ASI Announces Golden Turkey Award

Sarah Palin's Book Receives ASI's First Golden Turkey Honors

Wheat Ridge, CO (November 20, 2009)—The American Society for Indexing (ASI) wishes to present its Golden Turkey Award for misadventures in indexing to Sarah Palin and HarperCollins for Going Rogue. In these days of Google and full-text search, many people don't realize how crucial the art and science of indexing still is. Palin's book performs a crucial public service. The inaccessibility of information in this text makes it clear to any reader that a good index is essential to a book's long-term value.

Sarah Palin's Going Rogue has no index at all—a brilliantly simple if deviant way of proving the need for an index, worthy of one who prides herself on being a bit of a maverick. The sheer difficulty of using Going Rogue for any purpose beyond that of a doorstop turns it into an ironically elitist text. Now, other tomes from diverse parts of the political spectrum have been published without indexes (most recently and egregiously, David Plouffe's The Audacity to Win). What makes Going Rogue stand out is its sheer importance. Whatever one thinks of Ms. Palin, no one can doubt that she was a principal player at the center of an historic campaign. Scholars of the political history of the early 21st century will have to consult this book, a task which the lack of an index has made nearly impossible. If Plouffe’s account were compared to Eusebius of Caesarea's biography of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, Palin would be Constantine's rival Maxentius, defeated at the Milvian Bridge. Valuable as Eusebius's manuscript is, late antique historians would kill for a first-hand account from Maxentius—and if it were 432 pages long, as Palin's Going Rogue is, and as full of public and personal incident, their first job would be to give it an index.

Why does any of this matter? If all one is going to do is read a book from front to back and then forget about it, indexes don't matter. But books are our way of storing and accumulating knowledge, checking facts, comparing viewpoints. It's very hard to do that without an index. What about full-text search? Well, all I can say is, how is that working out for you? Electronic searches are very good at finding words, but they're bad at finding concepts. If you're looking for information on "agriculture," you might miss all sorts of valuable information that uses the term "farming." A good index, written by a professional indexer (who is an actual person with a brain, not a piece of software, although indexers use dedicated software programs to perform mechanical aspects of indexing such as accurate alphabetizing) will pull together all related concepts regardless of the words used to express them. Ever had the experience of entering a search term and getting 45,679 hits, and had no luck narrowing the parameters? An index will provide subentries for major terms in a text so you can find the aspect you're interested in. In other words, an index does the full-text search for you.

Why are books published without indexes? Publishers and authors usually cite time and cost as the reasons for putting out a book without an index. Neither is a very good excuse. Indexers go to work when the text has been finalized and is going through the final proofreading stage, so there's no need to tack on extra time to do the index. In a pinch, a good indexer can produce a satisfactory index to a 400-page work in three days. Indexes can add to the final cost of the book in two ways. First, the indexer usually makes between $1,000 and $1,500 for the index to a standard-size text. For a book with the projected sales of Going Rogue, this is hardly likely to break the bank. Second, depending on the book's length, including an index may require the publisher to add another quire or signature of pages, which will affect the paper and binding costs (this consideration is not an issue for e-books, which as the technology improves will be released with embedded indexes that hyperlink to relevant parts of the text). Palin's book has, on my count, at least seven blank pages available, which could have held a respectable index. (Plouffe's Audacity to Win, on the other hand, has none, and an index would have required an extra quire.) In any case, given that the index often helps sell a book (by giving potential buyers a taste of what's in store) and greatly improves its functionality and long-term value, leaving the index out is a false economy. That is why ASI awards its Golden Turkey to the publisher, as well as the author. HarperCollins deserves as much credit for Going Rogue's lack of an index as does Palin herself.

The "context" argument: Commentators on Palin's missing pages have suggested that she perhaps deliberately left out the index to foil "the Washington read," a practice whereby one skims the text by judicious consultation of the index, particularly for instances of one's own name. The Washington read, it is argued, results in snippets from the book being taken out of context. T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) refused to have an index for The Seven Pillars of Wisdom on this account, and the French literary establishment not infrequently argues against the use of indexes on this basis. (I would not have thought Sarah Palin would be inclined to side with Lawrence in particular or the French in general, so I assume, if she does indeed espouse this view, that she came to it via a different route.) In any case the argument is specious. Biased readers can take snippets of the book out of context without any assistance from the index; news coverage of Palin's book so far has made that abundantly clear. Rather than ensuring contextual reading, the abandonment of the index ultimately ensures a book's place on the remainder shelf—your own, or the bookseller's.

So congratulations are due to both Sarah Palin and HarperCollins for their outstanding demonstration of why every serious book needs an index. ASI salutes you.

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