Understanding the Basic Sections of a Book

Does the foreword belong before the preface? When do the page numbers start? What’s the difference between a preface and an introduction? If you need answers to demystify the front matter of your book, read on.

Books are generally divided into three sections: front matter, principal text, and back matter. Front matter is the material at the front of a book that usually offers information about the book. The principal text is the meat of a book. Back matter is the final pages of a book, where endnotes, the appendix, the bibliography, the index, and related elements reside. Though the front matter may not be as sexy as the main text or as information packed as the back matter, it’s an opportunity for authors to set the tone for their readers’ experience.

Barebones front matter may consist of only a half-title page, full-title page, and copyright page in a work of fiction, and these elements plus a table of contents in a work of nonfiction. A really extensive front matter section might contain the following components (listed in the order preferred by The Chicago Manual of Style): half title, series title or frontispiece, title page, copyright page, dedication, epigraph, table of contents, list of illustrations, list of tables, foreword, preface, acknowledgements (if not part of the preface or in the back matter), introduction (if not part of the principal text), list of abbreviations (if not in the back matter), chronology (if not in the back matter), and second half title.

The name of each component is generally descriptive of the information it provides. For example, a table of contents is a list of the contents in a book, and the half title page consists only of the main title (sans subtitle). The kind of information that goes into a foreword, an introduction, or a preface, however, is less obvious. As a result, many authors choose not to include these elements in their books, which is unfortunate because each of these components could enhance a reader’s experience with a book.

The front matter is the only section where a page can be easily added once the book is in page proofs (printed typeset pages that show all elements as they will appear in a printed book). Because of this, the front matter has a separate page numbering sequence from the rest of the book. All pages in the principle text have arabic numbers, and the first page of actual content is page 1 (this may be chapter 1 or an introduction or prologue). Front matter pages are numbered from 1 through whatever page is necessary, but the page numbers appear as lowercase roman numerals. Some front matter pages do not include page numbers—blanks, half title, title, copyright, dedication, and epigraph—although they are counted as numbered pages.

Be Foreword

A foreword is a substantial introduction or statement about a book by someone other than the author of the book. Since someone else is giving your book props just by agreeing to write a foreword and sign his name to it, it’s almost like a very long endorsement of the work minus the gushiness about how great you are. The better the author of the foreword is known, the more helpful the foreword will be in generating interest in your book and increasing sales. Imagine the readers a foreword by Jack Welch or Steve Jobs would attract compared to a foreword written by your neighbor (unless your neighbor happens to be Jack Welch or Steve Jobs, of course). But don’t sweat it if you don’t have access to the big names; it’s unlikely that a foreword by Author’s Neighbor will hinder your sales.

Tell ’Em All About It

A preface could be described as a book’s profile. It includes material about the book that is separate from the book’s subject matter, such as why the author decided to begin the work, the scope of the work, and the work’s intended audience. Sometimes authors use the preface as a place to discuss research methods and to acknowledge assistance, though the latter is usually included in a separate front matter element, the acknowledgments.

Introduce Yourself

Though introductions vary in the type of content they present, they generally should identify the book’s audience, establish a clear sense of the topic and angle the author will develop, tell the reader why the topic has value, and set the stage for the rest of the book by establishing the necessary context and language. Some introductions will describe the function of each chapter in a book, which could help readers decide if they want to read the entire book or only parts of it.

The introduction should be more closely connected to the book than any other component in the front matter. Ideally, an introduction functions as the first couple of paragraphs in a chapter should, by drawing in readers and making them want to keep reading.

Either the author or someone the author deems appropriate and capable to write about the subject can write an introduction. Keep in mind that though introductions can be written by the author or a contributor, someone other than the book’s author must write the foreword.

A big bad review of the order in which the top 10 most common front matter elements should be presented:

  1. Half-title page
  2. Title page
  3. Copyright page
  4. Dedication
  5. Epigraph
  6. Table of Contents
  7. Foreword
  8. Preface
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Introduction