Tag Archives: Empire of Necessity

Samuel Johnson Prize 2014 – shortlisted books

The shortlist was announced on 9th October 2014.

What about the indexes? All the books, so far as I can see actually have indexes, but I couldn’t look at Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk or Marion Coutts’ The Iceberg

What are the issues? Are any of the indexes any good?

  • 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.
  • Improperly formed headings and subheadings. Well-formed subheadings divide all the locators for a particular heading into useful subheadings and don’t leave long strings of locators stranded at the heading. You might sometimes get locators at the main heading, but they should just be the main and most significant entries, and the subheadings can group up the more scattered locators. Take a look at the index to Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin here, and see the entries for Argentina on the first page of the index. There are nine locators at the main heading and three subheadings that seem to cover very similar ground.
  • Not helping the reader round the text. Cross references, those see or see also entries are there to be used in circumstances that help the reader. Take a look at the index to Caroline Moorehead’s Village of Secrets here. Under the entry for Jews there are lots and lots of locators, subheadings and cross references from subheadings to main entries. That’s OK, of course, if there’s too much for a subheading and a main entry would be a better place to start looking. However, entries such as “concentration camps sent to see under individual camp name” and “internment camps within France [lots of locators] see also under individual camp name” are not much use if you don’t know the name of the camps. You could look for a main entry of “concentration camps” or “internment camps” but there isn’t one, so you’re still stuck. See under is also a form of cross reference we’re  not encouraged to use these days. See is enough to send you where you need to go, and see also will get you related information.

Useful indexes can only be compiled by experienced indexers who know the rules and how to construct headings that help readers. If you’re an author or editor you can find UK indexers here, why not find one with experience in the subject area the book is writing about. It will help sell your book and please your readers. I’d be happy to help as well.

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    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.