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How to Contract with a Book Indexer, Part 1

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I’ve heard people swear that they would never buy a nonfiction book without an index. Acquisition librarians use the index to make purchasing decisions. Prospective buyers want to know if the book covers their particular interest; where do they look? You guessed it. Leaving aside the question of whether an index is financially beneficial, many nonfiction books deserve and need one.
OK, you have a book that needs to be indexed. What do you do about it? How do you find an indexer? How do you ask the right questions to determine if this indexer can do your book? How much do you pay the indexer? How long should it take? How do you get the book to the indexer, and the index back from the indexer? How do you know if the index is a good one?
This is the first article of a three-part series on indexing. These articles should be able to help you. After reading this, you’ll have the inside track on finding the right person for the job, getting a quality product, and paying a fair price for it. You might learn a bit about indexing as a profession along the way, and some of the differences between a freelance indexer and other freelancers that you might deal with (e.g., graphic artists, copyeditors). As a freelance indexer, I’ll be able to give you some insight into the process of indexing (and freelancing, a not inconsiderable aspect of the job).
A Brief Introduction to Indexing and Indexes
It’s not unusual for publishers and editors who have not come from a scholarly background, or who have worked mainly with fiction, to have an incomplete understanding of what an index is, its purpose, and the means by which it achieves that purpose. In the simplest terms, an index is simply a key to locating information contained in a book. (For purposes of this article, I will use book indexes as the main example, although many other types of indexes exist, including periodical and Web indexing.)
Ideally, an index will provide references to the location of important information, and deliberately exclude references to irrelevant information. This distinction is an important one, and gets to the crux of the professional indexer’s role. Users of indexes look for important and helpful information when they search for the appearance of terms or ideas. To look in the index and be confronted with a reference that leads to a useless passing mention is an annoyance; this can quickly lead to the user abandoning the book for another, should it happen with any frequency. It may affect sales of the book as well if prospective buyers thumb through the index prior to purchase.
I think the concept of “index writing” deserves some emphasis. For a moment, let’s look over the shoulder of an indexer working diligently on a text. He is reading a passage and comes across what he thinks might be useful and relevant information. At this point, he might turn to his dedicated indexing software program, and make a new “entry” in his ever-growing index. How does he do this? He can’t simply retype the sentence (or paragraph) and put the page number in. No, he must analyze the information that he is referencing and determine the exact and precise wording to most rapidly point the user to it. He must consider the author’s specific language, the possible synonymous terms for that language, and the perspective of the user. He must look at what topic is being discussed, but perhaps not specifically named, in the text. He must think of what other index entries this one relates to and create connections to them (cross-references). He must be concise and accurate, or the reader will be lost. This suddenly seems more daunting than it did a little while ago. This is why indexing is also a form of writing. It is a creative process. No two humans will produce the same index. Each will bring his or her own perspective, knowledge, and experience to the task. One indexer, who has done extensive research in this area, asserts with cited judicial support that indexes are eligible for copyright registration. They are considered original works of authorship, in compliance with Section 102 of the United States Copyright Act.
I entered into this discussion so that you will gain a little perspective on the index-creation process. I also mention the rights inherent in an index in order to stress the importance of the role of an indexer in the book-creation process. You should be aware, as a publisher/editor, that you may not be legally able to publish the index unless you have received an assignment of rights, or you have explicitly contracted for the creation of the index as a “work-made-for-hire.”
As a publisher/editor, you might not be aware of this issue. Perhaps you’ve asked for indexes to be written for previous books without a work-made-for-hire contract. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this will not be an issue. But you need to be aware of the potential for problems. For example, what if you decide to produce an electronic version of the book using an index to which the indexer lays claim to copyright? What if you’re having financial difficulties and pay your indexer late? The indexer might just hold up production and distribution, or cause some disruption, financial or otherwise. Just a point to ponder.
Before you begin looking for an indexer, be certain that your book needs an index. It would be disingenuous for me to pretend that every book needs one. If the information in the book is ephemeral and likely never to need to be retrieved by a reader, then you might not need an index. If the book will not be judged quickly by enlightened browsers who will search for an index, then you might not need an index. If the book is a dictionary or glossary, it might not need an index. Otherwise, I’d suggest an index is pretty useful.
Locating an Indexer
You know a little about indexes now, and the process of index writing. You still have that pressing need to get an index done for your book. How do you find an indexer? For the moment, we’ll leave off the solution of having the author provide the index (even better, his sister-in-law!). That just won’t do. Without question, some authors can index their books competently. But I’m convinced that the majority can’t. Or they won’t want to and will shop it out to a relative, a grad student, or just do a casual job of it. Writing an index is different from writing a book, and the proximity with which the author views the work inhibits creativity with the index. Authors aren’t able to step away from their roles easily and see where a novice reader might need help (finding synonymous terms or other “lay” entries to difficult concepts). Authors aren’t trained in writing indexes. As we saw earlier, it involves more than simply noting important words. The beauty and art of an index lies in building a cohesive, well-interconnected map to the text. The judicial use of cross-references and double-posting, coupled with elegant and utilitarian entry phrasing, can make a well-written index a thing of beauty in its own way (allowing for a liberal interpretation of “beauty”).
Here’s a bit of nuts-and-bolts advice: If you’re looking for an indexer in a special field, contact the American Society of Indexers (ASI). At no charge, they will mail you a copy of the Indexer Locator, a comprehensive listing of indexers with experience or expertise in particular fields. An online version is planned for release sometime in 2001 (at www.asindexing.org). You’ll be able to search by type of material indexed, geographical location, or field of expertise. It’s quite comprehensive. While you’re there, look around the excellent Web site and find out a bit more about the organization. ASI also has numerous local chapters—check for one in your area and see if a member can make a presentation to your company, to answer questions about indexing. Finally, note that ASI also has a number of special interest groups (SIGs) and some might fall into your field.
Ask your colleagues who indexes their books. Nothing beats a word-of-mouth recommendation from someone you trust.

Do a Web search. Many indexers have Web sites. This is especially useful because a comprehensive indexer Web site can offer a ton of information about that person. You might be able to see titles of books he has done. You might see a list of past clients or other relevant experience. You’ll certainly be able to judge how he presents himself professionally.

Find a book with a really great index. Maybe one that’s in your field and really has all the bases covered (more on judging indexes later). Look in the book for the name of the indexer and contact him. If he’s not listed (as is usually the case—why must we perpetuate that?), contact the press and ask who wrote the index. Most presses are glad to help.


When looking for an indexer, you’ll want to think about what you’re really looking for. Does your book cover a very esoteric subject? Do you feel that your indexer must know the field? Should he possess an advanced degree in that field? These are important questions. A professional indexer is usually well-read and well-rounded. Liberal arts colleges churn out many people qualified to index, with proper training. (There are other job prerequisites that drive most of those candidates away, screaming.) A seasoned professional can approach most texts and do an excellent job. If you feel you need a real expert in the field, one can be found. You can use the Indexer Locator to find specialists or ask those indexers whose sites turn up on a Web search. Read their resumes. Ask for their experience in the field. I, for one, stay away from extremely scientific (physics, chemistry, etc.) and legal materials.


Regardless of your time crunch on this project, remember that you should offer a project to, and negotiate with, only one indexer at a time. It’s not professional to send out a broadcast to a dozen indexers and play them off each other (knowingly or unknowingly).

Dan Connolly operates Word for Word Book Services in Barrington, Rhode Island.
E-mail: dan@wfwbooks.com. Web site: www.wfwbooks.com. Phone: 401/246-3303.


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