Congratulations: your monograph proposal has been accepted and you’ve done the hard work needed to transform your thesis into your first 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.
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.
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 two 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.
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 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 homophones. 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/.
As well as these sources, you could consult colleagues for recommendations, or find out who has recently indexed similar books in your subject area. If you need to submit an embedded index, make sure you approach indexers who have experience of this way of working. 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.
How much will it cost? The UK Society of Indexers suggests recommended minimum rates: in 2019, these are £2.85 per page or £7.70 per 1,000 words. A 60,000 word monograph, for example, would cost around £460 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. 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 several books for ECRs recently 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.
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. 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. 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 book and short courses (all of the online courses come at a cost, your library may well stock the book):
- 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/
- US indexer Stephen Ullstrom offers a 7-day email indexing course: http://www.stephenullstrom.com/indexing-decoded/
- US indexer Sylvia Coates runs this online course: https://www.canvas.net/browse/canvasnet/courses/indexing-books
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.
There’s a really helpful guide for authors, by researcher and writer Helen Kara, explaining how to check an index at https://helenkara.com/2019/04/11/how-to-check-an-index/. More detailed guidance on index evaluation is available from the American Society of Indexers: 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.