Congratulations: your proposal has been accepted and you’ve done the hard work needed to write your book. Before it’s published, however, your book is going to need an index.
Anyone who’s done a research degree knows how important a useful index can be – and how frustrating a poor one is. A good index provides a map of your book, with multiple access points for readers with different needs and interests. It will make your book – and your research – more accessible to readers, and can even increase sales, especially to libraries. For more on the value a professional index will add to your book, see indexer Melanie Gee’s blog post.
In this short guide I will explain when and how indexing takes place, discuss the advantages of working with a professional indexer, and provide some useful links to information that can help you through the indexing process. You may also want to read fellow indexer Paula Clarke Bain’s excellent guide to the process for the general author.
1: Indexing in the publishing process
Indexing is carried out during the later stages of the publication schedule. Your publisher should provide you with an indicative schedule to explain when indexing should take place. The precise timing depends on the type of index required, and there are three main possibilities:
- traditional back-of-book index, complied from the PDF proofs of your book: these indexes are normally created at the very end of the publishing process, at the same time as proofreading. Copy-editing and formatting, and any changes required during that process, will all have been completed; any figures or illustrations will be in place and the page numbers will be fixed. A fast turnaround is often required, with indexing and proofreading to be completed within a month or less.
- embedded index, compiled by adding codes to a Word document which can be used to generate the index. This is normally done after copy-editing but before typesetting; the codes in Word are used by the typesetter to generate the index once the final layout is confirmed. Embedded indexing can save time in the publication process and is particularly useful for books that may need to be published in revised editions, or which will be simultaneously published as ebooks. You may get a slightly longer period of time to complete an embedded index.
- indexing to paragraph numbers for future embedding. In this system, the index is compiled using paragraph numbers from early-stage proofs, rather than page numbers. Again, this is done earlier in the publication process after copy-editing but before typesetting. The index will be embedded into the text during typesetting, and the final index will show the page numbers automatically. In some subject areas, indexing to paragraph numbers is standard, but is done from final page proofs, and the paragraph numbers are given in the index rather than page numbers.
Some publishers will still fund the index themselves, or give you the option to have the cost deducted from royalties. In this case, your editor will arrange for an indexer to work on your book. You are likely to be asked to review the index; this is covered in section 4 below. However, increasingly, publishers ask the authors of monographs (and volume editors, for edited collections) to organise indexing themselves. If you are asked to do this, you have the option of working with a professional indexer, or creating the index yourself.
Although there are automated systems that can help with the indexing process, automated indexes generated from document searches are not really indexes at all – they don’t include the vital component of human analysis that decides whether a topic should be in the index, and how to represent it. Searching cannot identify implicit mentions – a book I indexed recently, for example, discussed various wars without using the standard historical name for each one, and I needed to check the correct names for use in the index. Similarly, searching cannot easily identify synonyms or distinguish between homonyms. Searching will also bring up all references, including repetitions and passing mentions which do not include any meaningful information about the term or concepts.
2: Working with a professional indexer
Professional indexers will read your book carefully, identify the indexable terms and concepts, and create an index that anticipates the needs of your readers so that they can access your ideas and research quickly and easily. We use specialist software to organise the index, to ensure it is consistent and that it meets the presentation requirements of your publisher. We have a wide range of subject expertise and are often very highly qualified.
In the UK, the Society of Indexers has a directory of members that you can search by subject area and type of index: see https://www.indexers.org.uk/find-an-indexer/directory/. If your book is being published by a US publisher, you may want to use a US indexer. See the American Society for Indexing: https://www.asindexing.org/find-an-indexer/asi-indexer-locator/. There are also professional indexing societies in Ireland (https://www.afepi-ireland.com/), Canada (http://indexers.ca/), Australia and New Zealand (https://www.anzsi.org/), Germany (http://www.d-indexer.org/welcome.html), Netherlands (https://www.indexers.nl/) and South Africa (https://www.asaib.org.za/)
As well as these sources, you could consult colleagues for recommendations, or find out who has recently indexed similar books in your subject area from the indexing societies’ professional directories. If you need to submit an embedded index, make sure you approach indexers who have experience of this way of working – the Society of Indexers Directory allows you to search for this particular skill. Do get several quotes, and don’t be shy about asking for references from previous clients.
When you’ve found some likely candidates to work on your book, it’s best to contact them as soon as you have an indicative schedule. We do get booked up with work and it can be hard to accommodate last-minute requests. We are used to dealing with slipping schedules, however, so don’t worry if there are delays to your book beyond your control. When you’ve chosen your indexer, let any others who quoted for the work know that you won’t be using them.
How much will it cost? The UK Society of Indexers suggests recommended minimum rates: in 2024, these are £3.55 per page or £9.55 per 1000 words . A 60,000 word monograph, for example, would cost around £570 to index at these rates. More advanced or experienced indexers may charge a higher fee, and you might be quoted a higher fee for a last-minute job, for a particularly complex text, or for an embedded index. Indexing can seem expensive, but consider the time and stress you will save and the eventual quality of your index.
If you are working at a university, it’s worth checking whether there is any funding available to help with the cost of indexing. I’ve indexed many books for academic authors, including early career researchers, where the cost has been covered by their institution. Most indexers will invoice you after completion, although you may be asked to pay part of the fee in advance. If you are bidding for funding for a project that will result in a book, remember to include the cost of indexing in your bid – then you’ll have the funds to pay for it when your project is concluding. And if you have budget to use up before the indexing work needs to be done, you can ask your indexer to invoice in advance.
Embedded indexing in Word is particularly fiddly and time-consuming. Indexers use specialist add-ons to connect Word to our indexing software to do this work, which does make it easier. As an indexer, I would obviously recommend using a professional for any index – but especially if you have to produce an embedded index.
3: Going it alone
If you decide to index your book yourself, there are a number of sources of help and guidance out there. Give yourself plenty of time, especially towards the end of your schedule when you’ll need to check and edit your index. Based on the UK recommended hourly rate, a professional indexer would take around 18 hours to index a 60,000 word monograph; I was a lot slower than that when I started out and would still be much slower without indexing software. I’d expect a beginner, without the benefit of specialist software, to take about twice as long. Never index when you’re tired, and remember that most of us can only do about 4 hours of intense work a day – and indexing is definitely intense work. Paula Clarke Bain has written an excellent account of the indexing process for CIEP, which gives helpful insight into how indexing is done.
It’s better and easier to start at the beginning and work through your book, rather than making a list of keywords and searching for them. The keyword approach can seem quicker, but you may miss implicit discussion of key topics and be tempted to add passing mentions; it’s also a very boring task. A mind map of the book’s main topics is often helpful, though. You may find it useful to edit after each chapter, and remember that it’s easier to take something out than to go back and put it in. Follow your publisher’s guidelines to the letter, especially in relation to the number of pages available for the index. If you send back an index that’s too long, they’ll probably just ask you to reduce it.
As well as your publisher’s guidelines, you might want to look at the following books and short courses (most of the online courses come at a cost, your library may well stock the books):
- Nancy C. Mulvaney’s Indexing Books (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005, 2nd edition) is an accessible and thorough guide to the indexing process
- The Society of Indexers offers an online Indexing Basics workshop, which you can take at any time (study time 6-7 hours): https://www.indexers.org.uk/training-development/workshops/online-workshops/indexing-basics/
- Indexer Stephen Ullstrom has written Book Indexing: a Step-by-Step Guide, aimed at authors who want to write the
- US indexer Sylvia Coates runs this online course: https://www.canvas.net/browse/canvasnet/courses/indexing-books
- Alex Gazzola at Mistakes Writers Make gives the author’s perspective on index writing: https://mistakeswritersmake.com/should-you-compile-your-own-index/
One of the risks of going it alone is that you may find that you really enjoy indexing and want to do more of it. The indexing societies listed above can all provide advice on further training and accreditation, if you discover you’re an indexer at heart.
4: Reviewing the index
Whoever writes your index, as the author you will need to review it. When you receive it, you should consider the following questions:
- Are all the main concepts and topics represented in the index?
- Are the words used for the index entries clear? Will they make sense to my readers?
- Are there long strings of page references, or long page spans, that have not been broken up with appropriate subheadings?
- Do the cross-references make sense?
- Are the page numbers accurate? It’s worth spot-checking to make sure.
Further guidance on index reviewing is available:
- Society of Indexers Fellow Melanie Gee provides a very useful four-point plan in her blog post on how to evaluate an index
- Ideas on Fire give a good overview of the review process, tips on what not to tinker with, and how to feed back to your professional indexer https://ideasonfire.net/reviewing-your-index-draft/
- Helen Kara explains in detail how to check an index at https://helenkara.com/2019/04/11/how-to-check-an-index/,
- Stephen Ingle at the Textbook and Academic Authors Association offers a list of 10 tips on index evaluation
- detailed guidance on index evaluation is available from the American Society of Indexers, but bear in mind that UK and US indexing practices occasionally differ: https://www.asindexing.org/about-indexing/index-evaluation-checklist/
If you are unsure about any aspect of your index, and you’ve used a professional, do contact them about it. We’re best placed to resolve the problem quickly and will be happy to help.
However you decide to deal with your index, good luck with the indexing and with your book.