Saturday, June 15, 2013

Cookbook indexing blues

One of the great defects of English books printed in the last century is the want of an index
Lafcadio Hearn

Indexing is perhaps the most neglected, unloved and undervalued aspect of book publishing. Dare I say it, indexes are so often dropped because budgets have blown out or the time frame for the print schedule has gone haywire, and the publisher has decided to leave it out altogether. Or, they get staff to cobble together a few keywords and hope for the best. These token indexes don’t serve much purpose or meaning except to infuriate the reader. For readers researching or undertaking intelligent reading, a good index underpins, contextualises and provides accurate, quick access to a book. And an index is essential to a cookbook tome that may have 1000 recipes within it. It’s not just War-and-Peace cookbooks that demand an index – all cookbooks, no matter their size should have an index. To all those people who love cookbooks – have you noticed how many number of bad or inadequate indexes there are?

Just the other day I joined my nearest local library – and what a thing of joy a library is, I might add! I happened to flick through a random cookbook and started to look at its index. I am sad to report that although the publishers thought to update and revise a 2005 published cookbook in 2009 – nobody, I gather paid any attention to the index. I don’t have the first edition of the cookbook to compare so I can’t comment on the integrity of the index but I can comment on the updated edition!

The book I am referring to is ‘Café food at home’ by Rosanna Thomson published by New Holland. If any of you have this at home or have access to a library, have a look through the index and you’ll soon learn a thing or two about how not to index a book.

Check out part of the cookbook mentioned here: cafe food at home

The entry under Juice has this: ‘juice, see beverages’
Turn to ‘beverages’ and there are no entries.
Always check your cross-references to make sure you don’t direct readers to a non-existent entry.

(snippet of the index - can you find beverages?)

(snippet of the index: juice see beverages)

Indexing recipes listed under ingredients is always useful but not so in this case. The randomness in this case is not helpful. Yes, there are recipes under ‘bananas, beef, chicken, chocolate, mushroom, eggs’, etc, which are great. But what happened to headings under ‘pasta, seafood, fish, soups, salads, rice or desserts’? Want to make risotto? Forget looking under ‘R’ for risotto or rice – look instead under ‘S’ for seafood risotto. Look under ‘chicken’ and see if you can find ‘barbecued chicken wraps’. No?

If we want to make a healthy beverage/juice – we have to know to look up ‘afternoon kick’ or ‘breakfast in a glass’, or go to contents table and look up the beverages chapter and flick through it to find what you want.  And yes, you can go back to the contents page and look up headings and page ranges but that would defeat the purpose of having an index - is it not easier to be directed straight to the source? I could go on but I’d better stop here, you get picture.

Please publishers, put a little more care and thought about how you want indexes created and how readers might look up ingredients and recipes. I’ll have more examples to come in the near future – in the meantime, please feel free to share your cookbook indexing stories.



    There's a cookbook I quite like that has a notoriously bad index, so I thought I'd put it to the test the other day. I randomly opened it at a recipe, quickly looked at it, and then tried to find it using the index. SIX TIMES OUT OF SIX, I couldn't find the recipe. It was things like the recipe would be called Maple Quinoa Burgers (or something) and I couldn't find it under "quinoa" or "burgers" or even "grains", only under "Maple Quinoa Burger". SO FRUSTRATING. And it puts me off using the book cause I don't want to read it cover-to-cover every time I want to use it! Anyway, you've certainly inspired me to blog about this and related issues, so I'll try to do that soon! Thanks again :D

    1. Thanks James for your input. I have the same problems too with quite a lot of the cookbooks I have. I end up not using them sometimes, just because I don't have the time to trawl through entire chapters to look for something. I look forward to reading your list.

  2. You ask: "To all those people who love cookbooks – have you noticed how many number of bad or inadequate indexes there are? " As both an indexer and a cookbook lover, the answer is a resounding YES. Indexes are now seen by internal bean counters as a 'luxury item' that a book's production schedule and budget cannot afford. But this is wrong headed - and cookbooks are a great example of why. Indexes are vital to any non-fiction book's usability and usefulness but even more so in books designed to be used over and over like cookbooks.

    1. Thank you for stopping and reading. Thank you for confirming what has been happening for years in the publishing industry. It is the same in Australian publishing - indexes are not considered important or relevant enough for publishers to set aside proper budgets for purposeful work. People seem to think punching in 'keywords' will do with no real insight as to what might serve the reading/cooking public. Perhaps we can start a movement for demanding better indexes for the books we love!

  3. That's really an important topic. I have a dozen of books which have awful indexes. The question is: Is it good to write a book index with a help of a software like Cindex or PDF Index Generator ?

  4. Thanks Michael for your comment. There are quite a few indexing softwares available on the market, i.e. Cindex, Macrex and Sky. Even the old Word program has an index function that can be used to good effect. I am not overly familiar with PDF Index generator - I understand this is a free download? You can pretty much create an index with whatever tool you have - it depends on how much automation you require and how massive and complex the index is. If you're an author creating your own index - it might be an idea to download some trial version of all these software to try out. it's not a matter of is it good to write a book index with software but how well you can write the index. What tools you use will save you time and hassle but the important thing is, you need to know how to index your book that matters more! Hope this helped?

    1. Thanks a lot for the advices. I have started doing that.