by

How to Index Your Book (And Why I’ll Never Do It Again)

Index

One of my fellow ProfHackers recently got a query about indexing software. None of us have experience with such software, but a couple of us have handled the indexes for our books in other ways, which we thought might be useful to share.

Despite the fact that books are increasingly becoming searchable in their electronic formats, the metadata that’s provided by a good index can have a great influence over how the book is discovered, and how it’s used. A good index is more than just an alphabetical list of all the text’s proper nouns and their locations; it’s a way of thinking about the ideas within the text that can guide a reader to the sections they most need to consult.

My experience indexing my first book remains awfully vivid, nearly five years after the fact. I’d been told by some colleagues that I might want to hire someone to produce the index for my first book, but I was feeling a bit possessive of it, and a bit curious about the process, and so I decided to do it myself.

I got a bit of advice about method from a friend who’d done the index for her first book. Happily, my first press gave me a searchable PDF of the proofs, and so I opened the PDF and my text editor, and got started.

My method went something like this:

  • Read line by line through the manuscript until you come to a proper name or key term that needs indexing.
  • Type that name/term in the proper alphabetical spot in the text file that contains your list, and add the page number.
  • Search the PDF for all instances of that name/term.
  • Check to make sure that all the instances that come up really refer to the right name/term. If so, add the page numbers to the entry.
  • Attempt to think of other ways that the person/concept referred to by that name/term might be phrased.
  • Search for those variants and add them to the entry.
  • Repeat, ad nauseam.
  • Realize about a third of the way through that there’s a key concept that needs indexing that you’ve overlooked. Go back to the beginning.
  • Realize about halfway through that there’s another key concept that you’ve missed because it doesn’t really have a term that can be searched for, per se, but is more amorphous than that, and yet is super important and is the kind of thing people will be looking for. Go back to the beginning.
  • And so on.

The process, all told, took me about a month — and I was on sabbatical at the time. It was an exhausting and frustrating project, to the extent that it was difficult for me to maintain focus on it. I kept running up against problems describing abstract concepts, and difficulties trying to imagine the kinds of things that readers might want to find in the book. And I spent much of the time worried that I was either over-indexing or under-indexing, and was unsure how to tell the difference.

On the one hand, I’m glad to have had that experience. But it’s 100% clear to me, as I await the proofs on my second book, that I will not ever do my own indexing again.

Several colleagues of mine have opted to produce their own indexes out of necessity; they couldn’t afford to pay an indexer, a problem I completely understand. Others have done their own indexing because it seemed to them that the expense of hiring someone would eat whatever meager royalties they might earn from the book. This, I don’t quite understand.

It’s true that it would be nice to feel as though my writing were producing actual income. But holding onto that feeling at the expense of a month’s worth of working time, not to mention the intense frustration I experienced, is hardly worth it.

Professional indexers are professionals for a reason. They have developed the skills necessary to find a text’s core concepts quickly, including those that may not be mentioned specifically by name. They also have a perspective on the text necessary to figuring out what a reader might be searching for, and how best to categorize and describe the text’s contents.

Indexers typically set their rates per indexable page (generally between $3 and $6 per page, depending on the type size and the content), though some do charge per-entry or per-hour rates. A typical monograph in the humanities would likely cost somewhere between $500 and $1000 to have indexed — an investment in the book’s future usability (not to mention preserving my own sanity) that I’ve decided is well worth it.

But how about you? Do you have an indexing system you’d stand by? Or an argument for using professional indexers? Let us know in the comments.

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by KF]

Return to Top