Thursday, November 3, 2011

Where should an ebook begin?

Updated December 9. I meant to say use type="text" (as I do in my book) but wrote down "start" instead. Argh.

Thinking about ebooks and covers. Of course a cover is supposed to give you an idea of what the book is like, is supposed to inspire a sale. But on ebook commerce sites (say, Amazon or iBookstore), you only see a tiny icon of a cover

Kindle searchiPad search

So, some people think you should see the cover when you open the book. I'm not one of them. Let's take a look first at what is the norm right now. I downloaded the sample of John Grisham's The Litigators from the iBookstore, Kindle store, and Barnes & Noble. When I opened the sample on each device, this is what I saw:

Kindle first pageiPad cover

As you can see both Kindle (left) and iPad (as well as iPhone, not shown) open to the first page of the novel.

NOOK Color cover

Only the NOOK Color opened to the cover.

If you're reading on a NOOK, you then have to scroll through eight pages of front matter (copyright, toc, title page, etc.) to get to the first page. That's annoying (and may not discourage a sale if just the sample has been downloaded).

If you're reading on Kindle or iBooks, you have to scroll back several pages to get to the cover, which is indeed the first page of the EPUB file, but it's there if you want to go see it.

Kindle coveriPad cover first page

Or, if you're on an iPad (but not iPhone), you can see the cover by going to the navigational TOC and rotating the iPad to a horizontal position:

iPad cover opposite TOC

So, what's going on here? How can you control how and when the cover appears? First, you have to create a page in your EPUB document for your cover. It should be a separate XHTML file so you can ensure that it is the first page in your ebook, and so you can ensure that the cover image appears full screen. I explain how to do this in my “EPUB Straight to the Point” book. It basically consists of having the XHTML file be the first file referenced in the <spine> section of your content.opf file.

So, if the cover is the first page of the EPUB or Kindle file, why isn't it the first thing showing when you open a book for the first time? You can control which page opens first in the EPUB by including a line in the <guide> section of your content.opf file, with the type attribute set to text. (A value of start also works, but text is the standard value, accepted by the EPUB spec.)

<reference type="text" title="Chapter 1" href="chapter1.xhtml" />

This works on both iBooks and Kindle. I'm guessing that NOOK doesn't support this feature, and that's why the EPUB file (which should theoretically be the same for iBooks and NOOK and other EPUB compatible ereaders) starts with the first page of the book (the cover) instead of where the publisher specified.


  1. I've noticed these peculiarities too. Thanks for documenting this and providing a fix.

  2. Usage guidelines for Amazon state you should create a Guide item ("reference type = start") that the book will open to, and they recommend that it be the first page of actual content, like a chapter opener. When you choose Go To > Beginning from their nav menu (which also has an entry for Cover), it brings you to that "start" location. That's why you usually have to "page back" a few pages on a Kindle book to get to the cover.

    I wrote about it here:

  3. Great post Liz, thanks! I think the metaphors are beginning to get in the way of our enjoyment of the book. The software suggests that we are opening a book when we choose its cover from the bookshelf. I think this could be the moment when we pick up the book instead. Covers are hugely important. Why have it thumbnail-sized on the shelf and then immediately fast-forward to Chapter 1? We're missing a moment that's really important to book lovers (that's all of us here :). Didn't Winnie-the-Pooh land on the cover page when iBooks first appeared? (PS There's another moment we're missing IMO. Finishing and closing a book is a fantastic experience. We've got to figure out what should happen when we finish an ebook, too.)

  4. I believe that the first page of the epub should be the cover image, or at least a really great title page. It's the natural extension of print books, and the fact that you see it in horizontal mode but not vertical is illogical. However, I think setting the start point at the first page is a great idea.

  5. Thanks, Liz. I thought this was only Kindle-specific XML in the spine section. Glad to know it works for iPad too.

  6. Since the ePUB spec defines type="text" as the first "real" page of content (e.g. "Chapter 1")[], I wonder if the NOOK Color supports that. Any chance you tested that on any of the devices, Liz?

  7. It's good that there are technical fixes to solve what opens where etc. But as two new Kindle users (both over 60's) said to me today when they browsed the Amazon website for the first time, why can I not see the back cover.

    Both of them and I am sure many others use the back covers as part of their purchase decision. Probably not relevant here, but an interesting point. However, both of them also said that they wanted their ebooks to start at the front cover.

  8. Great Article.I am glad that it turned out so well and I hope it will continue in the
    future because it is so worthwhile and meaningful to the community.

  9. I'm glad someone 'covered' that at last. This is going to be a must-read for my students!

  10. Replicating the pBook experience in an eBook is fine for those who want to do that but we should also be thinking about alternatives now that alternatives are possible. For example, what if the cover, copyright notice, forward, fly leaf or back cover and all that were simply meta data that could be conditionally summoned both by book servers (e.g. ODPS) and by readers at any point in their reading.

  11. Personally, I think the ebook should open to the first page of usable content. In most cases that's going to be the first chapter or an introduction. My clients, however, have different ideas about what the start should be, so I defer.

  12. I having the ebook open to the title page, after which there is the copyright page, and any dedications before you get to the actual book. If the author has taken the time to dedicate the book to someone, it should be visible. This way any epigraphs or other relevant front-matter can get included as well.

    I generally refrain from including anything else in the front matter - no 'also by' pages or 'praise' pages. 'Also by' pages can get included at the end, to encourage the reader to look up other books, but I find praise is best just included in the metadata or description fields.

  13. I uploaded an Ebook I wrote to kindle, but when readers first open the book it doesn't start from the begining, its starts almost at the middle and they start reading from that point. I dont know how to fix it...


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