Indexes in ebooks
This is the first installment in a 3-part series on Indexes in ebooks, written by Stephen Ingle, president of WordCo Indexing Services. We’ll publish the final 2 pieces over the next few weeks. Steve will also be a guest on #eprdctn hour on September 9. Please comment below, send in questions, and participate on September 9! Now to Steve:
I love digital non-fiction books, especially history and politics. I love downloading them on the Kindle app on my iPad or my iPhone. But I have a gripe: why is the index often missing in the digital version of the book? I feel like I’ve been shortchanged. I like to see what topics come up in the book, how often they come up, and where the discussion is (i.e., at the beginning, middle, or end of the book). The index (even just a non-hyperlinked image of the print index) provides this. The index also breaks down major topics into subtopics so I can get an overview of how the author treats that topic.
I guess the usual (dare I say ignorant?) response from the publisher is something like this: “The page numbers don’t show up in the digital version, so the index is unusable,” or “Readers can just use Search.” Search works great for simple things (assuming you remember how to spell the name you’re looking for or the author’s particular terminology). But why not include the index, at the very least to help the reader know what to search for?
What exactly is an index anyway? A list of every name or term that comes up in a book? Not really. That would be more of a concordance. Essentially, an index provides an organized overview of the book’s contents. It is not just a search tool to “look something up.” It’s a meta-presentation of what’s in the book. Think about what that means: with a well-constructed and complete index, and enough time, you could pretty much reconstruct the gist of the book, in page order. Just add water!
An index is a beautiful thing. It adds value to the book. I would argue that indexes are not only still relevant, there are all kinds of ways they could take advantage of the digital milieu to improve the reader’s experience. At a minimum, index headings would be hyperlinked to the text. But why not use colors and typefaces to indicate relative importance or different categories of headings? And, since we’re dreaming, why not have collapsible headings that can be expanded with a touch? Why not enable some kind of user input, perhaps “searching” the index for certain types of headings (all people, perhaps, or all companies in a business-related book)?
Clearly, there’s lots of “potential.” Then why do the ebooks we see with indexes either have a “dead” (i.e., non-hyperlinked) index, or, at best, a hyperlinked version of the print index?
The answer is simple. It’s not only that it’s not feasible given the technology (there certainly are issues with differences between devices and platforms that render ebook files differently). There are two real reasons we don’t see a push for more and better ebook indexes: production costs and time. And since time is money, it’s really all about costs. So that begs the next question: how to adjust workflows to reduce the costs of creating decent (hyperlinked) ebook indexes?
First of all, let’s start with the basics. A dead index is better than no index. If the print book has an index, at the very least the ebook should include it, even if it’s not hyperlinked. That doesn’t cost anything. And it doesn’t leave the reader (me) feeling cheated.
But can we have even a basic hyperlinked index that’s not going to cost more, or at least not more than a nominal amount? An index, where if you touch the page locator, you are magically transported to the relevant location in the text? The answer is: “Yes, we’re getting there!” If the ebook file contains page markers (page list in EPUB3; read the IDPF’s guidelines here), it’s really a simple matter to hyperlink the page locators in the index to the actual page locations in the book. More on this next time.
Coming in Part II: Changing the Ebook Workflow
Stephen Ingle is the president and CEO of WordCo Indexing Services (www.wordco.com), located in Norwich, Connecticut. He created his first index (8 lines) at the age of 10. After graduating from Yale University with a degree in German literature, he went on to earn master’s degrees in German and Russian Area Studies. In 1988, Steve began freelance indexing part time while also working at the Modern Language Association (MLA) in New York. He began indexing full time in 1991. Steve has served on the national board of the American Society for Indexing. His company now employs a team of indexers and completes about 500 projects annually for a diverse group of clients. His interests include indexing as a business and indexes for digital publications.