Indexing with Nancy Mulvany

Indexing: What Every Editor Should Know

Speaker: Nancy Mulvany
November 16, 2005
This event was arranged by Bonnie Britt and the notes were written by Heila Hubbard

Good indexes provide easy access to the information contained in a text. Since 1994, Nancy Mulvany's best-selling volume, Indexing Books, has been the gold standard for thousands of professional indexers, editors, and authors. The University of Chicago Press has now published the second edition of this popular, hands-on text to help novice and experienced indexers learn the art of indexing.

But is indexing an art? You bet, said Mulvany, who is past president of the American Society of Indexers and owner of Bayside Indexing Service. She publishes a newsletter six times a year on trends in indexing and book publishing. Nancy treated us to an interesting and humorous discussion on creating different types of indexes, learning how to index, and getting work as a freelance indexer.

Mulvany told us that an indexer will usually work on one of two types of indexing systems: a closed system (such as for a book), with a beginning, middle, and end, or an open system (such as for a library) where information and entries are continually being added.

How do you know if you'd be a good indexer? Do you like to finish projects quickly? Do you get bored quickly? Often publishers give indexers just a couple of weeks to complete an index as it is one of the last steps in the text part of the book publishing process.

How can you improve your indexing skills?

During Nancy's indexing course, students complain that they are not taught exactly how to do term selection, but, according to Mulvany, one can't really teach this. That leads us to the creative, artistic aspect of creating an index. Everyone does it differently, based on prior experience and cognitive skill.

How does an indexer approach a new text? First, know the audience for the book. What kinds of problems does this audience need to solve? How will they use the index? Read everything in the text, but don't read it as a regular reader would. Read the work intensely. At the same time, look for key terms and think about cross-referencing terms. Try not to read for more than five hours a day. Once you start to stare into space, you know you are done for the day!

Mulvany offered insights into the types of technology that can assist indexers though some indexers still mark text pages by hand with entries. Several indexing software programs are available for developing an index. A popular program, CINDEX, has both a Windows and a MAC version. Each indexing program has its merits, but all are fairly difficult, with high learning curves. Nancy recommends Macrex but said that Sky Index may be the easiest to learn—it's a cross between Microsoft Excel and Access—and it has good technical support. All of the indexing programs have free demos, so try them all.

Is it tough to find a job as a freelance indexer? Publishers do tend to use the same trusted indexers over and over, so do market yourself. Have a sample index ready to show a potential client. Join a local group, the Golden Gate Chapter of the American Society of Indexers (ASI). It's a good place to network, to meet fellow indexers, and to get referrals from indexers. The ASI Web site has a job locator plus a jobs hotline where clients can publish listings. It may be hard to get the first few jobs, but the indexing world is pretty small.

Mulvany offered tips on the financial side, too. Before bidding on a job, ask to see a sample chapter. There are different ways to charge clients. Four dollars per indexed page is the going rate in the Bay Area. If the text is very difficult, rates may go up to $8 per indexed page. Some indexers, such as those in technical publications, charge by the hour, but trade publications usually pay per page. If you charge by the project, be sure to get a clear scope of the entire project first. Some indexers even bid per index entry. Freelance indexers are a fairly well-paid group in the publishing industry: $60 per hour is a reasonable income.

In response to questions, Nancy spoke on whether indexing jobs will stay in America. Chances are good that they will. Some companies are sending their indexing projects overseas but frequently receive finished indexes with bad English. Overall, Mulvany believes that the business of indexing is healthy, especially with the rise in the market for those authors who are self-publishing their books.

Nancy was kind enough to raffle a copy of the second edition of Indexing Books. Congratulations to Ann Whitesell, the lucky winner.



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