Indexing a Book

Indexing a Book and Getting Along with the Indexer

June 25, 1998
Notes By Sarah Shopkow
Panelists: Jean Mann and Carolyn McGovern, long-time indexers and editors.

Jean started by giving an overview of the field. Indexers are often told that they're lucky because they get paid to read. However, they do not simply create lists of names or concepts. They create information retrieval documents by creating access points to the specific material. The job of the indexer is to create links between the author and the reader, the potential reader (the person who skims the index in the bookstore to decide whether to buy the book), and the past reader (who may want to find a specific passage). These links are not merely lists of key words. If you have any doubt, think of what you get when you do a keyword search on the Internet: if only there WERE an index! Indexers deal with the conceptual. They analyze the subject matter and they synthesize ideas. Indexers may use the author's terminology, but they also use language that readers might think of that the author did not.

Professional indexers no longer use index cards; they have a new barrage of equipment needs: a computer, one of a variety of indexing programs (Macrex and Cindex are two of the top-of-the-line products), and a fax machine (for those pages that strayed out of the editor's envelope). Of course, they need references (e.g., Chicago Manual of Style, Nancy Mulvaney's Indexing Books).

If you are intrigued by the prospect of being an indexer, here are some attributes you should have. At the head of the list, you should be intelligent and able to learn. Indexing is rigorous intellectual work. You should be able to handle deadlines: indexes always come in at the last minute and are needed "right away." You should be able to pay attention to minute detail. You should be flexible and able to work around delays. Because most indexers are freelance, you must like solitary work and be self-motivated.

Most indexers have at least a college education. Some have many degrees. Many have taught themselves the art of indexing; however, the USDA graduate school offers a basic and an advanced course. Editcetera sometimes offers workshops, and the UC Extension Publishing program also offers an occasional course.

And now, editors, the crux of the matter - why hire an indexer? Why not just let the author do it? Authors tend to be too close to the material; they often create more of an outline than real access to the data in the book. Also, indexing is a specialized form of writing using conventions that writers tend not to know. For example, few writers know when to use "see also," what is meant by double posting, or how to do indexes of more than two levels.

Carolyn and Jean role-played a conversation between an editor and an indexer about an upcoming project, and then Carolyn offered advice on keeping communication between editors and indexers clear and civil. If you wish to charm an indexer, never say, "I just want a short index so it shouldn't take too long." Know that the shorter an index is, the more time it takes to compile. The indexer still has to read the book and construct the index but then has to shorten the index while maintaining its usefulness (and a short, bad index - in this writer's opinion - is worse than no index). If you utter the words, "The page proofs are ready. I just want something quick and dirty," you will be getting off on the wrong foot with the indexer. And following up with an indexer by asking, "What letter are you up to?" will not endear you to the indexer either. Don't hover. Try not to put a limit on the number of pages. And try not to change pages after the indexer has received the book (a horror Aubrey once faced); it's frustrating for the indexer, not to mention costly to the publisher.

Do tell the indexer who the audience is and the reading level. Is there technical jargon? Supply a table of contents and the copy editor's style sheet (the latter, according to Carolyn and Jean, is more honored in the breach than the observance). Discuss the depth that the index needs. Make arrangements in advance: when to expect the book and how many pages it will be. Settle payment issues ahead of time and send a letter detailing the discussion. If the schedule slips, let the indexer know as soon as you know.

Once you have the index in your possession, it is best not to do much editing. You can check for alphabetical order (letter by letter vs. word by word), typos, spelling, punctuation, cross references, and oddities (page 4,000 in a 350-page book). But deleting or moving items in a finished index can ruin the structure. And never try to merge two indexes by different people.

Thanks to indexer Aubrey McClellan for organizing the program. For more information, see American Society of Indexers' web site.



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