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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Gee

Adding value with a professional book index

Hiring a professional book indexer may seem like a cost you could do without. Perhaps your publisher has offered to create an index more cheaply in-house (possibly from a set of ‘keywords’ you provide), perhaps you are planning on indexing the book yourself, or perhaps you’re not intending to have an index at all. I’m going to explain the value a well-crafted index, created by a professional book indexer, will bring to your book, and the additional value you get on top of that from working constructively with your indexer.

Why bother with an index at all?

I’m a book indexer by profession, so – guess what – I think book indexes are A Good Thing. Here’s why an index adds value to your book:

  • An index will help sell your book. The prospective reader can see, at a glance, that it contains just what they are looking for. There’s more of a risk if there’s no index.

  • A well-indexed book will be more likely to appear on academic reading lists because it will be more useful for students to return to time and again.

  • An index will enhance your professional reputation because non-fiction books without indexes feel cheaper and lower-quality.

  • An index may influence book reviewers to give more favourable reviews. (Reviewers often note when books lack indexes.)

  • Even for e-books, an index gives you so much more than a search of the full-text. Think about how (good) indexes gather together topics under main headings and subheadings, provide multiple access points using synonyms, and direct you to other parts of the index using cross-references. Additionally, (good) indexes only direct you to pages where something significant is said about the topic you are looking up. They are not bloated by lots of references to passing mentions. You don’t get any of that with a full-text search.


can't I index it myself (and isn't there a software programme that will do it for me?)

Let’s talk about ‘automatic’ indexing programmes and why they’re not a good idea:

  • You will likely get a concordance (an alphabetical list of the words/short phrases that appear in the book, and the pages they appear on). A concordance is not an analytical index.

  • There will be no distinction between homonyms (words spelled the same but having different meanings).

  • There will be no provision for grouping together references to the same topic that might be referred to using different words in different parts of the book. Instead you will have references to that concept scattered throughout the index.

  • There will be likely be few or no subheadings, so the reader will be faced with long strings of undifferentiated page numbers after a heading. Do you really expect them to wade through them all?

  • There will be no synonyms or cross-references, so if the reader doesn’t happen to hit on the ‘right’ word for a topic, they’ll draw a blank.

So, ‘automatic’ indexing is a no-go, or at least, you’d need to do a lot of work on the results to achieve something that resembles a workable index.

But what about doing it yourself? Honestly, by the time you finish it, you’ll probably regret it.

  • Indexing is a laborious process, especially without the specialised indexing software that takes away most of the drudgery (but not the intellectual input) from the task. Do you have several days/weeks to devote to the task?

  • You will need to familiarise yourself with indexing conventions and standards (BS ISO 999:1996, Information and documentation – Guidelines for the content, organization and presentation of indexes, in case you are interested. Yes, I have a copy close to hand).

  • You will spend more time than you’d like bothering about things appearing in their correct alphabetical order. It sounds easy, until you try it.

  • If you need an embedded index (where the index is generated from tags inserted into the book manuscript by the indexer), creating one is quite a faff and rather technical. There’s plenty of scope for things to go horribly wrong. So you will have an additional learning curve – on top of learning how to ‘do indexing’.

Even if you have the time, inclination, and temperament to index your book yourself, it is unlikely that you would produce the best index for your own book. You are simply too close to the text to be able to view it objectively and analytically, and to put the reader needs first (rather than your needs and preferences).


why hire a professional indexer?

Here’s how professional indexers (like me) can enhance the value of your book.

I’m a professional indexer, and like all other indexers who have achieved Accreditation with the UK Society of Indexers (SI), I undertook rigorous training and assessment to get that far. Like other Fellows of the SI, I have a longstanding commitment to my own continuous professional development. I bring along a set of academic qualifications and professional experiences prior to indexing that gives me expertise in a range of different subject areas, in addition to which I have an ongoing curiosity to learn about new things. And like other professional indexers whose livelihood depends on their reputation and – often – repeat business, I don’t just think about what will be a ‘good enough index so my client will pay me': I care.

1. I care about the different groups of readers who might consult the index for different reasons (readers who haven’t read the book yet and those who have; readers who are new to the subject area and those who are experts) and I ensure I cater for all of them. (See my previous blog post about different reader groups for more about this.)

2. I care about matching the index to the tone of the book. Within the constraints of good indexing practice, I can tweak how formal/informal the tone of the index is, in keeping with the book; index entries may be technical and ultra-concise, or more descriptive. And if the book uses humour and it is appropriate, I may inject some whimsy into the index too.

3. I care about drawing readers in. So, if your book includes an interesting anecdote about Edward Elgar’s penchant for killing wasps, I’ll be sure to include it in the index (and yes, I have indexed this).

4. I care that you understand any significant indexing decisions I have taken, in particular where I have needed to make a call between two or three alternative, equally valid, approaches. Often I will seek confirmation from you about these matters very early on in the indexing process, but in all instances when I deliver my index I provide supplementary information for your benefit, pre-empting queries that might arise when you review it.


how to get even more value from your indexer

Here are some things you can do to work with your book indexer to maximise the value of the index.

  • Try to line up your indexer as early as you can. That way you will ensure you get the right indexer for the book, rather than the only indexer who can fit the project in at short notice. It is so frustrating to have to turn work down that I would dearly love to take on, but simply can’t fit it in. Indexers are happy to pencil work in weeks or months in advance, and plan their other work accordingly. And we are all used to dealing with schedule changes. So really, there’s no need to leave it to the last minute!

  • Ensure the book is in the best shape it can be before the indexer receives it. If there are a few small typographic errors or inaccuracies that the indexer spots, they will usually flag them up to you (and they will certainly flag them up if they impact the index). But for books riddled with mistakes, they won’t – it’s not their job to do this. However, the index will likely suffer, and you might need to pay the indexer again down the line, if substantial changes to the manuscript cause repagination issues.

  • Don’t insist the indexer adheres to a set of ‘keywords’ you provide. These make indexers’ hearts sink! You should trust that the indexer will tease out important concepts from the book, and ‘keywords’ are too prescriptive. That said, if there is a concept or terminology that you think the indexer might not pick up, but it is something you know the readers will likely look up, do pass it on.

  • Give the indexer adequate time to complete the index. Indexing a 200 page book may take 1-2 working weeks, but it is better if the indexer has longer than this. Aside from the fact that they will likely be scheduling your book index around other projects so that bit of wriggle-room is always helpful, providing ‘extra’ time enables more time for the indexer to think. As with writing, sometimes when indexing we just get ‘stuck’, and rather than ploughing on regardless, some time away from the project is often beneficial to get ‘unstuck’ again. (Either via an ‘aha’ moment in the shower or wherever else we do our best thinking, or after running a tricky issue past indexing colleagues.)

  • Check the index when you receive it. Preferably, your indexer should perform any subsequent changes. Sometimes seemingly minor changes can have ripple-effects throughout the rest of the index, and the indexer will know how to manage this. (See my previous blog post for more about checking an index.)


how do I find a professional indexer?

If you want to find a professional indexer in the UK who works on books in your subject area, check out the Society of Indexers’ Directory of Professional Indexers. You can search by subject area and book type (if relevant), and click through to view indexers’ profiles. Do also check out their websites and/or LinkedIn profiles – they usually complement one another to give you the whole picture.


want to see an example of a computer-generated 'index'?

Get your hands on the book Index, A history of the by Dennis Duncan. The Appendix includes an extract from a computer-generated ‘index’ to the book, and it compares very unfavourably with the excellent index created by an intelligent human indexer.

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