Indexers: What do you need to know?

15 March 2021 Indexers:

Indexer Paula Clarke Bain makes the case for her profession, and describes how authors can work with indexers to get the best results

A major change in publishing, in my two decades of editorial freelance experience, is the growth in indexing directly for authors. Fewer publishers now commission indexers, and many contracts require authors to provide the index.

The question for authors, then, is whether to invest in a professional or do it themselves. Some authors are very good indexers. They are obviously familiar with their text. But maybe too familiar. Indexers are trained to consider the text from various readers’ perspectives, and include additional access points, cross-references and synonyms. And, crucially, professional indexers will index the book they read, not the book the author thinks they wrote.

Experienced indexers also index fast. A rough estimate is 10 pages per hour, so maybe 30 hours for a 300-page book, in one working week. We also have the right tools, namely indexing software, which won’t do the intellectual heavy work but speeds up certain tasks, from alphabetisation to format (run-on or set-out) and page-range elision style. A Ctrl-F search can’t replace a human indexer. Computers don’t read like a person, so they can’t index like one. Indexing a book is not easy.


Finding an indexer

The UK professional body is the Society of Indexers (SI), founded in 1957, whose online Directory of Professional Indexers lists its trained Accredited Indexers, searchable by subject and skill. You could also ask your publisher or fellow authors if they can recommend an indexer, or check the acknowledgements page of a book with an index you admire. (Indexers don’t always get a credit from the author, but they are always welcome.)

Check an indexer’s credentials. See which other authors and publishers they have worked for. Look at their subject specialisms. Seek out examples of their work. Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature often includes part or all of the index, and some publisher websites offer a free index download.


Hiring an indexer

Your initial enquiry to an indexer should be made as soon as you know you need one, as in-demand indexers get booked up in advance. To provide an accurate estimate, the indexer will need to know: the title, subject and publisher of your book; the index deadline and date proofs available; any publisher indexing guidelines; the length of your book (word count preferably or page count); and the required format of the index. (At page proofs stage, a standard back-of-the-book index is needed. However, some publishers request the index earlier at Word manuscript stage, which may involve indexing to paragraph numbers or an embedded index, where entries are inserted at the correct locations in the main text. This adds complexity, so clarify early.)

The author will need a cost estimate from the indexer. In 2020, SI recommends indexing rates of £25.90 per hour, £2.90 per page or £7.80 per thousand words for an index to a straightforward text. Hence an index to a book of 50,000 words would cost £390. SI members are encouraged to maintain these rates.

After you reach agreement on fee and payment terms (usually 30 days after invoice) with your indexer, they will book in the time. Please keep your indexer informed of changes in the publishing schedule. We’re used to this happening, and can be quite flexible, but the more advance notice, the better.


Working with your indexer

Having secured yourself an indexer, you will eventually have the indexable copy (as Word manuscript or typeset page proofs as InDesign or PDF file). Email the manuscript/proofs to the indexer and ask if they need a hard copy.

Now leave your indexer to get on with it for a while. Here is a brief peek at my standard indexing process.

First, I set up the index style in my software. For a standard index I have the book PDF open on the left of my screen, and SKY Index software on the right. For an embedded index, I work just in Index-Manager as this program imports the InDesign or Word text.

I like to do an initial skim-read of the full text to start understanding its content and structure. Then I go back to page 1 to begin close reading and inputting entries. Yes, an indexer does have to read the whole book. We don’t need to be sent a list of key words because we build our index list of terms as we read through. When I have input all my entries, I edit the index, concentrating on entry wording, cross-references, balance and length. I do a last proofread on paper, as I can spot different things on hard copy. I save the final index in required format (usually Word or rtf file) and email it to the author. With an embedded index, I email the whole Word manuscript (or InDesign file), with index entries embedded in the text and a generated index list at the end.


Checking the index

Then it’s over to the author. Here are some suggested checks to make:

  • Length, style and format – Is the index the right length for the book? A rough guide is a 5% index, so a 10-page index (in two columns) for a 200-page book. This can vary, but much shorter or longer could be a problem. Is it in the correct publisher style and format?
  • Content – Does the coverage and terminology seem appropriate? Do the entries reflect the book’s themes? Will they make sense to your readership? Is the spelling and punctuation correct?
  • Page numbers/locators – Are these accurate? Spot-check a few, and more if you find errors. Are there long lists of undifferentiated page numbers after entries? Indexers are trained to avoid such ‘locator strings’ by adding subentries. Long page spans can also be problematic.
  • Cross-references – Are there enough cross-references or double-postings to enable the reader to find what they need wherever they may look?

Time will be ticking, so changes should be minor and quick for the indexer to implement. It’s preferable (essential for an embedded index) to ask the indexer to do these, as they have an understanding of the overall index structure and how amendments might affect other entries.

There may be some back and forth discussions. Indexers have their reasons for doing or not doing something – standard indexing practice, or publisher house style, or space requirements, etc. But the author may have some reasonable and justifiable changes. Indexing can be quite subjective, especially if the publisher has set a tight maximum index length. With one such recent index (on Herman Melville), the author suggested a few additions and we then worked together on removing other entries so the index still met the required size.

You can collude over the odd ‘Easter egg’ comedic index entry, if appropriate. These are jokey entries or a nudge/wink to the reader. I always include some in my indexes for a comedy historian, with their permission. Did the character names ‘Pepper, Sgt Floyd (Muppet)’ and ‘Sequins, Fibonacci’ need to be in the index? Well, no, but they reflected the book’s content (The Beatles and rock ’n’ roll comedy), the author and I liked them, and readers might too. (See box, above.)

Good communication is key here. I find this author–indexer liaison a rewarding process and it can make for a better index (and indexer). At the end of the day, it’s the author’s book: you need to be happy with its index.

Once the index is approved, the author can send it to the publisher and the indexer can submit their invoice. If you love the index, this may be time to add an acknowledgements credit. Finally, your book is published, with its professional index. Congratulations!


Personally, I have found it a positive change working more directly with authors. I think it can have real benefits compared to the traditional publishing scenario where author and indexer have no contact. I like being in touch with the author of the book I’m indexing. The authors I work with seem to like being in touch with their indexer too.

In the end, the index is an investment. It provides the last word and often a reader’s initial access point to a book, and poor or missing indexes can harm your sales and reputation. Paying an indexer frees up your time, too. Writers want to be writing. Indexers are best at indexing.

If you decide to tackle your book’s index yourself, the Guide to Indexing by John Vickers is available free to members on our Guides page.

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2020 issue of The Author.

Paula Clarke Bain is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society of Indexers. She tweets as @PC_Bain and her website (with comedy book indexes blog) is Find the Society of Indexers on Twitter @indexers and

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