If there’s anywhere that creativity should get to run around off its leash, it’s within the pages of a book. That’s why we write them, after all: to do something different. To test out new ideas; maybe even new worlds.
But despite the freedom that words give to us, we can still help our readers to enjoy and appreciate them by presenting our material in ways they can find intuitive and accessible.
Book structure, order, and conventions have evolved for a good reason. Rather than hold us back, they can allow our stories, ideas, and information to really shine.
The way we organize a book acts as its own kind of visual language. We learn the conventions as we learn to read as children, and they inform every reading experience after that. If your book looks or behaves too differently or erratically, rather than coming across as eclectic and exciting, you run the risk of creating a confused discord in your readers’ minds. Your readers may end up bemused at best. At worst, you may end up looking worryingly unprofessional.
It’s important to learn about book structure and order. Then, if you decide to break convention, you’ll be able to do it much more skillfully.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Let’s break it down.
Your book’s pages: We make a book by creating pages. Because pages are printed double-sided, the two sides of a page are known separately as “recto” and “verso.” This means “front” and “back,” respectively. For books bound along the left-hand edge, the recto page is the right-hand page, and the verso page is a left-hand page.
Your book’s parts: Published books order these pages into three distinct parts: the front matter, the main text, and the back matter. The way you order the front and back matter especially will have a big impact on how professional the book looks. They also set the tone for everything in between. If done haphazardly, it’s a sure sign to most people that the book’s content won’t be up to scratch either.
Your book’s style: The conventions that exist around the ‘right’ order of these parts stem from long-established traditions as well as published guides. The two most respected and authoritative guides to good book convention are The Chicago Manual of Style and The Oxford Style Manual. They are similar but vary even from each other.
Getting the right things in the right order
We’re going to talk you through the book order recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style.
Here are all the elements you may want to include in your book. We’ve broken it down into your book’s three parts, along with a brief description of each.
It’s unlikely you’ll ever include all of these. Some are more common in fiction books while others are more relevant to non-fiction. However, this list covers everything you’ll ever need to think about.
When writing, you’re likely to have focused almost entirely on the main text. And rightly so: that’s where all the juicy stuff is. But before we get there, don’t forget the following.
Cover: Your designer will produce your cover as a separate file, which your printer will use to form the very front of your book. Most printers won’t print on the inside of a cover, so they’ll leave this blank.
Flysheet: A paperback book will immediately proceed to a printed paper page. A hardback book, on the other hand, will first include a flysheet. This is a double spread of paper, stuck to the cover on the left and pasted to the inside edge of the first page on the right. Some printers will offer colored papers for these, but again, they’re typically left blank.
Half-Title: This is the first recto (right-hand) page you’ll see when you open your book. It simply displays the name of the book, with no byline and no subtitle. You could use the same typeface as the book cover, or keep it much simpler. Although this is the first physical page, you won’t see a page number displayed.
Frontispiece: On the back of the page showing the half-title, you’ll find a page called the frontispiece. We often keep this blank, but it can also contain information about any other books in a series or other books by the author. You may also occasionally see a frontispiece illustration or a quote. This is the second page, but again no page number is displayed.
Title page: We always reserve the second recto (right-hand) page of the book for the full title, subtitle, author name, co-writers, publisher name, and any logo. This is the third page but still no page numbers yet.
Copyright: Now it gets a little busier. The verso of the title page (that’s the left-hand page – are you getting the hang of it?) includes all sorts of information. Here you’ll find a statement with the publisher’s imprint, data of publication, previous edition dates, copyright line and notices. You’ll also find an assertion of rights, limits on sales, cataloging data, printer’s name, credits for design and editing, and an ISBN. Phew! This is the fourth page, but that’s right: still no page numbers.
Dedication: Any personal dedication you’d like to include goes on the first recto page after the copyright. This is the fifth page and – at last! – you’ll usually find a Roman numeral page number (v).
Epigraph: This is a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book, often used to set the tone for what’s coming. If your book has an epigraph, you’d place this after the dedication and use the page number (vi). If you’re not using an epigraph, then this page is left blank with no page number.
Contents: This is a list of chapter headings and subheadings, and their page numbers. However, if your work of fiction only uses chapter numbers with no titles, you won’t need one. Your content pages will include all the front matter pages that appear after it, but not those that came before it. You may well find your list runs over multiple pages, and so every page will show its page number (vii, viii…).
Lists of figures and tables: You’ll likely only include one of these if you’ve written a technical text that uses captioned tables and figures. Here, you’ll list their page numbers for easy reference, typically dividing it up into one list for figures and another for tables. Your Roman numeral page numbers will continue here as needed.
Foreword: You’ll nearly always find a foreword in a book of non-fiction work, This always follows the table of contents, on the next available recto page. A foreword is a short piece usually written by someone other than the author. This person is often an expert in their field, chosen to give the book some authority and extra content. Their recommendation or commentary is usually signed. You’ll continue to use Roman numeral page numbers on any foreword pages and any pages that come afterward. Oh, and it’s worth double-checking the spelling you use to describe it. It’s amazing how many incorrect ‘forwards’ slip through!
Preface: The use of a preface is common in non-fiction work and appears on the next recto page, always after the contents. The preface outlines the purpose, scope, and content of the book to help focus the reader.
Acknowledgments: These are always kept separate from the preface and appear on another fresh recto page after the contents. Here’s your chance to express gratitude to anyone who has helped and supported your writing. It’s more formal than a personal dedication and may include credits for illustrations. In the UK, you’d spell this as ‘acknowledgements.’
With all those formalities out the way, it’s time to move onto the main content body of your book.
Introduction: Finally, we’ve got to the first proper content page. And to mark it out as different, you’ll label it (and all other pages after it) with Arabic numerals, starting with 1. If the book has no preamble, just jump right in with Chapter One instead.
Abbreviations: If you’ve used lots of abbreviations in your book, especially if it’s a non-fiction book, then it’s a good idea to include a list of these. Alphabetize them in their short form with their longer versions alongside.
Prologue: This one only really applies to drama or literature, but you may well decide to include a prologue before your chapters. You’d usually write one to set the scene and give important background details to the story.
Second half-title: If the front matter of the book is unusually extensive, then you might want to include a second half-title before the main body of text, just as a reminder.
Parts: If you’ve written your book in parts, start each new part on a new recto page, with a blank page opposite. Typically, you’d label parts with Roman numerals (Part I, Part II) or spell them out (Part One, Part Two).
Chapters: Every new chapter should start on a new page to give the book a clear structure. If chapters are a decent length, it’s best to start them all on fresh recto pages. If they’re only short, just start them on the next available page. This will help you to avoid too many blank pages.
Paragraphs: There are no hard and fast rules on lengths of paragraphs so just use your judgment for this one. Typically, one line is probably too short, and anything over a page too long.
Conclusion: This could help you sum up the book’s findings and put everything in context, or make a final, salient point. You can number it as the last chapter, or not.
Epilogue: To include an epilogue, you must have used a prologue at the beginning. Epilogues are a common literary device in drama or literature, coming immediately after the main text. It helps to conclude your narrative, wrapping up any loose ends, or perhaps offering a hint to any future installments.
Afterword: You’ll often find these in works of fiction. An afterword might tell the story of how the book came about. Much like the pairing of prologue and epilogue, to include an afterword, you should have a matching foreword.
You’ve done all the hard work now, but before we go, there are still a few extra things to consider.
Appendix: We refer to more than one appendix as the appendices. They’re often important in non-fiction work to correct errors, explain inconsistencies, give extra details, or update any information found in the main work.
Endnotes: You could use lists of endnotes as an alternative to footnotes, especially if you want to help maintain the flow of text in the main body. Most people head these ‘Notes.’
Glossary: The glossary can give your reader definitions of words that are relevant to the work. They’re especially useful in non-fiction texts. Start each definition on a new line and alphabetize them to order.
Bibliography: Here’s where to cite any works you’ve consulted when writing. It’s most common in non-fiction books or research papers. Typically, you’d use a small font and list according to author surname.
List of contributors: Again, these are typical of non-fiction work. They’re particularly useful for a work written by many authors where only the volume editor appears on the title page.
Index: Yes, more work for non-fiction writers! An index can be really helpful to anyone trying to find specific information in your book. Write it as an alphabetical list of significant terms found in your text. Include page numbers that direct to where you can learn more.
About the author: Many books now end with a short author bio, perhaps mentioning your background and how it relates to your book. You could also include an invitation to connect with you and add a link to your website or social media platforms.
Advertisements: Sometimes these form part of the book itself. Other times you might have them printed on separate sheets and slipped inside the back cover. If you do bind them in as part of the book, they should go at the very back with no page numbers.
As with everything, as soon as you think you’ve understood the rules, you’ll stumble on an example that breaks them. Because publishing covers such a vast arena of personalities, styles, and topics, chances are you’ll come across these variations from time to time.
No half-title: Some authors prefer not to bother with a half-title page, especially if the book is particularly modern and it feels too traditional. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that for glue-bound books, a half-title page does have a practical benefit. As it’s connected to the cover, it helps stop the title page from popping open. If you’re missing it out, it’s best to seek some advice.
Book blurbs: Instead of a half-title, you might prefer to have some testimonials and endorsements that readers can see immediately. Often the back cover can only include a couple of these at most, so a good alternative is to add more on the first pages before your title page.
Design spreads: If your book contains lots of double-page spreads with images that go across both pages, then it might be best to adjust the layout of the front matter. You could display your front matter as spreads too, rather than as the usual individual pages. For example, rather than starting your table of contents on a recto page with a blank on the opposite side, you could start it on the verso side and spread right across both.
Copyright at the back: Sometimes authors want to keep the front matter to a minimum. One option is to include your copyright statement at the back instead. Done this way, we’d refer to it as the edition notice or colophon, and it goes on the very last page.
Move contents: The major difference between the Chicago and Oxford style guides is their opinion on the positioning of the contents page. The Oxford guide suggests that you should always place the contents at the end of the front matter. This would mean you wouldn’t need to list the foreword, preface or acknowledgments.
Move acknowledgments: If you have lengthy acknowledgments that you feel may be a little tedious for readers, you could move them from the front matter to the back matter.
Optimizing for previews: This one is a newer consideration for authors. If you’re uploading to sites that use the first few pages of your book as a preview, such as the Amazon look-inside feature, you may decide to take advantage of that. Shifting some of your front matter to the back matter helps avoid the preview being full of front matter. Instead, your readers will gain a chance to preview some the actual content pages instead.
And that’s it! That’s everything you need to know about the parts of a book and their order. Now, we realize that this is an overwhelming list so as a final point, let us add a note of reassurance.
As an author, you never need to try and get your book order completely right all by yourself. Your book designer is the perfect person to help advise and guide you on anything that needs tweaking or changing. It will save some time if you can do as much initial preparation as you can, but don’t worry if you’re not sure about some aspects.
Ask for help from the right people and take on board their suggestions and comments. You’ll end up with a flawlessly professional book in no time.