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December 9, 2013
By Betty Kelly Sargent
The first book with consecutive, printed page numbers appeared in 1499, but this practice didn’t catch on at first. It took another 100 years or so before page numbers, indexes and tables of content.

Books got their start as pasted together strips cut from the papyrus plant growing on the banks of the Nile and rolled into scrolls called volumes. This did not make for easy reading. Not only did the scrolls have no page numbers to help you return to a particular spot, they had to be rolled up again after each use.

Then around the second century B.C., the Greeks came up with a new kind of book material called parchment. It was usually made from the skin of goats or sheep. When calfskin was used, they called it vellum. Because parchment was less brittle than papyrus, pages could now be folded, stacked and sewn together, allowing for the invention of the codex.

There were lots of advantages to this new codex format. It was sturdy and compact, it allowed random access unlike the scroll, and both sides of the page (recto, the right side, and verso, the left side) could be written on. Technically our contemporary paperbacks are codices though now the term refers only to hand written manuscripts produced from late antiquity until the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile paper was invented in China in 105 A.D., but didn’t make its way to Europe for another 500 years. It cost more than vellum, it was more fragile than parchment, and the Church in Western Europe initially banned the use of paper, calling it "pagan art,” believing that only animal parchment was "holy" enough to carry the Sacred Word. In fact, paper did not become popular until the middle of the 15th century when the printing press made its way on to the scene.

The first book with consecutive, printed page numbers appeared in 1499, but this practice didn’t catch on at first. It took another 100 years or so before page numbers, indexes, and tables of contents began to appear in most printed books. Nowadays we have well-established traditions about what the form and the order of the content of a book should be. There are always exceptions of course, but in general the industry standards for the order of the content in professional books and textbooks are:

FRONT MATTER: This is the first part of the book, and it gives the reader technical information about the book. Front matter pages are numbered in lowercase roman numerals. All the pages count, but no page number is placed on display pages such as title and copyright pages, or on blank pages. Front matter typically includes:

  • Half Title Page -- only includes the title
  • Title Page -- includes the title, subtitle (if there is one), author’s name, and name of publisher
  • Copyright Page
  • Copyright Acknowledgments -- for reprinted or permissioned material
  • Colophon -- production notes about typefaces, name and address of the printer; can also go in the back matter
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword  -- usually written by someone other than the author
  • Preface -- usually the story of how the book came about; written by the author
  • Epigraph -- a poem, quotation, or phrase
  • Prologue -- opens the story, establishes the setting; written by the narrator or a character in the story
  • Acknowledgments -- can also go in the back matter
  • Introduction -- by the author; describes the purpose and goals of the book

BODY MATTER: This is the core text or content of the book. It can but doesn’t have to include:

  • Parts -- sections that are closely related
  • Sections -- a set of closely related chapters
  • Chapters

BACK MATTER: The end matter is optional and may include:

  • Epilogue -- by the narrator or a character to bring closure to the story
  • Afterword -- usually by the author about how the book was developed
  • Appendix -- by the author to update or elaborate on the information in the text
  • Glossary -- alphabetized definitions of words important to the text
  • Bibliography -- usually for non-fiction; cites works consulted by the author
  • Index -- list of terms used in the text with page numbers where they can be found

So there you have it, a short history of the evolution of the printed book. We’ve come a long way from papyrus and now with the proliferation of e-books who knows what will become possible for indie authors in the next decades?


Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks