The Anatomy of a Published Book
You’ve known for a long time that every book, like every story, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Those are the essential components of storytelling, which is what every writer does.
What few people know is this: every physical book or ebook product has multiple components, like the copyright page, acknowledgments, and main body. Although not an essential part of storytelling, they are important parts of presenting yourself professionally as an author. They make little difference in your main idea or plot, but can seriously impact the reader experience.
So let's look at those parts one by one, whether or not you want to include one, and some details for how you can make them as awesome as possible.
We’ll start with…
The Anatomy of a Modern Book
Just like any story has a beginning, a middle and an end, your book consists of three sections:
- The Front Matter, including your title page, copyright page, and a variety of other components
- The Body, including the actual story of your book, plus bonus materials if you want or need them
- The Back Matter, including anything you want readers to experience at the end like an epilogue or glossary
There’s also a special bonus section: Rear Marketing Materials where you break the fourth wall and interact with your reader directly, asking for their help and motivating them to buy more of your books in the future.
The Details: Front Matter
Your front matter comes before the main body of the book, and includes anything you want the readers to experience before they get down to the main business. The most common types of front matter include:
- Some editorial review quotes, which essentially congratulate the reader for their smart choice in buying your book
- A title page, which tells them what they are reading
- A copyright page, notifying potential pirates and fulfilling your legal responsibilities under copyright law
- A table of contents, which I’m pretty sure you know about
- Worldbuilding pages, like a map of the fictional world where you set your fantasy novel
- A dedication page, where the author gifts the book as a concept to somebody they love or value
- An acknowledgment page of formal thanks for those who helped the book become a reality
- A preface or foreword that introduces the book in some detail
- An epigraph, a quote that gets the reader in the right frame of mind to enter the main body
In general, the front matter doesn’t “count” when you number your pages. Instead, it traditionally gets numbered using lower case roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, etc), and in many cases the pages don’t have the number visible at all.
Now, let’s look at each of those options, in the approximate order they tend to appear in most books.
Editorial Review Quotes
This newer trend puts between three and five pages of editorial review blurbs at the front of the book, giving potential readers lots of social proof about its quality. Use the same editorial review quotes you put on your Amazon author page, and use bold fonts for names that would get high recognition among your readers.
If you have a dozen or more editorial reviews from reasonably recognizable names, this is almost essential. If you don’t have them, this is an optional addition.
- If you include review quotes, make sure the pages are available in the Amazon “Look Inside” option. Otherwise, potential readers won’t see them.
- It’s not cheating to use reviews from your previous books when populating these pages.
An essential expectation from most readers, the title page includes your book’s title and your name. In most cases, it should appear exactly as it does on the cover, including the subtitle. You can put it in a different font, or with different spacing, but it should have the same words, letters, and spelling.
- It can be fun to just make a grayscale copy of the cover and insert it for the title page. It gets attention.
- You can include the copyright page information at the bottom of the title page. This is very common in traditional publishing.
- Some people include a frontispiece: an illustration on the left-hand page facing the title page.
If you want to protect yourself from plagiarism and pirated sales, you should have a copyright page to be in compliance with copyright law. Without it, in some jurisdictions, you cannot sue for damages associated with violation of your copyright page. A copyright page includes who owns the copyright, the year of the copyright, the edition of this book and previous editions, publisher name, and any disclaimers related to copyright.
- If your book includes copyrighted material you don’t own and are allowed to use, such as typefaces and illustrations, you must include a statement of that copyright, and your permission to use it, here.
- You can include this information at the bottom of the title page.
This is almost exclusive to works of fiction. If a map, cast of characters, brief history, or other one-to-two page insert can help to orient the readers in your world, it’s very common to put that information at the front of the book.
- Worldbuilding can also go in the back of the book, or both. Put short and easy to digest information in the front and longer or more detailed pieces in the back.
- Different genres have different conventions and expectations here, so look at a dozen or so traditionally published books in your categories to see how these are usually handled in your sphere.
Table of Contents
You know what this is, but there’s a shocking amount of variety between different kinds. It’s not necessary in a fiction book. In fact, it can be pretty lame if you don’t name your chapters. Most nonfiction works have them, and some go deep with multiple headings, subheadings, and sub-sub-headings listed.
- Definitely look at your hottest competition before deciding if you want a table of contents, and how you want to format it. Nonconformity is good in your prose, but should be set aside for your TOC.
- Always, always, always reconfigure your table of contents after the final editing and layout are finished. Small changes can alter pagination and ruin your TOC.
This page is mostly blank, with a single sentence or two dead center, often in italics. Many books dedicate the book to a spouse, partner, child, or their whole family. Others dedicate their books to a cause, or to their readers. Some authors get quirky and dedicate it to their favorite cocktail, or to an author who inspired them. This is totally optional, but can humanize you to readers and begin forging a personal relationship with them.
- Keep this short and limited to a single person or group. More complete thanks go in the Acknowledgments.
This is a longer paragraph, or two, or three, where you thank the people directly (and even indirectly) involved in making your book happen. Where the dedication page is an emotional statement toward somebody important to you, the acknowledgements are a professional statement to everybody important to the book. Acknowledgments sometimes go in the back. As a rule, if your acknowledgments cover more than a page, move it to the back matter.
- Make a list of everybody materially involved in the book, then add the people who provided emotional support. That’s the smallest list of people you should mention in your acknowledgments.
- For a marketing win, snap a photo of this page as soon as it’s finalized. Put it on social media and tag everybody you mention.
Preface or Foreword
You see these more in nonfiction books, but they’re not unheard of in fiction. Both are a brief introduction to the book, often from the perspective of writing the book or experiencing it for the first time. It’s a handful of pages aimed at getting the reader excited about reading your book. The difference is simple: if you wrote it, it’s a preface. If somebody else wrote it, it’s a foreword.
- Getting a famous author or peer in your genre to write your foreword can be marketing magic if you do it right.
- If you write a preface, make it a personal conversation between yourself and the reader. What would you tell your best friend about the book before you gave them a copy?
This is what you call that quote from some other work or sometimes from your book itself (usually a piece of memorable dialog) that authors put in the book just before the main body starts. You also see it in movies, sometimes. The idea is to pre-frame the reader emotionally for the story they’re about to get themselves into. They’re extremely optional, but can improve reader experience if you do it right.
- Don’t aim for edgy shock value, but do try to achieve heavy emotional impact.
- If you have a dedication page and an epigraph, it’s good to format both the same way.
The Details: Main Body
This is the part of the book you usually think about when talking about books, and that people talk about when describing a book to others. It’s the story, whether that story is a fiction you’ve written, or the story inherent in nonfiction topics you’re presenting to the reader. Pieces and parts of the main body include:
- A prologue or introduction, the story before the story
- The main story, which may or may not be divided into subsections like chapters
- Illustrations, added to the body to enhance the reader experience
- Section breaks, which appear at the end of one section and the beginning of another, and often include special formatting
- An epilogue or conclusion, which tells some of the story that happens after the story
You will number these pages normally, although depending on where you place your page numbers they might not appear visibly on every page, especially those with illustrations or the chapter break pages.
Let’s look at each piece in turn.
Prologue or Introduction
Think of these as like an appetizer. It’s not the same food as the main course, but gets you ready for the main course…and in the best restaurants it offers a teaser that pairs well with what comes next. The difference between a prologue and an introduction? A prologue is for fiction, while an introduction is for nonfiction.
With a prologue, you introduce some element of the story before diving into the story proper, like the evil-doings of the antagonist, or some event from the protagonist’s childhood. With an introduction, you give a brief overview of your topic so the reader is better prepared to take in the more detailed, complex information you’re about to cover.
- Recently, traditional publishers have started shying away from prologues, but they seem to remain plenty popular in self-published sales.
- If you’re wondering whether or not your book needs a prologue or introduction, it probably doesn’t.
This is the largest part of your book: the book itself. Often it’s divided into chapters (although that’s not the case for most children’s books, and some authors like Terry Pratchett are famous for not doing chapters at all). Sometimes they’re further divided into sections, acts, parts, internal sub-books, lessons, or any number of other names. How you structure it is up to you, but this is the part you were thinking about when you first thought, “I should write a book.”
- Chapter length is as much a matter of art and pacing as any other part of your book. Pay closer attention to it than you think you need to.
- Generally speaking, nonfiction needs more formal subdivision than fiction.
Plenty of books do just fine without illustrations. Others, like picture books and nonfiction works with complex topics easily explained in graphics, need them. For most, it’s a matter of the author’s taste, goals, and ambition.
- See this training on how to work with images for ebooks to make sure they are in the right format.
- Illustrations make book layouts far more complex. It’s often worth hiring a professional to handle layout if you intend to include them.
Whether you’re moving from Chapter 3 to Chapter 4, transitioning from Section 1 to Section 2, or moving from Act II to Act III, your formatting is going to change. At the very least, the last page of the preceding chapter will be cut off before the text hits the bottom, and the top of the first page of the new chapter will include the chapter number at the top.
Section breaks are an opportunity to add some fun design flair to your work, but they’re also a hassle because they require extra effort that the regular pages do not.
- Unless you have a truly ingenious and creative inspiration, lean toward simpler with your section breaks. You’ll find you’re tired of the extra effort long before you run out of breaks to handle.
- It can be fun and look cool to include a frontispiece (see above) for each major section break.
Epilogue or Conclusion
Like the prologue or introduction are the story that comes before the story, an epilogue or conclusion is the story that comes after the story. Also like those two, the difference is simple. If you’re writing fiction, it’s an epilogue. For nonfiction, a conclusion.
An epilogue is where you wrap up loose ends, like a quick blurb about what happened to the major characters after the story concludes. If you’re writing a series, you can also use it to tease what’s coming in the next book, encouraging readers to buy and read it.
A conclusion is usually a summation of the book’s core ideas. Many also include a personal challenge or set of instructions about the first steps a reader should take to implement those ideas in their lives.
- The best advice I ever got about writing is to enter late and leave early. If you’re wondering whether or not an epilogue or conclusion is necessary, it probably isn’t.
- Epilogues are usually explicitly labeled as such. Conclusions usually aren’t, instead given titles that match their contents.
The Details: Back Matter
You thought you were done just because you’d finished the story? Au contraire! There’s plenty of stuff to put in the back of the book that leaves the reader feeling more satisfied and complete about your book (and thus more likely to buy what you write next). The most common options for back matter include:
- An afterword, where the author speaks to the reader about the book
- Appendices, which add extra details or information for super-motivated readers
- An index, to help the reader navigate the book
- The author bio, which tells the readers a little more about you
In most books, these pages are either unnumbered, or continue the pagination from the main body. If the last part of the main body ended on page 394, the first page of the back matter would begin on page 395, and continue to the end.
Let’s take a closer look at each.
This is a bookend to your foreword or preface. You step “out of character” and speak to the reader about some aspects of writing the book. It’s a great opportunity to make yourself a person, not just an author, and provide some fan service in the form of behind-the-scenes peeks. It’s called an afterword whether you write it, or somebody else does, and whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.
- Be open, honest, and transparent. Readers love finding out how the sausage is made by their authors, and this is your opportunity to give that to them.
- Nonfiction books have afterwords more rarely than fiction books.
Appendices are extra packets of information at the back of the book. They come in widely varied forms, such as:
- Maps, figures, and graphics that weren’t essential in the main bodies
- Correspondence (fictional or real) related to the book
- Supporting evidence for claims made in nonfiction
- Histories, myths, or other worldbuilding elements
- Interesting information related to, but not an integral part of, the main body of the book
- Tools and resources like a checklist or suggestions for further reading
- A glossary of important terms
- Bibliography or works cited
Appendices can add value to the book without taking as much effort as you put into the main text. They’re far more common in nonfiction, but some authors (notably J.R.R. Tolkien) made effective use of appendices in classic works.
- If you left something awesome on the cutting room floor, this might be a great place to re-insert it.
- This is another space where checking out your competition can give you a good sense of what works and what doesn’t in your genre.
You know what this is. You’ve seen them. You’ve used them. If you write fiction, don’t even think about it. If you write nonfiction, it’s customary.
- Hire this done. It’s an enormous pain in the butt, but professionals are quick and surprisingly cheap.
- Like with your TOC, this step comes last after you’ve made every editing and layout change.
This is where you tell the readers a bit about yourself, again to engage as a human being with people who so far only know you as a writer. It builds brand and should absolutely include an invitation to connect via email or social media. Bonus points for adding at least one quirky fact to get attention and make the reader smile.
- It’s absolutely not cheating to just copy and paste your bio from your Amazon Author Page or some similar source.
- Although formatting images can be a pain, it’s good to include an author photo here if you have a good one.
Bonus: Rear Marketing Materials
Not everybody loves this part of modern book publishing, but nobody can deny that it helps to foster your relationship with your readers and sell more books. You’ll include these options solely to increase your following and your book’s performance, and they include:
- A thank-you page, directly addressing the reader
- An invitation page that asks the reader to engage with you outside of the book
- Sample chapters from your next work
- Enhanced material about you, your books, or this book in particular
This is an incomplete list, since authors and publishers are constantly coming up with new and exciting ways of accomplishing the goals for your rear marketing materials. Use this for inspiration, but don’t think for a second that you’re limited to these ideas.
Page conventions seem split on these. About half the books I see just continue pagination like they did with the rear matter. The other half don’t put page numbers on these sections at all.
Let’s dive in…
This feels like it could be an acknowledgment page, and in some ways it is…only you’re not thanking your team, you’re thanking the reader. This is a direct communication to the reader thanking them for buying and reading your work, and talking about how much you appreciate their fandom.
- These are rare in nonfiction, but growing in population among self-published fiction authors.
- Make this heartfelt and engaging. Get emotional. It shouldn’t read like a bland, generic corporate-speak thank you.
Here you tell the reader exactly what they can do to help you out. Ask them to review the book on Amazon or Goodreads, to share a link on their social media, to find you on Facebook/Instagram/LinkedIn, or to subscribe to your blog. Whatever ways somebody can engage with and support your work, tell them about it here. You might be surprised how much of a difference it makes to ask directly for support.
- Make this intuitive and easy to understand. If you don’t, people won’t bother to accept your invitation.
- Include how taking a step will help you. It better motivates people to get involved.
- Definitely include a link to the next book in your series, if you have one.
If you have another book in the series, or even another book that’s not in the series, put one to three chapters from that book at the back of this one. This kind of freebie pulls a certain kind of reader in, and motivates them highly to buy the next one. And it doesn’t seem to bother the other kinds of readers. They mostly just skip it. High reward, little expense, low risk: everybody wins.
- Label this clearly, with a little introductory blurb that links it with your main book.
- If it’s even a little bit possible, end this on a cliffhanger. It’s a cheap shot, but cheap shots work.
This is a newer trend, but one with a lot of potential power. They first appeared in books aimed at kids, in the form of a series of questions or talking points teachers could use in class. Some other examples include:
- A transcript of an interview with the author
- A history of your genre and your book’s place in it
- Questions for discussion, as in a book club
- Quizzes, worksheets, and similar activities
The main difference between enhanced materials and appendices is that appendices usually present information to a passive reader, while enhanced materials give the reader something to actively participate in. This is a nebulous definition, though, since it’s an evolving convention.
- These often take a lot of work. The best materials come ready-made in the form of materials you built as part of your publicity and marketing
Read This Again…
When you’re about to start your next book project.
One of the nifty things about knowing the anatomy of a book is it creates a skeleton (see what I did there?) to hang your story on. Knowing the structure ahead of time lets you focus on the story more deeply, because you don’t have to worry about the basics. So re-read this just before you outline your next book, and see both how much easier the writing is and how it helps you optimize your book for marketing when it’s done.
Image by Kerttu.