Most nonfiction book writers couldn’t care less about the chicken or the egg. When they ask which comes first, they’re probably talking about the foreword, the preface, the acknowledgments, and the introduction. And what’s the difference between them, anyway?
The foreword, preface, acknowledgments, and introduction (along with the dedication and table of contents) are what publishers refer to as “front matter,” and although they are small parts of your book, they can be critical. These preliminary pages of your manuscript should set the pace for the rest of the book, drawing readers in and making them want to read on.
Since these are the first pages an editor looks at, you should make sure you get them right, and make a good first impression. Acquisition editors may not reject a book merely because of a pretentious, silly or maudlin preface, but it can color their view of the rest of the manuscript. Besides, if you demonstrate confusion over what a foreword, preface or introduction is, an editor is likely to wonder what else you may have wrong.
So what’s the difference between all these front parts of a book? Here they are, in the order in which they should appear in your manuscript, following the table of contents:
Foreword: This is a statement by someone other than the author, recommending the book.
Preface: This is the author’s own statement about the book — usually, the reasons he or she wrote it.
Acknowledgments: This is a place to recognize those who helped the author in some way with the book. The acknowledgments may also include a list of permissions granted for reprinted material. Sometimes the acknowledgments can be included in the preface, or even instead of the preface.
Introduction: This is the point at which you begin to introduce the subject of the book, setting the scene, identifying the problem, challenging the reader, etc. This is the real beginning of the text of the book.
Now that we understand what the preliminary parts of a book are, let’s look at some of the ways an author can run into trouble — and how to avoid it:
1. The foreword is an optional item. Unless the person writing it is so well-known that you want to include “With a foreword by So-and-so” on the cover, don’t bother with it — at least, not at the stage of presenting the manuscript to a publisher.
2. A preface has to have some real content to it, or you might as well not include it at all. There is no reason to talk about your childhood and how you always wanted to write, and so on, ad nauseam. If the book is an outgrowth of how God brought you victory in some area of your Christian life, and you can briefly — briefly — tell that story in an engaging way, then by all means, make that your preface. I find it interesting, however, to discover that very few of the better-selling authors have prefaces in their books. They usually just launch into the message of the book.
3. Some authors get the acknowledgments mixed up with the dedication (which should be placed before the table of contents, by the way). A dedication means the book was written in honor of someone, while the acknowledgments are to thank someone for their assistance in putting the book together.
4. I occasionally receive manuscripts which include in the front of the book what the author has labeled a “prologue.” This is really a misnomer. A prologue, according to the dictionary, is an introduction to a poem, a play or other work of literature. I think it can be assumed that the term “prologue” could be used in a novel, for example (I do so in my own novel), but in nonfiction it’s best to stick with the more mundane term, “introduction.” (Better yet, just call your introduction “Chapter 1.”)
Why all this concern about “front matter”? Many readers never even glance at the dedication, foreword, preface or acknowledgments, and some of them barely skim the introduction, so why make such a big deal about them? It is because your first reader of your book is the acquisition editor. The care that you put into these first words can make all the difference as to whether the editor looks at the rest of the manuscript. Remember, first impressions last — so get your front matter right!