ISC Conference 2012, Day 1—Ebook indexes: the devil is in the details

Jan Wright, a leader in the field of ebook indexing, gave the keynote address at the Indexing Society of Canada’s annual conference this morning. We are witnessing a watershed moment, she says, where we are trying to define what the markup for our content should look like, no matter where it is—whether it ends up on paper or on a device like e-reader or smart phone. This development is in its infancy right now, with conflicting formats on different platforms, and Wright is part of a working group of indexers actively involved in shaping the EPUB 3.0 standard to include indexing concerns.

Current ebook indexing is either nonexistent or ineffectual. Ebook indexes may be missing or static, and there are almost no ebook indexes that index at a paragraph level. They are not an integrated navigational tool, they are difficult to get to, and they are hard to browse, especially if they’re typeset in two columns.

Existing platforms try to mimic certain features of indexing, but they don’t provide all of the functionality of a traditional index. For example, iBooks Author conflates an index with a glossary and limits the function of indexes as navigational tools. Amazon’s X-Ray, currently available only on the Kindle Touch, shows all occurrences of a particular term by page, chapter, or book, but it is merely recall—without the precision of an index—and offers terms in chronological order. In other words, it’s a brute force attempt at indexing.

When considering ebook indexes, we have to take into account a reader’s mental patterns and search behaviours. Some readers have never read the book and need to know if it adequately covers a given topic; some have read the book and know that their search topic is in there, but they have to find it. We must also keep in mind that reading styles differ whether you’re reading for education or for pleasure, fiction or nonfiction. Using physical cues, such as the position in a book or location on a page, to locate content, as well as behaviours like skimming, are disrupted in ebooks. Some platforms attempt to mimic a paper metaphor, but really, paper is just another interface. The key is to figure out what each interface does best and playing to those strengths, because the paper metaphor doesn’t carry over well onto a small screen. The danger with today’s ineffective ebook indexes is that they are training the reader to believe they are unpredictable and thus to question why they should bother using them at all.

The ideal ebook index has features that have been implemented in other contexts before and so should be completely feasible. Wright gave us a demo of what an effective ebook index should do. It should be accessible from every page; the “Find” feature should reflect the best hits, as identified by index; it should show the search results with snippets of text to offer context; it should allow cross-references to help you refine search phrasing; and it should remember that you’ve been there before and let you go back to it. Ebooks would also allow for additional functionality, like bringing up all indexed terms in a highlighted swath of text in a kind of “mind map” that offers additional information showing how concepts are connected.

So what can we do now? First, Wright says, is to get ready for the eventual use of scripts and anchors in EPUB 3.0. A goal is to develop a way to add anchors or tags to content at the paragraph level, which would allow for hyperlinking directly to the relevant content. Once prototypes of the interactive ebook index have been developed, we must assess their usability to ascertain what’s best for readers.

A big takeaway from this keynote speech is that advocacy and outreach are essential. With the standards at a nascent, malleable stage, this is the time for indexers to have their concerns addressed as the technology develops so that indexers’ workflow can be taken into account. (But more on this in a later post.)

P-credit and e-credit

Following my entry last week about properly crediting all of a publication’s team members, Ric Day posted some very interesting information about the International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI), which would allow all of a publication’s contributors to be given credit within a digital work’s metadata, opening the door to a model such as the one Jeff Norton proposed in “Follow the editor.”

Whereas Day seems to imply that my suggestions and his are divergent, however, I see them as having exactly the same aim: ensuring that everyone who contributes to a published work be recognized, and in the process raising the profile of each of their respective professions. Credit is credit—whether it’s a line on a copyright page, in a masthead, or in a digital file’s metadata—and I do feel it’s worth pursuing.

I also don’t share his pessimism about publishers being unwilling to change their ways. First, all of my book-publishing clients credit the designer, and most credit the substantive editor, so clearly a precedent has been set. Those that don’t credit editors seem to be the exception. Most publishers don’t credit indexers, but I strongly suspect that it’s simply because they’ve never been asked; I see the problem as far from insurmountable.

Second, we’re in a key time of transition in Canadian publishing. Last year UBC Press, D&M, and Arsenal Pulp all celebrated their fortieth anniversary (was there something in Vancouver’s water in 1971?), and several other publishing houses were founded in the same period. Many have either completed or are in the midst of implementing succession plans, and coming into the industry are savvy, bright minds who understand that publishing must evolve in order to survive. This evolution includes adopting digital strategies and changing the way they interact with their human resources, both in house and freelance.

And with more and more authors wishing to self-publish, whether in print or digitally, we as publishing professionals are now in a unique position of being able to educate authors and define a new standard rather than having to resign ourselves to “this is how we’ve always done it.” Why not begin explicitly requesting a credit line (or an equivalent shoutout in the metadata) as part as your boilerplate freelance contract?

Follow the editor

Earlier this week my esteemed colleague Barbara Pulling forwarded me an article by Jeff Norton—“Follow the editor: a recommendation engine for readers”—which suggests that editors should be credited for their work on books just as producers are in music and film. He writes:

Pick up any paperback and the author’s name dominates the cover. Big authors are “brands” unto themselves, even though the final prose was a collaborative effort.  Flip the book over the cover designer and illustrator get credit (in quite small print) but search for the editor’s name and you’ll be lucky to find it in the acknowledgements (at the author’s discretion).  How are we to value the role of the professional editorial process if publishers themselves don’t even celebrate their most crucial contribution to a book’s creation?

I suppose I’m spoiled in that I’ve done the majority of my work for a company that does choose to acknowledge editors, though not to the extent that Norton would perhaps like to see. In fact, in Saeko Usukawa’s acceptance speech when she won the 2007 Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence, she specifically thanked Douglas & McIntyre for being one of the few publishers to credit editors on the copyright page. It’s interesting that the practice isn’t more widespread, since giving an editor credit is one of the easiest ways to establish a strong publisher-editor relationship. Not only is the acknowledgement in itself extremely meaningful, but the credit allows an editor to confidently promote the work as part of his or her portfolio. It seems as though sometimes the publishing industry doesn’t want to admit that books get edited at all, perpetuating the myth that prose flows from the author’s brilliant mind onto the manuscript already perfect.

Norton’s assertion that editors are akin to music and movie producers, however, may be too narrow a focus, since only acquiring and developmental editors typically get the same level of creative control as producers would. When a substantive editor is assigned a finished manuscript, the process is often less about building and more about shaping with what’s there. Crediting only producer-like editing would also sell short the vast contributions of the copy editor and all other members of the publishing team that make a book happen.

Norton also talks about “the growing sentiment that in this era of digital books in general, and the rise of self-publishing specifically, that conventional publishers were no longer relevant or required.” He adds, “I believe the most important role that publishers perform is the one they are strangely reluctant to celebrate: the editor and the process of editing an author’s manuscript into a readable book.”

Traditional publishers may have reason to bemoan the rise of the ebook and self-publishing, but editors hardly do. At last year’s Vancouver launch of I Feel Great about My Hands, I had the opportunity to speak with David Mitchell, who I believe was quoting one of his friends at the Globe and Mail when he said that these days, “Anyone can be his own publisher, but very few people can be their own editor.” I know some successful freelancers who now deal almost exclusively with self-published authors. Although I’d be the first to acknowledge that there is a lot of rubbish out there, more and more self-publishing authors are beginning to see the value in having an editor’s expert eye pore over their text—and they’re willing to compensate that editor accordingly.

The thrust of Norton’s article, though, is that he feels books should be catalogued not only by author but also by editor, which “would give readers another recommendation engine, another way to discover new fiction: follow the editor.”

As a nonfiction editor—and as an editor who never acquired projects—I have no coherent theme in my list of work, and such a recommendation engine based on my projects wouldn’t be particularly enlightening. One aspect of my job that I love is that I can be a generalist, learning a little bit of something about everything. (Editors with a more specialized focus may yield more useful results to the general reader.) Still, I’d appreciate the built-in portfolio aspect to such searchability—it would certainly make it easier to show prospective clients and employers what I’m capable of.

Kobo gets into publishing

I’m a bit slow on the draw here, but Kobo announced yesterday that it’s going into the publishing business. (I find it a bit curious that, a day later, none of this information seems to be on the main Kobo site—at least not in any of the obvious places, such as its blog or press centre.)

Apparently Kobo will be actively acquiring new titles and editing as well as designing them. I wonder what rates the company will be willing to pay its editors and whether they will be competitive with those of traditional publishers. Will Kobo bother to hire top-notch editors? Or will it take advantage of the low-cost outsourcing opportunities available on such sites as Elance and oDesk? It’ll also be interesting to see what the workflow will look like and whether this further addition to the burgeoning ebook medium will lead to formal, systematized professional development opportunities to train editors on ebook best practices.

Generally I’d say that the recent growth of ebooks is good news for editors; as many of my colleagues have discovered, helping self-publishing authors with their manuscripts can be huge business. However, with the glut of uncurated content, it can also be hard to impress upon the authors the importance of professional standards (I take heart in the fact that people on social networks still bother to correct others’ spellings—though Muphry’s Law does apply), and being an editor for a self-publisher can also mean becoming de facto project manager—a role you may or may not have wanted.