Why you need and how to work with a book indexer: a guide for authors

An edited version of this article first appeared as ‘Indexers, all about’ in the Autumn 2020 issue of The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, republished here with permission.

Indexer Paula Clarke Bain makes the case for her profession and describes how authors can work with indexers to get the best results

An index provides the last word and often a reader’s initial access point to a book. Nearly all non-fiction books, and some fictional works too, benefit from having a good index at the back. Should the index be done by the author or a professional indexer? I’m an indexer who now does most of my indexing work for authors. I was asked to provide an overview for The Author of why an author might want to use a professional indexer and how to find, commission and work with one. Here I’ll give you an indexer’s insight into what you need to know.

Changes in publishing

I have been an editorial freelancer for nearly 20 years and seen many changes in the publishing industry. A major one is the amount of indexing I now do directly for authors. Fewer publishers now commission indexers, so their authors are told to do their own index or to find an indexer. The author is therefore now more often responsible for paying for the index. Some authors can get grants from an awarding body to pay for their index, e.g. universities for academic authors. I have heard of authors who refuse to pay for the index, putting the responsibility back onto the publisher, but this could risk the book having no index at all. Nobody wants that outcome, so the decision is then whether to index the book yourself or find an indexer.

DIY or professional?

Some authors are very good indexers. An author is obviously familiar with and close to their text. But maybe too close. Writing a book and indexing it are different beasts. Professional indexers are trained to consider the text from various readers’ perspectives and include additional access points, cross-references and synonyms. Indexers will index the book they read, not the book the author thinks they wrote. An indexer has the skills, training and years of experience of indexing books well and to tight deadlines. Experienced indexers index fast, probably with a far quicker turnaround than the author could. (A rough estimate is 10 pages per hour, so maybe 30 hours for a 300-page book, done in one working week. This is our job, remember.) We also have the right tools, namely indexing software. This software won’t do the intellectual heavy work but speeds up certain automated processes – alphabetisation (and letter-by-letter/word-by-word sorting), run-on or set-out format, page range elision style, etc. A Ctrl-F search can’t fully replace a human indexer. Computers don’t read like a person, so they can’t index like one. You may have tried doing an index yourself and hated it. Indexing a book is not easy.

So say you don’t have time, you don’t want to do the index, you wish to commission an indexer, and you have the funds to pay for a professional. How do you find one?

Finding an indexer

Indexers’ societies are the best place to start. The UK professional body is the Society of Indexers (SI), founded in 1957. SI has a Directory of Professional Indexers on its website, listing its trained Accredited Indexers, searchable by subject and skill. Other international societies have their own directories.

You could ask fellow authors if they can recommend a particular indexer. Maybe check the acknowledgements page of a book with an index you admire. Indexers don’t always get a credit from the author, but it’s most welcome when we do. Some publishers keep their own lists of freelance indexers, or they may point you to the SI directory.

Check an indexer’s credentials on their directory entry or website. See which other authors and publishers they have worked for. Look at their subject specialisms. Seek out examples of their indexing work. Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature often includes part or all of the index, and some publisher websites offer a free download of the index.

When you have found your preferred indexer, it’s time to make first contact.

Hiring an indexer

You should make your initial enquiry to an indexer as soon as you know you will need one. This could be several months before the index deadline date. It’s best to be thinking about this early, as in-demand indexers get booked up in advance. Don’t leave this too late and risk not finding an available professional.

First contact may be made via email, telephone, website contact form, or even by tweet. Some initial emails I receive say little more than ‘Can you do my index and what will it cost?’. Well, it depends, and a number of factors will affect the length of this particular piece of string.

To provide an accurate estimate, the indexer will need the following information from the author:

  • Title and subject of book.
  • Index deadline date and date proofs available.
  • Publisher name and their indexing style guidelines.
  • Length of book (word count preferably or page count).
  • Format of index – At page proofs stage, a standard back-of-the-book index is needed. However, some publishers request the index earlier at Word manuscript stage. This may involve indexing to paragraph numbers, or might need an embedded index, where entries are inserted at the correct locations in the main text. This adds extra complexity, and not all professional indexers do embedded indexing, so clarify this early.
  • Space for index if the publisher has specified a maximum number of pages or lines.
  • Readership level, marketing blurb and budgetary constraints are also useful.

The author will need the following from the indexer:

  • A yes or no for taking on the work – If it’s a no, they might suggest an alternative indexer.
  • Cost estimate – In 2020, SI recommends indexing rates of £25.90 per hour, £2.90 per page or £7.80 per thousand words for an index to a straightforward text. Hence an index to a book of 50,000 words would cost from £390. SI members are encouraged to maintain these rates. [NB: The updated SI rates for 2021 are £26.15 an hour, £2.95 a page or £7.90 per thousand words.]
  • Payment terms/method – Standard payment terms are 30 days from invoice date. Prompt payment is welcome; late payments cause cashflow problems (as fellow freelancers know all too well). Payment options include direct bank transfer or PayPal. Most indexers are self-employed and pay their own tax and NI. Freelance indexers already worked from home before the pandemic, so that at least has been one constant amid so much other recent change.

After you reach agreement on fee and terms with your indexer, they will book in the time for your index. Please keep your indexer informed of changes in the publishing schedule. We’re used to this happening, and can be quite flexible, but the more advance notice, the better.

Working with your indexer

Well done, you have now secured yourself an indexer.

Eventually you have the final copy to be indexed. This could be the Word manuscript, or the typeset page proofs in an InDesign file or PDF. Email the manuscript/proofs to the indexer and ask if they need a hard copy. Many indexers won’t, as they work entirely on screen. The indexer should acknowledge receipt and tell you that all is fine with the return date.

Now leave your indexer to get on with it for a while. Here is a brief peek under the bonnet at my standard indexing process.

First, I set up the index style in my software. I work on screen, so for a standard index I have the book PDF open on the left, and SKY Index software on the right. For an embedded index, I work just in Index-Manager as this program imports the InDesign or Word text. I like to do an initial skim-read of the full text to start understanding its content and structure. Then I go back to page 1 to begin close reading and inputting entries. Yes, an indexer does have to read the whole book. (We get asked that a lot.) We don’t need to be sent a list of key words because we don’t start from a word list and search the book for them. We build the index list of terms as we read through. When I have input all my entries, I edit the index, concentrating on entry wording, cross-references, balance and length, etc. I print out the full index and do a last proofread on paper, as I can spot different things on hard copy. I save the final index in required format (usually Word or rtf file) and email it to the author. With an embedded index, I email the whole Word manuscript (or InDesign file), with index entries embedded in the text and a generated index list at the end.

Then it’s over to the author to check the index.

Checking the index

It’s helpful if you can acknowledge receipt of the index straightaway. The following are some suggested checks to make:

  • Length, style and format – Is the index the right length for the book? A rough guide is a 5% index, so a 10-page index (in two columns) for a 200-page book. This can vary, but much shorter or longer could be a problem. Is it in the correct publisher style and format?
  • Content – Does the coverage and terminology seem appropriate? Do the entries reflect the book’s themes? Will they make sense to your readership? Is the spelling and punctuation correct?
  • Page numbers/locators – Are these accurate? Spot-check a few, and more if you find errors. Are there long lists of undifferentiated page numbers after entries? Indexers are trained to avoid such ‘locator strings’ by adding subentries. Long page spans can also be problematic.
  • Cross-references – Are there enough cross-references or double-postings to enable the reader to find what they need wherever they may look?

A professional indexer will cover the above so there should be little for you to amend. Time will be ticking anyway, so changes should be minor and quick for the indexer to implement and return. It’s often better to ask the indexer to do these, as they have an understanding of the overall index structure and how amendments might affect other entries. If it’s an embedded index, it’s definitely best for the indexer to update. If you’ve ever done battle with Microsoft Word, you can probably imagine.

There may be some back and forth discussions. Indexers have their reasons for doing or not doing something: for standard indexing practice, or publisher house style, or space requirements, etc. But the author may well have some reasonable and justifiable changes. Indexing can be quite subjective, especially if the publisher has set a tight maximum index length. With one such recent index (on Herman Melville), the author suggested a few additions and we then worked together on removing other entries so the index still met the required size.

You can even collude over the odd ‘Easter egg’ comedic index entry, if appropriate to the book’s tone. These are jokey entries or a nudge/wink to the reader. I always include some in my indexes for a comedy historian, with their permission. Did the character names ‘Pepper, Sgt Floyd (Muppet)’ and ‘Sequins, Fibonacci’ need to be in the index? Well, no, but they reflected the book’s content (The Beatles and rock ’n’ roll comedy), the author and I liked them, and readers might too.

Good communication is key here. I find this author–indexer liaison a rewarding process and it can make for a better index (and indexer). At the end of the day, it’s the author’s book: you need to be happy with its index, the indexer needs to get paid, and the book needs to get published, so author and indexer should work together towards the swift resolution of any issues.

Submitting the index and payment

Once the index is approved, the author can send it to the publisher for progressing to the next publication stage. If you love the index, this may be time to add an acknowledgements credit to your indexer.

The indexer then sends their invoice to the author or paying body. Universities often need freelancers to complete extra paperwork so avoid delays by sorting this early. Payment should be made in a timely manner (please). The indexer wishes the author well with publication, and finally your book is published, with its professional quality index. Congratulations!

Summary of pros and cons

What then are the main benefits of using a professional indexer? Well, it saves you from doing the index yourself. An experienced indexer will be much faster, and has the right training, tools and experience. Indexers can promote your book, via their websites, social media or book launches. Direct contact between author and indexer can produce a better index than both liaising with a middle person at the publisher.

But there are potential pitfalls. The main one is the cost, now more often the author’s responsibility. You may get financial assistance. If not, consider whether giving your book the index it deserves is worth paying for. The index is an investment in a crucial part of your book. Great indexes can sell books. Poor or missing indexes can harm your sales and reputation. Paying an indexer to index your book frees up your time to write more. Writers want to be writing. Indexers are best at indexing.

The end

I hope this is a helpful glimpse into why it’s a good idea to use a professional indexer and how to find and work with one. Personally, I have found it a positive change working more directly with authors. I think it can be far better for the index and the book than the traditional publishing scenario where the author and indexer have no contact. I like being in touch with the author of the book I’m indexing. The authors I work with seem to like being in touch with their indexer too.


ClarkeyFB2

Paula Clarke Bain is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society of Indexers and the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a new Member of the Society of Authors. She tweets as @PC_Bain and her website (with comedy book indexes blog) is baindex.org. Find the Society of Indexers on Twitter @indexers and www.indexers.org.uk.


6 thoughts on “Why you need and how to work with a book indexer: a guide for authors

  1. I agree completely that a professional indexer is ideal. And I HATE badly done indexes – I’ve just pulled out a book on the history of brewing where, under “barley”, there are more than 100 page numbers listed, with no clues at all as to what are major entries and what the context might be, such as time period or location – totally useless, because I’m really not going to waste my time checking every one of those 100+ occasions where barley is mentioned. BUT, as you say, the major problem is cost. I’m just coming to the end of a 300,000-word project for an academic publisher. A professionally done index would cost close on £2,500. I have no doubt that the professional indexer would be worth that payment, for time taken and expertise used. But I doubt I will make that much myself from writing the book …

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Martyn. Yes, no doubt that the cost can be a big problem. I couldn’t avoid discussing it and I do sympathise. Indexers also get increasingly squeezed by some publisher rates when they do pay. We will keep trying to get the word out from our point of view. As you say, readers do notice when indexes are bad or absent.

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  2. More power to you. I did a simple (presenters’ names) but long and tedious indexing job for a medical association’s convention going on forty years ago, and did not at all enjoy it. The odd thing, now I think about it, is that the program had been typeset using a system provided by a company I later worked for; and that software did have an optional indexing package. I suppose the printers found it simpler just to refer their customers to freelancers than to figure out billing

    A good index is worth a lot to the reader, as you say.

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