Tag Archives: index

100 best non-fiction books – Birthday Letters

The letters in question are in fact poems by Ted Hughes. The current printing does not appear to include an index. You might think that poetry volumes don’t need one. However, some poetry books include indexes of first lines as these may be better known that the titles of the poems. The reader is therefore helped by having the titles at the front and the first lines at the back. The lines are usually given as they stand in the text. Here’s a quick sample from the poems, might they make you want to read the poems more than the titles alone?

Lucas my friend, one
Our magazine was merely an overture
Stupid with confidence, in the playclothes
What were those caryatids bearing?
Where was it, in the Strand?

#SuperThursday – publishing’s big launch day

Today marks the start of the feeding frenzy that is the UK Christmas book market. According to BBC News, exactly 503 new titles will be launched today. Given that 30% of book sales are apparently related to Christmas giving and receiving (and buying for oneself I hope), the seasonal peak is important to publishers, authors, and, of course, indexers.

To give a physical presence to the sales campaigns you may see Books Are My Bag events in your high-street book shop, if you’re lucky enough to still have one. The cloth bags are becoming very collectable, and more useful since the 5p charge for plastic bags was introduced in England.

While e-books have taken a chunk out of the physical book market, the majority of e-book sales have been in fiction. Readers of non-fiction often prefer an actual book for many reasons, perhaps because the pictures are actually better in print than on-screen. But also because e-books are struggling with the ability to format and present an index in a sensible way for readers and free-text search doesn’t always get to what the reader wants to find.

Many indexers will have been busy over the summer months, getting indexes ready for the big launch day today. Often unsung and unmentioned in the books they have worked on, but an important part of the process that will end on Christmas day when the presents are finally unwrapped. Perhaps they’ll keep an eye on the book sale charts to see how their books are doing.

Chicken tonight?

Many people lead busy lives and we’re all being encouraged to cook from scratch at home these days for health and financial reasons. So cookery books can be a good resource for inspiration and instructions. However, as the author of the tweet above pointed out, finding recipes can be difficult if the book has a poor index. The book in question has a very skimpy index, pretty much just a list of the recipe names. Lookinside shows what I mean http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bird-Hand-Chicken-Recipes-Every/dp/178472002X.

A typical recipe might generate between 2 and 6 entries for the index, so what else could a good index include apart from the recipe name? The first recipe listed in the index is ‘baked chicken with tarragon and mustard’, so entries could be made for both tarragon and mustard because other recipes might include them. The type of chicken used is ‘joints’, so there’s another to distinguish from the recipes that use a whole chicken, drumsticks, breasts or thighs. It might be relevant to index the ‘baked’ dishes, as others might be ‘stove-top’ or ‘grilled’.

After a bit of work on the other recipes other links might become apparent, perhaps including ethnic origins, so ‘Spanish’ might list ‘Casa Lucio’s chicken with garlic’, and ‘Mar i Muntanya’, as only a human indexer will associate the Madrid restaurant with Spain and spot that a Catalan dish comes from Spain.

There are many other links a good index can make that will help users make the best of a cookery book. A good index makes all the difference in a cookery book and a poor one can be criticised and loose sales. Sometimes too much time is spent on the design and layout and not enough on the human users of the book. Don’t let that happen to your cookery book.

World War One in Colour

I’ve recently completed the index for Subterranean Sappers by Iain McHenry, to be published in July by Uniform Press. Over on Facebook there’s a page by PhotograFix which shows the colourised front jacket illustration. My sensible head says it’s all smoke and mirrors and computer trickery, but I think it works really well to bring the distant past just that little bit closer. Bringing the faces of long gone soldiers out into the sunshine makes them a bit more human and real. The sappers spent years, in the semi-dark, tunnelling silently to make mines, packing them with explosives and blowing them up; or digging dugouts so soldiers could sleep safely at night. Their story certainly deserves to have some light shed on it.

Mrs Bradshaw’s Handbook – an Index

One of our presents this year was a copy of Mrs Bradshaw’s Handbook by Terry Pratchett and The Discworld Emporium. While it is an invaluable guide to the Discworld railway and the various towns and villages on the way as the railway spreads out from Ankh-Morpork, it was published without an index. So, for curious readers who don’t have the time, but do have the inclination, here’s Mrs Bradshaw’s Handbook Index.

This is, of course, a work of fiction, but the categories of information closely follow those of a modern travel guide and the original Bradshaw’s Guides. Dwarf, troll and travellers of other species will find entries to enable them to travel on the new railways. And all travellers will find detailed information about the many towns and villages, interspersed with vignettes and stories gathered by Mrs Bradshaw. And there’s a lot about cabbages!

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.

Promoting your book – don’t forget the index!

One of the fun things about being an indexer is being invited along to launch events and other activities related to the books you index. Last night I went to Oxford to hear Carlton Reid talk about Roads were NOT built for cars to Cyclox, a cycle campaign group. And, of course, it was a great talk. However, one of Carlton’s selling points for his book is …. the index. Look, he’s put it on a little promo card that he hands out.

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And as he’s sold out of the first printing of the book already, it must work, right?

Great to be in Oxford as always. The location of the talk, St Michael’s in the Northgate, was the church where my marriage banns were read out. But I wasn’t married there. Cycling in Oxford is something touched with sadness for me because, just after I left, my ex-flat-mate was killed while riding her bike near Magdalen College. So if any of the campaigning that Cyclox do stops another death of a young person, it will have been worth it.