Why bother with a table of contents?

This morning my wife handed me a very fat magazine, thinking I would be interested in one of the articles teased on the cover.  The only thing was, she couldn’t actually find the article.  Well, if the editors like the piece enough to promote it on the cover, doesn’t it stand to reason you, the reader, would be able to find it in the table of contents?

But the table of contents in Fat Magazines is always a challenge.  This particular Fat Magazine is a fashion title, but I find this can apply to publications like Vanity Fair as well.  Fat Magazines violate Preston’s First Rule of Publications, namely:  the table of contents must appear no deeper in the book than page 5.  I hate having to look for where to look for an article.  This particular magazine (238 pages total) has a table of contents that starts on page 22.  From there it goes on to violate Preston’s Second Rule of Publications, which is:  no more than one page of advertising may appear between pages of the table of contents.  In this case, the contents are on pages 22, 28, and 42.  I know that front of the book is valuable ad space; all I’m asking is, if you’ve decided to include articles in the publication, give us a fighting chance to find them.

There had not been a Preston’s Third Rule of Publications until I went searching for this particular article, but this experience has caused me to add this rule:  any article teased on the cover should be easily found in the table of contents.  In this case I looked at the contents once, twice, three times, put down the book in case I was suffering from a temporary case of male-pattern blindness, then picked it up again and STILL couldn’t find the article.  I was about to start the process of flipping through all 238 pages when a very close reading of the contents located an article I guessed to be the one I was seeking.  I say “guessed” because NONE of the nine words used to tease the article on the cover appeared among the ten words used to describe the article in the contents.  But when I turned to the article, yes indeed it was the one I wanted.  Of course, the time I had available to read it was consumed by trying to find it.  (Time spent blogging about it doesn’t count, because it’s therapeutic.)

The experience does make me wonder, though…for Fat Magazines like this, where content is clearly secondary to the advertising, why waste valuable space on ad-free table of contents pages?  If the point of having the contents appear well into the book is to make the reader flip through ads trying to find the contents, why not just make readers flip through the whole magazine and see ALL the ads while trying to find the stories teased on the cover?  Doesn’t that seem like the logical extension of this philosophy to you?

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