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Friday, January 19, 2007

Heard on TWiT : David Pogue on indexing.

I'm sincerely sorry for database fans hoping for a post on query optimization, but this post will talk about book indexes. You know, books. Made of paper. And ink. With page numbers, a table of contents, and a really old-fashioned user interface which doesn't even offer full-text search.

Books, then. I heard mentioned on TWiT that David Pogue writes his books' indexes (or is that word "indices" ? I never know.) himself. All the hosts seemed to agree this was a waste of time and, well, basically, nuts.

Apparently when you've just finished a technical book and it's time to write an index, the standard way to go is : don't do it. The publisher will handle all of that by himself, either by hiring a "professional indexer" (now that sounds like a rewarding job) or by running the book through an indexing script that automatically generates the index. Some super-scrupulous publishers who think of themselves as catering to the high-tech book connoisseur crowd will, maybe, use a combination of the two.

Please allow me to be the first to say: "Huh ?".

When I'm shopping for a technical book, I have to figure out in a few minutes whether it will help me answer my questions on the subject in a timely manner. And in such a short time, I can't do much more than skim a few random pages, then ask myself a couple of likely questions and try to answer them using the table of contents and, of course, the index. If it's good -- and assuming I had some sleep in the last twenty hours or so -- I'll quickly find an obvious word related to my question, and this will point to a page where I'll find the answer. If it's not good (and I've found most tech book indexes to be pretty bad) I won't.

Now according to an old TWiT I just listened to, David Pogue doesn't do this the traditional way. (Which I should really call "the lazy way".) He believes he can do a better job himself, seeing how he wrote the whole book, and this gives him a better grasp of the content and the kind of question a typical reader might look for in the index.

Now that is a radical idea...

1 comment:

pogueNYT said...

Man, you are SO RIGHT. Good thing I never heard them say I'm nuts to do my own indexes, because I would have blown my stack.

There is NOBODY who can do as good a job on the index as the author, who intimately knows both his subject and his audience.

Nobody.