How to Create a Table of Contents to Sell Your Self-Help, How-To or Business Book

The Table of Contents (TOC) is the backbone and sales element of your nonfiction book. It is a powerful organizing and marketing tool. 

Many readers base their purchase decision on a book’s cover and the Table of Contents. They want to know exactly what to expect: what will they learn, how will they feel, do they need the information, does it work, will they like the writing style, will they understand the material? In other words, is this book the right fit?

Tips to Use the Table of Contents to Answer Buyers’ Questions:

Potential readers will look to a Table of Contents to answer their questions about a book:

Potential buyer’s question: Does the information work? Will I achieve the goal?
To answer the buyer’s question: Include anecdotes, case studies, and success stories in the TOC.

Potential buyer’s question: Will I be able to understand the content or steps necessary?
To answer the buyer’s question: Include diagrams, charts, maps, and images.

Potential buyer’s question: What will I learn?
To answer the buyer’s question: Include detailed sub-headings for each chapter.

Potential buyer’s question: Do I need the information?
To answer the buyer’s question: Use keywords to inform the reader why the information is pertinent.

Tips to Outline an Effective Table of Contents:

1. Organize the Overall Flow of the Content

Business, how-to and self-help books have an intrinsic step-by-step outline built into them, making outlining an easy task. Your content may do one of the following: lead readers through practical exercises and techniques to develop specific skills or guide them through the evolutionary stages of a process while addressing ways to overcome challenges or solve a reader’s problem by walking them through a step-by-step system. Successful outlines organize the book’s main points, so write down the most important ideas, steps, techniques or skills you will present to the reader. Now you can break the topics into individual chapters.

2. Organize Chapters into Sections and Subsections

After brainstorming or mind-mapping the topics for inclusion in each chapter, select those that represent major themes to create chapter sections. For each chapter outline, ask yourself:

  • Does each section belong in this chapter?
  • Should any information be moved to another section?
  • Is any information duplicated? (Duplicated information should be eliminated.)
  • Am I missing any important ideas that should be included?

3. Create Compelling and Informative Chapter Titles and Subtitles

Titles reveal the overall structure and style of your book as well as convey promises and benefits. The most effective titles are two-part: an intriguing title accompanied by a descriptive subtitle. If you use witty or whimsical chapter titles, always attach a more specific tagline so the reader has a clear understanding of the information they will find in those pages. 

After finishing your outline, you may find you have more information that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. If you determine the information is important and should be included in the manuscript, consider creating an appendix, breaking up the information into smaller chunks for sidebars or including a Q&A section at the end of each chapter.