It’s What’s Up Front That Counts

Print from History of Chester County, 1881
Print from History of Chester County, 1881

Back in the Dark Times, there used to be a commercial with the tag-line "It's what's up front that counts." Their value-added proposition was that - ahem - first impressions matter. This month I thought it might be useful to look at book layout because when it comes to books, what's up front does count.

Front-matter are those silly pages that show up at the beginning of the book. Most people skip past them but they serve a purpose. Joel Friedlander from The Book Designer lists some common front matter as half-title, frontispiece, full-title, copyright, dedication, table of contents in that order.

Traditionally published authors don't deal with this but for those of us with a more DIY bent, this stuff matters because it's how to present your work professionally.

The half-title page tells the reader the title of your book. That's it. In my own work, I bend this rule because I like establishing the graphical themes as early as possible, frequently carrying an element from the cover. I do it on purpose, knowing that it's "not done."

The frontispiece isn't used that much any more. It's a graphic on the back side (verso) of the half-title. In paper, when the reader flips the half-title, the frontispiece shows on the left and the full-title shows on the right.

The full-title page carries the title, author, series name, publisher and anything the publisher wants to say about the book. Sometimes the log-line shows up here as well as the publication date and place.

Copyright statements show on the verso. So copyright date, entity holding the copyright, publisher info, ISBN, Library of Congress control numbers, contact information, and - in fiction - frequently a statement along the lines of "I made this up. That's not you I'm talking about." (I'm paraphrasing.)

The dedication will show on the next page by itself. If you're going to honor somebody, make it count. In paper, that'll be on the right side, opposite the copyright.

Following that, you'll find tables of content, forewords, introductions, prologues, and a host of other pages which might apply to a book. Friedlander suggests a second half-title to wrap up the front-matter if the section is particularly long.

Which brings me to the secret. These pieces are all part of your stylistic toolbox and are not cast in stone -- or even paper.

My own front-matter (in both ebook and paper) consists of half-title, copyright, other books, dedication, title page. Sometimes there's a table-of-contents but in fiction, I find they're not particularly useful in paper and unnecessary in ebook. I've taken my layout based on old mass market paperbacks and my own reading preferences. Nothing says you have to do it the way everybody else does.

But...

If you're laying out your own books, putting your story in a professional looking box can give readers a sense that you know what you're doing. Most of them won't know what's supposed to be there, but some piece of their brain will tell them if something's off. They may not be able to say "Hey! This copyright page is in the wrong place" - in reality there's no real right place - but they might notice if it's missing. They may not know what a half-title or a title page is, but it'll be a familiar landmark as they get into your story. It tells them a story is coming. It tells them to settle in. They turn to chapter one and the story begins.

Because what's up front does count.

For further reading:
Joel Friedlander - The Book Designer

Image credit:
Explore PA History

Nathan Lowell
Nathan Lowell has been self-publishing his science fiction and fantasy since he started releasing his books in podcast form in 2007.

He frequently writes about social media, marketing, and the life of a full time self-published author.

4 thoughts on “It’s What’s Up Front That Counts

  1. Great advice, Nathan. First impressions are so important and if you can get them to open the book (because the cover caught their eye and interest) those opening pages will make the difference.

  2. While I’m totally with you on not needing a TOC for fiction, if you’re publishing to Amazon it’s an absolute requirement, and most other channels will generate an NCX TOC if you format your manuscript using the h1 style for your chapter headers in the manuscript.

    Another consideration is not bogging down an ebook with front matter, as it might impact the free sample a potential reader gets to see. You want them seeing your “book” not all the other “stuff” in that sample.

  3. I’ve published several ebooks (and paperbacks) to Amazon without a formal ToC. The NCX is sufficient for ebooks and Amazon’s not requiring them through CreateSpace. This might be a new development.

    You’re exactly right about not bogging down the front matter in ebooks because of the sampling. It’s why people started putting them at the end – which got those people penalized when the “click here to get to the end of the book” scammers got whacked.

    • If Amazon didn’t come after you, you’re lucky. However, the embedded TOC (a couple of clicks in Word is all it takes) is what Amazon uses to create the NCX files and, I believe, it also allows for the ‘look inside’ feature. I did have them tell me one of my books would be taken down if I didn’t include the TOC. That’s one of the reasons I decided to write “longer” chapters, combining both POV characters’ scenes into one chapter instead of calling each scene a chapter … 35 chapters is long enough; 70 would be that many more page turns to get to the story.

      CreateSpace is a whole ‘nother set of rules. I include more front matter in my print versions.

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