People ask us all the time about what should be in a book.
Should I have a table of contents?
Should I have a dedication?
What order should it all go in?
It’s as if there’s some official blueprint out there, ordained by The Institute For Determining Whether Your Book Is Legit Or Just Some Amateur Sucker’s Attempt At Making A Book.
If you don’t follow the blueprint, it seems, you’ve raised a flag that you’ve got no clue what you’re doing.
In this article, I’ll tell you the parts of a book, so no worries there. But before we get that far, I’d like you to relax. Exhale. There is no Institute out there that picks up each book, leafs through it, and declares it to be a “real book” (i.e., followed the blueprint) or something less (did not follow the blueprint).
That’s because there’s no blueprint. There’s no official list of things that should be in a book. The truth is, you can put whatever you want in your book. You don’t need to follow a particular order, or go down a checklist of items to include. If you don’t have a preface, no big deal. No biography? No author’s note? That’s cool, too.
If anyone tells you that you must include X, Y, and Z in your book so that it can “be a real book,” they’re either misinformed or some sort of snob.
All that really needs to be between the front and back cover of your book (including ebooks, which don’t even really have a front or back) is the story itself. Page One can begin with Once Upon a Time, and the very last words in your book can be THE END. That much is all it takes to be official, legit, and sanctioned by the Institute of Snobs. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
That said, you and your readers will both get more out of your book and enjoy it more if you add a few more pieces to it. I’ll go through the ones we use at Sterling & Stone and mention a few we usually don’t.
For each part of a book below, I’ll tell you what it is and why you may or may not want to include it, then will indicate whether that book part is RECOMMENDED, OPTIONAL, OR WHO CARES. The only thing that’s truly required is the main body of the book itself.
Think of the book parts to follow as optional spices. You can add them to your book for extra effect, but you don’t always need to.
We’ll start from the literal beginning.
1. Front Matter
The terminology here is really tricky. Ready? Okay, here we go: “Front matter” is all the stuff you put at the front of your book, before the story itself.
It really is that simple. If you put something before your story, it’s front matter. If you put it at the back, it’s called (wait for it) back matter. There are traditional places for most things (front or back), and some will make a lot less sense if you don’t put them in those places. But really, “front” or “back” are locations, not mandates.
That said, the parts that are commonly part of front matter are:
The book cover
Obviously used as a literal cover, but the same image is often reproduced as the book’s first page as well in the case of ebooks. Many formatting programs, like Scrivener, do this automatically. Readers usually have to page backward to even see this, and it’s repeated on the book’s literal cover. So for this first one, I’ll give it:
Status: WHO CARES.
Separate from the cover reproduction (which appears exactly the same as the cover itself, or is sometimes rendered in black and white for e-readers), this page gives only the book’s title, author name(s), and any subtitle or tagline used with the title.
If you want to be all fancy, you can also add the publisher’s name (if you’re doing the formatting for your publisher for some reason, or if your publisher is actually just yourself with a “company-sounding” name), descriptive text, or year of publication.
Status: WHO CARES.
Your book has a copyright the minute you put it in “fixed and tangible form,” which in this day and age includes saving it as a file, not just in paperback-book form. You don’t need to declare your copyright by including this page for it to take effect, but we do usually add this page anyway. Why? Who knows. It just feels right. You can add one or not — your call.
We used to dedicate all of our books, but after the first dozen books or so, we ran out of people to dedicate books to and our families started to say, “Yeah, yeah, we get it; you like us” and stopped caring. If you want to dedicate your book, however, have at it.
Dedications should get their own page rather than sharing a page with something else even though they’re usually just one line. A dedication can say something as simple as “For Delilah” or a slightly longer sentence or two, but don’t get all long-winded. You can thank people and explain all about how they helped you in an Author’s Note or Acknowledgements, so don’t do that here.
Epigraphs are just quotes that reflect the mood or tone or theme of the book, or that the author just really likes. They’re in some books but nowhere near all. Be careful if you want to pull your epigraph quote from music though, because music has complicated copyright issues I won’t attempt to explain. Not that anyone’s likely to come after you … just know it’s a thing.
Table of contents
In the case of ebooks, tables of contents are usually generated automatically and don’t take up their own page. Instead (again, for ebooks), the ToC is something a reader can pull up if she wants to sip to a different chapter. However, for some books, a literal table of contents (the kind that takes up its own page instead of being something you can reference) is warranted.
Nonfiction books, for example, usually benefit from a table of contents because people skip around in nonfiction and need to know which pages to skip to. This is the case more often for tangible books (paperbacks and hardbacks), but it’s also a little harder for tangible books because if you add or subtract sections, your page numbers will change — but chances are, they won’t change automatically in the ToC. That means you will need to make sure the actual page numbers jibe with the page numbers showing in the ToC. Do this step last, after all edits are made, to make sure it all ends up correct.
Status: WHO CARES (for fiction) but RECOMMENDED for nonfiction.
Forewords (not “forwards”) are often confused with Prefaces, Introductions, and prologues, described below. The difference is that a foreword is always written by someone other than the author, whereas the other three are author-written. Forewords are usually commentary from an outside party — often one who, by writing a foreword for you, lends credibility, credence, or status to your book.
So for example, if I wrote a book about US law, having a former Supreme Court justice write my foreword would really help my book’s authority … seeing as a full-on justice wrote part of it. You can have forewords for fiction, too, though they’re rarer. In that case, maybe Stephen King wants to write a foreword to tell the world how much he liked my vampire novel.
You get the idea. Don’t break your neck trying to get a foreword for your book. They’re highly optional for fiction and most nonfiction, helpful mainly only when 1) someone offers to write one and you’re like, “Yeah, that would be rad to include” or 2) you’re writing a book you might not really have recognized authority to write. So, that book on US law I used as an example? If I’m not a recognized authority in US law, adding a foreword by someone who IS an authority might help the book itself feel legit.
Status: RECOMMENDED only if authority is needed for your book, but WHO CARES otherwise. Don’t try to find a famous author to write your book’s foreword as a sales tactic purely to use it as a sales tactic. It comes across as needy.
This is a piece written by the author, usually in reference to the book itself and/or its creation. You can think of a preface as saying to the reader, “Hey! Wait a sec! You may be interested to know this before you start reading.” Prefaces tend to be short and factual — “trivia about the book,” almost.
Status: For most books, WHO CARES. (Basically, if you don’t already have something written or feel like you NEED to write something that could be called a prologue, don’t bother.)
2. Body of the book
Introductions are a nonfiction thing, irrelevant for novels, novellas, and all forms of fiction. They lay out the purpose and/or methodology of the book, or sometimes describe circumstances relating to a book’s creation that a reader needs to know in order to understand it, appreciate it, or be able to put the information it contains into a larger context.
Status: OPTIONAL for nonfiction, but NOT APPLICABLE for fiction.
A prologue (fiction only) is a bit of story that seems to logically belong before Chapter One enough to be its own document, even it sometimes happens late in the story’s main timeline (which it may or may not do). Set aside and explained “in the lead-up to” the meat of the story. Prologues should be “in character” for the story and world, meaning that the author should write them as if the story in the following pages is a real thing.
Prologues can be explanatory (giving information the reader will need to understand the story they’re about to begin, either because it relates to another book they may not have read or because events have happened “off the page” that the reader wouldn’t know otherwise. Most stories don’t need a prologue, but if you find you need to give a “prelude to story” that seems to require positioning before chapter one begins, a prologue is the place to put it.
Status: OPTIONAL (for fiction only).
The story (or main part of a nonfiction book):
This should be self-explanatory, because you can’t exactly have a book without having anything to put in it.
These aren’t really parts of your book so much as ways of dividing the main body of it. Basically, you’ve got a long text document, and it’s not very user-friendly to start at the beginning and end 300 pages later without ever giving your reader a place to stop or mark their progress. Chapters are the most familiar units within books, applicable to fiction and nonfiction.
Chapters are like mini-stories told in serial fashion. In nonfiction, each chapter should cover a specific smaller idea within your big idea — and then whenever possible, the chapter to follow should be a logical next step (or next thing to learn about) than the chapter before. In fiction, chapters should tell a piece of the story that’s slightly self-contained: the hero’s adventure through the caverns from beginning to end, say, where the entire cavern adventure is just one thing that happens in the larger tale. It’s common for chapters to end on small cliffhangers or unresolved issues so the reader is compelled to read more.
Status: REQUIRED unless you want your book to be such “experimental fiction” that nobody will enjoy reading it.
Subchapters are just smaller divisions within a chapter. They’re more common in nonfiction than fiction (because your chapter-size ideas may have somewhat modular sub-ideas), but sometimes fiction authors create “faux subchapters” by leaving a few blank lines between paragraphs to indicate a scene break or the passage of time that’s not quite enough to merit a full chapter break.
Parts, sections, or books
All three of these terms, plus a few more, refer to divisions larger than a chapter. Just as a chapter may contain several subchapters, each part (for instance) can contain several chapters. “Book,” in this case, doesn’t refer to your entire, cover-to-cover literal book; it’s a term that means basically the same as “part” or section.” Whereas “part” and “section” are more common in fiction, “book” is more common in fiction … if it’s used at all.
You can use these divisions if your project still seems to require a few “buckets of ideas” even after all chapters have been assigned. So for instance, a book about remodeling your home might have 25 chapters covering the entire process, but 5 of those chapters might be about planning (working with an architect, getting city approval, etc), 5 might be about budgeting, and the remaining 15 chapters might be about various types, areas, or styles of construction.
In this case, you might decide to group your chapters into three sections: Planning, Budgeting, and Construction. In fiction, it’s really only useful if you have distinct phases to your story — say, if it’s told in the Past, Present, and Future.
Like a prologue, an epilogue is part of the story, told in the world and voice of the story. You don’t usually need an epilogue just to end your story. End your story in the final chapter, not an epilogue.
Only add an epilogue, then, if your story is finished but there’s still a bit of story left that your reader should know or would be interested to hear — for example, to clear up nonessential loose ends that didn’t get handled in the body of the story, or to show the lives of your characters after an interlude, like “Five years later.”
Almost always in nonfiction only, an afterword is “summary text” or “final thoughts” meant to close the book in a satisfying way, often with final thoughts or conclusions. This can be written by the author or by someone else. In academic writing, this can also be formally called a “Conclusion.”
3. Back Matter
Call to action
This isn’t a formal “book part,” but at Sterling & Stone it’s one of the most important things we include. If you’re an independent author and hence able to control which of the things on this page goes into your book, you’re an entrepreneur whether you want to be or not.
That puts you in charge of selling your own books … and you’ll sell your books better if, once the reader reaches the end, you include a “call to action” (abbreviated CTA) showing them exactly what to buy next (and giving them a link to do so, in the case of e-books). It can be the sequel or another book. It can also be a non-buying CTA, such as a request to leave a review on your book or join your mailing list.
Status: STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.
It’s up to you whether you include an author’s note (if you have one) right after the “Body” section above or if you choose to put it after the CTA. Either way, an author’s note is a piece written by the author from “outside” the book, no longer in the character of it.
Author’s notes are usually about the book rather than actually adding to it: the author’s process of writing the story, trivia the reader may not know, a story about the “making of.” Author’s notes are great ways to bond with readers and create superfans.
If anyone helped you in any way while writing the book, it’s nice to acknowledge them here. There’s a fine line here. You don’t need to thank every single person for every single little thing, but for one book I talked extensively with a geneticist, and for another I got help from a cop, a coroner, and a pharmaceutical expert. In both of those cases, the help was significant, so I wrote an acknowledgement. In nonfiction, you’ll probably get more help, and hence see the more common need for acknowledgements.
Status: RECOMMENDED if you got significant help, WHO CARES otherwise.
Appendices, used in nonfiction, are where you put any large-ish amounts of research relevant to the book’s contents, but which would be an unnecessary diversion if put into the main body of the book itself.
A list of terms used in the book.
Status: WHO CARES for most books.
Bibliography or reference citations
If you draw heavily on the work and/or research of others, you should never try to pass that work off as your own ideas, which can happen if you never say otherwise. Citing references in the body of the book and listing them here will keep you cool with your sources.
Status: RECOMMENDED if your book is nonfiction and heavily researched, N/A otherwise.
Used only in nonfiction, this is the Table of Contents’s big brother. The index is where you list everything by topic and page number. Indexes are a nightmare to format using the typical indie author’s tools, and personally I’d rather pull my eyelids off than search my entire text for mentions of every topic or name anyone might care to look up … but for some highly academic or reference books, you need one. You have my sympathy.
Status: RECOMMENDED if it’s the kind of book that needs one. For most books, though, RUN FOR THE HILLS.
There are a handful of other terms you’ll hear about parts of a book (colophon, errata, contributors, notes, half-title page, more, but chances are good you’ll never need them. What’s above is all you really need 99% of the time, and there are really only a few of the above that are really required or even recommended. So try not to feel too besieged by “But I’m supposed to have all this, too!” because you probably aren’t supposed to have it.
You need a story or a nonfiction manuscript, broken into chapters. We strongly suggest having some sort of a CTA, and it’s worth taking some time to include an item here or there just so your book doesn’t look so naked, and feels a bit more to the reader like a book they’d find in Barnes & Noble.
But the rest is details. Don’t sweat it. Just write!
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