Frequently Asked Questions

The FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) has been compiled to provide basic information on indexing as a freelance career, and indicate some resources for further research. There is a wealth of information on indexing, including books, workshops, webinars and training courses. Here we provide a brief orientation. As you read it, remember that there are many ways to approach indexing. Our goal is to present a useful way (not the best or only way) to think about the work before deciding to try to do it. If you do decide to pursue this challenging, rewarding, and important work, please seek out the many other wonderful resources available; stay in touch with the field and other indexers through ASI, and never stop learning and improving your skills and understanding. We welcome your comments.

L. Pilar Wyman ( and Larry Harrison (

When I tell people that I am working on an index to a book, they tend to hang their heads in sorrow. I tell them that compiling an index for a book is a lot more fun than writing a book could ever be, a relaxing jaunt from A to Z compared with a jerky stop-start trek without maps.
—Craig Brown, Times Saturday Review, 21 July 1990

1. What is indexing?

According to the British indexing standard (BS3700:1988), an index is a systematic arrangement of entries designed to enable users to locate information in a document. The process of creating an index is called indexing, and a person who does it is called an indexer. There are many types of indexes, including website indexes, eBook indexes and periodical indexes. This discussion concentrates on the traditional back-of-the-book index, found in printed non-fiction books.

Indexes are among those necessary but never spectacular products of hard as well as skilled work that can sometimes make the difference between a book and a good book.
—index review in Books Ireland, February 1994

The chief purpose of an index is distillation, and in performing that task it can manage to suggest a life’s incongruities with a concision that the most powerful biographical stylist will have trouble matching.
—Thomas Mallon, New York Times, 10 March 1991

The ocean flows of online information are all streaming together, and the access tools are becoming absolutely critical. If you don’t index it, it doesn’t exist. It’s out there but you can’t find it, so it might as well not be there.
—Barbara Quint, ASI San Diego Conference, 1994

2. Who does indexing?

In the United States, according to tradition, the index for a non-fiction book is the responsibility of the author. Most authors don’t actually do it. While a few publishers have in-house indexers, most indexing is done by freelancers, often working from home, hired by authors, publishers or book packagers. (A packager is an independent business which manages the production of a book by hiring freelancers to accomplish various tasks, which may include researching, writing, illustrating, copyediting, proofreading and indexing.) When the indexer is hired by the publisher, the fee is deducted from the money due the author. If a packager hires the indexer directly, various payment arrangements can be made.

Indexing work is not recommended to those who lack an orderly mind and a capacity for taking pains. A good index is a minor work of art but it is also the product of clear thought and meticulous care.
—Peter Farrell, How to Make Money from Home

3. How is indexing done?

The indexer usually receives a set of page proofs for the book (images of the actual pages as they will appear, including final page numbers). This is usually one or more PDF files, often sent as proofreading is being done by someone else. The indexer reads the page proofs, making a list of headings and subheadings (terms to appear in the index) and the location of each pertinent reference. After completing the rough index the indexer edits it for structure, clarity and consistency, formats it to specifications, proofreads it and submits it to the client, usually as a computer file. Since the indexer is very late in the production process, there can be unreasonable time pressure.

As to how to index, what goes on between the ears, that’s a subject for books, courses, workshops and lifelong learning from experience.

Less time is available for the preparation of the index than for almost any other step in the bookmaking process. For obvious reasons, most indexes cannot be completed until page proofs are available. Typesetters are anxious for those few final pages of copy; printers want to get the job on the press; binders are waiting; salesmen are clamoring for finished books—surely you can get that index done over the weekend?
Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed.

Indexers are in effect trying to provide answers to a host of unasked questions. Indexers therefore need to work as if their audience is present. But there are two snags: first, in most cases they do not know who this audience will be; second, in most cases they do not receive any feedback as to whether their judgments have been successful. From a communicative point of view, there is probably no more isolated intellectual task than indexing. The twilight howl of the indexer might well be “Is there anybody there?”
—David Crystal, editorial, The Indexer, April 1995

4. Can’t a computer do the indexing?

The short answer is no. Computers can easily construct a concordance (a list of words or phrases and where they appear), but this is not an index, and is not very useful to someone looking for information. The so-called automatic indexing software programs being sold are simply not up to the task of indexing a book. Book indexing involves a little bit of manipulating words appearing in a text, which computers can do, but also a lot of understanding and organizing the ideas and information in the text, which computers cannot do and will not do for many years to come. An example of the difference is that a book on protective gloves for occupational use might have a chapter discussing surgical gloves, how they get punctured and how they are tested for integrity, but might never use the word holes. Yet a user of the book would expect to find this word in the index and be directed to the appropriate chapter. The indexer handles dozens or hundreds of such issues in every book.

Since the text of the book arrives as computer files, features of software programs like PDF readers and word processing programs can be useful tools for the indexer, but the real indexing work is still done by the person. Powerful dedicated software is also available for personal computers to aid the professional indexer in constructing, sorting, editing and formatting the index for submittal in many different file formats. Several such programs are listed on the Indexing Software page.

Automated indexing was never intended to produce back-of-the-book indexes. As Indexicon demonstrates so well, back-of-the-book indexes cannot be automatically generated.
—Nancy Mulvany and Jessica Milstead, review of Indexicon, Key Words, Sep/Oct 1994

5. What skills or education do indexers need?

Many publishers and packagers don’t ask for specific degrees or credentials unless they are looking for someone with subject matter expertise for a technical book. (See question 10 for more about courses on indexing.) Skills needed to learn indexing include excellent language skills, high clerical aptitude, accuracy, and attention to detail. Once you are indexing professionally, you will find that self-discipline, curiosity, tolerance of isolation and love of books are necessary to keep going. In addition to all this, of course, there are the business and marketing skills needed to succeed as a self-employed professional. Clients take their cue from you: If you behave in a professional manner, most of them treat you accordingly.

Whoever the indexer is, he or she should be intelligent, widely read, and well acquainted with publishing practices; also levelheaded, patient, scrupulous in handling detail, and analytically minded. This rare bird must while being intelligent, levelheaded, patient, accurate, and analytical work at top speed to meet an almost impossible deadline.
Chicago Manual of Style, 13th ed.

I wonder whether there is any profession in which a knowledge of one’s tongue is of the slightest use.
—T.E. Lawrence, on winning 1st place in English Language and Literature in the Senior Oxford Local Exams, 1906

6. How do indexers get clients?

Most people start by contacting publishers. Literary Marketplace and Writer’s Market are directories of the publishing industry available in most libraries. Both have searchable online versions which may require paying a subscription fee for certain types of searches. It may take hundreds of inquiries to get a first indexing job.

To help clients find you, building a website for your business and being active in social media like LinkedIn, Facebook, or others can help. One of the benefits of ASI membership is the opportunity to purchase a listing in the online Indexer Locator, used by clients to find indexers. Experienced indexers say they get most jobs through recommendations from satisfied clients and networking, although some still come from marketing efforts. Some people interested in indexing pursue the apprenticeship model, working with an established indexer to hone skills and gain experience. The three best ways to get work? Network, network, network.

7. How much are indexers paid?

That’s the wrong question. (I know, I wrote the question, but that’s the way it’s usually asked.) A freelance indexer is running a small business; as a businessperson, you are not paid, you set prices and charge for a service. You are not an employee; you are an independent contractor. This is an important distinction because of how it changes your thinking. It’s also very important for tax purposes. Try questions 8 and 9.

8. How do indexers price their services?

The two most common ways of quoting book index prices are per page and per entry. Different publishers prefer different methods, and indexes for different media (databases, periodicals, etc.) also are priced differently. All the different ways of quoting prices can be reduced to a fee per hour. While experienced indexers come to know what rates per page or per entry they can afford to accept, beginning indexers would be well-advised to focus on the hourly fee when figuring their bids. This enables new indexers to decide what kinds of work are best for them, and to track improvements in skill, efficiency and income as they become experienced.

If you are starting out as a freelance indexer, you won’t be able to get the same fee as an indexer with 10 years of experience. This does not mean inviting exploitation by penny-pinching clients. Remember, if you are qualified as an indexer, you are producing a professional product, and you should be fairly compensated. Set yourself a rock-bottom hourly fee for run-of-the-mill indexing, the lowest figure you should ever accept, and stick to it. Remember, no one says you have to take what the prospective client is offering. No one says the client has to pay what you charge. Both parties are free to negotiate or go elsewhere. It is your responsibility to set the fee you charge for indexing, and negotiate to get it.

Indexers need to charge for their services according to the time they expect to spend on the work. On the other hand, many clients want a predictable price since they are under budget constraints. These clients will not pay by the hour, especially if they don’t know your work. How do you quote your prices to get your hourly fee?

If the client opens the discussion by saying she wants the index done for $1,200, or for a certain amount per indexable page, a fixed bid is called for. (Pricing per page is a type of fixed bid; it can be agreed to in advance even if an exact page count is not known.) Fixed bids are good for the client but risky for the indexer. The indexer must be familiar with the book before a reasonable bid can be given, because of wide variations in words per page and complexity of material. The expected number of entries per page or in the whole index should also be specified, since this is a key factor in the time spent doing the index.

Publishers in some fields (medicine, for example) want to ensure a detailed index, so they often use pricing by the entry. As long as both parties are clear on exactly what constitutes an entry and how they are counted, this has the advantage of compensating the indexer for extra time spent on complex material. Again, the expected number of entries per page should be specified.

No matter how the bid is to be figured, start with the hourly fee to make sure you are being compensated according to your set rate. First, estimate how many hours it will take you to do the index, including editing, proofing, and preparing final copy. This estimate is crucial. Actually indexing a representative sample of the book is helpful here, and estimating skills should improve with experience. Then multiply by your hourly fee to get the total amount you expect for indexing the book. If the client wants a lump sum bid, you are done.

To prepare a bid or price quote for a client who uses per-page pricing, divide your total estimate by the page count. To prepare a price quote on a per-entry basis, figure the total number of entries in the book and divide this into the total estimate. In summary, use one of the following methods, where $FEE is the total fee, PAGES the indexable page count of the book, and ENTRIES the total number of entries in the book (ENTRIES is average entries per page times the number of pages):

  Fixed price =  $FEE

  Per-page rate =  $FEE / PAGES

  Per-entry rate = $FEE / ENTRIES

If the client has a price or rate in mind, work the numbers backward to figure the hourly fee resulting from the client’s number before deciding whether you can afford to accept it.

An hourly indexing fee should always be at least four times the wage one can earn by flipping hamburgers at a fast-food emporium.
—Dr. Hans Wellisch, Indexing from A to Z

Hourly rates in 1993 started at $20 to $25 per hour and went up from there.
—Nancy Mulvany, Indexing Books

9. What kind of annual income can I expect from indexing?

Here are some important factors which affect your income from indexing or any other independent service business:

  1. How you set your prices.
  2. How much you want to work.
  3. How skilled you are at finding enough good clients to stay busy.
  4. How skilled, and fast, you are at indexing.
  5. How much your business expenses are.

In short, your income depends on your motivation and your business skills as well as your indexing skills. There are indexers who treat it as relaxing, part-time work for supplementary income; there are indexers who work long hours and support themselves in middle-class style. You have to decide what you are looking for.

You need to spend time learning how to start and run a business as well as learning to index. Books and magazines on home-based business and entrepreneurship have lots of ideas and advice applicable to freelance indexers. Seminars and workshops on business skills and sales technique can be quite useful, but be careful with your money. Talk to graduates before signing up.

Suppose we look to the future and find that after gaining some experience, you reach a speed and skill level where the combination of rates paid by clients and the time you spend doing the work results in a good hourly rate. What hourly rate might you expect? ASI regularly surveys freelance and in-house indexers to find out what salaries and fees are being paid. The latest survey is available on this website, in the Members Area. If you are an ASI member, you may view and download the survey. In case you don’t have access to this information, bear with me as I discuss the mechanics of estimating your self-employment income without using a specific rate.

To estimate your annual income from indexing, multiply your hourly rate by the average number of work hours in a year. Forty hours per week times 52 weeks a year is 2,080. Wait! If you want to index full-time, you need to consider all the time your business takes besides actual indexing. Writing emails and making calls to get clients, billing, doing your tax return, shopping for supplies, backing up your computer files, occasional workshops or webinars to improve your skills, even holidays and vacations are all unpaid time. Don’t forget idle time between jobs; it takes several years of building a client base for most indexers to get full-time work. If you plan to put 40 hours per week into your business, then allowing for all the above within the 40 hours results in a rule of thumb of about 1,200 hours per year of actual paid indexing work.

OK, multiply your hourly fee by 1,200. That’s your gross revenue. Remember, this is a business; your actual income is much less. To figure income, self-employment taxes (currently 15.3%) and income taxes come off the top, plus the cost of your supplies, ASI membership dues and purchasing computer equipment and software. (See Schedule C of Form 1040 for calculating business taxes, expense deductions and amortization.) A good rule of thumb is to take at least 40% off the rate, more if state and local income taxes apply where you live.

Multiply your hourly income (about 60% of your hourly rate) by how many hours you can work per year (1,200 while you are getting established, based on a 40-hour week). If this is not enough for you to live on, don’t quit the day job. Many indexers start indexing as a part-time moonlighting effort, supporting themselves with another job. Once they are sure they want to do this kind of work full-time, and clients are paying well and keeping them so busy it is hard to get everything done, they make the decision to try full-time indexing.

Once you are well-established, idle periods and time spent marketing diminish, resulting in more paid work hours. You can eventually reach 2,000 paid hours per year if you are willing to work more than 40 hours per week. In addition, a very good indexer who works fast can make a higher hourly rate for a given page rate, because it takes fewer hours to do the work. In 1990 Money magazine published an article on successful home-based businesses, quoting one experienced freelance indexer who said he averaged $50,000 per year. Some indexers were skeptical; others said this is quite possible after a few years if you work hard and find the right clients.

Wealth … is more accurately measured in what you enjoy than in what you possess.
—Jean Aspen, Arctic Son

10. How can I learn to index?

A local college or university with a Library Science or Information Science department may offer indexing courses.

If you are considering ASI membership, take note of the excellent self-paced course offered to ASI members. Available for download and via interactive CD-ROM, this comprehensive course includes many practical exercises and self-assessments. A certificate of completion can be obtained by taking the optional exams.

Look at the Indexing Courses and Workshops web page for more information about all these options. Before you invest money in an expensive course, check out some books on the subject to gauge your interest and aptitude.

Indexing cannot be reduced to a set of steps that can be followed! It is not a mechanical process. Indexing books is a form of writing. Like other types of writing, it is a mixture of art and craft, judgment and selection. With practice and experience, indexers develop their own style as do other writers. The best we can do as teachers of indexing is to present the rules and offer guidance.
—Nancy C. Mulvany, Indexing Books

Index learning turns no student pale,
Yet holds the eel of science by the tail.
—Alexander Pope, The Dunciad

Copyright 2016 Larry Harrison and L. Pilar Wyman