Are eBook Authors Unwittingly Losing Sales?

In a recent article at his blog eBookAnoid, another blog that I regularly read, Tony Cole asked this question: “Do you remember the name of the ebook you have just finished reading?” Although I have not written about this topic before, I have often thought about how I rarely remember wither the author or the book title of the ebook I am currently reading or have just finished.

My experience is that I can tell you the storyline of the ebook I am reading, and if it is particularly well-written, I can name and describe many of the characters. Some good examples are The Promises to Keep quartet by Shayne Parkinson and many of Vicki Tyley’s mysteries (see, e.g., On Books: Murder Down Under). Long-time readers of my blog know that I cannot say enough good things about the books written by Shayne Parkinson, Vicki Tyley, and L.J. Sellers (see, e.g., On Books: Detective Jackson Grows and Grows). These are three authors whose names and books I can still recall, even though, for example, it has been probably 2 years since I last read anything by Parkinson.

Yet since reading their ebooks, I have read hundreds of other ebooks. Out of those hundreds, I can recall the names of a handful of additional authors, but all the others, no matter that I enjoyed their work, I cannot recall. I could look them up and have my memory triggered, but that is not nearly as valuable as recall. The ability to recall means the ability to talk about.

I asked my wife if she remembers, and her answer mimicked mine. I then asked some other ebookers I know the same question, and got the same answer from them. It is not that they never remember; it is that 95% of the time, they do not remember.

When I read a pbook, I have to physically pick it up. It is usually in closed form with a bookmark indicating where I left off the day before. When I pick it up to continue reading, I can easily see the book’s title and author, which acts as a reminder of what I am reading. In addition, pbook authors and publishers learned decades ago — if not centuries ago — about the value of constantly reminding the reader of the author’s name and the book title, and so invented the running head (or foot), the place on every page of the pbook that information about what I am currently reading can be found.

In contrast, ebook authors and publishers tend to view the ebook as a continuous flow document and so disdain the use of running heads. True, there are some ebookers who also complain when an ebook has wide margins, blank lines between paragraphs, running heads, nonjustified text, indented paragraphs, and anything else that might make it easier for the reader to read the story. Because someone else (Tony Cole) openly asked the question, I realized that I am not alone in not remembering book titles and author names. That made me realize that ebook authors have missed an important lesson to be learned from pbooks (and marketing in general): You must remind the reader of what is being read and who wrote it constantly. That reminder, especially if the reader likes the ebook, will induce the reader to speak about the ebook and look for other ebooks by the same author.

I am aware that ebooks are not intended to mimic pbooks; if we wanted a duplicate of the pbook, the solution would be PDF. But that doesn’t mean that when creating the ebook things that enhance the readability of the ebook and that act as good marketing should be ignored just because they are in pbooks. Rather, authors and publishers should be looking at pbooks, which have a long history of success and still constitute 80% of all book sales, to discover what important design elements should be adopted for the ebook. To my way of thinking, the most important element is the running head, which will constantly remind the reader what is being read and who wrote it.

It strikes me that the one thing any author wants is not to be anonymous. An author wants readers to remember their name and look for their books. After all, is not getting one’s work read the purpose of writing and distributing? Yet ebook authors fail to do the one simple thing that would reinforce their “brand” (i.e., their name) to their audience — they fail to include (or insist that it be included) running heads in their ebooks.

Okay, as I noted before, some ebookers will complain (although I suspect that the vast majority would not). But so what. To complain about your book means they remember it and they are speaking about it. Few people would refuse to buy an ebook because it has running heads; fewer people would likely give much weight to a complaint that had nothing to do with the story or the writing as opposed to because it has a running head.

Authors need to sell themselves constantly. They need to do those things that make people remember them. Most authors are not going to write that ebook that everyone praises for clarity, style, craftsmanship, and the like; rather, they are more likely to write what is a good read that numerous readers can enjoy — think of it as the difference between To Kill a Mockingbird and The DaVinci Code. In the case of the former, the author and book are remembered because of the craftsmanship; in the case of the latter, the book and author are remembered because the book was a popular read even if not particularly memorable.

Adding a running head that repeats the book title and author name is an easy and proven method for getting readers to remember what they are reading and who wrote it. It is good marketing. I suspect that authors are losing sales because readers do not remember their name or the ebook title. This one little step could make remembering happen.


  1. Nate Hoffelder25 April, 2012

    You’re correct about the problem exiting and how to fix it.

    But this isn’t really something that the authors have any influence over; these kind of details are controlled by the device and app maker, not authors. It’s like you’re telling authors to insist on a certain layout in print books even though the publisher probably won’t listen.

    BTW, there’s a far more effective fix but you don’t mention it here: ebook covers. CoolReader (an Android app) displays the cover of whatever ebook you’re reading while you have the device in sleep mode. That can create awkward moments for some readers but it does offer the visual memory que that is needed here.

    1. Richard Adin25 April, 2012

      Nate, when I read a book on my Nook Tablet, just as the book came to me from B&N and with no modifications made to the Tablet, some ebooks have running heads and some do not. This tells me that at least in ePub there must be a way to include the header. In addition, with the rise of self-publishing, this is the author’s responsibility in many cases. If Smashwords doesn’t currently permit headers, then authors should start demanding that id accept them.

      1. Nate Hoffelder25 April, 2012

        I suspect the difference has to do with the metadata being entered properly. The ebooks with headers likely have the title info where the Nook Tablet expects to find it.

        1. Richard Adin25 April, 2012

          You would know better than I, but regardless of why, it shows that it can be done.

  2. karen wester newton25 April, 2012

    I don’t believe a running head is a function of anything the author or publisher does. The original Kindle showed the book title at the top of every screen but the newer Kindle only show it when you first open the book. As soon as you page forward, the header line goes away. I’m sure this is to conserve screen space and display as much of the book on a “page” as possible. the header comes back when you press the menu key/tap the top of the screen.

    I don’t know about the Nook and the Sony, but I expect that it is matter of device and/or app programming.

  3. Memorability? « The Day The World Retreated25 April, 2012

    […] suppose I’d rather have someone remember the title and the ending than the author, but this article brings up some interesting points about eBook style and presentation. […]

  4. k1tsun325 April, 2012

    I think it would be a huge help if the first time you opened an ebook it went to the cover, rather than the first page of text.

  5. Common Sense25 April, 2012

    I’ve always been bad at remembering titles and authors, physical book or not. Same thing with music, it’s a running joke between me and my sisters.

    That said, if I finish a book and like it, I immediately look for other books by that author, or the next in the series, and at least get it on my wishlist.

    Far more effective for me, is for the author to have a bunch of books out there. Nothing is more disappointing than to like a book and then find that it’s the only one or that the next book isn’t available. By the time the author gets around to writing another book, if ever, I’ve moved on.

    1. Polar25 April, 2012

      Same here. I have trouble remembering names and I cannot recall titles and authors even when I was reading physical books. I often go to the library and then get frustrated. I can’t find the authors I like because I simply cannot remember them.

      But nowadays there are websites like Goodreads which makes it easier for me to keep track of which books I liked to read.

  6. I’m an e-book formatter…and, at least on iPad, if the book is read in landscape mode, you get 2 pages, left side header is author, right side header is book title. Of course I find reading in landscape mode unsettling, but some readers like this since it mimics a pb.

    My Kindle Fire does not have this function (and the metadata is identical to the metadata in an epub) even when I release the lock which allows the Kindle to be read in landscape OR portrait. The Title of course always shows in the header.

    I don’t do anything to make this happen during the formatting and building process…so it has to be within the device itself I’m thinking.

  7. Becki26 April, 2012

    I would love to know how to add metadata or formatting to the files we create for ebooks. I do all the formatting for my husband’s books, whether pbook or ebook, and his pbooks all have the running headers (title and author). As I understood Smashwords’ directions, however, we weren’t allowed to enter anything into the document that would interrupt the flow of text, whether by designating page numbers, multiple ENTERS to give breaks, etc. Smashwords requires files be saved in Microsoft Word .doc format, which they then convert to the appropriate ebook formats. The cover and title page are our only chances to say who wrote the book.

    This seems less of a problem with audio books. Do you listen to and then remember what books you heard/read? On my MP3 player, it constantly shows the author and title of book I’m currently listening to. Of course, once I delete the book from my player I have no record of it.

    1. Ed Teja19 September, 2013

      Agreed about Smashwords Becki. I have accidentally left headers in when making an ebook from the word file I used to make the PDF for Createspace and the Meat Grinder or a person in the review stage bounces it. So you can put it in, but it isn’t allowed.


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