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Do I Need an Index?

Picture it: You’ve written a book on a topic you know a lot about. It was good enough to get a publisher’s attention and it finally appeared in print. Now your book is in the bookstore just waiting to be bought. A buyer enters, needing precisely the information that you have included in one of the book’s middle chapters. Your book’s title suggests to the buyer that your book might be valuable to her, but she’s not sure if you get into exactly the topics she needs. What does she do? She turns to the index. Unless there is no index … in which case, she thumbs through your book and, unable to find exactly what she’s looking for, she puts it down and moves on.

Now that’s not going to happen if your book is a novel, of course. But if you’re writing nonfiction, and especially if you’re writing an academic book of some sort, an index is usually a must. Beyond the sheer dollars and cents of helping book buyers to see that your book has what they need, you wrote the book because you thought it would be useful to people. And when it comes to your book’s usefulness, a good index can make all the difference in whether or not a reader is able to find the information she really needs.

The Human Factor

OK, so maybe you need an index, but won’t your word processing software take care of that for you? No, it won’t. Certainly, your word processing software will allow you to create a list of search terms and the pages on which they occur, but that kind of list isn’t an index, it’s a concordance—a listing of every place a particular term appears, without context, without analysis, without connections to related concepts, and without any reasoned judgment about its usefulness to the reader. Lists like that tend not to help a reader to navigate the parts of your book she would find valuable at all; more often, a concordance is just overwhelming. In fact, compiling a concordance is usually just the first phase of the much more creative, analytical process of creating an index.

Unlike a concordance, an index doesn’t list every single occurrence of a term; it lists only those occurrences of the term that will matter to a reader—and it lists them in context, often with related subtopics provided within the entry. A well-written index has to recognize key concepts, even in cases where they’re not explicitly named; it lists synonyms and related concepts so that a reader can find what she’s looking for, even when your book uses a different term. A really good index analyzes words and concepts, and it shows the connections between them, all while distinguishing substantive discussions of those concepts from merely passing mentions. In short, indexing is a work that requires analysis, judgment, and creativity—which is why it can’t be done by a computer.

Can't I Just Do It Myself?

Because indexing is very skilled and tedious work, it can be expensive. Depending upon the density of the material and the number of entries per page, it is usually priced somewhere in the range of $5 to $7 per printed page—which can mean over $2,000 for a 300-page book! So it might seem to make sense to just create the index yourself … after all, who knows the material better than you do?

But that’s precisely the problem: You know the material too well. One of the assets your indexer brings to the project is objectivity. Because you are so intimately familiar with your material, it will be nearly impossible for you to approach your book as an average reader would. Your indexer, by contrast, will come to the text without your specialized knowledge and terminology, and will have a better chance of creating an index that your reader will find really useful.

In addition to objectivity, your indexer brings expertise to the task. Indexing is an art form in itself, with best practices and pitfalls of which you will likely be unaware, and it is carried out with tools you will likely not have at your disposal. Usually drawing upon years of experience, your indexer will approach your project as only a professional can, yielding a finished product of higher quality than you could produce on your own, and doing so much more quickly than you could manage as you try to navigate the challenges you will be facing for the first time. And let’s face it: Since the index will be created at the very end of your project, you will probably be pushed up against deadlines and stressed from the work of getting the book completed. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to hand off this part of the project to an expert and know that it will be done on time, on budget, and with the quality only a professional can achieve? Of course, there is a cost to that kind of professional work, but depending upon the nature of your project, the money you spend on your indexer is very likely to be tax deductible!

How Do I Find a Professional Indexer?

There are a number of places you can search online to find freelance indexers, most especially the American Society for Indexing. But we can save you that step. Edits Made Easy is proud to make available top-notch indexers as part of our professional team. Contact us by email or by phone and we’ll be happy to discuss the specifics of your project!