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.

(Via An American Editor.)


  1. This isn’t a something that is forgotten about, it’s a technical limitation. As reading systems exist now, running heads simply aren’t possible. If device manufacturers want to create this feature, that would be great. Or, if there were a way to specify text at the top & bottom of a screen, that would be nice too. Until some feature like one of these exist, however, running headers & footers simply aren’t going to happen. At best, we can insert the title & author name at the beginning of each chapter, or even at the beginning of each section break (but those can occur anywhere on a page). I’m open to other ideas as well.

  2. Odds are, I have hardly ever read a book and remembered who the author was , or the title because it really doesn’t matter to me. I read for the story line and content for enjoyment only. Same with movies. 15 minutes after the movie is over I can’t nor care to remember the title, characters or the performers. It was either good or bad. It is strictly for entertainment. Books or movies either one. I figure read the book and go on to the next one and erase the clutter from my memory bank.

  3. It’s a valid point. I tend to remember book titles, and usually I remember authors, though probably the former more than the latter.

    I also checked my Nook Color, and saw that my ebooks sometimes display a book title at the top of the page, though not the author. Since both are already present in the book’s metadata, this would be a function of the reading device to add the title and author to a header, and the responsibility of the consumer to find a device that supplies this information.

  4. On my first Kindle, there was a running header with title and I remember wishing that the author’s name would appear up there as well. With the Kindle Keyboard, they got rid of even the title. I have noticed the same thing – that I forget the exact title and I forget the author’s name (unless it is an author I am already familiar with) without that information in the header.

    Unfortunately, I would guess that you cannot generate an e-book that forces the header to appear (or I would see at least some e-books that do this). I am guessing that the e-reader software controls this. But I, too, wish that it would at least be an option to display the header as I like to try to remember who wrote what.

  5. The most serious argument against running heads in ebooks is that there’s no way to control where they appear. I have a few ebooks that were obviously scanned from print, and the author and title appear randomly, breaking into paragraphs and appearing anywhere on a page. I find it quite annoying because, unlike Dave Jenkins, I usually read for more than entertainment and reread a lot of my books. A partial solution would be to add heads on each side of chapter numbers or titles.

  6. Catana, your issue is clearly related to lax editing of the scanned books, which should be addressed at any case. The hardware/software should provide this information from the metadata, not from page headers and footers… that content should have been excised from the scanned pages. If you haven’t contacted those ebook producers about that, maybe you should.

    This isn’t something to control within the ebook… the data is already there, it just has to be used. This is an issue to take back to the device makers, asking them to provide (at least optionally) header space for titles, authors, chapters, etc, on their screens.

    Maybe a better title for this item would have been: “Are device displays robbing authors of future sales?”

  7. This isn’t something new. How many people read the typical book really paying attention to who wrote it. For any author in any publishing medium to establish a name brand is extremely difficult and only a few authors manage to do it, print or ebook. I couldn’t tell you the author of 90% of the novels I’ve ever read.

  8. This needs to be a change at the device level so all an author or publisher can do is ask the device manufacturers to add a running head/foot feature.

    Personally, I would rather have my Kindle display the book cover for a brief period after coming out of sleep/powering on, and for a longer period after going to sleep before switching to the ad. I remember covers a lot better than plain text, and I miss the experience of seeing covers when I read ebooks.

  9. I’ve always had trouble remembering authors and titles. The only time I can recall an author’s name is if I actively write it down on my “Authors to Buy More Books By” list. I think that if a book is excellent and the author consistently writes well, the readers will stay loyal. We readers hunger for more good stuff. Besides, Amazon and Barnes & Noble will always be happy to remind us who wrote the last book we bought and what other pieces they’ve written.

  10. One of my favorite features of the Sony T1 is that when it goes to sleep, it brings up the book cover as the screensaver. An instant reminder of what I’ve been reading. The only tweak I would make is to allow the device owner to show a customizable number of recently-read cover thumbnails on the home screen. I often jump between 203 books at a time, and it’s a hassle to keep finding them, or put them on their own shelf/collection.

  11. “Adding a running head that repeats the book title and author name is an easy and proven method”

    I’d love to have a running header in my ebooks and I’m sure my publishers feel the same way. But I’m afraid none of us are aware of the easy and proven way to do this. Could you do another post on the formatting changes that would allow this?

  12. @Marie Dees: It’s not up to the e-book, it’s up to the software that displays it. You’d have to talk to Sony, Kobo, B&N, and Amazon about having their readers use the metadata that’s already available in the book to display it to the reader. Of course, it should also be an option, as some of us don’t have the problem and want more room for the story.

    Some of us would also like our Kindles to start on the cover instead of the first chapter, but I doubt we’ll get that, either.

    @DensityDuck: Indeed. I’ve never once forgotten the title or author of a book I read,

  13. I’m using Coolreader on a Pocketbook and I can turn the status line on or off and select what I want on it (including the author and title). It should be the user preference if they want to see this or if they want to see the extra line of text. It’s a feature in the reader software, not something that the author has to worry about or try to fix.

  14. Right now am reading in the Kindle app on the iPad and it is displaying author AND title at the top. I read in landscape, 2 columns. For me this is ideal. Likely it is easier for me to remember authors because since sometime in the 80s I have kept a database of all the books I read. This is also useful for avoiding buying or checking out of the library a book you have already read (unless you want to, of course). It is interesting to me that since I have had a Kindle, there are more books I want to re-read. Perhaps it is because pre-Kindle, most of my fiction was from the library. And in regard to Shayne Parkinson, I love her books. You have not read a new one in 2 years because she is still working on it. From following her on Twitter, I hear she is in the editing process of a new one. I can’t wait!

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