Indexing Your Book – How and Why

by Sheila Ryan on December 15, 2012

You’re almost ready to ship your book files for printing. Months of writing, editing, revising, editing (again), rewriting, copyediting, and proofreading are almost complete. Soon you will become a published author. But wait—don’t forget the index!

You might think that an index for your nonfiction book is unnecessary and that readers can simply use the Table of Contents or Search an eBook. Neither of these features, however, is as powerful a tool or as helpful to readers as a professionally written index. A Table of Contents only provides a few dozen entry points to the contents of a book. Search forces readers to guess exact words or phrases and may return thousands of results, which the reader must then sift through to determine relevance. A well-crafted index, however, with precise main headings, descriptive subheadings, and helpful cross-references, provides readers with hundreds of specific, pre-analyzed content access points.

Professional indexers anticipate and accommodate the needs of all readers, whether the readers are new to material or already well-versed in a subject. A well-written index provides multiple pathways to the information within your book by guiding readers to preferred terminology (“See” references) and providing direction to additional related information (“See also” cross-references). In addition to distilling and pointing to the substantive discussions in a text, good indexes will also direct readers to pertinent but inferred information, which no Search query would ever find.

What about writing the index yourself? Don’t be fooled by the promises of keyword indexing features of word processing programs. Keyword searches produce a concordance, which is an alphabetical list of keywords followed by long strings of page numbers and no descriptive subheadings. By the time your book is ready for indexing, it is often best to hand this task over to a specialist. Professional indexers provide a fresh pair of eyes, are trained to analyze and distill the contents and contexts of a book, and have the ability to deal with short turnaround times while producing properly constructed and formatted index files.

What can you expect when working with an indexer? Many indexers will ask to see a representative chapter or text sample of non-introductory material before bidding, in order to assess text density and the required level of indexing effort. Job bids may either be per typeset page or a flat fee. Don’t hesitate to ask for references when selecting an indexer—professional, reputable indexers will be happy to provide them! The amount of time required for writing an index will vary with the length and complexity of each project, but anywhere from ten days to three weeks is typical. When the production schedule allows, I like to provide authors with a draft index to review and comment on a few days before the index is due back to the book designer for final proofing and layout.

A professional index adds value to your book and is a key component of nonfiction publications. Don’t frustrate your readers by forcing them to flip through pages or vainly search for a word or phrase. Your readers will thank you, and so will your indexer.

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