“The lack of an index in this book is deplorable.” — The Independent
Do you think that people, especially reviewers, don’t pay attention to your book index? If so, you might want to think again.
The truth is that people pay attention to every part of your book. And they judge your book’s quality based on the quality of each of those parts, including the index of the book.
Now, the index is important for three reasons. One, your readers expect and use it. Two, it’s likely that a good index increases the sales of your books. Even though there’s no hard data on the subject, we know (anecdotally, at least) that some people read an index before buying a book, especially on Amazon where you can see it for free. We also know that librarians use the index to figure out what books to buy.
But there’s more to an index besides your obligation to readers and sales. A missing or bad index can hurt your reputation.
A bad index corrupts your book like the rotten spot on an otherwise sweet apple. And this corruption, in turn, reflects on the author.
Let’s look a little more at how we know this.
What 200 Book Reviews Can Teach Us About Book Indexes
The Indexer is a scholarly journal published by the UK Society of Indexers. In every issue, they include a section called “Indexes Reviewed,” where they look at book reviews that mention book indexes from publications like The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, and The Reader.
They search for reviews that mention the index, and organize them in categories like — Indexes praised, Two cheers!, Indexes censured, Indexes omitted, or Obiter dicta (where the index is mentioned “in passing”).
Every issue tells us a consistent story about the index — book reviewers are paying attention.
Under “Indexes censured,” you might find this,
“[…] one might perhaps hope for a second edition of this one at some point,
to improve on parts of the endmatter, in particular the skimpy book index.”
And under “Indexes Omitted,” you might find this,
“I was shocked that Michelle Obama’s book does not have [an index]. Why? What were her publishers thinking?
Why in the world wouldn’t they want to provide what amounts to a road-map for readers?”
And so on.
Again, the point is that book reviewers do pay attention to your book index, and judge your book based on it. In fact, they’re more likely to notice an especially bad or missing index than a good one. According to Jean Dartnall, in her article for Learned Scholar,
“[Book reviewers] are more likely to complain about the poor quality or absence of an book index than to comment favourably on a good index. My impression is that a good index is the assumed default.”
And it’s not just book reviewers who notice. Nicholas Brown, a professor at the University of Chicago, recently decried good book with “useless” or “pointless onomastic indexes.” Or, we can take the words of Sam Leith, literary editor at the Spectator, who wrote that
“Bad indexes are legion. Absent indexes almost more so.”
The takeaway is simple. People pay attention to the index. Every author should, therefore, think of the index as an integral part of their book, not as an autonomous addition. In many cases, like the table of contents, it serves as the entry into your book.
A Failure of Empathy
When David Langford ordered 220 copies of the highly anticipated Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artist’s Agency for West Hollywood’s Book Soup, he obviously expected it to sell. He usually bought 30 for a release like this. So, he was surprised by what he saw on release day.
“‘Everybody does the same thing when they come in,’ he says about shoppers
who flip to the back the check for their name in an index. When they don’t find one, ‘they slam it shut.’”
This funny little anecdote shows us more than Hollywood’s narcissism. It shows us the importance of a quality that most people probably don’t associate with book indexers — empathy.
It might seem strange, but let us explain. A good book indexer doesn’t just write a neutral list of concepts and ideas and put them in alphabetical order. They also have to constantly keep in mind the function of an index. Or, how real people from different backgrounds are likely to use the index.
If it’s a technical medical book, for instance, the index should be equally suited to the technician who knows the name of a drug and wants to search it up and the lay person who may only look up a symptom.
The best book indexes show this level of care. Who couldn’t predict that Hollywood’s elite was likely to want to look up their name in the book? This decision probably cost them a number of sales. But more importantly, it demonstrated a surprising lack of empathy and care for the reader.
And this lack of empathy disturbs another kind of reputation, or trust — that which exists between the author and the reader. A missing or bad index doesn’t anticipate the reader’s needs or make the text accessible to them. And even if this betrayal isn’t registered consciously by the reader or expressed in market terms, it nevertheless exists.
Perhaps some authors aren’t convinced of this (admittedly) nebulous betrayal. In that case, they should look to the quotes of book reviewers and others who notice missing or bad indexes. They should note how these translate into real reputational costs, and sometimes even in dollars and cents.
The lesson, again, is clear. A good index serves the reputational interests of the author, in both the public arena of book reviewers as well as the private space between them and their readers.