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I need an index; what are my options?

Updated: 5 days ago

Part of a publishing agreement will be about who provides the index. What might your options be for getting an index for your book? The author can index the book; the publisher can hire an indexer or the author can hire an indexer. The next three posts will discuss these options, beginning with authors indexing their own work.

Part One: Authors Indexing Their Own Work


I’ve read online that some authors don’t trust someone else to do the index, while others assert that no one else could know the material like the author does. I’m not clear where the lack of trust lies, is it with the skills of the indexer, the knowledge base of the indexer on the subject or is it something that reveals the author’s need for control over the whole process? An author with control issues doing the index might not be a good idea as everything is funneled through the author’s perspective which may miss audiences of the book, hamper usability or have elements of indexes that are hallmarks of poor quality.

I have found that some authors I have worked with will focus on the contribution that their book is making to the field and dismiss entries aimed at those new to the field or from other disciplines as relevant. During the review process, these authors will ask me to delete entries for simpler content which I believe shouldn’t happen. The audience for a book is much more than your peers and you never know who has come to your looking for information related to their interests and research.


The author who claims that no one else could index the book because they don’t know the material, might not understand that indexers actually read the book and that many indexers are well educated in a variety of disciplines, many having graduate degrees and doctorates in their field. If the book is well written with a cogent argument, an indexer with an appropriate understanding of the related areas of study should be able to understand the argument in its entirety. After all, isn’t the point of the book to convince others of the argument?

Financial Outlay

When an author indexes the book there is less of an immediate financial outlay than when the author pays someone for the index. The author is essentially paying for the index with their time, which is a resource that varies in its accessibility for individuals. During the editing process, the author has likely been borrowing time from other areas of their life using the deadline of finalizing the text as the date after which normalcy will return. As indexing happens at the very end of the editorial process, that is, one of the very last things to be done to the book before heading to the printers, there are authors who have simply run out of time and/or energy to index their book, especially if they have family and teaching commitments. The editing process can be exhausting and more time consuming that envisioned.


Indexes are fussy, require a good attention to detail, and are frustrating or stressful to some, to the point that the index never reaches a level professionalism that matches the writing.

If you know you hate fiddling with wee bits of document formatting, usually have several typos and your ethos is ‘I’ve done my part, someone else will tend to the details’, you probably shouldn’t do the index. As the index is one of the last steps before going to press and time is limited as the press has been booked, the amount of time an index is reviewed by the publisher may be minimal, meaning you won’t have that built-in back up of another set of eyes combing the index.

Time Commitment

Indexing in Microsoft Word can be time consuming as it isn’t a program that is meant to do indexing and if it is the first time you are indexing, you will be figuring out on the fly how to make the program work for the specialized needs of indexing. Making an index seems simple, but they truly require fastidiousness, so having sound knowledge of Word’s advanced features can help you figure out how to implement some of the formatting needs of your publisher. Authors are expected to present the index according to the press’s formatting requirements due to the amount of time between submitting the index and it going to press. The press may not account for time on their end to convert em and en dashes, elide locators, count lines and move cross references.

Fatigue and Overwhelm

I once had an author approach me about indexing their book mid-December. They needed it ready for the start of January. I was already booked and couldn’t take on their book (even though I really wanted to index that particular book). They were having no luck finding an indexer and decided to index the book on their own, saying “I don’t care, I just needed to get an index in the book to satisfy my publisher”. I suspected they were teaching, it was the end of term, and they were exhausted from teaching while doing the edits. I think they were going to care when the final book was in their hands and fatigue and stress were faint memories.

We’ve all been overwhelmed at some point and know that feeling of anything is better than nothing. If that’s something that you find happens to you a lot, and this is your first book, you may want to seriously consider hiring an indexer earlier rather than waiting to the last minute. Indexers with subject matter expertise get booked in advance because of that expertise. Waiting until the last minute, means you end up like the example above, wanting an indexer but unable to find anyone who is a good fit for your book.

Next post: having the publisher hire the indexer for you

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