Pilar Wyman—Metadata, marketing, and more (ISC conference 2013)

Pilar Wyman (@pilarw on Twitter) is the immediate past president of the American Society for Indexing, as well as a member of the ASI’s Digital Trends Task Force, and she spoke at the ISC conference about promoting indexes as metadata and showing our clients how our indexes can be used as sales tools for their books.

We’re used to thinking of a book’s metadata as information about the book as a product—its title, author, ISBN, etc.—but a book’s index can also serve as metadata: each index heading and subheading can be thought of as a tag for a chunk of text that we want readers to see. As a result, readers can use this metadata to provide them with a filtered view of the content that reveals specific facets or dimensions of a book.

Indexes, Wyman argues, are as important for ebooks as a search function. They

  • add browsability and help readers find what they need by expanding the number of access points to content
  • serve as a navigational tool
  • offer pre-analysis: indexes give readers a good sense of the range of topics covered and the importance of each
  • provide a conversation with the reader, allowing publishers to show what their product has to offer

Wyman advocates giving away a book’s index for free (as Amazon essentially does with its Look Inside feature) as a marketing strategy, to let readers know what they could be getting. She also showed us the potential of index mashups, in which you combine the indexes of several publications in a collection, allowing users to browse or search across all of them. These mashups could be enormously useful for “scrapbook files”—collections of content from a variety of sources, as you’d find in a university course pack, for example.  Each heading in the mashed-up index is a link, taking you either directly to the content or to a summary screen of available information, with context. Most importantly for publishers, these indexes would offer users a direct link to purchase any of the books included in the mashup.

To exploit this marketing potential of ebook indexes, whether they are standalone indexes or mashups, publishers should link them—both in to the content and out to further resources or places to buy the book. These linked indexes should be included as back-of-the-file chapters or, better yet, in the front of an ebook so that the index gets searched first. For usability, the index should be accessible wherever you are in the book (just as you can flip to the back of a print book anytime you want), and the “find” tool should bring up the best hits, as identified by the index. Results should show snippets of a term in context, and cross-references should help the reader refine their search terms.

Generic cross-references can often present a dilemma for the indexer (e.g., Does See specific battles really give readers the information they need?), but Wyman’s vision for the EPUB index eliminates this problem: “specific battles” would link to a list of those battles, which would in turn link to the corresponding headings in the index. She also adds that smart use of tagging would allow you to filter not only based on concept but also type of content. For example, many of us already indicate definitions with boldface, images with italics, etc. This “decoration metadata,” as Wyman calls it, can be another layer of information that users can use to narrow their search down to what they need. Wyman also introduced the concept of a reverse index: users can highlight a section of text and discover what terms in the index are associated with it, allowing them to easily jump to other places in the text that discuss the same topic.

As indexers, Wyman said, we’re already skilled at figuring out aboutness and can easily apply those skills, especially if we’re already familiar with embedded indexing, to semantic tagging of text. If we can persuade our clients of the value of using our indexes as a sales tool, we can further leverage our expertise.


(My take: I think the idea of index mashups is brilliant. My colleagues who work in academic publishing spend huge amounts of time compiling different catalogues for different subject areas and markets. Offering one index mashup of all of their Aboriginal studies titles and another for their women’s studies titles, for example, could allow them to show the breadth and depth of their list to particular target markets, including academics considering course adoptions and subject-specific libraries.)

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