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How to Contract with a Book Indexer, Part 3: Give the Indexer a Fighting Chance

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OK, you’ve picked an indexer, negotiated the rate, and scheduled the job. It’s time to discuss exactly what the indexer needs from you to produce the best index possible.

Informing Your Indexer

Indexers need information from publishers in order to write indexes. The publisher has many decisions to make in terms of the layout and design of the index, and he needs to communicate these parameters to the indexer clearly. Here are a few issues to think about–alphabetization, format, subentry arrangement, cross-reference format, levels of subentries, punctuation, capitalization, concatenation, and scope. If these concepts are foreign to you, I’d advise reading Chapter 17 of TheChicago Manual of Style (14th edition). If you want to know even more about these things, try Indexing Books by Nancy Mulvany.

The indexer needs to know generally about the bookandits intended audience. He needs to know if the book is going to be marketed to a different audience than its readership (e.g., college textbooks). He needs to know who the reader is going to be, why that reader will be using the book, and what experience and knowledge the reader will bring. The indexer will use this information to get inside the reader’s head, so that he can write accurate, descriptive, and on-target entries.

You should have a style guide for your indexes. You don’t need to create one from scratch. There are a number available, including The Chicago Manual of Style. If you’ve seen an index that you like in a book, then you can copy that style. There are standards and recommendations for those who really want to get into it. However, for purposes of this article, let’s assume that you are simply trying to publish a comprehensive, easy-to-use index. It’s beyond the scope of this article to recommend certain style decisions, but you should be prepared to inform the indexer of what your style guide is when you send the proofs to him.

To that end, develop a written “indexing guidelines” document in which you clarify the issues I’ve raised above. If you want to choose an existing style guide for your indexes, then make sure the indexer has that information (most indexers have a copy of Chicago, so that’s usually a safe choice). Inform the indexer whether to index illustrations and captions, and whether these references should be identified typographically (boldface or italics). Determine whether the format will be run-in or indented (shown in Chicago and Mulvany’s guide). Send these guidelines with the proofs. In lieu of written guidelines, you could send asample index, and ask the indexer to follow that style. The indexer can extract a lot of information from sample indexes.

You should provide the indexer with some idea of the depth of indexing required, or anindex length to shoot for. Many publishers get these specs from their typesetter, who might say that the index will have available “four, two-column pages, with 48 characters per line and 40 lines per column.” These specs would result in 320 lines at 48 characters/line. These guidelines can help an indexer to edit the index to your specifications. If you don’t give any index length limit, but later realize that you must cut material from the index, give the indexer a call. He’ll usually be happy to discuss this with you (giving you insight into the structure of the index and indicating promising edit points). He might like to rework the index to fit into your new limit. Compensation for this work is entirely up to the individual indexer, but it’s a courtesy to ask his opinion on cuts. Any work that results from “publisher error” should be paid for (not planning the length of the index and then asking the indexer to cut it counts).

The indexer might request acopy of the book on disk. “Find” features in word-processing software can be useful to an indexer in tracking down kernels of information that he might initially have thought inconsequential. The indexer might also use these electronic files to extract bibliographic information in the compiling of an “authors cited” index. This can be a time-saver, in addition to eliminating data-entry errors.

Send thecopyeditor’s style sheet if it is available. This can be very useful in formatting the entries and promoting consistency. Basically you can’t send too much information.


When you send the proofs, make sure they are the final pages. Re-doing work that has already been done on the index, because of re-pagination, will cost the indexer precious time and cost you precious money. Expect to pay the indexer his normal page rate (again!) for any pages that need to be reexamined and/or changed (or an appropriate hourly rate).

Transferring Information

Arranging for the transfer of information can be complex, yet it’s so much more convenient than it used to be. The most typical and efficient arrangement is for the publisher to send the proofs to the indexer (together with indexing guidelines, disks, the copyeditor’s style sheet, and contract) via overnight or second-day delivery. It should arrive on the day before work is to commence (at the latest). This is not difficult nor different than in the past. The new twist is that the indexer now returns the index via e-mail attachment as an RTF (Rich Text Format) document. This method is extremely reliable and efficient. The RTF method maintains the integrity of the index’s style, keeping typographic specs and indents in the appropriate places.

This isn’t the sole method of transferring information, but it is probably the most efficient. Of course, you can work out the details with your indexer of choice.

Evaluating the Index

Once you’ve received the index manuscript from the indexer, you’ll want to check it for accuracy and completeness.The well-qualified and hard-working indexer that you’ve hired has already done all of this, and more, however it’s your book and you might feel more comfortable knowing what to look for. Here’s what you should do.

Check thelength of the index. (Caveat: Space limitations imposed on the indexer can cause problems in this area. Take that into account when assessing the index.) Does it seem comprehensive, given the particular text? One way to examine this is to ask the indexer for the statistics (# of entries or locators per page is a good measure). Compare the statistics with the table in Part 2 of this article series. If you don’t have access to the statistics, count the number of lines in the index (estimate this using the usual methods). Lines divided by Indexable Pages should range from 2 (light) to 10 (heavy).

Check that the mostimportant topics are covered adequately in the index.

Check on theaccuracy of the locators by doing a sampling (5% of the locators). This means looking in the index for a page number under a topic. Go to that page and make sure that topic is covered there. To some extent, you can do this in reverse as well. Look at particular passages in the text, noticing important information. Go to the index and see if you can find that information referenced. Is it where you first looked? Is it in another location? Is it not there at all? I don’t advocate using only the reverse check to assess index thoroughness. Different people can approach the text in different ways, and this is what you have paid the indexer to do. Each indexer writes the entries differently. Each reader approaches the text with their own background, knowledge, and experience. The reverse check is more reliable when it comes to proper nouns (names and places, for example).

Examine the entries and assess whether they are clearly written and easy to understand (given the intended readership of the book).

Do a line edit of the index, checking for spelling andgrammatical errors.

Check for orphan subheadings (a single subheading under a main heading). Eliminate these by moving the subheading up to modify the main heading like so: “indexes, accuracy of.” If the main heading already has page references listed, then the subheading should simply be eliminated and the page reference for it added to the main heading.<+rarE

Check for along string of undifferentiated page references. Seven page references is about the limit before it’s necessary to break these down into subheadings. This isn’t law, but a guideline.


Creating a useful and accurate index is a rather more involved process than it at first appears. Collaboration and communication are vital during the entire process. Don’t leave the indexer out of the loop. Following at least some of these suggestions will lead to steady and dependable professional relationships with qualified, excellent, dependable, and grateful indexers. Who knows, you might be grateful too!

Dan Connolly operates Word for Word Book Services in Barrington, Rhode Island. Contact Connolly via e-mail at dan@wfwbooks.com or phone 401/246-3303. His Web site address is


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