Frequently Asked Questions
This FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document has been compiled to provide basic information on indexing as a freelance career, and to list resources for further information. There is a wealth of information on indexing, including books, workshops, and training courses. This file can only provide a brief orientation and a list of resources for study. As you read it, remember that the broad, general statements are not universal laws; there are many ways to approach indexing, and people doing indexing do not fit all the broad statements in every respect. We will be happy if this file tells a non-indexer a useful way (not the best or only way) to think about the work before deciding to try to do it. We know that many (perhaps most) will realize after a time that they don't fit the rules of thumb either. 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, never stop learning and improving your skills and understanding. We hope you find this file useful. We welcome your comments.
L. Pilar Wyman (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Larry Harrison.
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, from cumulative indexes for journals to computer database indexes. This discussion concentrates on the back-of-the-book index, found in nonfiction books.
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 packagers. (A packager is an independent business which manages the production of a book by hiring freelancers to accomplish the various tasks involved, including copyediting, proofreading and indexing.) More often, the indexer is hired by the publisher, and the fee is deducted from the money due the author. If a packager hires the indexer directly, various payment arrangements can be made.
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), often at the same time as final 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 in hard-copy form, on disk, by modem, or by email. 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.
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 now appearing on the market 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, and 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.
Where the text is already on computer disk, the indexing features of word processing programs can ease the handling of page numbers and sorting, but the real indexing work is still done by the human. Powerful dedicated software is also available for personal computers to aid the professional indexer in constructing, sorting, editing and formatting the index, whether from hard-copy text or computer files. Many indexers use one of the programs listed on the Indexing Software page.
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.
Most people start by sending letters and résumés to publishers. Find their addresses in Literary Marketplace, Writer's Market and Books in Print, available in your library. It may take hundreds of letters to get a first indexing job. Experienced indexers say they get most jobs through recommendations from satisfied clients and networking, although some still come from marketing efforts. Now, many people interested in indexing are pursuing the apprenticeship model, working with an established indexer to build skills and experience. The three best ways to get work? Network, network, network.
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, but that's off the subject. Try questions 8 and 9.
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 unscrupulous 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 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.
When someone offers you an indexing assignment at $12 per hour, take note of the advice from Dr. Wellisch in the next quote; you could do almost as well at McDonald's!
Here are some important factors which affect your income from indexing or any other independent service business:
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 a relaxing, part-time business; there are indexers who work long hours and support themselves in nice middle-class style as a result. Most probably fall in between. 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 ahead to the future, finding 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 letters and making calls to get work, rushing to the FedEx office before they close, billing, doing your tax return, shopping for supplies, backing up your computer files, meal breaks and occasional holidays and vacations (remember those?) 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. But remember, this is a business; your actual income is much less. To figure hourly income, self-employment taxes (currently 15.3%) and federal, state and local income taxes come off the top, plus the cost of your supplies, utilities, ASI membership dues and the amortized cost of your office equipment. (See Schedule C of Form 1040 for calculating business taxes, expense deductions and amortization.) A good rule of thumb is to take at least 50% off the rate.
So, multiply your hourly income (about 50% 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 yet. Most 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 can 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 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. Money magazine recently published an article on successful home-based businesses which quoted one experienced freelance indexer who says he averages $50,000 per year. Some indexers are skeptical; others say this is possible after a few years if you work hard and find the right clients.
A local college or university with a Library Science or Information Science department may offer indexing courses. Many people take the indexing correspondence courses (Basic Indexing and Applied Indexing) offered by the US Department of Agriculture. Assignments are graded by indexing professionals and a certificate of completion can be provided.
If you are considering ASI membership, take note of the excellent self-paced course offered to ASI members. Available on 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.
Copyright 2007 Larry Harrison and L. Pilar Wyman
ASI Webinar, June 20
"Creating and Maintaining Speed in Indexing", by Kate Mertes. For details visit the Webinars page.
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Announcing the 2013 Hines Award
The Hines Award for 2013 was presented to Jan C. Wright. Jan’s exemplary leadership of the Digital Trends Task Force has produced a long list of accomplishments on behalf of the indexing profession. See the complete award statement.
New Business of Indexing Course