The original version of this post was published on the Publishers Association website for their Work in Publishing Week in 2018 (original link currently not available) and is republished and self-archived here with their permission.
For this year’s Work in Publishing Week, I would like to tell you a little about book indexing. This is a part of the publishing industry that you may not have ever considered, but a substantial number of us work in UK publishing as professional book indexers.
Indexers create the index at the back of a book. Many people are surprised that this is a job done by actual people. No, it isn’t all done by computers nowadays and, yes, an indexer has to read the whole book to do the index.
Indexing is an ancient art. Handwritten indexes (or concordance word lists) have been around for thousands of years, and printed book indexes date back to just after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the late fifteenth century. Indexes are still incredibly important today. Have you ever tried to find something in a non-fiction book with a poor index, or worse no index at all? Indexes remain vital in ebooks too. A Ctrl-F search can only get you so far. A good index is a detailed map for the key contents of a book.
Indexers come to indexing via various career paths but here is my summary. I always loved books and wanted a career in book publishing. I did a degree in English and American Literature at UEA (University of East Anglia) and tried to get into publishing straight after graduation. This didn’t happen, so I first worked as a clerical assistant at a council and then at a Manchester examination board, where some work involved checking proof stages of examination papers. Following this, I got a job at a magazine publisher in Manchester, proofreading all their feature support advertising. I then became employed as an in-house proofreader in a large print solutions company, which had an entire proofreading department. Here we checked everything from business cards up to university prospectuses. I then moved to another magazine publisher as an editorial assistant, but that company soon closed down. I had been thinking of going freelance so this rather focused the mind. By this time, I had several years of in-house proofreading experience, so I sent out CVs to many publishers. I began to get freelance proofreading and copy-editing projects, working from home in Manchester, and I became a full-time publishing freelancer at the age of 27. I joined the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP – now the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading; see ciep.uk), which brought me more work through its online directory. It was also via SfEP that I first heard about the Society of Indexers (www.indexers.org.uk).
The Society of Indexers (SI) was formed in 1957 and it currently has around 400 members. SI runs a Training in Indexing course by distance learning, which leads to the qualification of Accredited Indexer. I took this course, while working freelance, and I highly recommend it. You progress through the course at your own pace up to a maximum of four years. Once qualified, I could advertise this to publishers and take an entry in the online SI Directory of Professional Indexers. Now nearly all my freelance work is in indexing. There are many wise owls in SI and they’re all extremely generous with their time and advice. It’s invaluable support for a freelancer.
What are the best things about being an indexer? When indexing, you are learning all the time, and you ‘get inside’ the book in an entirely different way. I’m always proud to have created a permanent, visible part of the book. It is also a real buzz to see your name acknowledged in the credits. I am often commissioned directly by book authors and it’s great to work closely with writers, including literature professors at my old university UEA. This year I have indexed books on subjects such as Winston Churchill, Fry and Laurie, horror movies, Ted Hughes, musical modernism, the Peterloo Massacre, pigs in America, and the history of the vampire, so it can be a very varied role. Indexes can be intentionally funny too; for example, the recent ‘memoirs’ of comedy characters Alan Partridge and Steven Toast feature highly entertaining indexes, which I enjoy reviewing on my blog.
And what makes a good indexer? You should be a methodical, accurate and motivated worker with excellent language skills. Obviously you need to love reading; you’ll be doing a lot of it. Indexers have to think like the reader: what will they need to look up in terms of names, concepts, cross-references, etc. Often we work to tight index length requirements, not to mention tight deadlines. We use dedicated indexing software programs but these don’t index the book for you; they just automatize some technical aspects. Indexers either work from final page proofs (hard copy or pdf), or directly in the Word manuscript or InDesign proofs file, embedding entries within the text so that the index can regenerate correctly if the text format changes. This is particularly useful for ebooks, as index entries can be linked to an exact location. We have both the technology and knowhow to do this, but it is currently underused.
Some closing advice then. Be keen, persevere, keep learning, and see the Society of Indexers for more. I know I’m very lucky that I get paid to read books all day every day. I got into book publishing without moving to London (although I freelance for many London book publishers) and I have now worked on over 800 books. Freelancing isn’t for everyone but it’s an excellent option if it does suit you. Publishing can be a wonderful industry and I truly love working as a book indexer within it.
Paula Clarke Bain is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society of Indexers and the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, and she was Marketing Director of the Society of Indexers from 2017 to 2020. You can find her on Twitter at @PC_Bain or on her website at www.baindex.org. For further information on the Society of Indexers, see Twitter @indexers or www.indexers.org.uk.