Last Updated on April 6, 2023
“Nobody reads the introduction,” the publisher breezily informed me. “So make it short, and don’t include any important info.”
It made sense to me: I rarely read introductions myself. Other people probably read them, though, or why would they be included in so many books? And if I see “Foreword” or “Preface” in one of the first sections, I’m even less likely to read it. Which got me thinking: What is the difference between an introduction, foreword, preface, and author’s note?
At the publishing house where I worked, we were always trying to get famous folks to write the forewords to our authors’ books. That answered part of my question: Forewords were created so we could splash “Foreword by Jane Awesome” on the front cover — a coup for the author and a great marketing tool for the book.
But what about those other preliminary pieces in the front matter (the parts of the book that precede the main content)? Whether you’re working with a publishing house or self-publishing your book, being professional means knowing the purpose of these introductory items and using them appropriately.
The main point of the foreword, which is always written by someone other than the author, is to bestow added credibility to the author and/or the book. The foreword is generally only a few pages long and mentions the relationship between the writer of the foreword and the book’s author, or describes how the writer of the foreword was affected by the author’s work. Note the spelling of this section: Many mistakenly call it the “Forward” or “Foreward.”
Forewords can be powerful and heartfelt advertisements for the book — like Walter Dean Myers’ foreword to Bram Stoker's Dracula, which concludes with, “I finished reading Dracula late one wintry night. I felt satisfied that I had just finished an excellent book. Then I locked my doors very carefully, checked my windows, and buried my head beneath the covers.”
Whether scholarly or informal, an introduction can be written either by the author or by someone else, as when an expert in a particular field writes the introduction to a book being reissued after its author’s death. The purpose, as the name implies, is to introduce the reader to the topic covered in the text. Some people always read the introduction, others routinely flip past it. To be safe, don’t put any crucial information in the introduction that does not also appear somewhere in the body of the book.
Sometimes an author feels the need to explain decisions about the content or language that’s used in the book. Occasionally a publisher will urge an author to include an author’s note as a way of avoiding blowback from readers about decisions that might be seen as unconventional or politically controversial. It’s a handy way to prepare readers for these issues without shoehorning the explanation into the text itself. Note that dedications and acknowledgments belong in their own sections, not in the author’s note.
The preface is written by the author and explains how they came to write the book. It provides insights about the author’s background and relationship to the topic. Keep in mind that unless you’re an established author, a celebrity, or someone with an unusual or impressive life story, people may not have the patience to read a lengthy preface about you and your process, so keep it to just a few pages.
Prologue and Epilogue
A preface is not the same as a prologue. A prologue serves as a teaser to the opening chapter of a work of fiction. It’s part of the plot and often presents an essential establishing element. An epilogue serves a similar purpose at the end of the book: It completes the narrative or provides a concluding reflection on what’s come before.
Ordering Sections in the Front and Back Matter
Here is the chronological order of the typical elements of front and back matter. In the printed book, front matter uses Roman numerals instead of Arabic numbers. This is a list of all possible front matter items, but your book does not have to include all of them. In fact, it would be overkill for most books to have an author’s note, foreword, preface, and introduction. Select the items that are essential to the book and leave it at that. Or don’t include any of them — lots of books don’t.
In the printed book, some left-hand pages in the front matter are blank; right-hand pages are never blank. The only element that always goes on a left-hand page is the copyright information. All other front- and back-matter pieces should begin on a right-hand page.
Front Matter Order
- Half-title (it’s the first thing you see when you open the book, in the same font as the title page but smaller)
- List of the author’s previous books
- Copyright page
- Epigraph (a quote pertaining to the book’s topic)
- Table of contents
- Lists of illustrations, characters, tables, family trees, and other informational material
- Author’s note
Back Matter Order
If you’re submitting a manuscript to a publishing house, don’t worry about the left- and right-hand pages — the publisher will handle that. The same is true if you’re self-publishing and using a book shepherd. Just present the front and back matter in the proper order and you’ll be sending the signal that you’re a pro.
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