Prefaces and Introductions

Does your book need them?

What’s the difference between a preface and an introduction? Does your book manuscript really need both?

In scholarly books, a preface is often a kind of meta commentary on the book’s content. It might include a story about how the author came to write the book or some personal information that situates the author in relation to the research. It’s just a few pages long and it doesn’t have to be read in order to absorb and appreciate the rest of the book’s scholarly contribution. It’s like a little bonus chapter before the rest of the text. Not all scholarly books have prefaces. In fact, the great majority of the books I work on as a developmental editor don’t have them.

An introduction is, conversely, an indispensable chapter in most scholarly books. The introduction must accomplish a few things: get the reader interested in the book’s subject matter, present the book’s major thesis and contribution, establish the stakes of the research and findings, offer contextual information that readers will need in order to understand the book’s content, lay out the book’s theoretical framework and approach, and (briefly) describe the methods used in undertaking the research for the book. Some authors include an outline of the book’s content (i.e. chapter summaries) in the introduction as well. (For another post on crafting your book’s introduction, click here.)

How do you know if your book should have a preface or not? I think the main question you should ask yourself is, “Do I care if my reader actually reads the stuff I want to put in the preface?” If the answer is yes, then I suggest that you figure out a way to weave that stuff into the Introduction. Let me give you a couple examples of books that have successful prefaces, and one example of a book that could have had a preface but didn’t:

  • Sarah Banet-Weiser’s book Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press, 2018) is about the recent explosion in popularity of feminist values in mainstream media and culture and the concomitant response in the form of white male misogyny and violence. The book examines a variety of media case studies, and takes a fairly distant tone with respect to the content. By that I mean that while Banet-Weiser’s feminist political commitments are clear throughout, we don’t see her personal opinions or experiences woven into the text. That’s what she uses the preface for, to good effect! The preface talks about Banet-Weiser’s own experiences and feelings as she wrote the book amidst the 2016 presidential election and the difficulties she had in both writing the book and seeing the issues chronicled within it play out in front of her teenaged daughter. Very personal, very effective, not necessary reading in order to appreciate the rest of the book.

  • Renee Sentilles’ American Tomboys, 1850–1915 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018) is another book that uses the preface to share the author’s own personal experience with matters related to the book’s topic. While the book is a cultural history of tomboys in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the preface talks about Sentilles’ own identification with the figure of the tomboy in a much later historical period. Sentilles’ preface also offers some metacommentary on how the book’s material has been received by audiences prior to the book’s publication (everyone wants to talk to her about how they too were or knew a tomboy!) and some context that situates the book’s subject matter in present-day conversations about trans identities. Again, personal, effective, and outside the scope of the book’s actual project.

  • Lilly Irani’s Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India (Princeton University Press, 2019) does not include a preface. This is not to say that her research was any less meaningful to her on a personal level. In fact, she talks in the book about her own background (professional, national, and linguistic), how that shaped her investments in the project, and how it both united and separated her from the people she studied in her ethnography. Irani certainly could have put this information in a preface, but she included it in the book’s introduction, because, as a feminist ethnographer, she felt it was absolutely necessary for the reader to understand in order to take in everything else that followed.

So you can see that prefaces can be used in different ways and sometimes you can dispense with them altogether. As with most aspects of scholarly writing and publishing, there’s no single correct answer as to whether your book should have a preface or not. I hope these three examples prove inspiring, whatever you decide for your own manuscript. (I am proud to have worked with all three of these authors on their book manuscripts, but of course they deserve all credit for the effectiveness of their prefaces or lack thereof.)

Speaking of Chasing Innovation, I’m so pleased to share that Lilly was awarded the 2019 Diana Forsythe Prize (for the best book of feminist anthropological research on work, science, or technology) by the American Anthropological Association. As I noted on Twitter the other day, Lilly is a model scholar-writer-activist who does not shy away from difficult work, which her beautiful book is a clear testament to. I know I’m biased, but it’s definitely well worth a read!