When indexers are commissioned to create an index for a book, we need to ensure that our client is happy with the work. They are paying for it, after all. What do publishers and authors expect from an index?
keeping publishers happy
Publishers expect an index that:
is technically accurate (things like getting the spelling, alphabetical order and other indexing conventions right - the things you probably don't think about when you use an index but would notice if something went wrong)
fits in with their house style for presentation
is delivered on time with minimal fuss
their authors are happy with.
keeping authors happy
In addition, authors expect an index that:
reflects the content of their book (not some personal agenda of the indexer)
reflects the tone and style of their book
contains terms they would expect to be able to look up
But what about the future readers of the book? Shouldn't indexers be considering them too? Yes, of course!
Different reader groups are front and centre of indexers’ minds all the time as we index, and there might be some that you haven’t thought of. So let’s take a look at who they are.
keeping reader groups happy
1. Potential readers: browsers in a bookshop
Short of lurking in bookshops and asking browsers what they’re looking at (and yes, I do know of one indexer who has done this), we don’t know for sure exactly what makes an individual buy a book that hasn’t been specifically recommended to them. But based on anecdotal evidence, browsers in bookshops take a look at the table of contents, flick through the pages, pause at any pretty pictures, and, yes, look at the index, to get a good idea of whether it’s something they want to read.
How can we make the book accessible and enticing to these ‘maybe’ readers?
Accessible: We include a clear navigational structure within the index so that the reader can quickly identify which are the most important topics and themes the book is about. These will likely be headings with well-organised sub-headings, and there will likely be cross-references between similar terms.
Enticing: If the book contains some interesting anecdotes and topics that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to appear in this sort of book, we include references to them in the index if space allows. These intriguing headings will catch the reader’s eye and draw them in.
2. New readers: wanting information fast
Many non-fiction books are read from cover to cover, and that’s that. But many aren’t read in this way at all, rather they are consulted. This is why we have indexes.
When I was a physics undergraduate I spent a lot of time flicking through indexes of books in my college library, hoping to find something that would help me tackle the tricky maths problem I had been set. The problem was, if I didn’t know the key to solving it, I didn’t really know exactly what words to look for in the index…..
How can we make sure new readers will find the information that’s in the book, even if they don’t know exactly the words to look up?
We use synonyms: alternative ways of expressing the same thing so that whichever one the reader thinks to look up, they will find the information they need. If we don’t do this and the reader doesn’t find the word they are thinking of in the index, they may well put the book down.
We include broader terms to group similar things together by category. Research shows that if a reader doesn’t know exactly the term for what they are looking for, they will start with something broader.
We include cross-references to point the reader to where they will find exactly what they are looking for, from wherever they pitch up in the index first.
Thinking carefully about new readers, unfamiliar with the book, is a very big part of what makes a good indexer.
3. Returning readers: wanting to revisit information
With luck, the returning reader wanting to consult a book will remember the book’s language and terminology, so they will likely think of the ‘right’ words to search for in the index. They might also remember that a key piece of information happened to land on the page to the right of the one where there was an interesting anecdote about….. cheese, say.
How can we help the returning reader quickly revisit the parts of the book they remember so fondly?
We privilege the language and terminology of the book, in the index. Yes, we include synonyms (as described above), but the index entries where they will find all the relevant content will be those which match the words of the book. Synonymous terms will likely point to these entries, using cross-references. Clever, ‘eh?
We index interesting anecdotes and other snippets that are likely to snag in the mind. Remember what I said about catching the attention of the casual browser? Exactly these things are likely to stick in the returning reader’s memory too. Including little ‘Easter eggs’ in indexes, whilst being careful not to overstep the mark, is fun to do, but as I have explained, it also serves a practical purpose.
4. Expert and not-so-expert readers
This is a slightly different take on the ‘new readers’ and ‘returning readers’ dichotomy. Remember that not all readers will be as expert on the subject of the book as the author is – certainly not until they’ve read it from cover to cover, anyway. But some readers will be experts. How do we cater for both sets of readers?
The good news is, provided we’ve covered all the bases described above, we have also ensured that expert readers (who home straight in on the terminology of the book when using the index) and not-so-expert readers (who need alternative routes into the index, and a bit more of a helping hand once they’re in) will be looked after.