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The Whys and Hows of Indexing

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by Mary Harper

Does my book need an index? That question comes up for anyone who is publishing nonfiction. As an indexer, I know that there are at least four good reasons to answer it with Yes.

1. Book reviewers often look for an index as a sign of quality. An index helps a book reviewer assess a nonfiction book’s scope and treatment of a subject, so the inclusion of a high-quality index can increase the chances for a positive review.

2. Indexes increase sales in stores. We have all observed people using an index to help them decide whether the book contains what they’re looking for. Think about how information-loaded our lives have become and how useful an index is to someone who feels short of time.

3. Indexes increase sales online. When a book’s index is available via a search-inside option, and when that index is a good one, it has the same effect on readers as on reviewers. .

4. Indexes increase sales to libraries. The library market expects a nonfiction book to have an index. As Robert Broadus says in Selecting Materials for Libraries, “a good index should be expected in any work except creative literature.” Richard Gardner, founding editor of the library review journal Choice, puts it even more strongly: “Publishers need to be told that nonfiction works without an index are practically useless in libraries and in the long run will lose sales.” And S.R. Ranganathan, an early expert on selecting library books, declares in Library Book Selection: “To get into a book without an index is like getting into a forest without a trained guide.” Even more passionately, he says that producing a nonfiction book without an index should be an indictable offense.

Librarians are schooled in collection development. In public libraries, public-school libraries, and university libraries, you will find an index listed in the criteria library staff are trained to use when making book-purchasing decisions.

It is also worth noting that a positive review (see above) is very likely to increase library sales when it comes from a source that librarians trust.

Who—or What—Can Do It Right?

An index is an information-retrieval tool. According to Nancy Mulvany, the author of Indexing Books from the University of Chicago Press, “An index is a structured sequence—resulting from a thorough and complete analysis of text—of synthesized access points to all the information contained in the text. The structured arrangement of the index enables users to locate information efficiently.”

Since the library market, reviewers, and readers judge books in part by the quality of their indexes, it is obviously important to create a high-quality index. Don’t make the mistake of relying on automated “indexing” software. 

Here are two examples of entries for Franklin Roosevelt from a history book, one created by software, which can only produce a concordance, and the other created by a professional indexer.

Roosevelt, Franklin D., 5–9, 16, 17–18, 

31, 43, 45, 54, 64–65, 68–72, 88, 105–108, 


Roosevelt, Franklin D.

armed forces integration, 64–65

banking crisis, 5–9

Civilian Conservation Corps, 265–270

declaration of war, 16

GI Bill enactment, 54

Japanese American internment and, 17–18

mortgage foreclosures, 105–108

New Deal initiatives, 45, 68–72

USO mobilization, 31

WAAC legislation, 43

War Refuge Board formation, 88

Which format do you think readers would prefer?

Indexing a book is “the most painful, horrible, mind-numbing activity you could ever wish on your worst enemy,” as Olav Kvern and David Blatner recently stated. The authors of the InDesign CS3 software manual, they add that indexing is “the kind of task that a computer should be great at.” But, they go on to explain, “it’s actually impossible for a computer to do a good job of indexing a book by itself. A good index requires careful thought, an understanding of the subject matter, and an ability to keep the whole project in your head at all times. In short, it requires comprehension—a quality computer software, at this early stage of its evolution, lacks.”

Kvern and Blatner make this recommendation: “Hire a professional indexer. The author of a text is the worst person for the job. You simply know the material too well (or, if you don’t, why in the world did you write the book?) to create a useful index. A professional indexer will read and understand your text, and will create an index that opens it up to a wider range of possible readers than you ever could. It’s what they do.”

Indexers generally charge by the number of typeset pages in the book. The page rate varies with factors such as density of text (expected number of index entries per page), complexity of material (technical terminology, footnotes, etc.), and page and font size; typically it doesn’t apply to front and back matter. An indexer may want to preview 10–20 pages from the midsection of a book to evaluate these factors before giving a firm quote.

The index for a 200-page trade book that will probably average three index entries per page might cost $400–$700, while the index for a 200-page scholarly book with footnotes might run $750–$900. Rush deadlines sometimes incur additional fees, so giving an indexer ample lead time will help keep your costs down and help ensure the highest quality index.

To find professional indexers and information about them, visit the Web site of the American Society for Indexing (ASI) at asindexing.org (ASI is the only national, U.S. professional association for indexers). For some advice on working with indexers, go to its Advice for Editors & Authors Web page at asindexing.org/site/publishers.shtml. And to judge sample indexes provided by people you are interested in hiring, see the Indexing Evaluation Checklist at asindexing.org/site/checklist.shtml.

Mary Harper of Access Points Indexing produces print and electronic indexes for authors, self-publishers, large and small corporate publishers, and packagers. To learn more, visit accesspointsindexing.com or email mary@accesspointsindexing.com.



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