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The Essential Index

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The book is finally done, and now it’s ready to go to the printer. But wait–what about the index? Authors tend to forget about indexes entirely, and some publishers eliminate them to save time and money. Does a book really need an index? The answer–except for fiction–is yes. And the index must not be just an afterthought or an expanded, alphabetized table of contents.

Can You Do It Yourself?

Those who entertain the idea of doing an index themselves or getting a novice to do it should read the chapter on indexes in the Chicago Manual of Style. Still a standard in the industry, it provides a detailed how-to guide on the intricacies of indexing.

Although the author–being most familiar with the book–theoretically should be the best indexer, I have yet to meet an author who is capable of doing one that is adequate, let alone excellent. Authors are so familiar with their topics that they tend to lose sight of how the readers will use the index, and they can’t acquire indexing conventions in a crash course.

Nor can they rely on indexing features that come with software. The weakest of these merely pick up headings in a book, and the best are only as good as the humans who use them. Like spellcheckers and grammar-checkers, indexing software provides skeletal tools with built-in limitations. It cannot substitute for the brainwork of picking and choosing and combining.

Indexing, like editing, is subjective. Just as no two edited manuscripts are exactly alike, each index is unique. The exemplary indexer is both logical and creative.fm/Aindexer grasps the overall theme of the book and what the author is attempting to convey and determines which concepts to emphasize, which to subordinate, and how to relate them to the whole. Most of all, the accomplished indexer senses what the reader needs and wants in the index. An index, then, is a careful, thorough compilation covering every important concept in the book.

Who Can Do It for You?

Assuming you agree that a book must have an index and that you need a professional to prepare it, how do you go about finding and evaluating an indexer? The first step is to visit the library or bookstore and examine indexes in books similar to yours. A glance at the table of contents and index will give you an idea of what a book covers. If you find books in your field without indexes, you’ll know you’ve already got the jump on them as competition, since many libraries–and ordinary readers–won’t buy a book that doesn’t have an index.

Check the indexes in comparable books for a few terms you think should be there. If the terms are included, follow the locators (i.e., page numbers) to ensure accuracy. Notice how the index terms are cross-referenced and how subentries function. If an index has only one level of entries, it may not provide sufficient detail.

When you locate an index that is satisfactory, you can contact the book’s publisher to ask for the indexer’s name and contact information. You also might check with authors and publishers among your associates to learn about their indexing experiences. And the Internet is a great source. Visit the Web site of the American Society of Indexers (www.asindexing.org). ASI has an online Indexer Locator service and also publishes a directory. Sometimes an indexer’s familiarity with a particular topic or region will be especially helpful. If the book is highly specialized, seek an indexer with experience in the specialty.

Making Contact, Making a Deal

A phone call has no substitute. When you call a potential indexer, briefly introduce yourself and the book, including timeline and number of pages. An indexer who is available and interested will seek more information. Why was the book written? For whom? Are the readers familiar with the topic? On the mechanical side, what are the page dimensions, and how many pages are available for the index? When will the book be available for indexing, and what are the time parameters? If the book is technical or scientific, do specific indexing guidelines and standards apply?

Highly technical books require indexing with several levels of entries and extensive cross-referencing. And some books benefit from more than one index. For example, a book I indexed for author Dennis Dahlin, Earth-Friendly Inns (Sandbar Willow Press), features three: a General Index, an Index to Green Dining, and an Index to Provisions.

During your initial conversations with candidates, notice whether they seem to be good communicators and, particularly, good listeners. Do they sound confident and professional? Are their questions appropriate? Will they provide references?

If the signs point to go, assuming that the references check out, ask the prospective indexer to provide an indexing sample without charge from a few representative pages of the book. Confident indexers are pleased to display their talent.

The sample should be returned in a timely manner and look professional. Check for accuracy in spelling, page locators, and the like. As a general rule, any entry with more than six (or possibly seven or eight) page numbers should have subentries so readers won’t have to turn to page after page to find what they’re looking for.

For example:


Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC),

10, 67

Carter Notch Hut (illustration), 63

cooperative stewardship, 61

huts in New Hampshire, 62—64

publications by, 68

trail network, 64, 65

Last but not least is the matter of the fee. Indexers usually charge by the hour. The time required to compile a good index relates to the “density” of the material–the number of entries, subentries, and necessary cross-references. After indexing a few representative pages without charge, the indexer will be able to give you an estimate of the final cost. Some publishers–college textbook publishers come to mind–specify a per-page rate, but this usually results in a similar final cost.

Reaping the Rewards

You’ve done your homework and selected an indexer in whom you have confidence. You’ve spoken on the phone a couple of times to see how things are going and made some minor adjustments. You’ve received the index according to your specs and plugged it into the book. You’ve met your printing deadline.

Now–voilà!–you are holding a book of which you are proud. And the book is a source of satisfaction as well to the dedicated indexer, whose satisfaction comes from an invisible role and whose philosophy is that the best part of a book comes last.

Carolyn Acheson, freelance editor and indexer, has two decades of experience in preparing indexes for trade, technical, and professional books. A member of the American Society of Indexers, she can be contacted at Carolyn Acheson, Editing/Indexing Services, 20714—76th Avenue West, Unit 2, Edmonds, WA 98026; carolyn.acheson@verizon.net; or 425/771-8933.

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