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Front Matter Matters

August 6, 2012

In publishing lingo, a book usually contains three major sections: front matter (also called preliminary matter or “prelims” for short), the text, and back matter (or end matter).   There are long-standing conventions for content, sequence, and numbering within each section.

Learn and employ these conventions, and you will impress publishers with your professionalism when you submit your manuscript and as you communicate with your editor during the publishing process.

It is even more important for self-publishers to understand standards for book design. While it’s great to do it yourself, you want to achieve a result that meets professional standards. As always, break the rules if you want to, but do it purposefully and consciously, not out of ignorance.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), now in its 16th edition, is the industry source of authority for matters of manuscript preparation and book anatomy.  CMOS provides a level of detail I won’t even try to match in a single blog post. For example, go to CMOS to find out  what a half title page is and where in the front matter it should appear. What information should appear on the copyright page? Why are some pages numbered with lower case roman numerals and others numbered with arabic and some don’t show numbers at all? Be sure to refer to CMOS if you’re a self-publisher and didn’t realize you need to know the answers to such questions.

For now I want to address three key parts of a nonfiction book: foreword, preface, and introduction. Contrary to what many novice nonfiction writers appear to believe, these are not interchangeable terms. Each part has a specific function within a book.


A foreword is a short piece written by someone other than the author of the book. It is usually provided by an expert in a field directly related to the book’s content—someone whose status or will lend credibility to the book.

The author of the foreword addresses their connection to the book’s subject matter and author, explains the importance of the book’s content, and tells the reader why the author is the best person to write the book.


A preface, written by the author of the book, establishes credibility for the book and its author.

In 2 to 3 pages, your preface should explain who you are and indicate your experience with the subject matter. You might write about your research for the book or what you learned and how you changed during the process of writing it. Explain how the book came into being and why.


The introduction, which can be longer than the preface, is about the book’s content. It sets the stage for readers.

The introduction explains what to expect in upcoming chapters, how the book is set up, and gives any other information that will help the reader understand the text. For example, it might explain that features (such as exercises) appear at the end of each chapter or include suggestions about how to read the book if there is a special structure.

The introduction is an opportunity to grab readers and pique their curiosity about what will be revealed when they continue reading.


When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, it needs to be in good shape. Some writers assume the editorial department will fix whatever needs to be fixed, but that’s not how it works. You can expect some in-house editing, but remember: time is money. If you present a well-edited manuscript that shows itself to be aware of formatting conventions, your chances of getting attention—and gaining acceptance—are greater. The publisher knows they will have to invest less time and money to bring your work up to standards.


Mary Ann de Stefano is a writer, editor, and writing coach with 30 years of experience in publishing and writing consulting. She does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.

  1. August 6, 2012 8:49 am

    GOOD piece! Most informative – and a handy reminder! Thanks.

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