Front to Back - Mari Biella

I’m currently in the process of giving my books a facelift. I’m not reworking the actual contents (apart from clearing up a few minor typos and formatting problems), just trying to make them look more attractive and professional. The process so far has given me a thumping headache, and a renewed respect for publishers. Getting a book to look all lovely and slick – in both its print and eBook manifestations – is, let it be said, no easy matter. A thousand perils lie in wait for the unwary.

This is sort of how I feel at the moment... © Phil Date / Dreamstime Stock Photos

Still, I’m encouraged by the fact that achieving a nice professional look, though difficult, is eminently possible. Here I am, sitting at the kitchen table and thumping away at an ancient laptop that’s probably not even good for spare parts any more, but with attention to detail, hard work and a smidgeon of luck I might just be able to turn out books that are at least acceptable. Still, it’s tricky. The nuts and bolts that authors once left to publishers still have to be taken care of, and one of the nuttiest nuts is the not-so-small matter of front and back matter. Here’s what I’ve learned so far. I’m still a novice, but it may come in handy to someone out there ...

Print Books

If you’re a keen reader, you’ve probably been flicking through front and back matter for about as long as you can remember. Unless you’ve an unhealthy eye for niggling little details or a burning desire to work in the publishing industry, you probably haven’t paid much attention to it. If you’re self-publishing, however, you might just have to become a front-and-back matter nerd. Those needing expert help – and that’ll be a lot of us, I imagine – can consult either the New Oxford Style Manual (for those who favour British English) or the Chicago Manual of Style (for those on the other side of the Atlantic). Both of these manuals clarify industry standards, and might therefore appeal to anyone who wants to emulate the big publishers. Failing that, you could of course just study the books on your bookshelf.

© Daniel Gilbey / Dreamstime Stock Photos

In general, print books will contain all or at least most of the following in their front matter:

  • Half Title Page: only the book title appears on this page; the rest is blank space.
  • The Title Page: full title of work (including subtitle), author’s name. May also include the publisher’s name and address.
  • Copyright Page: copyright notice, edition information, legal notices, disclaimers, and so on.

The front matter might also include dedications, epigraphs, a Table of Contents, a foreword, a preface, acknowledgements and so on. Back matter might include a postscript, appendix, notes, errata, and a list of contributors where relevant. Pick up any print book and you’ll see how the publishers have arranged all this information, which is good as you’ll always have a pretty solid basic model to work with.

So far, so (reasonably) straightforward. Unfortunately, it won’t remain so for much longer, as we now have to consider ...


This is where it gets altogether more tricky. An eBook requires quite a different layout to a physical book, and what works well in print does not always lend itself to the eReader.

First of all, front matter. Customers flicking through a physical book in a bookshop can just skip through all the front matter and dive straight into the story. For those browsing the electronic shelves over at Amazon or the like, however, this is an altogether more laboured affair. EBook retailers usually allow readers to try out a free sample of the book – anything between 10 and 30% – before they buy. The more of the story they read, the more they’re likely to (hopefully) want to read. For this reason, most people advise keeping front matter short and simple.

This is especially true of shorter works. I once read the free sample of a novella – sort of. The problem was that, by the time I’d clicked through the title pages, Table of Contents, dedication, foreword, disclaimers, and so on, the actual amount of the story itself I read amounted to no more than a few sentences. The novella itself might have been brilliant, but sadly I’ll never know.

It's a question of style, don't you know. ©Daniel Gilbey / Dreamstime Stock Photos

Having said that, there are certain things that you’ll want to include in your front matter: the title of the book, the author’s name, the ISBN (if any), copyright information, and disclaimers. Excerpts from some rave reviews might also look good here, though other authors prefer to keep these for the back matter. EBook distributors often have quite clear ideas about what should be included in the front matter of a book, and are able to offer advice. The Smashwords Style Guide can be downloaded free, and is useful whether you distribute with Smashwords or not. Amazon, meanwhile, offers some handy hints to authors, such as these.

Something of a question mark hangs over the question of where to place your Table of Contents, or ToC. A ToC is an essential component of an eBook, of course, enabling readers to locate what they want quickly and easily. EBooks without a ToC – and I’ve read a few, including some from big publishing houses that really should know better – make me want to scream (What do you mean, I have to scroll through the entire book to find the bit I’m looking for?!) Many authors include the ToC at the front of their books, but you can also
include it with the back matter; as long as it’s there and it’s navigable, I doubt it really matters that much.

The back matter of your book is a good place to include information about your other books. This could take the form of cover images, blurbs, favourable reviews, or excerpts (maybe the first chapter, for example). It’s a good idea to keep this relatively short, however; if it amounts to more than about 15% of the total, some readers may feel cheated when they get 80% of the way through a book only to find that the story suddenly ends.

Other things that might be included in your back matter might be a request to readers to post reviews, your author biography, and links to your website, and Twitter and Facebook profiles. You might also include information on how to sign up to your mailing list, if you have one. If you’re really ambitious, and not ashamed to show it, you might even consider author interviews or book club questions. Also best kept for the back matter is that information which might be important to the author but is rarely of much interest to the reader, such as dedications, acknowledgements, notes, and so on.

Of course, nobody can cater to everyone’s tastes, and self-publishing gives us a certain level of freedom, so authors can experiment and see what works for them. What is most important, perhaps, is simply that readers are rewarded with a pleasant reading experience. My books might have been put together on my PC, with the aid of absolutely no specialist skills or equipment, but I hope that by the time I’ve finished they’ll be able to rub shoulders with those published by the big boys and not look like the poor relations. 


Wendy H. Jones said…
This is both Interesting and helpful. Thank you for setting it out so clearly.
Umberto Tosi said…
Yes. Most helpful. Thank you,Mari. How do you resist the temptation (or, for me, compulsion) to rewrite while you're sprucing up, even though all this does is open a super-size can of worms? I have to steel myself. Of course, electronic publishing allows us so much more flexibility to revise, edit, update and polish a work before and after publishing it - and makes publishing a fluid process. That's the good news- and the bad news. I have a raging stiff neck that drops by like an unwanted in-law every time. But I learn a lot.
Chris Longmuir said…
Excellen post Mari. However, I have mixed views about ToCs. I appreciate them in non-fiction books which indicate the topic of each chapter, but I am less enamoured of them in novels where the chapter headings are Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. I get annoyed at having to flick through 3 or 4 pages (sometimes more) of a ToC that just indicates the chapter number. And the habit of giving each chapter a distinctive title seems a tad old-fashioned nowadays. Therefore the ebooks I have on sale have no ToCs, although recently I noticed Amazon is demanding them, so I've decided on a compromise. In future I will add links to the Dedication, Acknowledgements, Beginning, About the Author, and Other Books. But I won't put chapter by chapter links in, they just annoy me too much, besides they eat up space for the Look Inside feature. What reader wants to know there are perhaps 80 chapters in a book?
Good, useful and informative, Mari - lots of food for thought. I'm inclined to agree with Chris about ToCs - those long lists annoy me a bit as well. Although what Amazon wants, Amazon gets - and they do seem to want them. I've certainly started using them. However, I think Chapter titles are making a come-back! I used them in The Physic Garden and I don't know quite why I did - it's a historical novel and they just seemed appropriate and my publisher thought so too - but I'm doing the same thing with the new novel. I notice quite a few writers using them now. And this got me thinking - maybe it's partly the eBook effect. It can be hard to flick back and forth in an eBook, but your kindle will easily take you to a specific chapter - if you know the one you want. Perhaps chapter titles facilitate that? Or, I suppose, it could just be a welcome side effect! Anyway, I plan to carry on doing it.
Dennis Hamley said…
Catherine, that's a very good point about chapter titles. When I started writing novels in 19diddlysquat they were pretty well obligatory. To find suddenly that books were appearing without them seemed a marvellous release. Now I'm beginning to pine for them again. But I think ToCs are essential in any book, though I do understand that a bald list of numbers isn't much cop in an ebook. As far as layout and conventions are concerned, Mari, I hate to harp on about this but the Createspace template for - no, I must stop saying 'for idiots': I must say 'the beginner' instead - is a remarkable document which makes interiors not far off 100% professional without your even trying. There's a lot of tidying up afterwards and it's good to have familiarity with what constitutes professional practice but I'm really amazed and satisfied by the results. As far as back matter is concerned for a print book - yes, a selection from any decent reviews are good to put up on it, plus explanatory blurb, but I'm not above sneaking a few inside as well.
Lydia Bennet said…
Yes a helpful post Mari and seems to be sparking an interesting debate. I too don't see much point in TOCs in novels where they are a long list of numbers, but I put them at the back. I always do the linking to start, end, toc, etc as well. As for finding something, you can search your book on kindle for words or phrases, which is a useful way of finding somewhere in a book. in novels youd' not normally know which chapter something was in by number, but you might know there's a rabid aardvark in that chapter which would be easy to search for. I keep front matter to the absolute minimum on kindle, but I do put in good reviews and cover quotes. Acks, which in my poetry books can be pages long and contain valuable info, but in novels are more like a few shout outs and thanks, I also put at the back in ebooks. you can include all your back matter in the TOC of course!
Mari Biella said…
Interesting points, everyone. I agree that the ToC is less important in fiction, but I think it's nice to have anyway. What isn't so nice is to have to scroll through a series of chapter numbers before starting on a story sample, which is why I now tend to position the ToC at the back of the book whenever possible. I'm glad to hear that chapter names may be making a comeback, too, as they're far more interesting than just numbers.

Dennis - I found the CreateSpace template surprisingly easy to use, too, though I must admit to spending half an hour or so turning the air blue when I couldn't get the page numbers to format properly. Apart from that, though, it was hearteningly easy, even for me...

I often get the urge to start rewriting, Umberto. So far I've managed to resist, but for how much longer?!
Bill Kirton said…
Add my thanks to those of the others, Mari, for such a clear, valuable assessment of what's required. I appreciate Catherine's thinking on the titles for chapters dilemma, although the thought of having to find such things is stressful. I have enough difficulties trying to decide what to call the actual book.
Susan Price said…
I have to say, I like a TOC and chapter titles in an e-book. I often want to find and re-read a particular bit - and I haven't always thought to note it with a bookmark.

It's easier to find it again if the chapter titles give me an idea of where to look. I remember doing exactly this with a contents page and page-numbers in my copy of 'Kidnapped' long before e-books were ever even dreamed of.

And I'm reading the excellent short stories in 'Something Vital Was Dropped' - and it has no TOC to enable me to skip backwards and forward between the various titles. Good as the stories are, this is a mark deducted for me.
Lydia Bennet said…
Interesting feedback Susan, they are excellent stories, I think it was the publisher who formatted it for kindle, not the author.
glitter noir said…
Well done, Mari. I'm the pro-TOC side. After rewriting MonsterTime I found I really dug the titled chapters. And I think I may revert to this form--or, for shorter books, at least with titled Parts. I'm moved to this because my latest Kindle has a nasty habit of jumping back and forth. It was very skittish with Bill's mystey Darkness. No Go Back to Last Page Read. No, I often had hunt to for minutes. Would be much easier to this if I'd been guided by snappy chapter heads.
Debbie Bennett said…
Nothing annoys me more than thinking I have 20% of the story to go - and then finding the end on the next page and the last 20% is author-puff. If I want to read chapter 1 of the next book, I am perfectly capable of finding it myself! In fact if I read chapter 1 now, by the time I go to look at the book for real, I'll re-read chapter 1, it will look familiar and I'll think I've already read the book, so won't buy it.... :-)

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