Book Indexing | Your Book’s Most Public Proof of Organization: the Index by Christine Frank

I don’t cut my own hair, fix my own car, or vaccinate my own pets. Experts exist for a reason. Here’s why you need a professionally prepared index. And, oh yeah: why do you need an index at all?

If he thinks about it at all, a small- or self-publisher may have one of two thoughts on the subject of an index: “Do I need an index?” or “I can do it myself ? after all it’s my book!” Those thinking that they can do it themselves often use the historical method of going through their manuscript page by page and recording topics and page numbers on index cards. There is nothing wrong with this method.

Entrust Your Index to a Professional?

The thought that they, as the authors, know their content best is true. But good indexers are not necessarily the ones who know the subject best. It is those who can put themselves into the place of the reader: “Where would I look for this topic?” Or even better: “Where might others, those who don’t necessarily think the way I do, look for it?” Thus, skills more critical than subject matter knowledge are empathy, a wide and shallow knowledge base, and a great humbleness, enough to recognize that not everyone thinks the way oneself does. A good indexer has much in common with the winning team members on “Family Feud:” the ability to put one’s feelings aside and approximate what others, no matter how “wrong,” might answer.

Other skills of indexers include an almost Rainman-like compulsion to classify things and to see connections. And, of course, organization skills. A common question for new indexers is whether they alphabetize their spices. According to the American Society of Indexers:

Creating a good index takes understanding of the reader as well as the subject. It takes objectivity, perspective, a sense of proportion and priority, patience, speed, technical training, and experience. If you have all these qualities, if you can apply them under deadline pressure, and if you would rather index your current book than start writing your next one, you, the author, are the best indexer for your book. Otherwise: Entrust Your Index to a Professional.

Even if the author could set aside his knowledge of what he meant to say and how crystal-clear apparent its location is to all … with indexing being one of the final stops in the publishing journey, the author often arrives dazed by the trip and is in no mind to consider what others ? their readers ? might be thinking.

So What’s an Undifferentiated Locator?

And even if the author has, all along, been tagging key words in a word processing or layout program, thinking that this program can automatically index, he or she will be in for an unpleasant surprise. For the very best that could have happened is that this automatically generated index will have produced a list of key words with long strings of undifferentiated locators. Like this:

nutrition, 19, 52, 76, 78 88, 109, 133, 134, 135,
136,137, 138, 139, 140, 148, 149, 154, 155, 157,
159, 162, 220

Whereas what might be more helpful to the reader, more user-friendly, would be:

Nutrition. See also diet
in children, 52
in the elderly, 19
malnutrition, diseases of, 133-140
during pregnancy, 76, 78, 220
vitamins as boost for, 154-155, 157, 159
during weight loss, 220

You See?

Incidentally, the example entry above (taken from an actual index) has problems beyond the strings of undifferentiated locators, and pretty obviously is the result of a machine-generated concordance. One clue is the list of pages in the 130’s; the software simply picked up every mention of “nutrition.” The effect on the reader of a bad index may be slow- acting and subliminal ? they might not know that they have been underserved.

Now. Do You Need One At All?

Only if you want: the good words of reviewers, purchase orders from libraries, a showcase on, and the goodwill and impulse purchase of that person in the coffee area of Borders wondering which book of the six stacked in front of her to buy.

Why not, for a modest cost (my average invoice for a self-published book rarely reaches $500) give yourself this sales advantage?

How to Find an Indexer

The American Society of Indexers has an indexer locator. If you use a publishing services organization like Lulu or Trafford, they may have some supplier listings. PMA has listings. Graphic artists and layout houses often work closely with indexers and can make recommendations. Or perhaps organize the search like this:

Indexer, locating
American society of indexers (ASI) indexer locator
book, checking folio page of admired
PMA classifieds
recommendation of others
web search
word of mouth

About the Author

Christine Frank founded Editing & Indexing in 1997, and now as Christine Frank & Associates, includes book project management services. She not only alphabetizes her spices but has partitioned them into two cabinets: one each for sweet and savory purposes. She can be found at