What does an indexer do?
In non-fiction publishing, the job of an indexer is to compile an index (surprise, surprise) — a section typically at the end of a book which alphabetically lists the names, subjects, and topics covered in the book, as well as references to the pages on which these mentions occur. To create an index for a book, an indexer has to first identify which topics are worth indexing, then catalogue mentions of these topics across the entire work. They will cross-reference and subcategorize these references within the index (more on this later) to help readers find precisely what they’re looking for within a broad topic. In essence, indexers create roadmaps to non-fiction books!
Why is a good index crucial for non-fiction books?
The index allows readers to locate specific topics in a book without having to read it cover-to-cover. It also provides easy access to all the instances where any topic is discussed. Indexes often inform the decisions of librarians and booksellers, helping them to determine where to stock and display a book. In fact, most libraries won’t even consider non-fiction reference or academic titles unless they have a properly structured index. It should go without saying, then, that a good index (and an excellent indexer) is integral to any lengthy non-fiction book, making it digestible and readable for its audience. As historian Dr. Francis Young puts it, “I have found it invariably true that the quality of an index indicates the quality of a book.”
Why work with a professional indexer?
While indexing might seem like something you could do on your own — by reading through your book and noting down each time important names, subjects and topics appear — it’s a time-consuming and error-prone process for those without the training. What happens when you realize, halfway through indexing your manuscript, that you forgot to incorporate an important topic? You’ll have to start all over again. Moreover, you might be too close to the manuscript as an author to realize exactly what readers will search for (and will hope to find) in your index. That is why all publishers turn to professional indexers with years of training and the experience necessary to identify and catalogue all of a manuscript’s core concepts. These concepts might be referred to by different technical names or phrases — and indexing professionals will know this. They also know what readers are most likely to be seeking, and what terms/phrases they’ll look up first. Professional indexers analyze the text as they read and structure the index with multiple access points. They know how to best group related information and concepts together, even when inconsistent terminology is used. Perhaps most importantly, they will leave out extraneous information, passing mentions of topics that lack depth, duplicated material, and other things that would frustrate a reader who’s just trying to access the information they want. All in all, a professional indexer raises the value of your book in the eyes of readers. But where can you find a meticulous, skilled indexer with the right experience to create the perfect index for your book?
Can’t I just use an automated indexing software?
There is software out there that will automatically search for all instances of a particular word or phrase and use this to auto-populate an index. However, these simply can’t replace the manual work of a professional indexer. Consider this example. On the left, someone has just run a search for “child support” and put the page numbers in an “index.” On the right, we see what a professional indexer would create — a cross-referenced list that drills into the various aspects of the main topic. Now, which one best helps your reader?
Automated search functions cannot provide readers with any sort of explanatory context, and they omit synonyms or similar expressions that would also relate to the same topic. They will also offer no distinction between a mention “in passing” and a careful analysis of the topic. While automated search systems can certainly save time, it is only in the hands of an experienced indexer that this kind of software can help produce something of value to readers. If you don’t want to waste months of your time and alienate your readers, hand your index over to a qualified professional.