What’s the matter with front matter?

Between your carefully considered cover and the very first word of your story, there should be some stuff. What is that stuff? Why does it matter? What really needs to be there?

That stuff, collectively called “front matter”, includes all the information related to the book that isn’t the story. Traditionally, in print books, all of the following could be heaped up at the front, because it was easy for readers to flip past if they wished and get on with the story.

Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
Cast of Characters
Pronunciation Guide

Then there’s “back matter”, which usually goes in the back of a printed book.

About the Author/bio
Invitations (newsletter sign up, contests)
Bonus Short Stories

However, this is far from ideal in the world of ebooks. Why? Well, a sample is 10% of your entire file, not 10 percent of your story. When you get a reader interested enough that they downloaded a sample, or are clicking “look inside” on a web page, you really don’t want them to scroll past all of that stuff only to find three paragraphs of story! You want a couple pages to hook them in, draw them deep, and make them immediately click “buy the book” so they can keep reading.

Some very savvy authors actually set up the amount of front matter and their story so the 10% cutoff falls directly after a cliffhanger. This is sneaky and wonderful, because you can immediately deliver the payoff with the rest of the book.

So, what actually needs to go up front?

Title Page – as silly as it seems to have a title page (the name is on the file, after all, and the cover can’t get lost, unlike a hardcover’s dust jacket), I recommend having one. It looks professional, and looking like you’re going to give the reader a quality product is vital to keep their expectation and attention high, so they make it to your awesome story.

Blurb – Here, too, some indies have started sticking the blurb again. The reasoning, which is sound, is that readers tend to grab book samples by the handfuls, but sometimes don’t get back to ’em for weeks or months. By that time, they don’t remember what the story is about.
I’m of two minds about it, myself. I tend to find them annoying to flip past when I’ve just bought a sample… but if I’m going through my to-be-read pile, I find them incredibly helpful. What do you think?

Table of Contents? I’d like your feedback on whether you, as a reader, like this at the front. I’ve seen some ebooks sticking them at the back, but reader habit to look in the front is rather entrenched.

Copyright Page – Yes, this needs to be in the front. Indies usually stick the name of the  cover artist, cover designer, and editor here. It’s good advertising for those folks, so if other authors like what they see, they’ll help keep your favorite freelancers in business!

Dedication & Acknowledgements – yeah, if you have one, this goes in the front.

All the rest, with the exception of the map (If you have one), I strongly suggest you skip, or stick in the back. Honestly, until your reader cares about the characters, they don’t care how they’re related or their names are pronounced. And to make them care, you have to give them the story. So get to it as fast as you can, and start making them care.

What do you put in, leave out, or move to the back?

29 thoughts on “What’s the matter with front matter?

  1. What I’ve seen, and I’m not sure how they do it, is ebooks that *have* all the front matter, but when you open the book, you start on page 1 of the story, paging past the front matter. I usually find it when I go paging backwards.

    1. Perhaps the ebook file itself stores the “current position” information rather than that being a function of the ebook reader. If so, then it may simply be a matter of electronically “turning to the right page” before the ebook file is uploaded to the distribution channel (Amazon, etc.).

    2. It’s a matter of coding. I start mine where the reader would likely want to start, after the front matter. This works on e-readers. However, when a reader clicks on “Look inside,” it starts with the front matter. The “Look inside” feature ignores coding.

      1. Just speaking as a reader… I hate it when ebooks do this, drop me where the book thinks I “should” start rather than at the actual start.

        Why, I’m not completely sure, except that when I pick up a new book to read, looking at the cover, then the title page, then the start of the book helps get me into the book. It’s almost a little ritual of reading a new book, and dropping me partway in aborts that ritual.

        So I poke at the screen to display the progress bar, set it back to the beginning, and start again. But it’s an annoying little interruption for me.

    3. This is usually the Kindle device or app guessing where chapter 1 starts, which it usually guesses correctly. For authors who want to set where the book starts, they can do this through the content.opf file if they are coding their own ebooks.

      Here’s an example from one of my novels. ‘IndigoSquad000.xhtml’ is the name of the content file where I want the book to start. The reason there are two entries with different ‘type’s is because Amazon changed the way Kindle books worked a year or so ago and this reflects the old and the new way. The entries will also work for EPUB format books except for Kobo devices, which ignores them and opens the book at the first NavPoint in the ncx file.

      If you just upload a doc file, rather than code your eBooks, then you’re probably very sensible, but you have no firm control over where your book opens, and so you do need to use the Kindle previewer to check where it starts. I’ve lost count of trad-published Kindle books where something the author thought was important was never read by 99% of readers because it came before chapter 1.

  2. A friend of mine always puts the table of contents in the back of her books. It took surprisingly little adjustment on this reader’s part to get used to it.

    1. Some converters do – or did – that automatically, I think the original Mobi converter did that. On a test project, I’d wind up with two TOCs, one of HTML links and another in the back.

      I like both a hyperlink TOC in the front, and the ability to navigate to a chapter from a drop-down menu.

  3. As a reader, hence as someone who hasn’t done it before, my inclination would be to start on with very minimal front and back matter.

    I am most likely to manage a shorter story before I manage a longer story. I don’t want a buyer to think my, say, 100k novel is a 120k novel because it has that much front and back matter. Having a one or two page sample of the next book for marketing would be defensible.

    What kind of book is it? Where does it fit in the marketing strategy? What do the buyers want?

    If I were to get an artist and do something in the format of a Japanese light novel, color illustrations and maybe a bio of major characters might be expected in the front matter.

  4. As a reader, I don’t worry about a “TOC” page. What I worry about is “will my reader software detect chapters”.

    As for Character Lists, my thought is they’re nice but should be checked if they contain spoilers.

    If a “bad guy” is going to switch sides, don’t say anything in a character list at the front that hints at the change.

    Oh, in one of David Weber’s War God novels, a Courser is listed by name in the front along with the fact that he is Bahzell’s Courser. Of course, they hadn’t even met when the book begins. [Smile]

  5. I always read all this front and back matter *first*, a habit I got into from several fave authors who commonly provide interesting lists and appendices.

  6. As a reader I generally don’t use the table of content for a novel. However I really like to have one for a anthology of short stories. I use it to judge how many stories I’m getting for the book and as a guestimate of how long the stories are.

  7. I do the title page, legal page, dedication and that’s usually about it. I might, if it is part of a series, add a “books by this author” sort of page. I don’t do a ToC in an ebook because I have it formatted for an active TOC that will be generated by the ebook reader/program in most cases.

    1. Legal page is a good point. Forgot it in my first, and scrambled to write one and upload a revision.

      I think Amazon suggests HTML TOC, on the grounds it enhances the reader’s experience. I first have the word processor generate mine as links. OTOH, I go over the document by hand to tweak things after converting everything to HTML.

    2. I’m slowly going through my books switching to a hyperlinked list of all my stuff in the back. In addition to the hyperlink at the end of the sample of the next book. of course.

  8. I have never cared for character lists. They always struck me as odd and pretentious, and take away some of the surprise. In a play, where the list of characters is a list of actors, yes; in a book, no.

    1. I like character lists at the front IF it’s a later book in a series, so that I can do the “which of the cast is in this episode” thing – a character foreshadowing, if you will.

  9. When in doubt, internal hyperlinks. I loathe big chunks of frontmatter at the beginning for precisely the sampling reason. I also skip the initial table of contents, unless (as in some of my books) the chapter titles are funny or evocative and serve to lure the innocent reader into wondering what the hell “Chocolate Pudding, serves 300” chapter is like and how it got in a mil-sf book 🙂 Most readers or reader apps know how to link up to the table of contents *formatting* so a reader who wants to go directly to a certain chapter, can.

  10. Pronunciation Guide

    Have I just been looking in the wrong places? I can’t recall a stf novel published in the last fifty years that had a Pronunciation Guide. De Camp used to include one in his “Viagens Interplanetarias” books, but even he stopped sometime tin the 1960s.

    1. I put a language key into the first Cat prequel, _Hubris_, because I thought readers would appreciate a hint as to what some gestures and terms meant. (“Strong-side” being left forefoot, for example.)

    2. Seen ’em in the fantasy side, mostly, of late. Especially when they’re lifting names from Welsh, or the mythology from more obscure parts of the earth.

  11. I am writing non-fiction. I think a TOC in the front of an ebook is helpful to the reader if the book has a few eye-catching titles of chapters or sections: Attacked by a sled dog; The bear that came to dinner–and stayed; Charged by a bull moose etc. If the TOC is just Chapter One, Chapter two, etc. in my opinion it doesn’t serve a purpose and does take away from the 10% the prospective buyer can see.

    1. I always have creative chapter titles, to up the suspense, but I’d still say to include plain old “Chapter 1, 2, etc” in a TOC for the simple fact that some people, i.e. me, read on both our phones and the Kindle. If I’m in the grocery store on my phone, I may not have wi-fi/4G while I’m standing in line. So I can’t sync with where I was on the Kindle at home.

      That’s the moment when the TOC is *useful,* because a lifetime of print reading means I’ll remember I was at chapter 20 and I can easily navigate there. Whereas, I can’t remember location 4306 or whatever.

      I say don’t remove features whose absence will needlessly frustrate readers — you can’t be sure they’re using the devices the same way you’re expecting them to. Putting the TOC in the back seems a friendlier solution all around.

  12. With regard to the blurb …

    You don’t need a “page” in the book for this, you can simply include it in the metadata of the file. If you use Sigil or Calibre you can put it in your metadata.opf page. Add <dc:description>Your description, with paragraphs, goes here</dc:description>

    Offhand, I’ve been seeing Amazon make use of this lately. If you’re on a tablet or a phone you’ll see it readily for many books. When you buy a book it goes straight to the “About this book” overlay, which is a “pop-up” window, that has the blurb. What you see corresponds to what’s in the description code. The reader hits X on the overlay and then they’re at the first chapter (usually). This feature even shows up in samples. Because the “about this book” section is in a pop-up window it doesn’t seem to count as a “page” in the sample. Hope that helps!

  13. I put my acknowledgments in the back, probably as an artifact from when I read Jurassic Park six times as a kid (and counted all the swear words on the third read-through). Still, for ebooks, I don’t think it makes much sense to put it in the front: what kind of reader is interested in reading about the people who made the story possible BEFORE they read the story?

    But yes, I totally agree about the blurb. Some readers pick up a sample months (or even years!) before they read it, and it helps to have the blurb right there to remind them why they thought it was worth sampling.

  14. I put the title page, copyright, and acknowledgements at the front. The TOC, the About the Author page, and information about my other books at the back. The TOC is all links to chapters, and other pages that I’ve set up as bookmarks. With an ereader, it’s easy to skip around if that’s what the reader chooses to do.

    As a reader, having to scroll past pages of stuff to get to the story irritates me. I really rather not irritate my readers.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: