Rock Around the TOC

In my last two posts, we talked about how to come up with a great title.  Hard work, isn’t it?

Now how would you like to do it ten to twenty more times?

Just as the perfect non-fiction title hooks readers by making an irresistible promise, the perfect table of contents hooks them again by giving a more detailed peek (but only a peek!) into the invaluable secrets, strategies, or information the book contains.

Many non-fiction writers make the mistake of treating the table of contents like a grocery list—something mundane that merely states what goes into the cart.  In fact, your table of contents is a vital selling tool for your book, and can be the difference between great sales and no sales.  A bad table of contents leaves readers ambivalent, lukewarm, and unsure about whether or not your book will fulfill their need or solve their problem.  A good table of contents convinces readers that—yes indeed!—your book will show them how to save the earth/be a better manager/snag a dream date/impress friends and relatives through the art of edible origami.

Think of each chapter title as a mini sales pitch, restating and elaborating on the promises you made in your title.  Make sure your titles are consistent with the overall tone of your book.  If your book is informational in tone, aim for straightforward chapter titles that demonstrate that your book is a well-organized and thorough approach to your subject matter.  If your book is hip and conversational, you might want to go for flashier chapter titles, bringing in puns and wordplay (think Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, with chapter titles like “The Warren Harding Error:  Why We Fall for Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men”).

In my experience spying on—um, working for—various publishers, I’ve noticed that experienced editors can tell whether a non-fiction manuscript is worth its sauce just by skimming the table of contents (or TOC, in industry parlance).  Hence the importance of making sure your TOC screams “I’m consistent and logical and totally not-crazy!” (because believe me, some scream the opposite).

In my next post, I’ll talk about how you can use your table of contents to identify and strengthen any weak spots in your manuscript before submitting it to a publisher or self-publishing it.  Until then, try out the same strategies you used on your book’s title to come up with your TOC.  Have fun!

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