Vook App: Reckless Road Guns N' Roses
The Social Networking Potential for eContent

eBook Indexes & User Interface Features

The more I talk to people about the uber index idea, the more I realize the significant effort required to create and implement it, particularly in the e-reader app.  I still believe it's a viable solution for rich content, but maybe it's not something we'll see in the short term.  So how about a few simple thing between now and then?

Let's start with a "back" button in the e-reader, to take you back to where you just came from.  Every time I've clicked on a link in an ebook and it takes me to an earlier/later spot, there's no easy way to go back.  (Note: Regarding the back button, I'm talking specifically about the iBooks reader on the iPad.)  Or how about when you're in the index and you click on an entry, hop to it but it's not what you were looking for?  You're stuck on that page and you have to manually find your spot back in the index again.  Imagine a web browser without a back button.  Pretty awful, right?  So why do we have to live with e-readers without back buttons?

How about pop-up windows?  Why are all the popular reading apps typically built with just a single window in mind?  Imagine how frustrated and less efficient your day would be if your computer only let you open one window!  In the index, if I press and hold an entry, show me a preview of where I'll be taken if I make that selection.  It's the same concept I use all the time in my Bing search results, so that I can preview where I'm heading before I leave the current page.

And how about similar functionality in the body of the book? Press and hold a word or phrase and you get a list of related entries and "see also's" from the index.  For example, let's say I'm reading the "Get Online" chapter of iPad: The Missing Manual and I see the term "3G".  If I press and hold it in my iPad ebook reader there should be a list of links to where 3G is first defined in the book.  But there should also be links to where related topics are covered, such as AT&T, cellular network and even wifi, so that I can understand the difference.

Next, similar to pop-ups, why not let me have a split view into the book, or, heaven forbid, allow me to have two books open at the same time, both visible on the screen, one using the top half and the other using the bottom; these are basic features we take for granted in apps like Word or Excel but they're nonexistent in the ebook app world.

The index is such a critical element of a print book and it could take on so much more functionality in ebooks.  Which reader app will be the first to enable these types of enhancements?  I'm not particularly loyal to any one of them, so I just hope at least one of them offers these features sooner rather than later.


Liz Castro

Excellent article. Thanks! What I want to see is some way to differentiate index entries in an ebook. In print, I know that "125-138" indicates more in-depth treatment than say "125" and indeed, "125-126" indicates something different than "3-4", even though it's the same number of pages, just because we know that "3-4" is probably in an introduction.

And how are we going to label index entries at all? Of course, page numbers won't do it. So what's the alternative? Could size or color indicate depth? A bar that grows or shrinks according to depth?

I love the idea of pop-up summaries when you click an index entry. And what about if when you jumped to the referenced item, it was highlighted, at least temporarily, or you could choose to display indexed passages at will? How many times have you followed an index entry only to not be able to find the reference you're looking for?

The Back button is absolutely essential. The Nook's edition of Pride and Prejudice provides return links when you go to the glossary. I appreciated it even though it was kind of ugly.

I'd love to hear more thoughts on this topic.

Eric Granata

This would be great! I especially like the idea of two books being displayed side by side. It'd be extremely great if you could reference (link to) other other books in your library.

You might be interested to know that my iPhone app, Audio Footnote, has a new version coming soon that allows you to listen to parts of the audiobook where a note was taken without losing your last listened to spot in the audiobook.

Eric Rumsey

I like your idea of split view or two books open at the same time. The current one-book-at-a-time linear model of eBooks doesn't work for a lot of non-fiction that invites flipping back and forth. Having multiple views of the same book or different books on one screen would be help a lot. With people having gotten used to reading ONE BOOK on an iPhone, how about having multiple books/views on a desktop-size screen?

Bill Seitz

Considering that ePub is just packaged XHTML, I could see a model where browsers become the main ePub readers. Then a lot of this barrier between the book and web goes away...

Belinda Leon

I'd like to be able to skip huge chunks of text. I frequently flick through books at random to see if any interesting passages jump out at me, most of the eBook readers that I've used make me flick through every. single. page. This is enormously frustrating, and takes a very long time for me to find the bit that I'm looking for. More often than not I don't know what chapter the quote was in, but I don't want to have to re-read the whole thing to find it.


A couple of these features are in Plucker, an e-reader app for the older Palms. A back button, for example. It was designed as an offline browser, but it's not bad as an book reader. Another feature of Plucker: it's possible for it to use any font you need it to. I don't know about the dedicated e-book readers, but my other e-reader apps have a limited selection of fonts.

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Richard Comfort

All of the things you list would, of course, be great. No argument there. But your article is 4 years old now, and a lot has happened in that time. eBooks are clearly here to stay; their sales volume is high and growing apace. Have your thoughts changed since then? Where would one find the latest ideas on this subject? I think we need to focus now on why any publisher would adopt any of these ideas. Do indexes really help sell books? Impossible to prove, and the answers are probably different for various markets and types of books. Take academic books, eg. Lucky to sell 900 books; money losers except for the occasional hit. I don't think any of these ideas would really change the economics. What would? Maybe we have to modernize our concept of what indexing is and why it's important. CMS is not a marketing handbook. And I think we need some new concepts of how indexes can be effective marketing tools in various markets.

Rod Shelton

Not all books require an index, but if you do, then I would have thought whatever you do would need to work across all platforms. I'm rather horrified, if I've read you correctly, to hear there is no 'back' button on the iBooks reader for the iPad. I don't have an iPad, so this was news to me. OBVIOUSLY the reader would need to go back to the place they just left in the index if the link they clicked didn't find what they wanted. There is no elegant way to provide a 'back' link in the main text and, as there might be more than one link from the index to the same item in the main text, this would make the idea well-nigh impossible. I make e-books which work on Kindle and epub 2 e-readers, as these are the most widely available platforms. It's limiting, and it would be nice to be able to, for example, hilite the target of a link, which I believe would be possible in an epub 3 e-book, but then this e-book would have a limited market at present. I've just finished a series of posts on indexing e-books (http://www.rshelton.org/2014/09/how-to-adapt-print-index-in-your-ms.html), and had rather assumed there would be a 'back' button on the majority of e-reading platforms. This is a rather unwelcome bit of new information!!!! I don't think it is possible to do more in an epub 2 e-book than to re-work the print index, replacing the page numbers with links to the main text. You can go a long way to making such an index useful by careful consideration of the text used for the link, in fact using a piece of text which explains the nature of the information it points to is a big advance on what you get in a print book. But this strategy is busted wide open if the bloody e-reader doesn't have a *$%&ing 'back' button!!!!

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