500 words. Again and again that is the magic number that editors give when asked how long a picture book should be. Until recently it seemed like an impossibly small number for my picture book on prayer. But then an editor pointed out a simple solution. Get rid of the sidebars and put all of that material in the back matter.
If you’ve never heard this term before, back matter is anything beyond the main story that you include in the back of the book. Back. Matter. Get it? Back matter can be a wide variety of things including:
- More information on the main topic.
- Places (websites and tourist sites) that the reader can visit to learn more.
- Crafts or activities.
- Information on the sources used including some that the reader might want to review.
- Additional, age-appropriate reading on the topic.
- Glossary of unfamiliar terms.
- A timeline of events related to or discussed in the text.
- The author’s biography.
- Information on how the author came to write this particular book.
- Organizations or important people associated with the topic.
- How to use the book in the classroom.
As you can see, back matter can cover a wide range of things by giving you someplace to tuck information that the reader needs that would inflate the word count of the main manuscript. Some publishers want kid-friendly back matter. Others expect this material to be utilized by parents or teachers more than young readers. When I write for Redline, I am writing for a series so my back matter has to cover the same things as the other books in the series.
In my prayer book, the backmatter took my manuscript from something like 750 words to 175 words. Yes, 175 words of lean, stream-lined text.
Remember that back matter isn’t only used with nonfiction. It is also a great place to explain what is fact and what is fiction in a piece of historic fiction. A fantasy novel might include information on the folk tales that gave rise to this fantasy land. Science fiction could detail the recent science that the author studied to create the science in the story.
What about your current project? Would it benefit from back matter?