E2A 031: The Anatomy of a Nonfiction Book – to make sure you and your book look and act the part of a legit pro 

 June 7, 2022

By  Scott A. MacMillan

Readers are a funny lot.
They like novelty, but they’re comforted by familiarity.

As an author, it’s important that you share new ideas, innovative perspectives, and effective solutions in your book – that’s what will satisfy your readers. But almost as important, you need to package all this “new” in a familiar box. Whether or not you’re a conformist by nature, there are certain norms that published books follow. Norms that communicate quality and professionalism to the market. A big part of this begins with the structure of your manuscript, which in turn impacts the structure of the content in your book.

In this episode of 
The Entrepreneur to Author Podcast, your host Scott MacMillan shares the anatomy of an expertise-based nonfiction book so you can plan your book with the end in mind and show up like a pro.

Anatomy of a Nonfiction Book Swipe File: 
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Episode Transcript

Please note: The transcript is produced by a third party company from an audio recording and may include transcription errors.

Scott A. MacMillan:       

You're listening to The Entrepreneur to Author Podcast, episode 31.

Mike Manz:                  

Welcome to The Entrepreneur to Author Podcast, the podcast that brings you practical strategies for building authority and growing your business. And now here's your host, Scott MacMillan.

Scott A. MacMillan:      

Readers are a funny lot, they like novelty, but they're comforted by familiarity. As an author it's important that you share new ideas, innovative perspectives, and effective solutions in your book. That is what will satisfy your readers, but almost as important, you need to package all of this new in a familiar box. Now, whether or not you're a conformist by nature, there are certain norms that publish books follow, norms that communicate quality and professionalism to the market. A big part of this begins with the structure of your manuscript, which in turn impacts the structure of the content in your book.

So, let's dive in to understand the anatomy of a non-fiction book in this solo edition of Entrepreneur to Author. Now, before we get started, I want to point you to a free resource that I've created, that will be a helpful companion to this episode. So, if you head over to entrepreneurtoauthor.com/nonfiction-book-outline, you can grab my anatomy of a nonfiction book swipe file. If you grab it now, you'll be able to follow along as we go, which will make good sense. Again, that's entrepreneurtoauthor.com/nonfiction-book-outline. And I'll be sure to put that link in the show notes also.

All right, in broad strokes, the editorial that is the written content of a nonfiction book can be grouped into four categories. The first is called front matter, and that's everything at the beginning of the book. Then of course, there's the body, which is the core content of the book itself. Next we have the back matter, and that refers to everything that comes at the end of the book after the conclusion. And finally we have the cover content, and that's all of the written content that appears on the cover of the book, mostly on the back cover.

Now, I'm going to step through each of these in detail. And as you write your manuscript, it's wise to include at least a placeholder for each component that you expect will appear in the final form of your book. As we go, I'll also try to indicate which elements are mandatory, which are optional and which are optional but strongly recommended. Okay. Because it's what most authors focus on first, let's begin with the core content of the book, the body. The main body is the meat of your book. It's the core message from you to your reader. And while the contents of the body will differ for each and every title, the structure of the body follows quite a predictable pattern, one that will be familiar to nearly every reader.

And it starts with the introduction, which is mandatory. Many people confuse the introduction with a preface or a forward for a book. While the purpose of each is different, depending on the author, there can be quite some overlap between these. That said at the essence, the introduction is considered a core part of your book's content, whereas either the preface or a forward is considered ancillary content. They provide information about your book, whereas the introduction is the first part of the book itself. Okay.

Now, if this distinction still feels a little bit ambiguous, perhaps some specifics will help. So here is what your introduction should cover. At a minimum, your introduction should answer the following questions. One, who is your book written for? That is who is the ideal reader for your book? Two, what is your book about? That is, what is the central question that your book answers for your reader? Three, why is this book important? What are the benefits for the reader of understanding the concepts that you cover, and what are the risks to the reader of not understanding them?

Four, how will the subject be covered? That is, how is the content grouped into major sections or parts and chapters, and what briefly does each cover? And five, who are you, and why are you the best person to write this book? It can also be helpful to share a story or an anecdote with the reader in the introduction to help draw them in and set the stage for what's to come. Okay. The next part of the book might be parts or sections, and I say might be because this is optional. You see, longer nonfiction books and those with lots of chapters, often group these chapters into thematic parts or sections. Now, again, this is optional, but it can be very helpful for breaking up content and giving readers a clear mental map of the journey that your book will take them on.

Now at their simplest, these may be nothing more than a divider page with the name of the section, but sometimes an author may write a short introduction to the section, which typically spans no more than a page or two. Next up are your chapters, which are considered mandatory. The majority of a non-fiction book is made up of chapters, each covering a major topic and beginning with a divider page that is visually distinct from the other pages that follow. You can think of a chapter as a miniature book, just as a book has an introduction, a series of chapters covering distinct topics, and a conclusion, each chapter has an introduction, a series of subtopics that covers the chapter's major topic and a conclusion.

I'm often asked, "How many chapters a nonfiction book should have, and how long each chapter should be?" Let me first caveat this by saying that there's no hard rule on this. I've read excellent books with 75 chapters averaging a thousand words each, as well as books with five chapters averaging 10,000 words each. What's most important is balance. That is, it's important that the length of each chapter and part of a book is reasonably consistent. In general, keep these guidelines in mind. For number of chapters, five to seven is a good number of top level chapters.

Number of parts. If you have more than 10 chapters, consider grouping them into between three and five sections or parts. So that readers get a feel for how all the chapters fit together. Chapter length, aim for chapters to land between 2500 and 5500 words each. This results in chapters that feel balanced with no chapter being much more than twice the length of any other chapter. Now, remember, these are only guidelines, but if you keep these guides in mind, as you write and structure your book, you'll be in a much better position to then be intentional, if, and when you decide to deviate from them. Okay.

Now the last part of the body of your book is the conclusion. Again, this is mandatory, though often, you'll call the conclusion something different, but it serves the same purpose. The conclusion is your chance to reiterate the key points that your book covered and reinforce the most important things that you want your reader to take away from your book. It's also a good opportunity to provide some final thoughts and next steps for the reader. For expertise based non-fiction books, including a final story or case study in the conclusion is often a good idea. This parting case study should describe how the whole approach method or philosophy comes together in a cohesive way to resolve the key question or problem that the ideal reader has related to the book.

Here's the key thing to remember about the conclusion. It should not introduce any new concepts or ideas that weren't covered. Instead, the conclusion should stick to recapping, reiterating and integrating the concepts covered throughout the core chapters that preceded it. Okay. The introduction, the chapters and the conclusion are the core of the book, but every nonfiction book includes at least some content before and after these. This bookend content is called quite functionally, the front matter and the back matter.

So let's move on then to the front matter. You're no doubt familiar with many of the more common components that typically appear at the front of a non-fiction book. Some of these components are so commonplace that you might as well consider them mandatory, in that, if they're omitted, readers will, whether consciously or subconsciously, question the legitimacy, quality and professionalism of the book. Others are entirely optional, and some are optional, but commonplace enough that there's a good case to include them. So let's start with what's called the half title page, and this one is optional.

Some books include a page right at the beginning of the book, that includes nothing more than the main title of the book. No subtitle, no author name, no nothing. Just the main title. This is called a half title page. And it's a relic from when printing and book binding were very distinct trades. You see, printers would print the interior text blocks or unbound books, which would then be stacked for binding and needed a protective layer that also served to identify the text within it. The half title page was born, and while this is no longer necessary, most professionally published books still include a half title page for aesthetic reasons.

Next, testimonials, also optional. Testimonials are quotes from people, the more influential, the better, providing effusive praise for your book and a view its author. Now, while this might sound a little bit self-indulgent, testimonials can provide strong social proof to prospective buyers. They are, however, by no means obligatory, if you do plan to include them, but don't yet have them when you submit your manuscript for editing, be sure to leave a placeholder page with the heading, testimonials, in your manuscript. They only to be inserted during the internal layout phase of publishing and should get proof read by your editor.

Next up, the title page. And this one is mandatory. The title page is an expanded version of the half title page and is included whether or not the half title page is. In addition to the main title, the title page includes the subtitle, the author's name, names of any key contributors, and may include the publisher's logo at the bottom. After this, comes the imprint page, which is also mandatory. Sometimes called the copyright page. The imprint page is the page of small type that's nearly always found at the beginning of a non-fiction book.

Now, if we're honest, it's rarely read by readers, but it includes important information about the book, including copyright notices, subject categorization information, credits, disclaimers, and so on. Now the imprint page will be added by the publisher, but the author may wish to add a page to the manuscript as a placeholder.

The dedication, although optional, most books include this. It's a short, usually one to three sentences dedication, usually to an individual or a small group of individuals. It's typically personal in nature rather than professional, which incidentally is the focus of the acknowledgment. And dedications typically focus on your family. Right? Whether it's your spouse, children, parents, or siblings, perhaps close friends, your readers, a mentor, or inspirational figure in your life or someone else you otherwise want to highlight in some way.

Next is the contents page. A contents page is a listing of all of the parts and chapters in your book, along with a page number where each can be found. Some books also include an additional level of detail with subtopics under each chapter, which is acceptable also. The preface, which is optional. A preface is a short section, a page or two is usually lots, written by you, the author, that gives some background context about your book, for example, why you wrote the book, or why it's important and timely, or how you wrote it, describing research methodologies, for example.

Now I find that authors often struggle to decide what to include in a preface versus what to include in an introduction. To keep things simple, you might consider omitting the preface entirely and simply including the above points in your introductory chapter. The forward. This is also optional. So by contrast, a forward is a short section written by someone else. Ideally, someone well known and respected by your reader. The purpose of the forward is, to introduce you, the author, to the reader, to give you additional credibility from a respected third party, and to convince the reader to read your book.

Now, neither a preface nor a forward is mandatory, and you should only include one or the other, not both. Now, there are two additional components that many authors choose to include in the front matter. Those being the acknowledgments and in about the author section. While it's perfectly acceptable to include these at the front of the book, I recommend placing these at the end in the back matter. Why? Because I prefer to get the reader into the body of the book more quickly. And frankly, readers are much more likely to be interested in these after reading the book than before.

So, let's move on then to the back matter. The pages that follow the body of the book right after the conclusion are far less structured than the front matter. And there's much more variation in terms of what's included versus not. And therefore it can be much more tailored to the book's content and the author's objectives. Let's start with offer pages, which are optional, especially relevant for entrepreneurs whose book is meant to support their business in some fashion, offer pages included in the book's back matter can be a good way to engage readers after they've read the book, without making the core content in the body of the book, feel too salesy.

Now offer pages can range from pages that provide links to bonus material, to full page advertisements that promote the author's products or services or those of a sponsor or partner. Offer pages might also promote other books by the author, especially if there's a logical next book in a series that the reader may be interested in reading. Appendices, most books don't include appendices, but you may choose to include them for things like supplementary information or examples, possibly a glossary of terms or resources. Though, these are often better as online resources that can be updated at any time and used to collect contact information, to build your email list.

Acknowledgments, optional, but recommended. The acknowledgment section is where you can recognize and thank anyone and everyone who contributed at any way to your book, whether directly or indirectly. Unlike the dedication, which is short and focused, acknowledgment can effectively be as long as you like. For this reason, I recommend including it as back matter, even though it's sometimes seen at the front of a book. Better to get your reader into the core of your message as quickly as you can. About the author section, optional, but also recommended. Include a short about the author page with a 150 to 250 word bio normally written in the third person.

Most entrepreneurs use their professional bio as a starting point, which is fine, but tweak it to make sure you cover the following. First, two to three points demonstrating why you're qualified to write on your book's topic. Two, mention of relevant endorsements awards, or social proof. Don't be afraid to brag here. And three, a link to your website, either your personal brand website, your book website, or your business website and relevant social media accounts. Some authors choose to put this section at the front of the book. I recommend putting it at the back to get the reader into the meat of your book. Again, readers tend to be more interested in learning more about you and contacting you after they've read the book than before.

End notes, sources and bibliography. These are optional. Many books by entrepreneurs don't include these, but if your content is heavy on secondary research, you may wish to include them. End notes, typically preferable to footnotes, which can be distracting during reading, or a bibliography can add credibility, especially for thought leadership and essay style books, and books that are more academic in nature. And maybe more important if your goal is to influence opinion on a controversial topic where there's a higher burden of proof. An index, optional. An index is an alphabetized list of key terms, concept, people and so on that appear throughout the book, along with page numbers of where these appear.

Indexes aren't commonly included, unless the book's content is such that readers may wish to refer back frequently to a topic that appears at various points throughout the book. In most instances, the contents page will serve your reader well. So only include an index if you believe it will truly add value for your reader, as it does add complexity and therefore cost. A glossary of terms, which is optional. Technical books, or those with specialized terms may benefit from including a glossary with an alphabetized list of terms and their plainly worded definitions that will aid the reader in understanding the content of the book.

Okay, we've covered the front matter, the body and the back matter, all that's left now is the cover content. Apart from the words inside the book, there are, of course, a number of editorial elements that make up the book's cover. The front cover of a non-fiction book always includes the main title and the subtitle, assuming that there is one, and usually there is, and the author's name. If applicable, the front cover might also include the names of key contributors. For example, forward by, a short excerpt from a review quote or an award sticker, for example.

The spine of the book is what shows when the book is on a shelf, whether that's at a bookstore, library or the reader's home or office. At a minimum, it includes the main title, the author's name and the publisher logo. Some also include the subtitle, but my suggestion is to leave that out. It takes up space that could otherwise be used to increase the size of the title to better grab attention on the shelf. Now, typically on the back cover, we've got the book description, which is mandatory.

Every book cover should include a short description of the book, and it's typically 150 to 200 words in length. Think of it as sales copy, since its purpose is to entice the perspective reader to open your book and learn more, such as reading the contents page. As such, aim to answer the following questions. One, who is the ideal reader for this book? Two, what problem is your ideal reader experiencing that your book will help solve? Three, what is the central question related to this problem that your book will answer? Four, who are you, the author, and why are you the best person to write this book? And five, what in three to five bullet points are the most important and valuable things your reader will get out of reading your book?

For paperback or case laminate hard covers, the description goes on the back cover of the book. For hard covers with dust jackets, review quotes will usually go on the back. So the description gets moved to the front flap of the dust jacket. The cover bio, which is optional. Books often include a photo of the author along with a short 40 to 60 word bio that includes the author's name, notable title, or role and a sentence or two about their expertise. Similar to the description, this appears on the back cover of paperbacks and case laminate hard cover books, but for hard covers that have a dust jacket, the author bio is normally placed on the back flap of the dust jacket.

Review quotes, which are optional. As alluded to earlier, sometimes covers include review quotes, especially if quotes are available from notable influencers or media outlets. If they are, it can be helpful to include an excerpt from the best one on the front cover and from a handful of others on the back cover. Hard cover books with dust jackets have more real estate and typically include only review quotes on the back cover, pushing the description and author bio to the flaps. So, as you think about all these parts that make up the anatomy of a non-fiction book, remember this.

The publishing industry is at the same time innovative in terms of ideas, and yet traditional in terms of its presentation. Many book publishing norms can seem to the uninitiated as relics of a bygone era, but these traditions provide much of the stability, gravitas and signals of quality that maintain the aura of credibility around publishing and authorship. If an author and publisher have taken the time to follow and incorporate these norms in their books production, then it's a strong signal that they've also taken the time to ensure that the contents themselves are high quality.

And while there's no guarantee that this is in fact the case, at the initial stages of the consideration funnel, it's those first impressions that are all important. Now that you know the anatomy of a nonfiction book, you can get on with the business of writing with a clear understanding of where your book is headed. Now is the time, time to write, time to publish and time to grow. I'm Scott McMillan, until next time.

Scott A. MacMillan

Scott A. MacMillan is a speaker, international best-selling author, entrepreneur, and the President and Executive Publisher at Grammar Factory Publishing. He and his team help expert entrepreneurs write and publish books that build their authority and grow their business.

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