In this week’s Ask a Publisher, John wants to know: “Is it much easier to produce a book with endnotes rather than footnotes?” He asks because he was reading Simon Critchley’s What We Think About When We Think About Soccer (Penguin) and while he liked the book, he had to keep flipping to the endnotes in the back for text and photo captions. “I almost needed three bookmarks to read it.”
First off, John, let’s be clear that there are no real differences between footnotes and endnotes. They are both used to expand upon or offer sources for material in the text. What distinguishes them is location: footnotes appear at the foot of the page while endnotes appear at the end of the book, usually before the index.
From a production or typesetting point of view, the work of installing footnotes and endnotes is much the same. Most publishers have software to help with their pagination, and the notes flow easily regardless of location. So it comes down to which approach best serves the reader.
The advantage of footnotes is that they are easy to find. They are right there on the page. As a result, there is a greater chance you will bother to read them, which authors appreciate.
The disadvantages of footnotes become plain when used in volume. The page is cluttered and the text can be difficult to read. Some academic books have more footnotes on their pages than text. Readers can feel an obligation to read every footnote because the damn things are right there, never mind that only a pedant would want most of what they contain.
In a book intended for a general audience, endnotes are preferable, especially if the writer has a lot of notes. The pages of the book look cleaner and the story flows for the reader. If at some point, the reader wants more information, he or she can decide that hunting up an endnote in the back pages is worth the effort.
A third approach to notes is to use endnotes for sources and footnotes for occasional asides, tangents, or commentary. We often use this method in our own nonfiction narratives. The rule of thumb is that the footnote has to be worth the general reader’s time, an ornament to the text. Otherwise, bury it in the back.
Getting back to John’s question about Critchley’s excellent book, we don’t have a problem with the publisher’s decision to use endnotes (although the notes are few and short enough that footnotes were a legitimate option).
Where Penguin did readers a great disservice was in scattering a lot of compelling photographs throughout the text and lumping all of the photo captions in the back.
Some book designers sometimes prefer captions collected in a single location at the beginning or end of a book so they don’t clutter the pages on which pictures lay. It looks cleaner. These book designers should be shot. They care more about how their pages look than your reading experience. It’s plain nasty to present a reader with a great photo and make him or her chase down the caption somewhere else in the book. Especially when the picture begs a caption. To prove our point, we offer no more explanation of the football photos above than what you get on their respective pages in Critchley’s book.
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