Ambrose Bierce, that sly devil, had a point in his quote above. Big books can be intimidating. Sometimes the problem is too much information about the wrong things. Whether you want to traditionally or self-publish, knowing the parts of a nonfiction book can help you organize your material and pointpoint what needs to stay in and what can be left out.
Writers often put years researching nonfiction books. You have high hopes for high sales on Amazon and through Ingram Sparks. You’ve carefully built social media platforms and followers for quite a while. You’d like for your book to get rave reviews on Goodreads.
But nonfiction books need specific parts to be taken seriously and if you leave the necessary ones out, or if you put them in but not correctly, your book may not get the attention and respect it deserves. And if you add in pages that you don’t need, you run your price of publication up, hurting your bottom line.
Nobody wants that.
Fiction and nonfiction parts
Most books need certain components whether they are fiction or nonfiction. This includes the title page, copyright page, and table of contents if the book contains chapters. All these features are in the book for one reason: to make the material more intelligible for the reader.
In any book, the reader is the most important part of the equation. No matter how brilliant your thesis or argument, the reader won’t be able to make sense of it if the presentation is poor.
All books are divided into three sections:
Everything in the book before the text begins is the front matter.
Beginning with the first chapter to the end of either the last chapter or the epilogue.
Everything in the book after the text has ended is the back matter.
Most nonfiction books can be divided into three main sections: front matter, the text, and back matter. Fiction books sometimes have maps, illustrations, lists of characters, or timelines that need to be included. For example, I would never have survived reading War and Peace without the handy list of characters at the beginning of the edition I read.
A nonfiction book may include all those features too. Or it may have none of them except for the title page, copyright page, and table of contents.
Keep in mind that your book may not need every one of these parts. But for those you do need, please make sure you check with this or the preferred style manual for your work to make sure the parts are correct in:
- the information they contain,
- the way they are paginated, and
- the way they are formatted.
Parts of a nonfiction book
Front matter refers to all the pages before the text actually begins. Note that some of these parts can be left out altogether, while with others you have the option of placing them either here at the front of the book or with the back matter.
- Half title and title pages. The half title page has only the title (and the subtitle if there is one). The title page comes after this with the full title of the book, the author(s) or editor(s), the place of publication, and the publisher.
- Copyright page. The Copyright page has traditionally gone on the verso (left-hand side leaf) immediately following the title page. It contains the copyright date of the current edition and any other editions published previously. Many things can (and if applicable, should) be placed on this page. Please consult a style guide like CMOS if in doubt. There has been a trend in recent years to place the copyright information with the back matter. As a librarian who used the copyright pages extensively, I am saddened by this trend, but I refuse to engage in a futile protest that will only make me look like a harpy.
- Dedication and/or Epigraph. The dedication is someone or something you wish to dedicate your work to. It might be to your spouse, your grandchild, or your childhood bunny, “Hercules.” The epigraph is a quote that seems appropriate to the work as a whole. It’s a sort of poetic rendering of a book’s message. You need to give the person quoted credit. For example:
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” May West
- Table of Contents. Naturally, if you have chapters and/or other parts of books listed under “Text” below, you will want to help your reader find them quickly. So the table of contents contains the name of each chapter or part, followed by the page number on which it begins. It also gives the name and page number of any additional front or back matter included in the book.
- List of Illustrations. If you have illustrations scattered throughout the text and they are helpful in understanding the book, you will likely want to give the name of the illustration and the page number on which it can be found. Line drawings or art reproductions are sometimes called figures and if they are colored reproductions on glossy paper, they are sometimes called plates. If you have large numbers of photographs, it’s acceptable to place them throughout the text intermingled with the appropriate chapters. There is no need to have a separate list of illustrations in this case.
- List of Tables. In any book that presents information in tables, charts, and graphs it would be helpful to have a separate page listing each item with its title and page number. For example, you might have a “List of Charts” followed by a page titled “List of Tables.”
- Foreword. If you have someone (besides yourself) that you would like to make opening remarks about the book, it would be called a “Foreword.” Editor or publisher comments often go here.
- Preface. The preface is for you, if you choose to have one. It may tell why you decided to write the book or any interesting background information about this particular edition. It should not repeat information found in the text, but can expound on it.
- Acknowledgements. If you want to thank people, you may choose to do so in the preface. But you can alternatively have a separate section for them either here in the front matter or in the backmatter. You can also leave them out. Keep in mind that generally, only the people included will be interested in it, so brevity is a virtue.
- Introduction. Usually, you won’t need a separate introduction. It’s usually better to include it in the text (before the first chapter) or just have an introductory paragraph or section within the first chapter.
- Abbreviations. You won’t need this list unless your work has a lot of abbreviations that could confuse the reader. But if you do need it, place it either here in the front matter or with the back matter.
- Chronology. CMOS indicates this should go in the back matter. I’ve seen it in the front matter, though, and for what it’s worth, some readers prefer it in the front.
The text includes any introductory material not placed in the front matter. This can be singled out or just included at the beginning of the first chapter. The text is the meat of the book and ends with a conclusion or epilogue if you plan to have one.
- Chapters. Not all chapters have names, but for nonfiction books, they can help orient the reader.
- Illustrations. These can be in separate sections. Sometimes books contain a group of colored plates (illustrations) called a gallery. If you have a collection of figures scattered throughout the text and have a list of these figures at the beginning of the book, be sure the page numbers on the list are correct.
- Conclusion. The conclusion sums up the work. After the argument or events have been laid out in the text, the conclusion lays out explicitly what you hope the reader gleaned from the work.
- Epilogue or Afterword. If included, the epilogue or afterword briefly brings the reader up to date on what has happened since the writer moved past the events of the book or maybe updates reader on more recent research findings that shed further light on the issue, or that make it more puzzling or interesting. “If in doubt, leave it out” applies here.
Everything after the text of the book is called the back matter. Readers are not obligated to consult this, so only add items that contribute to the text. As noted, some of these may be omitted and some may be placed in the front matter.
If you choose to place them in the back matter, they must be arranged in the order I have them listed according to CMOS.
- Acknowledgements. Again, keep this brief and only add to the back matter if it was not included in the front of the book.
- Appendix or Appendices. Appendices contain information that clarifies or explains points in the text. They are placed in an appendix because including them in the text would distract from the narrative, so they are placed here. For example, if you are writing a biography and you have a story about how your subject was reported to have behaved scandalously at a wild party, include it only if it has a real bearing the work and include it in the text. But an appendix would be a great place to include her complete discography.
- Chronology. This again, is a timeline. If you feel the material needs one and you did not place it in the front matter, place it here.
- Abbreviations. Please see the front matter, above, this list can go in either place, if it is needed at all.
- Glossary. If your book has a lot of specialized terminology with which your audience may not be familiar, a glossary is a nice thing to add. If you have a lot of foreign language or scientific terms, it would be helpful.
- Notes. If you need include source citations or added information as an aside, you can add them all in one section in the back matter. You can also add them add the bottom of the page on which the occur, which is called footnotes. You can also add them at the end of each chapter, which is called endnotes. The style guide you use may specify which type, although some allow you to make that choice.
- Bibliography or References. This is the list of books consulted for the work or a list of the books referred to in the notes. If you have no notes, you can add a “Further Reading” section for books with more information on your topic. After the text, this is my favorite book part. I often turn to it before beginning a book.
- List of contributors. If you are publishing a book in which each chapter is written by a different author and you serve as editor, you may want to place a list of the authors of the included works in the back matter. They would need to be in alphabetical order by the last name, but they would actually be listed first name, last name (Naomi Klein not Klein, Naomi).
- Illustration credits. This would be a list of the illustrations or figures placed in the text, followed by the source information. Consult a style guide for proper formatting.
- Index(es). Indexes are alphabetical lists of terms in the text that people may want to refer to by page number. For most books, one index will include all terms in alphabetical order. Some reference books or specialized books may have one index for subject terms, another for author names, and another for titles.
- About the author. While you can opt for three pages, one to two paragraphs is sufficient. Many paperbacks have a blurb on the back and some hardback books have them on the back flap of the dust jacket.
Colophon refers to an inscription, which is usually placed at the end of the work, about the designer, the artist, and the printers’ names. Sometime the typefaces and paper used are noted as well. Colophon also refers to a special mark or icon that publishers sometimes use.
Consult a style guide before publishing
I can’t stress enough that these pages must be put together correctly. Check whichever style guide is preferable in your field.
Here is a list of just a few you may need. Keep in mind there are many others:
- AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors (medical)
- The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. (news media)
- Berkshire Manual of Style for International Publishing.
- The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation. (Legal)
- Microsoft Manual of Style. (digital communication)
- MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. (humanities)
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (psychology and social sciences)
- The SBL Handbook of Style: For Biblical Studies and Related Disciplines.
- Scientific Style and Format: The SCE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers.
- GPO Style Manual: An Official Guide to the Form and Style of Federal Government Publishing.
What to put on the page, in what order, and how to format the pages are not the only types of information you need. Style guides also specify how to handle abbreviations, capitalizations, grammar rules, and hundreds of other issues you may run into while writing your book.
Time to get busy
So what do you think? Will your book need more attention than you realized? Take a deep breath. You now know where to look (find your style guide and study it). Do you think maybe you could use the services of an editor to help once you’re done? If so, you can fill out the form below. I’ll be happy to provide a consultation.
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