How difficult is it to find work as a professional indexer?
May 10, 2010 9:25 AM   Subscribe

How difficult is it to find work as a professional indexer?

After following up on the excellent responses I received to this question, I've decided that freelance indexing is the best fit for my skills and situation. I've read a few books and looked at a few websites about it, but now I have to decide whether I'm actually going to try to do it. This involves some startup costs in both time and money: taking a course which will take roughly six months to complete, and buying indexing software and a computer capable of running it. This all adds up to about $2000. After spending several thousand dollars and 2.5 years of my life on a degree which has turned out not to increase my employment prospects, I'm a little wary. I (and my dear husband, who's paying for all this) want to know if there's a reasonable prospect that I can get work as an indexer. (Note: it doesn't have to be A LOT of work, especially right at the beginning, but enough to justify having put in the startup costs.)

If you are an indexer, have used professional indexing or if you're in the publishing industry, do you have a sense of how the market is? Is there a glut or a dearth, or somewhere in between? Does it vary by field? (There are a few things I have expertise about and could specialize in, but I think I could legitimately work on anything general-interest or scholarly except for hard sciences and law.) I think I could be quite good at this, but I don't have an "in" or know people. Is a career as an indexer a reasonable goal or another pipe dream and waste of time and money?
posted by Daily Alice to Work & Money (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
There is a glut of all skilled people in the publishing industry. It is extremely difficult to get work as a freelancer of any stripe if you don't already have contacts who are willing to vouch for you, request you on projects, and/or throw you work.

That said, if you are willing to invest even more money:

(1) also take a proofreading and copyediting class (for a certificate, if possible), and buy a couple of reference books (Copyediting for Dummies, Chicago Manual of Style 15, AP Stylebook, Web 11) to have on hand; then advertise yourself on craigslist or at local colleges as someone who is willing to proofread and index academic or professional papers/theses for $X per word. (Half a cent to a cent per word is pretty reasonable until you get more experience and acquire a good reputation.); and

(2) check out -- once you have a membership ($105/yr + one time $35 processing fee), you can join their job announcement list for another $40/yr. Indexing jobs are thin on the ground (none in the last month, at least), but you may find that you qualify for some of the other jobs advertised -- especially with the copyediting and proofreading knowledge.

Good luck!
posted by shamash at 10:52 AM on May 10, 2010

I have a friend who is a professional indexer with great skills and experience. She's struggling hard to make ends meet. REALLY hard.

Combine the lousy economy with the slow-motion collapse of the publishing industry, and you've got a recipe for poverty. A shocking number of publishing houses are deciding to have someone in-house index (poorly), doing it (poorly) with software, or just leaving the index out altogether.
posted by ErikaB at 11:46 AM on May 10, 2010

I work in book publishing and hire freelance proofreaders and indexers, and I'm afraid the 2 commentors above are correct. There is a glut of all types of skilled freelancers in publishing right now, in part due to the fact the the houses keep laying off production editorial folk who in turn go freelance.

That said, the decision also depends on if you really want to make this a full-time career or not. It won't take that many jobs to recoup your investment if you're only looking at $2,000 in initial costs (I think we've paid from $600-800 for index updates, and I know that the more complex travel and information books can pay $1,000 or more). But it's a LOT of work -- all prod-ed work is -- and as a full-time, dependably-bills-paying career, it may be tough to make a go of it.

Good luck!
posted by alleycat01 at 12:01 PM on May 10, 2010

Response by poster: Dang, that's what I was afraid everyone would say. The good news is that I'm not looking for a full-time career, at least not now. Enough work to recoup my initial investment in the first year or so would be enough for me. I'm a stay-at-home mom, so this is more about keeping my mind busy than paying the bills. That said, if it really is a dying field I'll try to think of something better to do...
posted by Daily Alice at 12:25 PM on May 10, 2010

Best answer: Are you near a college or university? I agree that it is hard to get hired by publishers. However....academics write a lot of books. Most book contracts from academic presses now require the author(s) to do the index themselves. These authors don't know how to do to this/often don't have time, and many hire professional indexers. Word of mouth is your friend here- many indexers become friendly with academic authors in a certain field, or editors, and are able to get work this way. If you know anyone who is an academic, you might discuss this with them.
posted by cushie at 1:45 PM on May 10, 2010

Best answer: It's not a dying field, per se, just a tough one right now for steady work. It is, I think, a little easier to find proofing and copyediting work than indexing, and sometimes the freelancers I work with are open to doing all three types. Not sure if you'd be into that, though ...

Honestly, if you're only looking to make back $2,000 over a the course of a year, that's much different from trying to make rent + utilities, and changes the equation considerably. The harder part, I think, will be picking up the jobs, as the key to successful freelancing is being consistently available and on employers' radars.

And cushie's suggestion is a good one. Trade publishing certainly has a lower proportion of published books needing indexes than academia does, and it has become standard to make index creation part of the author's responsibilities. You can even contact the university press (or general publishers) and ask if they have a list of suggested professionals that they give out to authors -- it's worth a shot, if they don't do the hiring themselves.
posted by alleycat01 at 2:14 PM on May 10, 2010

For what it's worth (which may not be much) I know of one indexing company (not a publisher, but a comapny publishing houses use to index their books) that has been looking for/hiring new people over the past two years. They didn't hire me (though I did well on their test, humph) but they hired someone, as far as I know several someones. Obviously it's not freelance, but it would presumably give you the experience to go freelance later, and, if all indexing places are as flexible as this one (FT or PT hours, work from home, etc) it might fit into your lifestyle. This place was nowhere near any major center of publishing, and nowhere near you - if you are where your profile says - but there might be others. Just thought I'd throw that out there if you hadn't considered it as an option!
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:07 PM on May 10, 2010

Response by poster: Well, I finished library school on good terms with several professors, so I think my next step will be to contact them and see what they think. I am definitely going into this with the idea that my target audience would be mostly academic writing, not commercial. (Of course, librarians are probably more likely than most to index their own books! But maybe they know people, who know people...)
posted by Daily Alice at 3:26 PM on May 10, 2010

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