Book Indexing

Indexing FAQs

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 also Chicago Manual of Style, 17th 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, and 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. Also, each publisher supplies the indexer with their own house guidelines. These are addressed 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 language and the reader’s language. The index will not rewrite the depth that is present in the book’s content. Instead, it 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.

6. Do I need to provide the indexer with anything for their job? 

Normally, all that the indexer needs to complete their work is the final proofs and the press guidelines. However, some authors like to be involved in the index process. I have created basic guidelines to guide the author in providing me with some information ahead of time including audience, choice keywords and term authority, as well as any name particulars that might be unique to their manuscript. Please see my tab for "Indexing Brief from Client" detailed here. See also Sylvia Coates' "The Indexer Wishlist, or What Indexers Wish Their Clients Knew About 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, estimated page count, 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) and Last But Not Least: A Guide for Editors Commissioning Indexes (Society of Indexers)

For more information about indexing, See also American Society for Indexing, FAQs

Indexing Pathfinder

Authoritative Works


Ethics and Professionalism 


Heading Authorities

History of Indexing

Inclusive Terminology Guidelines

Index Editing/Review


Poetic Essays

Private training courses and workshops

Professional Journals

Specialty Reference Sources 

: Art 

: Geography

: Health and Medical

: Music

: Science

Starting an Indexing Business

Super Indexing (aka index mashups)

Training Institutions 

See also Indexing FAQs 

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