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The Care and Feeding of Indexers

We indexers are a hardy species. We are almost all self-employed, which means we're good at working alone, and are self-motivated and organised. We work long hours when an indexing job comes in, including nights and weekends, to meet publishers' and authors' deadlines. We love our work.

But despite this hardiness, we do need some care. We are still human. We can't work miracles. The following list addresses frequent grievances, and ways you can look after your indexers better.

1. We need you now!

Don't contact us for a quote, and then expect us to be available that week. Many of us have work booked in advance, for months. We need advance notice.

An exasperated indexer
An exasperated indexer (me). We're pretty low key
2. It's going to be late ...

When you give us a deadline for the delivery of a manuscript, we book it in to our work calendars. We often have many projects coming in, one after the other, and we schedule them accordingly.

When you run late with delivery, it puts our whole work schedule out, and it affects other indexes, and other things we are committed to, not to mention our stress levels.

We understand that schedules slip on book projects — we see it all the time, and many of us build a bit of 'slip time' into our schedules. So if your manuscript is running late, pleeeease let us know right away, so we can juggle our other projects (where possible). Don't tell us on the day we're expecting the manuscript to arrive. It makes us stabby.

3. ... and we still need the index by the original deadline

Delivering a manuscript late, but expecting us to deliver by the original deadline, cutting days or weeks off our schedule, is unrealistic and unreasonable.

When we say an index will take us X number of days, we mean X days of full on intensive work. As an example, when I have an index coming in, I stock up the freezer with meals the week before, because I know I won't have the time or energy to shop or cook while I'm indexing. I eat at my desk. My family fends for itself (a frightening sight).

We can't suddenly compress that time, and produce a professional index in less time. Indexing is very mentally taxing, and we can't do a good job if we have to index 14 hours straight, for days at a time. Brains start leaking out of ears, which makes a disgusting mess, just for starters.

If your manuscript is late, ask us if we need extra time to complete the index, and work to squeeze in some flexibility into your publishing schedule — for instance, a submission time of 9 am Monday is not functionally different from 5 pm Friday in terms of office hours, but gives us many more work hours.

4. Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?

During the indexing process, we will undoubtably have questions for you. On things like name variations, how you want certain topics handled, whether something in the manuscript is a typo or not, and so on. Because we have to work fast, to meet your deadline, we also need to hear back from you quickly. If we have to chase emails, and resend questions, and bug you to get responses, it's just annoying for both parties, and wastes time.

And when we submit the final index to you for editing, and then the final files, please acknowledge receipt of the files. We don't like to assume that email is working, and that the files got through.

4. You want what?

Ah, the brief. What you expect, and how much you're prepared to pay for it. These are often unrealistic.
Expecting a long detailed index for practically no money is just not going to happen. An index can take anywhere from 20 to 50 hours to write. Not joking. Sure, some books may be simpler, and their indexes can be produced quickly. But in general you're looking at at least a few thousand dollars for a professional index. 
Fast, Cheap, or Good
We are always happy to adjust what we produce to your budget — a simpler, less detailed index can be written more quickly, for instance. And some indexers will give discounts to self-publishers (something I do), or to non-profit organisations and so on. Be up front about what you can afford, and we'll work out how best to provide an index within your budget. But we are professionals, doing a very skilled task, and this attracts a professional rate of payment. 
This comes under points 1 and 2 and 3 above ... but no, we can't produce a good index for a 350 page book in 3 days. Would you like some Unicorn Pie with that?

5. How many pages?

There's only so much index we can squeeze onto a page, with tiny text and double columns. Not having a reasonable number of pages set aside for the index is a constant issue for us. 'Culling' is a frequent task when editing an index.

An index in a 'general audience' book needs to be around 4% of the book length. An academic book requires up to 10–15% of the book.

So a general audience book that is 300 pages long needs at least 12 pp set aside for the index. An academic book of the same length needs more like 30–45 pages for the index. The more in-depth or "detailed" you want the index to be, the more pages it needs, and more time it takes to write.

Expecting us to write a detailed index for a 300 page book in only 4 pages is not only a disservice to the book, author, and readers, but a huge headache for us. We will have to leave out all sorts of information in the index, out of necessity.

In the planning stages of the book, please please PLEASE (bold caps — doesn't get more pleady than that) reserve a decent number of pages for the index. As a rough guide, you need 4% for a general book (4 pages of index for 100 pages of text), and around 10% for an academic title (10 pages of index for 100 pages of text).

6. Ch-ch-ch-changes

Edited index
Changes to the manuscript while we're indexing it are a nightmare, especially significant text changes. Adding several paragraphs, or deleting a figure, can cause shifts to where page breaks fall, and fixing this entails tedious editing of hundreds of index entries. (Whole page additions or deletions aren't so bad, as our software can make shifts to page ranges easily.)

We need to work from set-in-stone final manuscripts. Otherwise we might be forced to kill you charge you for extra work.

When we submit the final draft index to you for comments, that is not the time we want to hear things like "Oh, we want to treat all names like this ... with no first names, just initials." That's something we'd really rather be hearing at the start of indexing. We needn't have typed in all those names, and double checked their spelling. Editing them all out at the end is a waste of time, not to mention annoying.

A sample of ebook index code
Code for an ebook index, from ASI DTTF
Please let us know your standard forms for names of people and institutions, and anything else of import, and the way you want things done, when we get the manuscript. There are many different standards in indexing, and lots of ways of approaching things. Don't assume we know what you're thinking.

7. Just no.

Please don't give us lists of 'words to include in the index' (unless we specifically ask for them). For some indexers, this gets you black listed quick smart. We are professionals. We know what we're doing. And we know how to pick up topics and terms in a text.

8. Ebook indexes, don't they just get generated automatically?

No. Interactive ebook indexes are created quite differently from paper-based indexes. There is different software involved, just for starters, not to mention a different indexing process. So if you are single-sourcing to print and ebook, please talk to your indexer at the start of layout! We're all over that shit.

So, if you deliver your manuscript on time, give us enough pages for the index, and enough time to write it without being in a panic, are clear in your expectations and communication, are prompt with feedback, and trust us to do a professional job, we will love you forever! And if you give us a credit on the imprint page, and send us a copy of the book once it's published, we'll even wash your dishes.


  1. Hi Denise – fabulous article! Dare I say, it's the indexer's version of my recent rant on editing: It is infuriating when clients assume that we can be brought in at the last minute, with no notice, and will somehow produce perfect work in no time at all.

    See you soon ;-) Karin

  2. Excellent article, Denise. I couldn't have said it better myself.

    Janet Perlman

    1. Thank you so much, Janet! I'm glad it's resonating with other indexers :)

  3. Very will stated for all of us indexers! Thank you!

  4. Excellent. One (of the few) things in which I depart from you is my pattern of work. When you say....
    When we say an index will take us X number of days, we mean X days of full on intensive work. As an example, when I have an index coming in, I stock up the freezer with meals the week before, because I know I won't have the time or energy to shop or cook while I'm indexing. I eat at my desk. My family fends for itself (a frightening sight)....
    I'm a full time indexer, but I do manage to keep my work within the 8 or 9am to 5-6.30pm and just 5 days of the week (with a few weekend exceptions a year).
    I'm aware of others who work to all hours. Never done that, had to do that, wanted to that, and not sure if I could do that.

    1. Interesting — I guess when you have steadier indexing work, it's essential to schedule it that way? Very short deadlines are certainly difficult to work to after a few weeks.

  5. Hi Denise, I agree with Janet - "...couldn't have said it better..." and it's funny!

    Ken Hassman


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