What is back matter, and why is it important, even required by many publishers?
Back matter is the information provided by the author after the main text. It can make the topic of the book more clear, more relevant, or more applicable for the reader. Editors and many readers often read nonfiction from the back first, to gain an idea of the author's credibility, sources, and effort to provide more for the reader.
If you are a writer, you will select those features that fit your work. You will be constrained by the page count, so factor that in when you are writing. Here are five reasons back matter is important in a nonfiction work.
1. It provides information unrelated to the text. (Timeline, Author's Note)
The timeline in At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui by Christine Liu-Perkins shows key events at points on a linear timeline. The timeline in Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Prévot is more anecdotal by year, with few specific dates.
For The Hole Story of the Doughnut, I had more than 200 pages of research about Captain Hanson Gregory. But the book's 800 words left out most of it. My author’s note includes information about his registration for the Union Army, his five daughters, the challenge to his claim as inventor and its resolution, his honor from the American Baker’s Association, and the replacement of his lost headstone and the ensuing celebration, all of which didn't fit the main story of the text.
2. To further explain something related to the text. (Further Information, Afterword)
In The House That George Built, Suzanne Slade explains many of the changes to the President's House since its early days, including its name. Teddy Roosevelt added a tennis court, and William Taft converted the stables into a four car garage. Barack Obama planted a vegetable garden on the south lawn.
The Afterword in Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown gives further details about the bands and places Melba Liston played, and the honors she won--details not given in the text.
Irena Sendler saved the lives of nearly 400 Polish children during the Holocaust. The Afterword to Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto explains what happened to Irena and many of those children after World War II.
Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France tells how Dr. Mesmer has the French believing that he can control a mysterious force streaming from the stars and use it to compel grown men to cry, women to swoon, and children to fall down in fits. Dr. Franklin uses the scientific method to debunk Mesmer's claims, making for an embarrassing departure for the hypnotic Dr. Mesmer. This true story is followed by three pages explaining the science behind both doctors' endeavors.
3. To explain how or where the information was obtained. (Source Notes)
Source notes are like footnotes provided in longer works. In The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia, Candace Fleming provides 21 pages of notes that give the source for each of the quotations included in the book.
Christine Liu-Perkins also documented the quotes used in her book about Lady Dai. Footnote numbers are no longer used in children's works. Instead, the first few words of the quotation are listed by chapter and page, and then the source is listed.
4. To provide extra materials of help to the reader. (Further Reading, Map, Glossary, Index, Educational Activities)
In the back matter, Melissa Stewart and Allen Young provided a list of things readers can do to live in a way that decreases their impact on the natural world in No Monkeys, No Chocolate.
In A Chameleon's Life by Ellen Lawrence, students are encouraged to be a reptile scientist by writing a report that compares a panther chameleon to a reptile of their choice. It provides sources and questions to help with the research.
5. To provide credibility for your work. (Acknowledgments, Bibliography or Resources, Image Credits)
The Resource list in Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin is extensive, though the story is only 36 pages long, half of them full page illustrations. It includes seven books, several translated from Polish; eleven articles from magazines, newspapers, and The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; two videos; the written or recorded testimony of Irena herself and other Poles; stories unpublished in English; and correspondence between the author and Polish experts. Rubin is definitely a credible author.
As a writer, the back matter will add value and information for your reader, and give you additional ways to bring your subject to life. And that matters!