Tag Archives: 2014

Book awards season is about to start again

Last year I reviewed a number of books which had been nominated for prestigious book awards to see if the indexes were any good. Many were good, most were poor to awful. This year I’m trying again and taking on the long lists to check out the quality of the indexes.

Samuel Johnson Prize 2014 has announced its long list here. A quick look on Amazon showed that three of the books haven’t been published yet, so I can’t comment on those by Atul Gawande, Alison Light and Jenny Uglow. I have high hopes for Jenny’s book as I own a couple of her books and at least one is indexed by a member of the Society of Indexers . Some don’t have look inside available for the print version on Amazon, so I can’t comment yet on those by John Carey, Marion Coutts and Helen Macdonald.

Of those that do have look inside, I found three without indexes, those by Henry Marsh, Jonathan Meades and Ben Watts. The book by Jonathan Meades is a kind of encyclopaedia and appears in alphabetical order so maybe that’s the reason for not having one. The others don’t seem to have an excuse.

Of the others I found one with an index by a member of the Society of Indexers, Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters was indexed by Hilary Bird. Well done Hilary!

The rest were mostly disappointing, to the extent that if you bought them in electronic format the Ctrl+F function would be much more use than the index is in the print version.

Without reading the books and using the indexes it is difficult to see if they are accurate of course. However, indexers need to make indexes that readers can use easily to find things they want to know. Two points stand out from the indexes I’ve looked at that make them hard for users to find anything they want to know. They are:

  • Long undifferentiated strings of locators. No reader wants to plough though over 20 entries to find one they might be looking for. Take a look at the index to Roy Jenkins by John Campbell here, and the entry for James Callaghan, there are about 30 before you get to the subheadings.
  • Run on subheadings in biographical works are almost impossible to use to find anything useful, they just don’t stand out enough. It is space-saving but not a good deal for the reader. The index to God’s Traitors by Jessie Childs shows many examples and the indexer has fallen into the trap of trying to rewrite the book in the index, without trying to work out what the reader might be looking for in the index.

So if you want a decent index, please find someone to do it who is qualified, experienced in the area that you’re writing about and is a member of the Society of Indexers, or an equivalent society if from overseas. To find out more about what indexers do, look here.

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St Ermin’s Hotel Intelligence Book of the Year Award 2014

Digging a trench through the rich strata of annual non-fiction book prizes I stumbled upon the St Ermin’s Hotel Intelligence Book of the Year Award. The prize is awarded yearly to the best new intelligence book.  The recipient this year was:

  • Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain, by Christopher Moran, published by Cambridge University Press. The index has the many names of the people who appear in the book, and places and countries and various scandals. However, there are great long strings of locators next to some of the headings, for example ‘Bletchley Park’ gets 15 so we don’t know if it talks about code-breaking the computers or the staff. Then ‘Brook, Norman’ gets 20, I don’t know who he was or what he did but might stand a chance if there were some subheadings. On the next page I spotted ‘Churchill, Winston’ who had accrued 54 locators scattered throughout 300 pages, plus some subheadings for his writings. From reading the index, whatever secrets are in this book are not revealed by the index.

Also nominated for the prize were:

  • The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake by Roger Hermiston, published by Aurum Press. Another index in set-out layout, with a few subheadings, but again it suffers from long strings of locators. By way of example I offer ‘KGB’ for which I counted 38 locators scattered throughout the book. As this is a sort of biography or personal history the reader might have expected the lengthy entry about the subject to be entered in the order in which they occurred to the subject, however they appear in alphabetical order in which ‘divorce’ appears before ‘marriages’.
  • SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence 1914-45 by Peter Matthews, published by the History Press. This index starts with ‘Arbwehr’ which has 25 locators. Consisting of only two pages out of 250 I suspect it is also rather skimpy. The rule of thumb is 5% which would give us 12 pages of index if it had met that target. Indexes can be longer or shorter, but as this one has many examples of long lists of locators it could have been teased out into several more pages if the subheadings had been formed correctly.

So, three books on intelligence and secrets which keep their secrets close to their chests courtesy of three unprofessional indexes. This is a shame as each of these titles has been worked on hard and long by their authors.