3 Things book indexers wish you knew

Seth Maislin

Seth Maislin, freelance indexer

1. Indexing is an editorial function.

You own a spellchecker, so why do you continue to work with editors? That’s easy. You need an editor to correct all the stupid mistakes your spellchecker makes, along with the 20 other good things that spellcheckers never do. Indexing, like writing and editing, requires a human being. Search, automatic indexers, and even simple alphabetizing tools are inferior, able to build things that look okay but function terribly.

2. Authors can write their own indexes, but there’s no good reason for it.

Just because you’re capable doesn’t mean you do it. Most of us do not grow vegetables, fill potholes, produce movies, or whittle wood into pencils. We know to rely on people who are efficient and qualified, because we have more appropriate things to do instead. Indexers are highly educated people who have the right combination of experience, training, and subject knowledge to prepare the best product for your readers. Unless you’re a professional indexer yourself—and there are a multitude of opportunities for you to become one—leave the hard work to the experts. Even gardeners buy most of their groceries.

3. Many publishers don’t care about the index.

If it arrives on time, looks good, and fits within the space allowed, the rest—you know, that whole quality thing—might be irrelevant. Even if you’re working with a company’s vice president, index production might be assigned to a recent college graduate who knows little or nothing about indexes. Authors need to advocate for the indexes that end up in their books. Authors should be involved in an early search for a qualified indexer, insist on enough money and time to get the job done well, be a resource for the indexer, ask the publisher to reserve enough book pages for the index, and review the final product. If you don’t want errors in your book, why would you accept errors in your index?

For many, writing an index sounds like torture, and to some it really is. On the other hand, talking about indexing is fascinating because it’s all about language and communication and people. If you have questions about indexing, I promise the answers won’t bore you. Ask away.


Seth Maislin, is a freelance indexer and consultant with Focus Information Services. Email: seth@maislin.com Web site: http://taxonomist.tripod.com

What do you wish authors knew about indexing?