Indexing FAQs

“Save the time of the reader.”
S.R. Ranganathan’s 4th law of library science

1. What is an index? 

“An index is an interconnected network of access points to information in the text.” (Mulvany, Indexing Books, 259). In traditional publishing, an index is found in the back of a nonfiction book. In digital publishing, it can be found on a website or at the beginning of an ebook. The purpose of an index is to direct the reader to important ideas, persons, topics, events, etc., that are introduced into the text. An indexer locates and groups related information with multiple access points. They organize these references into a useful and accessible tool for the reader. A good index synthesizes similar ideas under key headings that may or may not be used within the body of the text. These headings indicate page numbers (called locators) found within the text where the reader can find that information. An index is structured using main and subheadings, double posts and cross-references that direct the reader to other headings within the index for further information. Altogether the index creates a smart search engine that informs the reader where to locate the information they seek. The plural form of index is indexes, not indices.

See alsoChicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, Section 16: Indexes

2. Is the index simply a list of keywords?

No, that is called a concordance. One of the biggest differences between an index and a concordance is the structure which allows the index to cover the book’s information in its entirety. As indexer Maureen MacGlashan wrote, “I am an analytical indexer looking not for words on the page but for what lies under those words.” When done correctly, this comprehensive coverage will result in multiple access points for the reader. If references to a concept are located under a different term, the reader will find

the See reference to point them to the main heading where the page references are gathered. Other terms related to the headings will direct the reader by using the See also cross-reference, even if they are not connected to each other in the text. For example: <authenticity of works. See also forgery>. This provides a more successful search than would be orchestrated with a simple list of keywords. In multiple-authored works, this complex structure is key to unlocking the contents of the book for the reader.

3. Do I really need an index?

Absolutely! If you are publishing a nonfiction book without an index, then your book is lacking one of the most important reference tools which result in less access to the information and has been proven to reduce sales. A nonfiction reader is looking for information and an index is the quickest, most comprehensive way to provide this for the reader. It is impractical to expect a reader to search the entire book looking for the information they seek. It is true that a majority of nonfiction readers will browse the index before deciding whether they want to buy the book. They will look for key ideas, persons, topics, etc., that interest them and if there is no index, they will not be able to do this and will reconsider buying the book. A quality index plays a vital role in the usefulness as well as the sale of all nonfiction books.

4. How do you know what format, style and numbering system to use?

Following professional standards, I use the guidelines specified in Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition, Section 16: Indexes. However, sometimes a client has their own house guidelines that are specified in the initial agreement process. I create my indexes meeting all client specifications.

5. Does the author index their own book?

Ideally, no. Although the author is the expert on their topic, the indexer reads the manuscript with reader’s eyes understanding information architecture and indexing standards. An index is created using a marriage of the author’s and the reader’s language. The index will not rewrite the book’s content but will synthesize ideas into succinct terminology that a reader will likely use to get to the author’s information. “Good indexing requires reflection; the indexer needs to stop frequently and decide whether the right choices have been made. A professional indexer, familiar with the publisher’s requirements, may be better equipped for such reflection.” (Chicago Manual of Style, 16.4) Hiring a professional indexer will save you time and money.

If you would like to supply the indexer with an indexing brief (including key terms), I have created basic guidelines titled "Author-Prepared Indexing Brief." Please email me for a copy.

6. How is an indexer trained?

Some indexers are self-taught, but most have taken one of the professional training courses for indexing. These include graduate courses within a masters of library science degree program, as well as continuing education training courses such as the University of California at Berkeley or American Society of Indexing’s Course. They vary in format, cost, and length of time. I was formally trained in the UC Berkeley courses Indexing Theory and Application and Embedded and Ebook Indexing. I have also completed two indexing specialty courses from the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science for Taxonomy and Controlled Vocabularies and Periodical and Database Indexing.

7. Can a computer create an index for me?

There are programs that can create a concordance with locators. However, computer programs are just tools. Indexer Nancy Mulvany calls them “an implement for facilitating and performing mechanical operations.” It is important to point out that a trained indexer will analyze, sort, and group information into coherent reader’s language. The difference between a computer- generated index and an index created by a professional indexer includes the structure created by a human indexer who can understand the relationships between concepts that may or may not be named in the text, the depth of that analysis, and the comprehensiveness with which only a trained human can produce. As indexer Lori Lathrop wrote, “The processing required to create an index happens between your ears, not on your hard drive.”

8. What program is used to manage the index entries?

A professional indexer often uses a dedicated indexing software program. In my work, I use CINDEX by Indexing Research. This program relies upon the indexer to do the intellectual and creative processes of indexing while providing tools for style, layout, formatting, and sorting. Every index requires different style specifications and the program receives commands and applies them consistently throughout the index. There are over 20 programs that provide indexing support but the most commonly used are dedicated indexing software such as CINDEX, SKY Index Professional, and Macrex. In addition, Adobe InDesign, Adobe FrameMaker, and Microsoft Word can also be used to support embedded and ebook indexing.

9. What is the assignment of rights of the index?

Because the index is an “original work of authorship,” it falls under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 as a creative work and therefore the indexer is the copyright owner. I transfer the copyright to my clients upon receipt of payment of services, as I state in my indexing agreement with them. This is relevant when subsequent editions of the book are created. Occasionally, a client will request a work-for-hire agreement (§101), in which case when signed this gives the client the original copyright ownership of the index.

See also U.S. Copyright Office and Copyright and Fair Use (Stanford Univ)

10. What does an indexer need in order to provide an estimate on an indexing project?

With new projects, I request a sample chapter (draft format is fine), table of contents (TOC), deadline information, and any style guidelines provided by the press. This provides both a macro and a micro look at the project which informs my rate. I return a formal estimate including service details within 24–48 hours.

See also How to Get an Index for Your Book (Burek)

Wild Clover Books

Book Indexing Services