I’m a lurker, not in real life, of course, but on the internet. When researching how to self-publish I spent hours creeping through discussion fora and searching for answers. Some of the answers brought up more questions, like this exchange on a popular writing site:
Person 1: “Always start chapters on an odd page.”
Person 2: “Why?”
Person 1: “Are you a moron? Haven’t you ever read a book? Chapters always start on an odd page. You call yourself a writer and you don’t even know that?”
I swear I’m not making that up. While I wasn’t the moron asking the question (I was the moron lurking in the shadows wanting an answer), I was a little taken aback by the pile-on. The thread continued for at least three pages with authors insisting “real” books through “traditional” publishers always start chapters on an odd page.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard that information. In fact, my books are all formatted to start chapters on odd pages because I’d heard it repeated so often I assumed it must be true. I’d read thousands of books by that point and could honestly say I’d never paid attention to page numbers, but if “real” authors started books on odd pages, then by golly, that’s what I’d do, too.
Let me tell you, inserting section breaks to ensure each chapter started on an odd-numbered page was a headache.
For some reason after that particular discussion, maybe because it was so heated, I decided to conduct a very unscientific survey. I pulled the ten books closest to me off the shelf beside my chair and started looking.
The books were all traditionally published through Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House or Macmillan (or their imprints). They were all written by best-selling authors and published over a span of fifteen years (Yes, I hold on to books for a long time.)
Out of ten books, all had the first chapter start on an odd-numbered page, but none had every subsequent chapter begin on an odd-numbered page. Instead, subsequent chapters started immediately after the previous chapter ended, regardless of the page number. [An update: In the year since my search I’ve run across a handful of books starting chapters only on odd pages, but they’re in the minority].
That information, although repeated on blogs and fora everywhere, seems to be mostly false.
A more recent discussion from a different forum:
Person 1: “Could you guys take a look at my blurb and see if it’s okay?”
Peson 2: “I don’t know about your blurb, but you need to reformat your manuscript. The first paragraph in a chapter is never indented. You need to remove the indents and insert drop caps. Pull any book off a shelf and you’ll see.”
That was a new one for me. I posted in a couple of writing groups asking if others had heard that information and as it turns out, many had. Traditionally, it seems, first paragraphs have no indent and often begin with a drop cap, an oversized first letter than hangs down a line or two.
But again, because I’m curious, I pulled some traditionally published books off my shelf.
Out of ten, seven had no indent for the first paragraph of a chapter. Of the seven, four used drop caps and three used an over-sized first letter without the “drop.”
As it turns out, that information is mostly true. That was confirmation enough to spur me to reformat my manuscripts.
So what’s my point? I suppose it’s that as new authors we need to be diligent with our research. Reading an opinion on a discussion board, even when it’s a very strong opinion, doesn’t make that opinion correct. To paraphrase Joseph Goebbels, when something is repeated often enough it becomes known as truth, even when it isn’t.
While I wouldn’t advise stepping into internet discussions to set the record straight (disagreements on internet fora rarely end well), I would advise taking each bit of information imparted and doing some legwork to determine its validity before pulling all your manuscripts down in a panic. My next manuscript will probably have drop caps, but it’ll be nice to bypass all those section breaks and the resultant header problems.