by Geraldine Begley
My introduction to indexing
Before I became a freelance indexer, I never gave much thought about back-of-the-book indexes, and I didn’t know indexing was work that could be contracted out to freelancers. After an introduction to the subject of indexing in a book, I researched how to start up a business from home and enrolled in a six-month FÁS Start Your Own Business course. Not long after, I became an accredited indexer through the Society of Indexers and got my first work through mentorship with an experienced indexer, who introduced me to the indexing software Macrex and gave me pointers for doing indexes, invoices and marketing.
I gradually began to get work through the AFEPI directory of members and the Society of Indexers ‘Indexers Available’ directory. I also got work by getting on the freelance indexer databases of some publishers in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. My background is in science and education, and I focused on publishers in those areas.
Since 2000 I have indexed over 400 books on a wide variety of topics ranging from archaeology to zoology at various readership levels, from general interest books to abstract academic ones.
Many people have never heard of indexing, including myself once upon a time, until I read a book about it in 1996, 101 Ways to Start Your Own Business by Christine Ingham. Everyone has looked up back-of-the-book indexes but many never consider how they are written or who writes them. I explain about indexing to friends and people I meet at local business networking events.
Now that I am an established indexer, the following questions are the most commonly asked ones by those that are curious about exploring the topic more.
‘Can’t a computer do that?’
‘Doesn’t the author do that?’
‘Do I write references?’
‘Do I have to read the whole book?’
First, what is an index?
An index is the alphabetical list of words (names of people/places/things/themes) that occur in the book along with their page numbers that helps readers locate the information quickly and easily. An index can be arranged using word-by-word or letter-by-letter alphabetisation.
Can a computer index a book?
No, a computer cannot index a book. An automated computer indexing program can produce a long list of words and phrases that occur in a text – a concordance, but it will not be a very useful index.
A human indexer analyses the content and context of text and adds subentries to avoid long strings of page numbers. This will be much more useful to readers looking for information in a book.
You can see examples of the difference between a computer-generated index and a human index (Paula Clarke Bain) in the indexes to the book Index, A History of the (Denis Duncan).
In the computer-generated index there is an entry for ‘Agatha Christie’ and her book ‘ABC Murders’. In Paula’s index the entries are ‘ABC Murders (Christie)’, and the name is inverted followed by the name of her book ‘Christie, Agatha (ABC Murders)’. The computer did not know the convention of inverting names so that the surname comes first and to put the name of the book in italics followed by the author’s surname. Another example is the entry for ‘alphabet’ which has a long string of page numbers in the computer-generated index, but in Paula’s index the entry is broken down into subheadings to make finding information quicker.
alphabet, 7, 14, 21, 23, 27-31, 36, 38, 40, 44-47, 257-58, 262
new, 42, 46, 268
by order of, 121
Greek 29, 36, 71, 89
History of alphabets 28-30
Letter-to-letter search 258
Ugaritic 28, 28, 29
Do authors index books?
Authors sometimes index their own books if they have the time or skills necessary to write the index. Other authors might try to index their books but find it too difficult and then hire freelance indexers. Sometimes the authors leave it up to the publisher/packager to find an indexer for them.
Does an indexer write the references?
No. An indexer does not write the references or bibliography. Indexers consult the bibliography if they need to check the first names/initials of authors when author names are included in an index.
Do indexers read the whole book?
Yes and no. I skim over the prelims, and I start reading the book from page one through to the end. I index terms that I think a reader might find useful. I only consult the bibliography to check names.
When is indexing done?
Traditional back-of-the-book indexing is ideally done after the proofs have been proofread and the page numbers are finalised, although some publishers require indexing earlier using paragraph numbers or tags. A risk when indexing is done at the same time as proofreading is that text can move and make repagination of the index necessary.
What software does an indexer use?
Specialist indexing software, such as Cindex, Macrex and SKY, automatically sorts the index into alphabetical order (word-by-word or letter-by-letter). It checks for errors and edits the index for consistency. I use SKY indexing program to enter terms, edit terms, and present the index in different layouts to suit house-style requirements. I convert the index to a word file and submit it by emailing the index to the client or uploading it to a client website.
What is indexed in the book?
The indexable part of a book is usually the main text of the book. I don’t index the prelims/front matter or bibliography/references. Sometimes the appendices, footnotes, endnotes, and glossary are indexed when the information would be useful to readers.
What equipment does an indexer need?
The equipment needed for indexing includes a desktop and a big screen/or two screens, one for the PDF and the other for the indexing software. Also necessary is access to the internet to download/upload PDF/indexes, and to double-check spellings/facts.
How do I approach indexing?
I go through the PDF file to check it is all complete – no missing pages or duplicates. I make out a schedule working backwards from the deadline to leave time for inputting the index terms and editing the index. I work from PDFs, with the PDF on the left screen and my indexing software on the right screen.
In 2000, I used to get hard copies of the proofs by post or courier. Now, I get PDFs and very rarely get hard copies. Ideally, I would like to get both formats to work from.
Books on indexing
My collection of indexing books includes the following:
Anderson, M. D. (1971) Book Indexing. Cambridge University Press.
Booth, P. F. (2001) Indexing: The manual of good practice. K. G. Saur
Cleveland, D. B. and Cleveland, A. D. (2013) Introduction to Indexing and Abstracting. ABC-CLIO
Duncan, Dennis. (2021). Index, A History of the. A bookish adventure. Allen Lane
Mulvany, N. C. (1994) Indexing Books. University of Chicago Press.
Stauber, D. M. (2004) Facing the Text. Content and structure in book indexing. Cedar Row Press.
For more information
For more information see:
Geraldine Begley is an indexer and proofreader living in Donegal.
Geraldine is a Full Member of the AFEPI, Advanced Professional Member (MSocInd(Adv)) of the Society of Indexers and an Intermediate Member of the CIEP (Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, formerly the SfEP (Society for Editors and Proofreaders)).
She can be found on:
The views of the author do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.