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I am interested in whether there are any compelling reasons why print books should always have page numbers. In particular, I am thinking of books comprising many elements that are each typically smaller than a page and each entry is itself numbered.

I am compiling a reference book of historical source material, which will be self-published. It will comprise approximately 2,000 short excerpts from eighteenth-century newspapers that have relevance to a particular field. The excerpts are ordered chronologically, with typically 2 to 10 excerpts per page, each one headed with a sequential number (followed by the date and source). The book has a detailed index where readers can look up which excerpts relate to a specific topic but, unlike most indexes, the cross-references point to the excerpt numbers rather than page numbers (since this is more specific than making the reader scour an entire page in search of the relevant sentence or paragraph). My feeling is, therefore, that also numbering the pages complicates matters unnecessarily.

However, my experience is that reference books of this type do always explicitly number the pages, so I am wondering if there are good reasons for that. For example, I have a few naturalist field guides that are like this. In one guide to African birds, there are entries for 600 different species, presented 2 per page, with each entry sequentially numbered. Thus, the index entry "Barn owl: 203" is ambiguous; is the barn owl covered in species account number 203 (on page 112), or is the species account for barn owls on page 203? Unfortunately, I have field guides with indexes of both types, so sometimes I find myself guessing wrongly which system they have used and taking twice as long to look something up.

My goal is for my book to be as streamlined and user-friendly as possible, which is why I am interested in the pros and cons of page numbering in situations where explicit page numbers seem superfluous and potentially introduce ambiguity/complexity. My question, then, is whether there are situations like this when it is acceptable not to number pages.

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    If you're going to include a table of contents or an index, page numbers are essential. Would it be possible to show one set of page numbers in one font and the other in a different font (or color or size or location or...)? – Ralph Crown Aug 10 '17 at 20:13
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    @RalphCrown Well, in this case the point is that the index doesn't make use of page numbers but is an index of excerpt numbers. Colour is a good suggestion (but in my case an unaffordable luxury as it increases production costs sevenfold over black & white). I take your point about the table of contents. In my case, the table of contents will likely be very simple: p1 How to use this book, p2 The excerpts in chronological order, p400 Index. But I see that if I decide to start adding things like Preface, Acknowledgements, Glossary, etc then page numbers will become necessary. – Daniel Austin Aug 10 '17 at 20:34
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    @DanielAustin One reason is when flicking through the book, it's much easier to look for page numbers (which are always in the same place) than excerpt numbers (which, given there will be >1 per page, might not be). – Muzer Aug 11 '17 at 9:34
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    @Muzer Along that same logic, the spacing of excerpt numbers is not constant. I can guess how far though the book 50 pages is, 50 excerpts could vary wildly depending on the sizes of the 50 excerpts between the table of contents and where you want to go. – JMac Aug 11 '17 at 11:37
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    Yes, yes and yes. It's already in an answer but I want to stress it: page numbers make it easy to find things. People intuitively do a binary search when they want to find a page: open the book in the middle, decide which half it's in, etc. The very important part is that page numbers are equidistant, so if you open the book at page 250, you have a pretty good guess where page 62 will be. Nothing like that with numbered entries. If you need a practical example, just try how much faster you can find a page in a book than a word in a dictionary. Never ever even consider omitting page numbers. – Gábor Aug 11 '17 at 16:23

11 Answers 11

35

Even if you don't intend to index your entries by page number, you'll annoy quite a few people if you omit page numbers.

  • Librarians, who need to file number of pages,
  • printers, who need page numbers to assemble the book from sheets,
  • archivists, who prepare digital copies and need page numbers for these,

...and so on.

Table of contents should always refer page numbers, but you're welcome to take liberties with the index; in particular, make it alphabetic - and you can use both systems:

131: Lion Abbey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 87

132: Lion Cathedral . . . . . . . . . . . . 87

284: Lipp Wood . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .169

  • Thank you. All good points. I am starting to wonder whether it might be better to avoid having two competing numbering systems in parallel, and simply use an augmented numbering system for numbering the excerpts. For example, on page 78 would be excerpts 78a, 78b, and 78c, then the next excerpt which starts on the following page would be numbered 79a, and so on... – Daniel Austin Aug 10 '17 at 21:34
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    @DanielAustin - That idea crossed my mind, too, but I'd recommend against it. IMO, excerpts should have excerpt numbers, and pages should have page numbers. One interesting thought: What if your book has a hardcover, paperback, and large-print edition? It's possible that number of excerpts per page may change from format to format. – J.R. Aug 11 '17 at 1:36
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    @DanielAustin: You can make the numbering less ambiguous by numbering the excerpts differently from the pages: for example, number them E1, E2, E3 etc, or give them roman numberal numbers (Excerpt XVII). – psmears Aug 11 '17 at 10:26
  • @J.R. I personally feel like it'd be better, as the reader can easily find which page said excerpt is on. – Ave Aug 11 '17 at 11:07
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    Absolutely agreed that as print format changes, page numbering to excerpt mapping does too. The Bible is a good example of dual numbering system: pages, vs book, chapter, verse(s). All references are to the latter, but the table of contents still has the former, and it varies per edition. A special mark to distinguish excerpt from page is a good idea. One of approaches common in science is multi-level numbering, 3. Excerpts, 3.1 Excerpts of Plato, 3.1.1 [first excerpt], 3.1.2 [second]... etc. It's particularly helpful in non-paginated media like a webpage. – SF. Aug 11 '17 at 12:13
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Pages are the unit by which users manipulate physical books. Personally I hate books that are indexed in anything other than page numbers. Even if your excerpt sizes are extremely consistent I'll still hate you for making me do math in my head (there are about 6 excerpts per page, so to find excerpt 1397 I should turn to approximately page...uh...hrm.) If you tell me that I want excerpt 1397 and it's on page 246 then I have a good intuition about where it is within the book.

If you have many short pieces on a page and nice clear headers (or excerpt numbers in the margins or whatever), then giving those in the index is nice (though optional). I have a book with the complete works of Shakespeare and I've often wished it had stanza numbers or something in the margins. But pages are the primary unit of print content and they are essential.

The Haynes auto manuals are a particularly bad example. They have sections ranging from a paragraph or two up to a full page or more. They don't have page numbers and it is absolutely infuriating trying to find something. If you say I can read about diagnosing the ignition module in Chapter 10 Section 19, I have to guess at where the chapter is within the book and even once I find part of the chapter I have to guess how many pages to turn to find the section I want. The situation there is exacerbated by poor typography: the section headers don't stand out as well as they could. But I've never seen a reference work indexed in something other than page numbers which was pleasant to use.

Yeah...this is a big pet peeve of mine, so...I tried to give examples and reasoning, but I apologize if I've still failed to make it something other than an opinion-based rant. Feel free to edit or whatever.

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    Agreed, except that when the book is to be read online or in other formats such as eBook, page number indices get silly. – Wildcard Aug 11 '17 at 1:43
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    @Wildcard - Only silly if there is no corresponding print edition. I've been doing some research lately, and I've thought the ideal combination for me would be an e-version of my primary tome (so that I can do quick searches), but I'd love it if the e-book was paginated in the same way as my hardcover edition, so I could easily find that page and start reading from there. – J.R. Aug 11 '17 at 1:48
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There are three ways to look at this question:

1 What is the convention?

The convention is clearly to have page numbers. In fact, books without page numbers are so extremely rare (I haven't seen one) that this alone should tell you what to do. Readers are used to page numbers. In some instances you will even cause your readers difficulties, if you omit them (try citing a sentence from a book without page numbers in APA). So do provide page numbers, unless you want your book to become the subject of an APA formatting question here on this site.

You might also want to think of future editions of your book. Maybe new information will come up that you need to include. What will you do then? Will you have entries like "22a", or will you renumber all entries?

2 What is the disadvantage to having page numbers?

There is none. Page numbers don't interfere with your numbering system.

There are many examples of books in which entries are ordered according to some system, such as telephone directories, dictionaries, editions of classical texts (where the numbering of sections remains the same accross different editions with differing page numbers), and so on. Some of these are cited by entry (e.g. a dictionary entry is cited as "s.v." or the Bible is cited by book and verse), and if your book is of this type a convention for citations will evolve. But all of them have page numbers as well. Do these confuse readers? No.

Readers expect indexes to point to page numbers, unless something else is specified. If you index by entry number, simply put a small reminder at the top or bottom of every index page.

3 What is the meaning of your numbering system?

There is none. Your numbers are random. You could reorder your entries (e.g. backwards, by topic, by newspaper, etc.) without a change in meaning. So the numbers are meaningless.

Now try rearranging the verses in the Bible (or the paragraphs of a law). Or insert a verse (or pararaph) that was found in a new version of the text (or added through legislation). Does that change the meaning of the text? Most certainly. That is why the numbering has meaning. The order of the verses in the Bible (or the paragraphs in a law) is not (always) random. In fact it is the result of a long struggle over what is the authoritative text. (There are in fact editions of the Bible with different numbering! Just think about how confusing that is to the layperson.)

Or try rearranging the entries in a dictionary or telephone directory. You will no longer be able to find what you are looking for, because the alphabetic ordering is a convention beyond that individual publication. Therefore it works without page numbers as well – and it does not work with page numbers alone!

Those are examples of meaningful entry labelling. What would a meaningful labelling of your entries be? Since you take your entries from newspapers, a meaningful label would be the name of the newspaper, the date of the original publication, and the page number of the newspaper, maybe plus the name of the author. A meaningful label would thus look like "Times 1867-12-31:4" or something like that. That would also be a useful information, as it tells the reader something. But I cannot (yet) really imagine a sitution where I would think of a snippet from a newspaper as "Austin Number 238". Your collection would have to come to surpass the original sources you cite from in veracity, and that is quite unlikely.

Please note that when I say that your numbering system appears to be meaningless I don't intend to imply that it is useless. On the contrary, I find the idea to index by entry number brilliant and would strongly recommend that you do so. What I would suggest, though, is that you

number your pages.

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    Having page numbers that are purely sequential from the start of a book may increase the cost of producing editions that only change a few sections unless sections end with a few "this space left blank" pages. If sections are reasonably large and start on page boundaries, and if the outside edge of the book has seciton-marker bars, having pages numbered within each section may be quite practical. – supercat Aug 13 '17 at 22:12
  • @supercat That's complete nonsense. Inserting material was a problem when you had printing plates, that were not easily changed, stored to print future editions. With today's digital printing, where there is no physical matrix of the book, inserting pages into the digital file from which a book is printed is as unproblematic as editing any other text file on your computer. – user26251 Aug 14 '17 at 6:49
  • Producing a printing plate is a lot less work today than in decades or centuries past, but it's not free. For books which have some portions that change frequently and others that change seldom, the cost of storing plates may be less than the cost of remaking them. Alternatively, after a press is set up one may run more copies of the parts that are unlikely to change, so as to avoid having to set up the press for those portions when printing the next edition. – supercat Aug 14 '17 at 19:46
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If you are ever going to print the book then page numbers are essential for Librarians, Archivists, Academics, Researchers and a lot of people who interact with the physical object of the book.

e.g. This is the 2018 edition 603 pages and XXII pages of indicia.

The other reason for page numbers is to identify if someone rips a page out of your book. Vandalism happens.

If your only editions will be electronic then "page" numbers are best left off and you can stick to your excerpt numbers. Unless you'll make it available as a PDF with images/pages locked. A PDF which allows text reflow is just like any other ebook/database format.

Bibles have page numbers even when nobody refers to them. Actually beginners are often told a page number so they can catch up quickly.

I hate Chapter+Section indexes - how far forward from 2-15 is 3-30?

Tips for Printed Volumes

I used to be a Book Publisher in a previous life.

If you don't want to list both page and excerpt numbers in your index because it becomes too big or unmanageable, print the most useful one (probably excerpt). Then make page number index available as a free download.

You will make a mistake somewhere in 2000 excerpts so make your errata available too. If you run print on demand, then I suggest version control so customers can determine which edition of the reference they have.

@Michael Kjörling pointed out in a comment errata indexed primarily by excerpt may be the most useful way to do it. That way, the errata would be equally useful regardless of what format of the book a reader may have, and the reader is likely already looking at the excerpt so have the excerpt number right in front of them.

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    Of course, for a book like that which the OP seems to be working on, errata indexed primarily by excerpt may be the most useful way to do it. That way, the errata would be equally useful regardless of what format of the book a reader may have, and the reader is likely already looking at the excerpt so have the excerpt number right in front of them. – a CVn Aug 13 '17 at 11:20
  • Totally and 100% right @MichaelKjörling. I'll edit the answer to include that. – paulzag Aug 14 '17 at 5:19
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If you want anyone with any academic pretensions (e.g. undergraduates, researchers) to cite your book you must include page numbers so that it can be easily referenced.

As well, I have used books that use section numbers rather than page numbers in indexes and they are really annoying -- how do you know where a section starts or ends?

  • Thanks. I would undoubtedly agree with your second point where sections are larger than a page. My question is really about cases where there are multiple entries per page. – Daniel Austin Aug 10 '17 at 21:43
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It sounds you are mostly concerned about page numbers getting confused with entry numbers.

One way you could rectify this – assuming your book has chapters – is to number the excerpts with a dot notation using the chapter number first. Thus, Chapter 1 would have Excerpts 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, etc., and Chapter 2 would start with Excerpt 2.1, then continue with 2.2, 2.3, etc.

If you really want to make your book as "user-friendly as possible", I'd recommend including page numbers. People are used to referencing page numbers; if I saw something in your book that I wanted to show someone else, I'd probably be mildly irked that I couldn't just make a mental note of a page number like I do with virtually all my other books.

2

I remember that some Gamebooks didn't have page numbers, but excerpts numbers. Normally a book of the "Fighting Fantasy" series had 400 of these sequential excerpts, and you could easily find them by turning multiple pages and making an intuitive search.

So your answer is: No. Not all books should have page numbers.

Also, the concept of pages is becoming obsolete with the growth of digital books. You can choose your own font size and device to read, and this is incompatible with a fixed number of pages.

Nevertheless, if you're going for print books and want to avoid ambiguity, you could explicit it: "Barn owl: entry 203" or "Barn owl: page 112" or even "Barn owl: entry 203 (pp 112)".

2

From the other answers it seems clear that, perhaps unfortunately, you need to use page numbers, at least in print. And you don't want to connect the excerpt numbers to page numbers, to allow different editions with the same excerpt numbers.

So why not make it easy to distinguish both uses of numbers? I mean, whenever you use a page number you write p87 (including in the footer or header of each page), and whenever you use an excerpt number you write ex103. Or something similar.

If you do that consistently throughout, then things should be clear (and perhaps a bit ugly, but not too ugly I think).

2

You need pointers. But when they are inherent in the content, and self-indexing, I'm going to stick my neck out and say no, you don't necessarily need page numbers. We manage very well without them in eBooks.

I'm not impressed by the argument that printers would muddle up the pages without them. My experience with printers is that they reproduce the PDF you send them, and their machines don't spew out piles of individual pages that could potentially get out of order. And you could always number pages in the area outside the crop marks, if you felt it necessary.

An academic reference can quote the pointer just as easily as a page number. "British Prime Ministers. OUP 2017. 'Churchill'" is just as useful as "British Prime Ministers. OUP 2017. p.27"

  • Most eBooks have page numbers... – FuxieDK Aug 12 '17 at 15:53
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    But purely arbritary ones, depending on screen size, font size and other reader preferences. As I have to keep reminding my eBook conversion clients when they send requests for changes after proof-reading... I don't know where THEIR page 123 is. – Laurence Payne Aug 12 '17 at 17:10
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Having page numbers makes quality control easier for printed books. In any random or pseudo random group of people you will have a variation of intelligence. This is demonstrably true of pressmen. Some of them are stupid. some are mean or like to pretend to be stupid, so if your book has page numbers you are much less likely to have pages out of order and much easier to fix if it happens.

Having page numbers for ebooks is just annoying. Don't believe me? try changing your font size. What happened to your page numbers? Does the second chapter start on the same page number? Should it?

  • The point about ebooks is valid, but also depends on the format. If the ebook is delivered as a PDF, page numbers make just as much sense as they do in a physical book. If it's delivered in a freely reflowable format, then they obviously don't make any more sense than page numbers for parts of a web page. – a CVn Aug 13 '17 at 11:23
0

Page numbers, with or without index, are primarily used to secure the reader, so (s)he knows nothing is missing.

If you have a book/stack of papers, with page numbers 1-2-3-5-7-8-9, you instantly know, you are missing two pages, and you can (with relative ease) see that page 1 is the beginning and page 9 is the last page.

Without page numbers, you might not know, if paragrafs line up.

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