So you want to be an indexer?

Indexing as a Viable Profession

by Janet Perlman

If you love books and reading, have a fairly analytical mind, would love to be a business owner, and are looking for a career change or a part-time career opportunity, indexing might be just the thing for you.

Preparing book indexes (and other kinds of indexes) is a viable career option. It’s an important function in the publishing world, almost always done by freelancers. It appeals to those who love to organize information and things–it is analytical, intellectual. It appeals to those with an entrepreneurial bent. It gives you the freedom to run your own business with very little equipment and no up-front investment (no fees, no franchise, no pyramid scheme). And it allows you to set your own work hours.

Here’s how it works. Once a book is in final form and all laid out, the editorial changes have been made, all the graphics and illustrations are in place, and it is almost ready to go to the printer, the book is ready for an indexer to create the index that appears at the back of the book. That’s the part of the book that helps a reader or researcher find the information in the text of the book. It’s like a vault of data in alphabetical order, telling you where to go in the book to find information. It’s a road map to the book.

At that point in the publishing process, the client (a publisher, or a book production house) contacts you and asks you to prepare an index. You agree on price and timeframe, the publisher sends an electronic file, and you now do the work of creating the index on your own premises, using your own computer and software.

What you are actually doing is reading the book and thinking as you read where you would list the concepts and information in an alphabetical list if you wanted to find it again at a later time. This is the thought process you need to have. You are creating a “finding tool” for the reader.

Once done with the index, you return it to the client as an RTF file or a Word file by the due date, along with your invoice, and you’re done.

What equipment do you need?

You need Internet connectivity and an up-to-date computer, good word processing software, and indexing software. What does the indexing software do? It’s a standalone program for you to enter the index entries, one at a time, which puts them into alphabetical order, runs the page numbers entered into numerical order if there is a string of them, and allows you to see what the index looks like as you enter the individual entries. It allows you to compare similar entries and makes the work of compiling the index much easier. It does not find entries for you, nor does it mark (or tag) entries in the book text. That is something else. It just creates the index document entry by entry as you type the entries.

How do you learn indexing?

There are a few self-study courses available, some taught by experienced indexers, others by universities, and another under the auspices of the American Society for Indexing. For less than $750, you can get the training and some mentorship you need to be ready to start your career.

No professional certification or degree is needed. You study and learn, become proficient, and you’re ready to go. It’s always a good idea to have your early work peer reviewed and critiqued (there are ways of doing that), so that your professional development continues after the initial course. And the more you work at it, the quicker you get at using the software and figuring out which work methods are best for you. But basically, beyond learning the skills and software, you need nothing else besides your brain.

You will be your own boss, setting your own hours and rates. Many people earn a nice living as full-time indexers, and many others do indexing in addition to other types of work or in addition to their family responsibilities. The opportunities are endless.

What does an indexer earn?

You may be wondering what an indexer earns. It depends–on how much time you can put into your business, on your level of expertise, and on your professional abilities to go after business and be well-paid. Usual rates are per book page, at a rate of about $2.50 to $4.00 per page. Figuring up, you will be getting anywhere from $750 to $1,200 for doing the index for a 300-page book. Rates vary and can be higher for very complex or specialized material and as you gain experience. There are indexers who earn more than $100,000. Granted, they work full-time and work hard, but the possibility is there. Your annual earnings will vary depending on both your rates and the volume of work you do in a year.

Ebooks and indexing

Historically, indexing of books was where this all started. But as we march into the digital future, there are other materials that need indexes also. E-books frequently don’t have indexes, but they certainly can, and should. Non-fiction and scholarly e-books lose value without indexes, and it isn’t difficult to provide indexes for them. This is cutting edge--a new segment of the field. Databases, on-line materials, and websites also need indexes, and there is software available for this kind of indexing also. Corporate materials, legal documents, and catalogs need indexes. So although book indexing is the traditional form of indexing, there are many possibilities now within the field, some of them very modern and involving digital media.

There is an active community of indexers in cyberspace, bolstered by a professional organization–the American Society for Indexing (ASI) There are listserves (more than one) for chatting, problem solving, and advice. There are ASI webinars, conferences, and chapters and chapter events. And there is a good body of literature (books especially) available for continuing professional development.

Janet Perlman has been providing publishers with quality indexes as Southwest Indexing for more than 25 years. Her dual specialties are science-based and engineering books, and Spanish-language materials. Janet has served the American Society for Indexing for many years, both locally in Arizona and at the national level. She was a former Treasurer of ASI.

Janet has presented many indexing workshops and is also an author. Besides articles in professional publications, she has published Running An Indexing Business (Information Today Inc., 2002), Index it Right, Vol. 2 (Information Today Inc., 2009, with Enid Zafran), and Indexing Tactics and Tidbits: An A to Z Guide (Information Today Inc., 2016).