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Table of Contents vs. Index: What’s the Difference?

October 14, 2020 (Last Updated August 16, 2021)

Marcy G.

When setting up your self-published book, it’s important to understand the different parts. Two such parts of a book that seem similar at first are the index and the table of contents. While both an index and a table of contents guide the reader to different parts of your book, they serve different purposes.

Learn more about the differences between a table of contents and an index.

 

What Is a Table of Contents?

A table of contents is a page or section at the front of your book that lists the chapters or sections of the book and their corresponding page numbers.

Here’s an example:

Example Table of Contents

The table of contents is an overview of all the different sections or chapters of your book and where they can be found. It is a big-picture look at the topics you will cover. Nearly all reference and non-fiction books will have a table of contents, but some novels and other types of books do, too.

A table of contents is usually organized by page, so that each chapter or section is listed in the order in which it appears. This lends structure and consistency to the table of contents. It’s also always located in the front -- sort of like a “roadmap” of what the reader can expect to find, and where. It’s very important to include the page numbers of the different sections for the same reason: it helps readers find what they’re looking for.

One exception: the front matter (such as the title page, copyright page, dedication, etc.) are often not numbered, so these pages are not always listed in the table of contents.

If your book has more than a few chapters, it’s best to include a table of contents in your book to help your readers navigate their way through your content.

 

Why Add a Table of Contents?

A table of contents might seem like a page or two that you can cut for space or budget reasons but think twice before you do -- you risk frustrating and alienating your readers when they can’t find an overview of what your book will cover.

A table of contents is also a pretty standard and straightforward part of a book that readers expect to see. If your table of contents is missing, and your book covers more than one or two sections or topics, your readers will begin to wonder what else you may have left out.

In fact, you can even create the “table” of contents as a table, because that’s what it is -- each chapter or section is aligned with the corresponding page number in a document, or table, that holds all of the information at once.

You can simplify this process by using one of our free book formatting templates. Simply start writing!

 

How to Create a Table of Contents

A table of contents will be based on your chapter headings and page numbers. Therefore, it is important to make sure your chapters or sections are divided appropriately, given proper headings, and assigned to the corresponding page. Once you have done that, you can use your word processing software to create the table of contents page that lists the chapters, headings, and page numbers.

 

Get help with your table of contents

If you’d like more assistance with creating your table of contents, 48 Hour Books can help.

If you need 48 Hour Books to add your page numbers to your book for you, you can request this in the “customer comments” section on your online order form.

Once we add the page numbers, we can then fill in your table of contents for you with the correct page numbering.

Contact us to learn more about adding a table of contents to your book.

 

What Is an Index?

Although it also helps readers find information, an index is not the same as a table of contents.

Located in the back of the book, an index helps a reader locate key terms, concepts, and ideas that were referenced in the contents of your book. Each term or concept has a corresponding page number. When the reader wants to access that information, they simply refer to that page of your book.

 

 

The index is meant to help the reader find information and references quickly and easily. Instead of directing them to an entire section or chapter, the index helps the reader find the exact page that a key concept or term is mentioned or explained.

You can further organize your book’s index, more than just an alphabetical listing of terms. If your book contains multiple headings and useful material to reference, this information should be listed in the index in the back matter of your book. For example, if you were writing a history book, the Index would list significant events, terms, dates, people, and more. Whatever you choose to list in the index should be relevant information and necessary to understanding your book.

Indexes are also useful in cookbooks, especially if you have a lot of recipes. If a reader wants to find a specific recipe fast, they can simply go to the back of the cookbook and look it up to find the page number.

Contrast that with the table of contents in a cookbook. The table of contents in a cookbook would list the different sections and not the actual recipes. For instance, you could find the section labeled “Appetizers” or “Desserts,” but you would only find individual recipes listed in the index.

Here is an example of an index in a cookbook:

 

Why add an index?

Adding an index helps your readers find exactly what they’re looking for and retrieve useful information. Using the example of the cookbook, consider a reader’s point of view: without an index, they’d have to flip through the whole book each time they wanted to make a particular recipe. They could rely on bookmarks, but what if the bookmark falls out or is removed by someone else? They could use the table of contents to find the broad category of the recipe, but they would still need to shuffle through all of the pages of that section to find the one they’re looking for.

And what if they’re looking for a milkshake recipe? Does that fall under the category of desserts, or of beverages? If you provide your readers with an index, they can simply search the list for ‘M’ for ‘milkshake’ and see exactly what page the recipe is located on.

It saves time and effort and provides a service to your reader — and that’s the kind of author they’re looking for.

 

How to create an index

Because an index may contain many more entries than a table of contents, it can be more complex to create. However, many software programs can help you with this task.

For instance, with Microsoft Word, you can use the ‘References’ function to help create your index. For each term you want to include, you’ll go to the ‘References’ tab and click ‘Index’, then ‘Mark Entry’. This will record the term for your index along with the corresponding page of its occurrence.

In the back of your book, you can insert the index you’ve created using this method by clicking ‘Insert Index’. The software will generate and insert the index for you.

 

Get started on your book

Check out our free book templates, which automate some of the set-up and formatting tasks you may need to start the process of creating your book. And there’s always our custom book formatting service, which can provide you with a formatted book for an added price.

Contact us at 48 Hour Books to begin your book and get started today.

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Comments

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George Bianchi September 17, 2021

If you have Two volumes do you have a table of contents for each? Or one table in volume one?

48 Hr Books September 20, 2021

Hi George! Ultimately, the way you organize your book is completely up to you. If you are creating a book that contains two volumes within one book, you could create a table that lists the contents for each separate volume. As long as you have each volume clearly marked with the corresponding contents underneath, then the reader should be able to easily navigate.


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