An American Editor

September 17, 2018

Book Indexes — Part 4: The Metatopic

Ælfwine Mischler

A few years ago, I was asked to index a book about a medieval ruler and the mosque and city he built. The book was primarily an architectural history, but it included substantial information about the city and about the ruler’s childhood in central Asia and its influence on the mosque’s architecture.

But I was told that the names of both the ruler and the mosque, and the name of the city, were not to appear in the index.

I interpreted this to mean that those names were not to be main entries. There were entries on the other cities in the country discussed, so I put the forbidden city as a subentry under “cities,” and I made entries for “education of X” and “rise to power of X” even though I knew that they ought to be subentries under the name of the not-to-be-named ruler.

Being very much a newbie at the time, I asked for a volunteer to peer review my index. My reviewer rightly asked why I had not put main entries for the ruler and the city. When I told her that that was what the editor and author had requested, she suggested that I make a second version of the index with those items properly indexed and give the editor the choice. I did that, but the editor replied that they had decided on the first option. I later saw that in the published version they had also removed the education and rise-to-power entries, as well as the cities main entry so that the “forbidden city” was nowhere to be found in the index, although the other two cities retained their main entries.

Why? I have never understood why the client did not want those items in the index when they were so obviously part of what the book was about.

Long-time indexers say that they were taught decades ago not to index the main topic of the book — what indexers now call the metatopic. Now, though, whenever we peer-review an index, the metatopic is the first thing we look for.

It has been found that when readers use an index, they usually look first for the metatopic that is apparent from the book title or subtitle. If the book is about aardvarks and readers do not find “aardvarks” in the index, they do not conclude that the index is bad; they conclude the book is bad, with nothing about aardvarks.

Obviously, you cannot put everything as subentries under the metatopic, or you would be indexing the whole book. A joke among indexers is of a graduate student who was asked to index his professor’s book. When it came to the metatopic, he started to add page numbers — 1, 2–3, 4, 5–7 — and then threw up his arms with “It’s on every page!”

But under the metatopic(s) — there can be more than one — an indexer can put subentries that cannot stand alone as main entries, such as a definition or other items that readers are unlikely to look for in the index, and then add See also cross-references to guide the reader to the entries for the main discussion. Every main entry in the book should relate to the metatopic(s) in some way.

Here are some of the subentries I put under the metatopic “Egyptology” and the See also cross-references in the index of a three-volume history of Egyptology. (This was a run-in index, which is reflected in the wording, but I am displaying it here as an indented index.)

Handling the metatopic(s) is not always easy, and indexers have different ways to approach the task. The metatopic(s) may be easy to identify from the title or subtitle, or by reading the introduction and conclusion — which indexers read before beginning the index. On the other hand, in a complex scholarly book, the metatopic may not be readily apparent. An indexer may formulate the metatopic as a sentence or short paragraph before deciding on a concise phrasing suitable for an index entry.

As a reader, do you look for the metatopic when you open an index for the first time? Are you disappointed if you do not find it? Have you noticed a difference in indexing styles between older and newer books?

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

July 15, 2010

Aquiring Books for the TBR Pile: The Special Problem of eBooks

Avid readers are easily identified by the size of their TBR — to-be-read — pile: The bigger the list, the more likely the avid reader has crossed that fine line from avid read to avid hoarder. And ebooks are a special problem in this mix. But let’s begin at the beginning.

As my latest hardcover acquisitions were delivered by the post office, I decided it might be time to take a long, serious look at my TBR pile. The problem was that there were no spots available on my primary TBR bookshelf for these new books (only 2 this time, but I have several more due this month). My system isn’t scientific, but what it is, is this: When new books arrive, I put them on a top shelf because these are (supposedly) the books that are of most immediate interest to me and the ones that I think I will get to shortly. (Many, but not all, are added to my On Today’s Bookshelf articles, On Today’s BookshelfOn Today’s Bookshelf (II), and On Today’s Bookshelf (III).) But to add them to that shelf means that a book or two have to be moved from the shelf. Room is limited.

So now I have moved a couple of books off the primary TBR shelf and into the vast stacks of TBR. Perhaps I’ll get to the books moved, perhaps not — at least that is what I am finding. I currently have more than 200 hardcover books in my TBR pile and on my TBR shelf. And as I note, that is just my hardcover books.

Which brings us to the special problem of ebooks. Yes, ebooks are a special problem because they take up virtually no space — just a bunch of bits and bytes, digits if you will, on a disk that can store gigabytes of digits. And so that TBR pool steadily grows. I looked this morning and I have more than 300 TBR ebooks, and that pile keeps growing.

What happens is that I read an ebook from the TBR pile and discover that I really like the particular author’s style. So rather than picking up another book from the TBR pile, I go buy other books from this liked author and read them. Not only hasn’t my ebook TBR pile declined by more than the one book, it has likely grown as I’ve added more to it while reading the like author’s books. Of course, if I discover that the author is terrible (sadly, a not uncommon finding with ebooks), then I not only stop reading the current ebook, but I tend to remove the author’s other books from the TBR pile. But they don’t disappear; they are still in some ebook zip file on my hard drive, just no longer in my TBR pile.

But unlike the hardcover TBR pile in which each hardcover book was purchased for money — definitely, one would think, an incentive to actually open the book and at least try reading it — I discovered that a good 80% (and probably closer to 85%) of the ebooks in my ebook TBR pile cost me nothing — they were freebies. This represents another problem or two.

First, it means that I am relentlessly adding to my TBR because it doesn’t cost me anything to do so. But that also means that the author hasn’t received any benefit. The author can’t receive any benefit until I actually read the ebook and discover how truly great the author is (we can only pray and hope). But, second, it also means that what was at the top of last week’s ebook TBR list because it was the most recently acquired, is now lost somewhere down the list, and unless it has a catchy title, there isn’t anything about the ebook to move it up the list.

That is a distinct difference between an ebook and a hardcover in my two TBR piles. Even a hardcover that I haven’t yet read although I bought it 8 months ago has a good chance of being the next book I read from that pile. The cover can attract me as I glance over the stack or the title can catch my eye as I rapidly skim the pile. With ebooks, that is much harder. Covers are often so amateurish that they are a turn off rather than a turn on. And it isn’t easy to skim covers or even titles. Finally, let’s face it, few books — e or p — really have great, catchy titles. Titles are the last bastion of the great marketer and few of us are great marketers.

So when does the TBR pool become so overwhelming that one says “Stop!” It’s easy with my print books because they cost me money and require space to store and I can rationally (although I have yet to do it) give those books the old Clint Eastwood make-my-day squint and say, “Enough! No more buying of books until I read 50 of these books!” But that moment never comes with ebooks, especially with free ebooks. There is no cost and no storage problem.

Consequently, ebook authors are disserved by readers like me. They get rewarded if I actually read and like their book because I will then immediately buy and read nearly everything else they have written. But that is the problem — they need to get read in the first place, and the only way to do that is to be at the top of the list, which is itself nearly impossible. An ebook TBR is like the drowning pool.

I have to admit that part of the problem is the poor quality of so many ebook offerings. I want to hedge my bets and make sure I have plenty of choices because of every 10 ebooks I acquire, I am certain that 8 or 9 will be trashcanned within the first 30 pages of reading. (In case you wonder why, take a look at some past articles that can be found under the tag Professional Editor, such as On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!)

eBooks are a special TBR problem. I’m not sure how authors can solve it. It is truly a Catch-22: If you don’t offer a book for free, who will sample your work but if you do offer it for free, how can you know it will ever be read as opposed to hoarded? I suppose if you develop a reputation for quality that would help, but getting the word out that your writing is quality is tough. At least in my case, my ebook TBR pool is begging for a reliable solution.

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