The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing

Book reviews

The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing (2008), 26, (4), 186–191.

Abstract

Book reviews Edited by Frances Lennie and Christopher Phipps Indexing for editors and authors: a practical guide to understanding indexes. Fred Leise, Kate Mertes and Nan Badgett. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc, in association with American Society of Indexers, Inc. 2008. 148 pp. with index. ISBN: 978-1-57387-334-5 (pbk). US$40.00. Was there ever a Golden Age when our profession was universally respected and all its practitioners trusted to supply a product that matched or even flattered the quality of the text it was designed to accompany? Perhaps not, but it does seem that we have only recently experienced the bewildering power shift that, at least in Britain, sees a finished analytical index as a mere draft, at best requiring approval and at worst inviting capricious amendment to indulge authorial prejudice. Editors are often complicit in these unhappy arrangements, so any book that might persuade them to change their ways is most welcome. Furthermore, despite several new threats like outsourcing, fully searchable text, e-books and XML, the most worrying surely remains the common economic model for publishing, which expects authors to make or to finance their own indexes, because authors who persuade themselves that it’s a job within their competence are unlikely ever to return to using professionals. I’m probably not alone in feeling such frustration at these trends that I opened this short book hoping to thrill to a passionate defence of the role of the index, a ringing declaration that it exists to serve readers’ needs not authors’ egos, a robust corrective to those who feel the future lies with full text search and perhaps even a call to finance indexing realistically out of the production budget. But it’s not that kind of book, and on reflection, I can understand why. Those editors who see information retrieval as spotting word occurrences, and those authors who think nobody else in the entire world could be qualified to index their masterpiece, are not going to be amenable to such hectoring because they simply won’t buy or even read books on indexing. Conversely, those who do buy this particular book will already be at least half persuaded, and anxious to develop an existing productive relationship with their indexers into a world-beating team effort. So, this is a book that, while it doesn’t only preach to the converted, at least assumes a measure of sympathy in its readers. It’s also undogmatic about the invariable superiority of professional indexers and I confess I’ve twice recently conceded this point myself, once in connection with short instruction manuals, and again in situations when paying for a professional index would simply make the publication of minorityinterest titles uneconomic. The book does however recommend an unequivocal solution to the problem we are sometimes tempted to view as authorial interference, and it’s the correct one: communication. Where I have had trouble with authors becoming unexpectedly involved in an index at a late stage, it has always been because our roles weren’t clear to all parties at the outset. Many of us would be extremely happy to work more closely with our authors, provided the rules were understood in advance, and would even be willing to spend time explaining the reasons behind such frequently misunderstood techniques as redundancy, double-posting and the exclusion of passing mentions, or pointing out that a see also cross-reference from ‘noble gases’ to ‘xenon’ is a guide to index structure, not a patronizing attempt to educate the reader. If we should get the chance for 186 such a dialogue, this book provides packaged explanations, and I found Chapter 6’s presentation of an index from three points of view (editor, author and indexer) particularly illuminating. We of course still have to act as proxy for the fourth, unconsidered viewpoint: that of the hapless reader. So communication is crucial, but the book warns too, in so many words, against making a nuisance of yourself with incessant queries. Many British readers will already know at least one of the three co-authors, having enjoyed Fred Leise’s excellent overview of controlled vocabularies (to be found in the October 2008 issue of The Indexer 26, 121) at this year’s Society of Indexers Conference. As ASI’s current president, he should be very familiar to American readers. His easy communication style is much in evidence here, though the quiet humour is not on display for the first few chapters, which patiently lay the essential groundwork of explaining what an index is, and what types there are. Like most instructional material on indexing, this struck me as perhaps slightly too detailed. Am I unusual in having indexed scores of books without ever being requested to depart from set-out style or word-by-word order and seldom even being offered any house-style guidance? Perhaps I am, because this book isn’t alone in still presenting all the alternatives impartially. Though many non-indexers read The Indexer, most of us will probably want to know not only how persuasively our case is put, but also whether we can learn anything from a book aimed squarely at our employers. Well, I learned a lot, in terms of gathering together arguments that we should all be prepared to deploy in negotiation and, though one hopes rarely, in dispute resolution. Comparing British and American experience on matters like charging and couriers versus postal services was diverting, and at intervals, additional arguments occurred to me from the text. For example, we know that authors without dedicated indexing software are at a huge disadvantage if required to make last-minute changes, but what software they do use might not even automate operations we take for granted such as correct alphabetization, merging cross-reference targets, placement of see also references, flagging up blind links or even arranging strings of locators in ascending order. The book makes the telling point that, being untrained and less experienced, they’re usually slower, and I suspect this may lead many authors to underestimate the magnitude of the indexing task, and may well sow the seeds of later dissatisfaction with a professional’s version of something they’ve invested time in but been forced to abandon. In sum, the qualityconscious editor will need to be far more thorough in checking an author’s index than one done by an experienced professional, and it’s on index evaluation (in the penultimate chapter) that I found this book especially strong. It suggests both an efficient strategy for assessing what’s delivered, and an uncombative one for resolving various kinds of possible disagreement. I’d be extremely happy if I thought an editor was judging my own efforts using these criteria. This chapter also has a long section on index revisions. I’ve suffered from at least one ‘oh, let’s not bother the indexer with this one small change’ episode myself, and it resulted in my embedded index appearing entirely as expected, but with one single entry in detached splendour before the letter ‘A’. The editor hadn’t realized you needed to force the sorting of any leading punctuation. And, like one of these authors, I have also wept to see an index over The Indexer Vol. 26 No. 4 December 2008

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Author details

Lennie, Frances

Phipps, Christopher

Johncocks, Bill

Leise, Fred

Sutherland, Linda

Bemath, Abdul Samed

Phipps, Christopher

Brown, Fred