Front and Back Matter in Ebooks

I get a lot of questions about what front and back matter should be included in an ebook. Should is the keyword here. Technically and legally, there are no requirements for anything other than the body of the text–with one exception: Smashwords distribution requires a specifically worded title page that includes copyright information.

Producing an ebook with no front or back matter is, in my rarely humble opinion, a mistake. As a reader, I’m not browsing Amazon in search of raw manuscripts. I want my ebooks to look and feel complete–real books. Well crafted front and back matter tells me care and thought went into producing the ebook and that ups my opinion of the story before I even start reading. I think the writer should include at the barest minimum–

  • A title page with an assertion of rights
  • A Table of Contents
  • An author bio
Title Page with an assertion of rights.

Title Page with an assertion of rights.

As an ebook producer, my philosophy is: Put it there for those who want/need it, and those who neither want nor need it can ignore it.

Sky’s the limit as far as front and back matter are concerned.

  • Table of Contents
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication
  • Epigraph
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Reviews
  • Testimonials
  • Maps
  • Cast of Characters
  • Genealogy
  • Pronunciation Guide
  • Glossary
  • Indices
  • Appendices
  • Recipes
  • About the Author/bio
  • Afterword
  • Invitations (newsletter sign up, contests)
  • Excerpts
  • Bonus Short Stories
  • Advertisements
  • Games

It’s up to the writer’s creativity and their own preferences as to what front and back matter should be included. BUT, there are two very important issues writers/publishers need to take into consideration.

  1. Sampling. Many online retailers have a “look inside” feature that allows browsers to get a glimpse of your work in real-time and also to download a sample of the work onto their ereaders.
  2. Readers still haven’t figured out ebook sizes.

Number 1 can present problems with the front matter. If potential buyers click on the “Look Inside” feature at Amazon, for instance, and they have to scroll through pages of front matter to reach the text, they could be turned off and click on thru to something else. Unless, your work is non-fiction. Then a complete table of contents is essential. Quite possibly an introduction or summary, too. Readers often use the front matter to decide whether a non-fiction work contains the information they are looking for.

The Number 2 concern is because there are no visual clues for readers to judge the size of a work. File size is meaningless to all but the most technical, and even placing a “page count” or actual word count is iffy. I see many complaints from readers, especially with short fiction, about how they reach THE END and they are only 50% through the book. The rest is back matter. If the reader is grouchy, then the back matter can look like advertising or a trick that’s been pulled on them. That can lead to poor reviews. There isn’t much you can do about individual perceptions, but it is something to keep in mind. Come up with your own rule of thumb regarding the ratio of back matter to story.

So when you’re designing your ebook, keep in mind:

  • USEFULNESS
  • PRESENTATION
  • PROPORTION
  • READER PERCEPTIONS
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12 thoughts on “Front and Back Matter in Ebooks

  1. Nice post, JW. I’ve recently become part of the “Less is More” camp on both front and back matter. I feel that readers have a high tolerance for sample chapters of the next novel or short stories–these are essentially content bonuses are well-liked.

    But long descriptions of the author’s other titles, endless testimonials, huge cover images, full page bios, etc. are at best invisible and at worst, a real drag/turn off for the reader. IMHO, throwing mud at a wall and seeing what sticks isn’t a good strategy; including trim, clean “gateway” backmatter (i.e., leading a reader to click to your blog/FB page/other title to learn more) is a better way to go.

  2. Thanks, Matthew. Ever since i got the Fire tablet, I’ve appreciated links to blogs and web pages even more. I do a lot of clicking if I like a work. One thing I’ve thought about is linking to “galleries” to show off illustrations, maps, even character bios or bonus stories. It would be a nice way for fans to get their fix with bonus material without cluttering the ebook for readers who don’t care about it.

  3. Commonsense. I do find myself irritated if I look inside and it takes pages and pages to get to the meat of the matter. As you say, in nonfic it’s a good idea, in fiction not so good.

    • My biggest headache is a table of contents that goes on and on for pages. I NEED a ToC, but I don’t like paging thru them, especially if they are just numbers. Stuff to work on. 😀

      • This!

        I’m baffled by lengthy TOCs in fiction books. Between whispersync and bookmarks–and, y’know, paying attention to what I was reading and where–I don’t need a link for every one of 37 chapters…

  4. One suggestion that I found intriguing is to include the back cover summary somewhere in my ebook formats (in the front if the ToC isn’t set up, or in the back if it’s clearly labeled in the ToC and can be skipped to or from). The suggestion came from a prolific reader, someone with eclectic taste who purchases and downloads near twenty books a week with every intention of reading each one. She said that if too much time has gone by from the time she downloaded the book, she forgets why she downloaded the book and what kind of book it is. If the book cover isn’t specific enough to the genre, it’s frustrating for her then, to pick up a book that’s hard science fiction if she’s in the mood for a romantic comedy.

    It’s funny that “sample chapters” from the next/other book is mentioned. As a reader, I dislike what I call the movie trailer bits. Things like sample chapters, pages of endorsements and reviews “so and so liked this book”,”the times calls it funny”, “Siskel gives it three thumbs and a toe up”…these things turn me off as a reader. Get to the movie already! But, I’ve never NOT purchased a book based on that, and I’ve never let it color my opinion of the story either. This is that “in for those who need it, those who don’t can ignore it” time for me, I guess.

    As a writer, I tend to lean towards the format that I, as a reader, want to see when I crack the screen of a book, treating others as I want to be treated. I also look at the formats other books in my genres have to check that I’m about par for the course. I may or may not lose readership because of it, but I may or may not lose readership based on so many other little things, I figure I won’t obsess over it.

    Thank you for the wonderful post. It’s certainly a hot topic in my circle of the woods and it’s always nice to see that I’m not the only one with questions.

    • We’re all of us in the midst of a Grand Experiment right now. I don’t think anybody has yet come up with what the perfect ebook should look like. With technology moving so fast, I think the situation is going to remain in flux for a while. I do, however, think readers are getting fed up with ebooks that either look like raw manuscripts (I am always astonished that the same writers or publishers who work so hard to make their blogs or websites look appealing then turn around and issue generic blocks of text) or look like advertisements. There is a sweet spot between the two, and it’s up to find it.

  5. I just clicked through to a book from a major website offering information about how to publish in the digital age – and everything was WRONG:

    no table of contents at all (non-fiction, how-to book)

    ragged right margins – ugh! Horrible to try to read

    not enough white space – paragraphs too long (and this is on the Click inside the Book feature, where presumably things looks as the author wishes them to look)

    way too much ‘praise’ in the front – pages and pages of it, plus copyright and etc., and etc., forever

    and then a dump into a chapter – with no understanding of the whole book first.

    The cover was very nice, but the book failed – and I didn’t buy.

    And this person offers online seminars for writers – which ALSO had not enough explanation to see if one wanted to dump $45.

    Common sense, indeed – it is NOT common. I wish it were.

    • I have several ebooks about formatting and/or self-publishing. I am astonished by how BAD some of them look. Even the ones with great information (meaning the writer/producer KNOWS better) look awful. Producing a book (especially non-fiction) is harder than it looks.

  6. Jaye,

    Sorry I’m late to this. Still trying to figure out how Feedly works. What’s your thoughts on the beginning navigation point in MOBI. We usually send it to Chapter 1 (or the Prologue if there is one) for fiction or to the Title Page for non-fiction?

    • My preference is for the title page to be the start point. I like a book to open to a clear beginning. Again, as a reader, it is disconcerting to open in what first appears to be a random “page.” I do encourage clients to keep their front matter to a minimum and to put such things as acknowledgments or lengthy copyright/publishing histories in the back matter. My rule of thumb is three pages of front matter. More than that and it is time to make some decisions.

      A lot depends on the genre, too. For instance, the romance and YA genres have so many offerings it might actually be helpful to put a few review snippets or blurbs up front. Let potential buyers see up front the book they are sampling has won an award or garnered some good reviews. Need to be very careful to not push the readers’ tolerance or get carried away, but if it’s information that can help a reader decide to buy, then I say it can earn a spot up front. In this case, I’d recommend moving the title page after the reviews/etc and make that the start/open page in the actual ebook.

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