26 April 2008

The Art of the Index

A good book index is "a thing of beauty," Prof. Enid Stubin wrote in her memoir of working for New York's leading index house on More Intelligent Life back in December. So it is. So is Stubin's article, an evocation of publishing in the early 1990s when most book production was still paper-based.

Along the way, Stubin subtly reveals how a book's index, though it looks unassuming, should be the product of long and careful thought. It's like the back door of a house, and often more people enter through the back door than the grand front entrance. Back when I was a full-time book editor, I tried to read over indexes as carefully as I read manuscripts and proofs, which surprised the Production people. As we get further into the era of keyword searching of entire manuscripts, however, indexing may come to be seen as less valuable and eventually a lost art.

Many publishing contracts stipulate that the cost of an index will be charged against an author's royalties, on the grounds that the index is part of the content of the book, and therefore the author's responsibility to supply. Of course, the last thing publishers want authors to do as production deadlines beat down on them in waves is try to crank out the first indexes they've ever created. I had one author, reporting on the computer business, convinced that he had the technological solution for indexing his proofs. He delivered on time, then told me that he'd been up all night and those last pages in his book were by far the hardest.

People in Washington, DC, are notorious for picking up a political book in a store, checking for their names in the index, reading those pages, and then putting the book back. Richard Ben Cramer insisted that his gossipy campaign chronicle What It Takes be published without an index to force politicos to actually buy and read it. Several other authors in the field followed suit.

I edited such one such Washington book: Bad Boy, John Brady's biography of the notorious political consultant Lee Atwater. I had the idea of commissioning a standard index but not printing it in the book; instead, people still had to read the book, but they could mail away for or download the index. This was back in 1996, and the idea of using the web to supplement printed books wasn't widespread outside of technology publishing. Unfortunately, the idea didn't gain the publicity we wanted; the only people who seemed to notice were irked by the whole idea.

Later, as a freelance editor, I assembled the index for the first edition of Linda Granfield's America Votes! The task wasn't as hard as I thought. Of course, the book was only 64 pages, well written, and carefully organized to begin with. I didn't even have to do the painful cutting I expected; the Production people surprised me by fitting all my topic lines onto one book page.

(Also at More Intelligent Life: a brief essay on P. G. Wodehouse's villains and a long interview with Philip Pullman.)

No comments: