Tuesday, June 8, 2010

More thoughts about ebook indexes

Joe Wikert has a great article about ebook indexes. I tried to add a comment, but it wouldn't let me so I thought I'd write it here:

Excellent article. Thanks! What I want to see is some way to differentiate index entries in an ebook. In print, I know that "125-138" indicates more in-depth treatment than say "125" and indeed, "125-126" indicates something different than "3-4", even though it's the same number of pages, just because we know that "3-4" is probably in an introduction.

And how are we going to label index entries at all? Of course, page numbers won't do it. So what's the alternative? Could size or color indicate depth? A bar that grows or shrinks according to depth?

I love the idea of pop-up summaries when you click an index entry. And what about if when you jumped to the referenced item, it was highlighted, at least temporarily, or you could choose to display indexed passages at will? How many times have you followed an index entry only to not be able to find the reference you're looking for?

The Back button is absolutely essential. The Nook's edition of Pride and Prejudice provides return links when you go to the glossary. I appreciated it even though it was kind of ugly.

I'd love to hear more thoughts on this topic.

[Was able to post comments on Joe's blog now.]


  1. I'm voting for using page numbers in indexes, for the present and short term future. Here's why:

    1. People have a very sophisticated gut-level understanding of what page references indicate. You are totally right about all the embedded info--it's amazing how rich, and subconscious, and universal our understanding of page references is. As you describe: "125-138 indicates more in-depth treatment", "3-4 is probably in an introduction."

    Yes, pages are a metaphor, in an ebook, but they are a metaphor we all share an understanding of today. Rather than label this metaphor 'old-fashioned' and abandon it, we should use its familiarity to help people transition comfortably into another medium.

    2. Page references in ebooks would allow a student audience to adopt new ebook technology without losing a long-agreed-upon method of talking about and citing these books with teachers using paper books. If page references were common across books of all varieties, both audiences could stay with the formats they prefer as long as they want, and still carry on useful, universally-understood and -accepted research together.

    3. Page numbers aren't owned by any one company. One of the frustrating things about the competition between ebook vendors has been development of competing exclusive standards that content producers and customers are supposed to accommodate. (Epub vs. prc; countless metadata templates, 31 flavors of DRM.) But pages are a standard that isn't owned by Amazon or Google or B&N or Borders. If we publishers and readers take over this conversation and opt for pages, we won't end up being told in a year we have to embed a series of special tags for 4 different proprietary vendor locator systems, gods forbid.

    Page numbers are *precisely* what we all crave in IT--an open standard already in universal use, understood without documentation, by early and reluctant users alike.

    Don't throw page numbers out--embrace them.

    As readers, we should be insisting that ebook device- and app-makers implement display of page numbers, and as publishers, we should start adding standard <a id="page_#"></a> tags to all our ebooks, in order to support and encourage the continuing use of this existing, low-effort, high-return standard.

  2. @thisby: Pages change when publications reflow. Or, do you mean the page numbers to be treated as Stephanus numbers?

  3. I mean put physical book page numbers into ebooks as locators. They would be a familiar cross-platform, cross-media way to help both kinds of readers during the period of transition we're entering.

    Here's what it would require:

    1. Publishers/conversion houses should put <a> tags in their epubs at the start of each physical book page, storing the label/number of that page - e.g. <a name="34"> or (for frontmatter) <a name="iv">.

    2. Someone (the IDPF, probably) publishes a standard syntax for these <a> tags.

    3. ebook device and software developers start displaying page tag info as markers within ebooks on their gadgets/in their apps....e.g. little margin numbers or something. (These can be optional, for people who dislike them...in the settings for the device/app, add a "turn on page numbers/turn off page numbers" toggle.)

    (Publishers should start tagging pages with some kind of placeholder even before a standard is formalized, because it's much easier to retain page info during conversion than to add it after the fact. A pile of existing epubs with simple page placeholders could be fairly easily batch-revised to meet a standard, if need be.)

    Right now, ebooks work as private experiences, but without locators, they are almost impossible to use in shared experiences (classes, book clubs, scholarly papers).

    If books are going to continue to be a way to share and explore knowledge in-depth, we need to help people talk to each other about what is inside them. Page numbers are a way of sharing that readers already know and understand well.

  4. Wouldn't it be good if there's a direct instruction to the search function! Instead of HTML a href="mailto:... Just ...href="search:.... often a search function hilights the search terms in the text, and each occurrence can be jumped to....

  5. @Anonymous. No, it would not be as good. A full-text search can be helpful, but it's not as good as a contextual one, that doesn't just point you to every place where the word occurs (imagine say "images") but instead tells you where to find info on "inserting images", "wrapping text around images", "cropping images", etc. etc.


More of my books