Front and Back Matters

Sometimes it’s good to get back to basics. Here’s a quick overview of the parts of a book that are often overlooked.

In the Beginning

The front matter is everything from the first page after the cover (called the “half title”) to the first page of the main book, usually chapter 1 but sometimes the introduction. The half title displays the title (no subtitle) and nothing else, except when there is a page of endorsements headed by something like “Praise for…”

Aside from the copyright page and the table of contents, the front matter may contain a foreword, an author’s note, a preface, an acknowledgments, and other prefatory material such as a list of tables, illustrations, or abbreviations.

The other typical marker of the front matter is that all page numbers are roman numerals.

Preface versus Foreword

If you ask someone else to write an introductory essay to your book, it’s called a foreword. If you write it for your own book, it’s a preface.

Preface versus Introduction

The preface tells the story of the book and speaks directly to the reader. The preface should be brief and focused. It should answer these questions:

  • Why did the author write the book?
  • Whom is it for?
  • What should the reader expect?

The author might offer a little background on themselves or their story, details that might intrigue the reader or give useful context that verifies the writer’s authority or helps the reader relate to the author as an individual.

There are no hard and fast rules about whether to call the introductory chapter in a nonfiction book a preface or an introduction. Generally speaking, a preface is short and focused on why the author wrote the book and what audiences it is intended for. An introduction is usually longer and often involves more content and background information to prepare the reader for the rest of the book.

Another major difference is that typically a preface is in the front matter, with page numbers in roman numerals, while the introduction is usually part of the main text and begins on page 1.

Where Do the Acknowledgments Go?

The acknowledgments can be in the front matter or the rear matter (after the main text). Sometimes they are a section of the introduction, but more often they stand on their own, like the preface or any other chapter. If they’re in the front matter, they typically come after the preface (if there is one).

The choice to put the acknowledgments in the front or the back of the book is determined by a number of factors. An author might prefer to put them in the front because they want to credit certain sources for crucial information in the book, such as a medical examiner providing information used in a murder mystery. Or perhaps the author wants to highlight a well-known name or two, and putting them in the front makes those names more likely to be seen by readers.

On the other hand, putting the acknowledgments in the back might be the best choice for a work of fiction, if the author wants as few pages as possible before the first chapter begins. Or if there’s already a lot of front matter (a foreword, a preface, an author’s note, etc.), it might be worth putting the acknowledgments in the rear matter to lighten the front load.

Finishing Up

For many nonfiction books, several sections may follow the last chapter, including endnotes, a bibliography or reference list, and the index.

An “Afterword” would go after the last chapter but before the notes—it would be the first section of the back (or rear) matter.

If the acknowledgments are to appear in the rear matter, they should appear after any afterword and before the notes.

If there’s an appendix, it should come before the index but after any other rear matter. Never put notes or bibliographic material in the appendix. Those elements are core supports of the main text. An appendix is for extra content, such as a supplementary essay or a set of tables offering additional data that isn’t crucial to an argument in the book.

And now we come to the end of the book: the index. A work of nonfiction may have more than one index. For example, it might be helpful for a complex book that mentions a large number of historical figures to have a separate index of proper names and one of general subjects.

While indexes have in the past been limited to print books, more recently e-books have included indexes with hyperlinked entries. Readers can click on a link to go to the exact location of the entry term in the main book.

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