Here’s How Indexing Could Evolve with Ebooks

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Here’s How Indexing Could Evolve with EbooksLast month I shared some thoughts about how indexes seem to be a thing of the past, at least when it comes to ebooks. I’ve given more consideration to the topic and would like to offer a possible vision for the future.

Long ago I learned the value an exceptional indexer can bring to a project. For example, there’s a huge difference between simply capturing all the keywords in a book, and producing an index that’s richly filled with synonyms, cross-references and related topics. And while we may never be able to completely duplicate the human element in a computer-generated index, I’d like to think value can be added via automated text analysis, algorithms and all the resulting tags.

Perhaps it’s time to think differently about indexes in ebooks. As I mentioned in that earlier article, I’m focused exclusively on non-fiction here. Rather than a static compilation of entries in the book I’m currently reading, I want something that’s more akin to a dynamic Google search.

Let me tap a phrase on my screen and see the other occurrences of that phrase in this book, but let’s also make sure those results can be sorted by relevance, not just in the chronological order from the book. And why do the results have to be limited to the book I’m reading? Maybe that author or publisher has a few other titles on that topic or closely related topics. Those references and excerpts should be accessible via this pop-up e-index as well. Ad if I own those books, I’m able to jump directly to the pages within them; if not, these entries serve as a discovery and marketing vehicle, encouraging me to purchase the other titles.

This approach lends itself to an automated process. Once the logic is established, a high-speed parsing tool would analyze the content and create the initial entries across all books. The tool would be built into the ebook reader application, tracking the phrases that are most commonly searched for and perhaps refining the results over time based on which entries get the most click-throughs.

Sounds a lot like one of the basic attributes of web search results, right?

Note that this could all be done without a traditional index. However, I also see where a human-generated index could serve as an additional input, providing an even richer experience.

How about leveraging the collective wisdom of the community as well? Provide a basic e-index as a foundation, but let anyone contribute their own thoughts and additions to it. Don’t force the crowdsourced results on all readers. Rather, let each consumer decide which other members of the community add the most value and filter out all the others.

This gets back to a point I’ve made a number of times before. We’re stuck consuming dumb content on smart devices. As long as we keep looking at ebooks through a print book lens, we’ll never fully experience all the potential a digital book has to offer.

This article first appeared on Joe Wikert’s Digital Content Strategies.

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One thought on “Here’s How Indexing Could Evolve with Ebooks

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Quote: “And why do the results have to be limited to the book I’m reading?”

    Because that is a bad idea. Both Adobe and Apple have that “feature” as part of their built-in help services. It’s awful, utterly awful. When I need assistance with a particular app, I don’t want to see results for half-a-dozen other apps. The same is true with a book. I don’t want results from gosh-knows where cluttering up my life. I want to know results in that book, intelligent results driven by the work of a profession indexer. Everything else is garbage.

    The key issue is that no one is going to spend the money to hire people to make these search results only bring up useful results. Software will mindlessly look for the search term. I’d rather have nothing than that. If I want to do outside-the-book searches, there are a host of tools for that.

    This also distracts from the core problem with digital books. Fifteen or so years in, publishers still can’t do with ebooks what Gutenberg did easily with his first moveable-type book. Can you do an attractive poetry book in epub? No, it still looks like one on a Palm Pilot. Can you create the sort of complex layout that my The Lord of the Rings reference, Untangling Tolkien, requires and that I did in the print version about 2003 when it came out. Again no. Digital remains a format for fiction and uncomplicated biographies.

    Virtually no attempts have been made to do with digital books what only digital could do (i.e. accordian text to hide or reveal information). Ebooks could do a host of things print could never do. Instead it does less, far less. No wonder that, for everything but addictive, book-a-day genre fiction, readers are deserting the format. It didn’t come close to fulfilling the hype.

    And what is the bold new idea to revitalize ebooks? Oh, I know. Concealed under the jargon, rich format, it’s to clutter ebooks with advertising, so these already cheap but disliked ebooks with be even cheaper and more disliked. Oh, yeah. That’s just what people want in their next novel, an intrusive auto-play news byte from CNN, the most in-your-face name in broadcast news. Not.

    Ebooks are failing because those who control what ebooks look like and can do seems to be clueless twits who can’t thing beyond the webpage analogy. You see that in the fact that those who create epub and ereaders have yet to realize that, unlike webpages, ebooks are a page-based format. The software needs to be capable enough not merely to reflow text but to do so in attractive, useful ways.

    If automobiles had progressed this slowly, car in the 1930s would have still had hand-crank starters and forced passengers to sit out in the weather like in a horse-drawn carriage. Pitiful.



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