index, book ..... 124460
June 10, 2009 4:08 PM   Subscribe

Creating my book's own index, crazy or sensible?

I'm in the process of negotiating a contract for a non-fiction book I'll be writing. Part of the contract involves the indexer's fees being subtracted from whatever money I get. Indexing costs about $3/page, this is about a 250 page book, I'll be paid the typical small percentage per copy, no advance.

I'm aware of this question from 2004 which, yes, I even answered. I'm wondering whether software has advanced at all since then so that a person with a decent grasp of the tools could create a decent index given the time and inclination? Are there tools you'd suggest?

I'm actually interested in this process, not just doing it to save $750 or whatever. I think it would be fun to create my own index, but I may be wrong about that. Relatedly, since the book will be available in formats that are keyword searchable (I'm presuming) do indexes have the same import as they used to? This is more of an "I'm wondering" question but it's along the same lines. Thanks for any suggestions/advice.
posted by jessamyn to Work & Money (19 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
People I know who've indexed their own books did so because they felt they had a better feel for what to put in the index (more specifically, when to include and when to exclude certain items), as they wrote the book and knew what the reader / scholar would likely want to find via an index. I'd tend to agree.

I think indices are still important, but their application is has changed somewhat, from a more proper noun-centric one to one which emphasizes concepts that may be a bit more hazily identifiable in the text, or just downright hard to search for. In other words, if I want to know where a certain passage about Sir Walter Raleigh was in a book, it's easy for me to search in a keyword searchable format - so the index is a little less important here. But if I were looking for the treatment of Romanians by Hungarians as a "concept" in a book about Transylvania, it'd be a lot to slog through every single reference to the two peoples, hoping to find a specific one. But an index that identifies the concept "Romanians: treatment by Hungarians" is a winner, even if that exact phrase isn't used in the book. That's why, in a non-physical format, I'd go holistic if I were making an index.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:20 PM on June 10, 2009

My father wrote a textbook, about 500 pages introductory political science, and my mother did the indexing. I just asked them for their opinion:

For the first edition, it took my mother about 15-20 hours / week, for 6 weeks. Now some of that is because she isn't a political scientist so it was longer, and also that textbooks are big on the indexing. But it's a data point. The way they did it was:

- The publisher (Pearson) sent them a copy of the text formatted such that each line (sentence? Unsure) had a unique number. Mom would go through this copy, looking for concepts in a list given to her by dad. She'd then write down each of the indexable words with all of the numbers associated.

They sent this list back to Pearson and the index was built (thus unfortunately I don't know what the actual tools are). Dad was very happy with the index, as there were a bunch of edge cases that he could rule on, rather than some random guy in Toronto (his words). Mom ended up getting paid for the index, although I doubt that'd apply for you?

As a side note, the latter editions took significantly less time to index.

Feel free to follow up, I can try to get more details from them.
posted by Lemurrhea at 4:31 PM on June 10, 2009

I've indexed two books: my own and a reprint of a pair of 19th-century books. Based on that experience, I'd say that there are two tricky aspects to indexing:

1. Implicit references, i.e., pages where an index entry is not mentioned by name but it is discussed. Synonyms are closely related: should a reference to "the Deity" be included under the index entry for "God"? Depending on the subject, the answer might be yes or no.

2. Subentries. It's not much use to have an index that lists 48 page references for one entry. You need subdivisions. Those take work, because you want to group related subentries.

There are also a number of questions to be answered: how long an index will you have? That will let you know about how many entries to identify on an average page. Does every proper name need to be indexed? Should titles of works be indexed separately? Will you need many cross-references and "see alsos"? The advantage of hiring a professional is that he or she will know the questions that need to be asked. The advantage of doing it yourself is that you know what's important. (Sometimes that's a disadvantage, though--it can be hard to limit your index!)

Until text searches have a robust semantic web undergirding them (so those references to "the Deity" turn up when someone searches for "God"), traditional indexes will be important. They're worth doing well. If you decide to do yours, I recommend the chapter on indexing from the Chicago Manual of Style, which is also available as a standalone publication.

Having done two indexes, I'm pretty sure I'll hire an indexer for my next is tedious work, no way around it. I think the best tool is probably a simple spreadsheet or database, where you can list entry, potential subentry, and page number. But then I'm a retrogrouch in some areas.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:31 PM on June 10, 2009

It's not much fun, in my experience, but it's not particularly HARD. Indexes absolutely add value to a nonfiction print book, though. If the book is worth reading (keep in mind most books aren't), it's worth indexing. Also, even a professional indexer won't do as good a job as a motivated, educated author. Study a few indexes, read a few articles, and you'll be good to go. I can't guarantee that you won't have rather shelled out the $750 by the time you're done, though.
posted by rikschell at 4:45 PM on June 10, 2009

My wife took an indexing course as part of getting an editing certificate a local community college and I think she only paid $250 for a professional-quality class on indexing. So even if you do that you come out ahead. From what she said, it's tedious work.
posted by GuyZero at 5:06 PM on June 10, 2009

A friend of mine was disappointed in the professional indexer's job with a programming book of his, and did it over himself. He writes about the issues here.
posted by Zed at 5:26 PM on June 10, 2009

It's a lot of mind-numbing detail work, but it's not "hard" if you're already a librarian, because you've got the categorizing habit of mind in place already.

And author-created indices are always the best ones, in my experience (as writer, editor, and freelance indexer). So I say "go for it" and point out to the publisher that you're a librarian, which is a highly related skillset.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:31 PM on June 10, 2009

As an academic who read a lot of specialized books, I can tell you that I'm a huge fan of indexes and, quite frankly, I can usually tell and always prefer when it's the author indexing their own work, or someone really, really invested in it (like in a sought-after translation). When it's just someone doing a quickie for hire, I get about 1/5 as much use out of it.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:35 PM on June 10, 2009

Relatedly, since the book will be available in formats that are keyword searchable (I'm presuming) do indexes have the same import as they used to?

They don't for searchable electronic versions of a text, but they are just as important as ever for print.

At my publishing house, we use Cindex. I think we set up our external indexers with copies of it. You may be able to get your publisher to provide you with a copy of Cindex or whatever they use for indexing. It's not very much to ask of them and will save them the time it takes to convert your index into their program, so they'll likely be willing to do that for you.

Otherwise... honestly, it's not that hard. I've created indexes for books I've worked on — or perhaps it's more accurate to say I did so in cooperation with the author. The author sends me the list of terms and the manuscript page numbers the terms appear on. I set up the index terms in our computer program, and then go through the final page proofs, finding the new page numbers for each term.
posted by orange swan at 7:10 PM on June 10, 2009

Alan Rinzler weighs in
posted by mynameisluka at 7:36 PM on June 10, 2009

From the perspective of the publisher, I think professional indexers are worth their weight in at least Titanium, and that's probably way more than the $750 or whatever, depending on the weight of the indexer. On the other hand, you know your own book better than anyone. Though in spite of that an indexer would get the job done quicker and more methodically, but if you did it, you'd certainly learn something from the process. As a librarian, you are probably a darn good classifier and identifier. That does make you well suited to the task. But it will be long hours and mind-numbing work. If you've got the time and zen out doing tedious and methodical work, give it a shot. I wouldn't normally give that advice to an author but in your case, I'll bet you do your own book justice and maybe even perversely enjoy the process.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:38 PM on June 10, 2009

I did it once and enjoyed the process. I say if you have the time, do it for the experience, and for the fact that it's got the potential to be the best index your book can have. If you realize halfway that you don't like doing it, you can always hire someone to finish the job.
posted by bink at 9:11 PM on June 10, 2009

Not what you asked, but just so you know, depending on the nature and length of your book, you can probably contract an indexer directly for a lot less than $750, if you are so inclined.

Seth Maislin, an indexer of my acquaintance and past president of the American Society of Indexers, has quite a bit of info and commentary about indexing on his site, including this article on Author-Created Indexes vs. Third-Party Professional Indexes. Unsurprisingly, he suggests you hire an indexer, though not for the most obvious of reasons. He also offers a service where he'll critique your index for a few hundred bucks, if you want to make sure your DIY version is hitting the mark.
posted by libraryhead at 9:49 PM on June 10, 2009

Relatedly, since the book will be available in formats that are keyword searchable (I'm presuming) do indexes have the same import as they used to?

Keyword searches, and indexes automatically generated from software, can't point the reader to synonyms. I still think indexes are important, and I'm frustrated when books don't have them. A really good index is really nice.
posted by Houstonian at 10:08 PM on June 10, 2009

I am the world's biggest fan of good indexers. I am the sworn enemy of bad indexers, who -- in my experience -- have earned themselves a special circle in editorial hell. (Just two egregious examples of bad indexers: the person who originally indexed my sister's British history book who put each of the individual Princes of Wales under P [for "Prince," of course!]; and the person who originally indexed the Magritte catalogue I edited who put the title of every painting beginning with the word "The" under T. These sorts of things seem like they'd be easy enough to correct, but add up dozens or even hundreds of similar idiotic indexing choices, and you're looking at days and days of extra work -- right when you're on a do-or-die deadline as it is.)

So if you can find a GOOD indexer -- and I mean really good, with glowing references from at least two or three authors or editors -- who has worked on publications in your field, I say go for it; indexing is tedious as all hell, and it's worth it (IMO) to pay someone else to do it, if you know they'll do it well. If you can't find someone who fits that description, do it yourself -- the pain in the ass of doing it right the first time around will be far less painful than that of undoing and fixing it after someone's made a mess of it (and gotten paid for it, to boot). Toekneesan is right -- if anyone might be up for the task, it could be you!
posted by scody at 12:29 AM on June 11, 2009

I love a good index, and I indexed my own book--I got into it for financial reasons and in the end I was glad to do it, because my index follows the concepts in the the book rather than just sort of scraping the nouns. I'm not sure what software is around now (and because I now write slower than ever, who knows when I'll index another?), but I found it pretty simple to create a new master document and fiddle with the pagination to match the galleys. Then I did a read through, bookmarking concepts and proper nouns, and searching for other instances. I think it took me a couple of weeks. It was the last and almost most pleasant engagement with my text. If you have the time and would like to pay yourself rather than someone else, I'd say go for it.
posted by Mngo at 4:51 AM on June 11, 2009

I prefer author created indexes too - except when they are so close to their subject they don't realise how someone outside of their profession or with a different educational/language background approaches the index. Indexes without copious synomyns/see also references can be useless for the users. You know who your target audience is, can you run the completed index/book past a couple of them to see how they access the materials?
posted by saucysault at 6:18 AM on June 11, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks very very much for all your good feedback on this folks. Sorry to ask and run. I'm going to be looking at the finer points of my contract over the weekend (my publisher is like "you have a lawyer... um....?") and this has given me food for thought.
posted by jessamyn at 12:28 PM on June 12, 2009

Response by poster: Well I figured I'd dive in and told my publisher I wanted to do the index myself. Thanks for allowing me to make this an educated decision and not a rash one. We'll see how it all goes.
posted by jessamyn at 12:15 PM on July 11, 2009

« Older Need a non-clunky slick G1 T-Mobile cellphone...   |   First-time tie-dyer Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.