Let’s Talk About The Index

indexDo you ever think about the indexes of textbooks and reference books? Do you ever wonder how they’re created? Because they don’t appear as if by magic, and as yet no software has been invented that can extract a good quality index from the text of a book. It takes human intellectual effort to figure out how readers will want to use a book, and so which words and phrases and ideas from the text need headings or cross-references in the index.

The best indexes are created by professional indexers. In the UK they are likely to belong to the Society of Indexers (SoI), which also provides training and accreditation for would-be indexers. The SoI’s distance learning course includes four assessed modules, online tutorials, an online workshop, and practical indexing exercises and assignment. The SoI also provides a conference, various workshops, and online resources for members and non-members. There are equivalent organisations in other countries, such as the American Society for Indexing, the Indexing Society of Canada, and the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers.

As a reader, I care a lot about indexes. A good index makes it so much easier for me to use a textbook or a reference book. Even if I’ve read a book thoroughly and taken notes as I went along, there’s almost bound to come a time when I want to look up something I remember reading but didn’t note down. Some academic publishers, such as Sense Publishers, don’t seem to provide indexes at all. I find that hugely frustrating, digging around among 240 pages of text to try to find the paragraph or two that I want to read again.

Other academic publishers pass the responsibility of creating or paying for an index on to the author. That can lead to indexes of variable quality. Here’s a photo of one from a Palgrave Pivot book, Writing Anthropology by Francois Bouchetoux.

Writing Anthropology index

That is the entire index for the whole 120-page book. Palgrave is an established publisher which has published many fine books, some of which have excellent indexes. The author of this book is evidently highly intelligent, with many skills, such as writing; it’s a worthwhile book. But I don’t think indexing is in his skillset.

Some authors can produce good indexes. Pat Thomson is one, but she’s in a minority. Yet publishers still try to persuade authors to create or pay for indexes. As authors don’t get paid for writing books, and academic books earn much less for authors than they do for publishers, this seems both wrong and stupid to me. Wrong because an academic publisher should accept the financial responsibility of providing a good quality index, stupid because if they don’t then their book is less useful so fewer people will recommend it to others. I am not the only person who takes the quality of an index into account when writing reviews online (as I plan to demonstrate, next week, upon this very blog).

Several times in my life I have been in discussion with various publishers who have tried to pass the responsibility of creating or paying for an index on to me. Each time I have argued that they should pay for it because I have neither the skills nor the budget, and the lack of an index will reflect more poorly on their reputation than mine. Each time I have won the argument. So if you are a writer in this position, fight your corner. And if you’re a publisher, be like non-fiction publisher Mango Books.

Round of applause!

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About The Index

  1. Oh how much do I agree with you, I was a freelance indexer, belonged to Society of Indexers, went to their conference in 2001, now voluntarily index local history publications for local society.

    I never buy a non fiction book without an index. One problem is with reprints, I had some communication with an author of a crochet book, it had been reprinted and the indentation had gone so the index was difficult to use. Not a highly academic book but its use was highly diminished.

    Like

  2. Pingback: indexing multi-author books

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