too much attention to its features. They may also be expementing, trying different fdatures withdifferent audiences. For example, LOOK INSIDE offers a slightly different set of icons for KINDLE vs paperback.

          Besides, different teams are in charge of different parts of their site and their coordination isn’t anywhere close to perfect. Consistence and documentation aren’t tbeir hallmark. 🙂

  5. I read the same article, so I’m going to give it a go on my latest re-write (have a few old manuscripts laying around so I thought I would tidy them up a bit) with descriptive chapter headings. But i am making a conscious effort to use four words or less for the headings. I figure less is better and getting to point quicker is essential.

    I have done this type of thing before, but with short story collections, so it’s basically a common sense requirement.

  6. The books Daemon, Freedom(TM) and Duma Key are an example of named chapters and the two different ways of displaying the sample. One by scrolling, the other using page controls.

    For Daemon, by Daniel Suarez, the “Look inside” feature comes up on the cover, then flashes to the Foreword — which is interesting to read — and then you scroll up to see the TOC with the names.

    https://www.amazon.com/Daemon-Daniel-Suarez-ebook/dp/B003QP4NPE/

    On the second book, Freedom(TM), the sample opens with the cover, then goes to an epigram. You then have to use the page controls to look back at the TOC with the named chapters.

    https://www.amazon.com/Freedom-TM-Daemon-Book-2-ebook/dp/B002VUFKDY/

    Duma Key: A Novel by Stephen King also comes in on the cover then switches to an epigram. Then you have to scroll to see the TOC with named chapters.

    https://www.amazon.com/Duma-Key-Novel-Stephen-King-ebook/dp/B000UZJREU/

    King names the chapters, but those chapters have many numbered sub-chapters (i, ii, iii, iv, etc…). Those numbered sub-chapters are not listed in the TOC.

    Those books that do not name chapters would be better off like Harold said, and simply list Part 1, Part 2, etc… so that there is a TOC, but not detailing the smaller sub-chapters.

    As Mike said, the problem with the OP is that none of the examples I found start at the TOC. The older way of “Look inside” would start at the cover and you had to scroll past everything before you got to sample story, so people would have seen the TOC.

    So in Amazon’s attempt to get to the actual sample faster, they have bypassed the TOC and all those annoying blurbs praising the book.

    In other words, Amazon has bypassed all of the “sure fire” marketing “tricks” that people are being told to use.

    • As far as I can tell, the part that Amazon is skipping past still counts towards the 10% included in the sample, so there will still be a few odd books where there is so much cr*p before you reach the narrative that the sample text is too short to be worth bothering with. In such cases those annoying blurbs may actually be stopping sales even though the prospective purchaser no longer has to see them.

      • Yes!

        I was constantly annoyed when I would scroll down “Look inside”, through all of the marketing tricks, only to find just a couple of pages of story.

        I got to where I would download a “sample” rather than read the “Look inside.”

        Books like Duma Key have a 10k sample that really lets you get hooked into the story.

        When I stumbled across Daemon in 2009, they had a big sample on the product review page. Nobody does that anymore. The Daemon page is stripped down from what it was originally.

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