Sue Klefstad

Sue Klefstad

Back-of-the-book indexes can have an air of mystery that I would like to dispel by providing answers to some basic questions: Does your book need an index? Should you index your own book? Can a computer write an index? What does the indexer need from you? How much does an index cost?

Does your book need an index? As a back-of-the-book indexer, I’m totally biased when I say that a nonfiction book without an index is like a town without addresses: Imagine trying to find folks in a town without addresses. Now imagine trying to find information in a book without an index.

A nonfiction piece has many threads of information woven throughout the text that all need to be gathered into index entries so that every chunk of information can be found by anyone who needs it. An index is a roadmap. It’s more than an alphabetical list of major words; it’s a web of connections and relationships made visible in the cross-references between entries (See and See also connectors) and in the subentries under the main entries.

Here are some articles supporting my contention that a nonfiction book without an index is like a town without addresses:

What about indexing your own book? On first look, the author seems the perfect person to index her book: Who knows that book better than you? But should you index your own book?

Of course, the answer is: It depends.

One factor is the publishing schedule. If the book is on a tight to-printer schedule then the indexing will likely be done at the same time you proofread the pages. But if the book is being self-published and is on a more flexible schedule, then you could certainly block the time to index your book.

Another factor to consider is how sick and tired you are of your book by the time it’s ready to be indexed. The author’s job doesn’t end with writing the book. In the process of publishing the book, there is a string of responsibilities expected of the author, from securing permissions and art to approving copyedits and proofing pages. Do you really want to read this thing yet again to index it? If you haven’t been pressured throughout the publishing process, then perhaps your enthusiasm remains at a level high enough to enable writing a quality index.

For those who want to take the plunge into indexing, Nancy Mulvany’s classic Indexing Books, published by the University of Chicago Press, is very readable; it’s often used as a textbook in indexing courses. The University of Chicago Press are the people behind the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the bible of the publishing industry to which the index will likely need to conform. The CMS is currently in its 16th edition. The indexing chapter of the CMS is sold as a stand-alone publication, Indexes: A Chapter from the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition.

Can your computer write an index? Carol Saller answers this question with elegance in her Chronicle of Higher Education article “Is a Computer the Right Person for the Job?”

An index, after all, is not a list or an outline or a concordance. In its highest incarnation, it is more like a map or tree showing the looping and scattered relationships of topics and subtopics throughout a book. Indexers harvest concepts as much as words; their index entries regularly feature words that never appear themselves in the text being indexed.

Martha Osgood, on her very informative Back Words Indexing site, also discusses computers as indexers:

Indexing ultimately organizes “aboutness” for quick recall. The computer and its software assist, but the human mind alone can speak to the concept of “aboutness.” If a term or concept is not specifically articulated on a page, a computer cannot choose it for the index, nor can a search engine find references to it.

Okay, you’ve decided to hire an indexer. What does the indexer need from you? The indexer is given the PDF files of the book pages (as single pages, not spreads). It is very helpful for an indexer to have as much of the book as possible.

  • The table of contents gives the indexer a good overview of the book, as does the preface.
  • A preface may or may not be indexed. If it merely summarizes the book then it is not indexed; however, if the preface and/or foreword provide information then index entries may be made.
  • The indexer also needs to see all appendixes for the book.
  • An appendix may be referred to in the index as a chunk, with simply its full page range in its entries, or it may be indexed in more depth, providing multiple, more specific entries to the information within.
  • The indexer needs the bibliography or references to be able to fully identify names that may be only partially provided in the text, perhaps given by last name only.
  • The bibliography/references are crucial to the indexer if a name index is being written in addition to the subject index.

It is important for the indexer to know if there are page constraints for the index. Books that are offset printed, as opposed to self-published print-on-demand books, need to fit into page quantities that are multiples of the basic signature length and so may have only a limited number of pages remaining in the final signature. Self-published authors using a print-on-demand (POD) process may want to minimize their page count and so they also may have only a limited number of pages available for the index. Most self-published POD books have the freedom to include an optimal index, unconstrained by page count.

The indexer also needs to know style issues associated with the structure of the index. If the book is being self-published, then the main style preference specified is for an indented versus run-in index. A run-in index consumes fewer pages by gathering all the subentries into the same paragraph as the main heading, but can be more difficult for a reader to scan. A publisher may have a house style, or may simply say to follow Chicago or follow CMS or follow the Chicago Manual of Style, which all mean the same thing.

The number of index subentry levels may determine run-in versus indented format. If the index consists of simply main headings and subentries, then either format works fine. But if sub-subentries will be included, then an indented index is the more likely format, though theChicago Manual of Style’s own index shows a combination indented and run-in index that handles sub-subentries.

How much does an index cost? Index prices and methods of pricing are all over the map but primarily depend on the density of the text and the depth of indexing wanted or needed. A ballpark range is $2.50 to $3.50 per indexable page. Blank pages are not indexable; neither are the title page, copyright page, and table of contents. An indexable page has information someone might want to find. If an appendix is an obvious block of text (such as the text to the Declaration of Independence or an organization’s code of ethics), needing only its full page range in the index, then perhaps the indexer might consider it all to be one indexable page. However, generally the indexer has to read each appendix page to discern indexable material. Tables, for example, may contain a wealth of entries, or may be one chunk of information, but the indexer has to read the page over to make that determination, and so the indexer will probably charge for each table page.

The American Society for Indexing (ASI) has a book on indexing to help authors and editors: Indexing for Editors and Authors: A Practical Guide to Understanding Indexes. It covers the characteristics of a good index, hiring an indexer, editing an index, and many other topics.

The ASI website is a treasure trove of information on indexes and indexing. It answers frequently asked questions, has an Indexer Locatorwhere you can specify specialties, and offers an index evaluation checklist, among other resources. If this article hasn’t answered your questions, then the ASI website probably will.

Sue Klefstad is also known as Sue, the indexer. With more than 15 years in publishing and a background spanning the sciences and technology, Sue writes indexes that enhance the text, make reviewers happy, and sell more copies: An index turns a nonfiction book into a reference book. For more articles on indexes and indexing, see Sue’s website:

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