Working With Freelance Indexers

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: The American Society for Indexing (ASI) is grateful to our colleagues at the Society of Indexers (SI) in Great Britain for their leadership in publishing Last But Not Least: A Guide for Editors Commissioning Indexes (1998), from which this publication has been adapted.



An otherwise good book can be significantly enhanced by a good index and seriously weakened by a poor one. Nevertheless, it seems to be a house rule in publishing, probably for reasons of cost, that the editor asks and expects the author to create a book's index. But while, of course, an author can sometimes produce a good index, many authors are not well-suited to the task. Unless an author has previously indexed a book, he or she is unlikely to have the experience or proficiency, not to mention the time, to create an index that comes close to the level of quality routinely achieved by an experienced professional indexer. That is because there are, in fact, particular indexing skills that are developed with experience. Among them are:

  • text analysis — an ability to identify significant concepts and themes in a text and to represent them thoroughly yet concisely with suitably formulated index terms; also an ability to recognize and ignore insignificant (passing) mentions of a subject that do not provide the reader with useful information;
  • organization — an ability to structure conceptual patterns and complexities into meaningful heading/subheading sequences;
  • consistency in cross-referencing and double posting of entries;
  • a dispassionate ability to anticipate the potential needs of the book's expected audience.

Encourage your publishing house to consider hiring a professional indexer. Authors are, in fact, often glad to have this part of their work done by a professional, even if it means contributing to the cost themselves. Certainly it will save authors from a significant distraction at a time when they will need, instead, to be checking their page proofs for errors and otherwise focusing on the product of their own writing efforts.



Good indexers tend to have busy schedules. Try to line up an indexer for your book before the page proofs are returned from the typesetter. This allows:

  • more time for you to find a good indexer, especially if you need one specializing in the type of book to be indexed or its subject matter;
  • time for the indexer to schedule his or her work adequately.

The American Society for Indexing (ASI) publishes the online Indexer Locator, which includes a personal statement from each indexer listed and is searchable by subject and language specialty; by types of material indexed; and by geographical location. In addition, ASI has Special Interest Groups of indexers (SIGs) in particular subject specialties. Some of these SIGs have established their own member directories to aid publishers, authors, and others who seek qualified, dependable indexers. Note that ASI can make no representation, guarantee, or warranty as to the quality of any member's work. Business and contractual agreements are solely between the indexer and the client.

Indexers typically have learned their craft in any one of a number of ways. These ways might include completing the U.S. Department of Agriculture Extension School Indexing Course, or attending courses taught at library schools and workshops sponsored by the American Society for Indexing or one of its many chapters. Many indexers have worked previously as librarians or in publishing. The indexer you hire should have experience both in indexing and in the subject matter necessary for your material. An indexer you contact might refer you to another indexer who is either better suited to your subject matter or whose schedule can better accommodate your current need.



Discussing What Is Required

Tell the indexer whether to index only the main text of the book or to include front matter, footnotes, endnotes, figures, illustrations, tables, and appendices or other back matter. Indicate the likely space available for the index. If you are unsure whether the space is sufficient for the index, the indexer may be able to help you decide what to include if you send a sample chapter and a copy of the book's table of contents.

The author may have provided a list of terms that he or she believes are important for the index. A professional indexer may or may not find this helpful, although many indexers will be willing to use such a list as a guide. Giving the indexer authority to contact the author may help both to gain understanding. Whether or not an editor encourages this contact should take into account the personalities involved as well as the potential added time and cost. In any case, the final choice of index entries should be for the professional indexer to determine.

If the index has to follow a specific format, send the indexer a style sheet or another index done in the same style. An index style guide should cover:

  • capitalization rules
  • alphabetization (word-by-word or letter-by-letter)
  • style for subheadings (indented or run-in)
  • placement of initial articles, abbreviations, acronyms, numbers, and symbols
  • form of location references, e.g. page numbers or paragraph/clause/section numbers
  • rules for indexing illustrations, tables, appendices, and other special material
  • typeface style differences (e.g. bold or italic) for references to illustrations or tables
  • page range style (e.g. full or minimum/elided)
  • punctuation (commas, colons, or none)
  • any special coding or tagging required for typesetting

Page proofs sent to the indexer should be complete, legible, and final. It is inadvisable and costly to send non-final page proofs to the indexer unless there is a special reason for doing so. Dealing with changes to the text and to the pagination can be very time-consuming for the indexer, and may very likely result in an extra charge. Nevertheless, if the text is revised after the indexer has received page proofs, it is important to alert the indexer to the revised text. Significant text changes and page adjustments made without the indexer's knowledge, if uncorrected in the index, will result in incorrect page number references in the published index. Do not assume that the author or an editor can "catch" such changes and fix the index after it has been submitted. Someone unfamiliar with the index will very likely only identify the most obvious terms needing to be changed and will miss other terms and cross-references that are affected or that will need to be added to or deleted from the index.

If revision of an existing index is required for a new edition of a book, the original indexer should be given first opportunity to revise his or her earlier work. The indexer may prefer to start over; it is often advisable and cheaper to re-index the book from scratch, and the indexer will very likely have an understanding of when that is the case.

Size and Length of Job

If you have a specific size in mind for the index, tell the indexer how many lines you have available. When the index requires editing to fit space requirements, indexers would prefer to do that editing themselves, rather than have someone else do it. Do not expect a cheaper index because you have insufficient pages available for it. It can take more time and effort to construct a good short index than a good long index, since the indexer has to make many careful and time-consuming choices about what to include and what to leave out.

The page length of the index will be affected by subentry style: Indented subentries are easier for the reader to scan, but take more space than run-in subentries. Column width matters, as well. If the index entry lines are fairly long and the column width is narrow, the many turnover lines in the index create confusion for the reader.

Negotiating the Fee and Contract

Indexers may charge for their work on a per-page or per-index-entry basis; or they may charge by the hour. The fee should be commensurate with the type of material to be indexed and the type of index required. Indexers knowledgeable in specific subject specialties and those with some years of indexing experience will request and should receive higher fees.

Fee considerations include the level of detail needed in the index; the difficulty and complexity of the material; length and space requirements; and the time allowed for completion of the index. A complex academic text requires more work than a basic trade book or textbook. More per page may be charged for very dense or extra-large pages, or for technical subjects. Most indexers are willing to negotiate a fee after they have seen a sample of the proofs. Renegotiation may be necessary if the work proves to take significantly longer than first thought.

Every text is different. One rule of thumb for estimating the time needed to index fairly straightforward text is 5-10 pages per hour. Once the indexer has seen the proofs, this estimate may have to be revised. There may be, for example, 20 tables per chapter, requiring many more entries than normal. Also, discuss the need for inclusion in the index, or not, of seemingly insignificant names. Expect to pay a higher fee if you request coding of the entries according to your typesetting requirements: This may take longer and can be quite complex.

Your publishing house may require that the indexer sign a contract. Or the indexer may require one. Often a letter that clearly stipulates all conditions, obligations, and duties may be sufficient. It is important to be clear about the index deadline. The indexer should return the index to you within the specified period. If you expect an index to be done particularly quickly, involving evening or weekend hours, expect to pay a higher fee for the job. The agreement should also specify the fee and any expenses to be paid, as well as when money due is to be paid.

Make sure the indexer knows whom to contact with queries that arise during indexing (for example, about inconsistent spellings of names or inaccurate information in the text).



Quick Checks

After the index arrives, either as a file attached to an e-mail message or as a manuscript accompanied by a file on diskette, what should you look for? The indexer will have completed the index to his or her satisfaction, but you need to make sure that it conforms to your requirements:

  • Check that there is no index hard copy missing, and number the pages if necessary.
  • Check that the electronic file is readable by your software and/or the typesetter's software. Spot-check the coding, if any.
  • Check the length of the index if this might be a problem.
  • Correct any entries that may have to be altered in the light of the author's or proofreader's corrections to the text. If more than minor corrections are needed, this is a procedure best referred back to the indexer, as mentioned earlier.
  • Check that the index style and format is according to house style, or as discussed.
  • If there is a heading note at the beginning of the index, is it helpful? If there is no heading note, is one needed?
  • Check that any foreign names are correctly indexed. Make sure that you have a good indexing reference work to consult such as Indexing from A to Z (Wellisch, 1995), or Indexing Books (Mulvany, 1994). View our bibliography of books about indexing.
  • Spell-check the index but proofread (or make sure it is proofread at some stage) for other spelling errors (a correctly spelled word in the wrong place, e.g. form for from) and any typos.

There is also a more extensive Index Evaluation Checklist on this web site.

Shortening the Index

If the index is too long for the space available for it, first consider ways to make it fit that do not involve cutting the index. Changing the font size and spacing might help, as might using a three-column rather than a two-column index layout. Discuss with the indexer, if necessary, changing an indented-style index to a run-in-style index. Often this is a change that an indexer can make easily, using today's indexing software.

Any indexer will be concerned if you need to cut the index because of space constraints. Ideally, decisions on space available for the index should be made before the index is written. Deleting a significant percentage of an index is a daunting and unappealing task for the indexer. Nevertheless, the indexer should be given the opportunity to do this task because the indexer is the person most familiar with the index. Keep in mind that it takes skill and a lot of extra work to reduce an index so that its structure and usability are not adversely affected.

Unsatisfactory Indexes

If an index–whether produced by the author or someone else–turns out to be truly unsatisfactory, a new indexer should be hired, and a new index written. It is best not to try to fix a bad index. Doing so could produce a mixed result that is even worse than the original.

Mark Up

An indexer using indexing software can usually provide you with a finished index in an electronic format that your word processing software or desktop publishing program can easily read. Indexers can add your specific typesetting codes to their software, if needed, so that the index can be presented automatically in your own house style for your typesetter. (Depending on the complexity of the work, this might involve extra payment.) If you request the index in a plain text file or as hard copy, the index should be marked up for the typesetter by either the editor or a designer. Indents are usually in multiples of 1 or 2 ems. Turnover lines should be indented further than the lowest level subheading. Always instruct the typesetter to insert correct "continuation" lines at page breaks as needed.

Last-Minute Changes

Serious modifications to the index at the eleventh hour may involve a renegotiation of the indexing fee. However, some of the following types of changes can be done quickly and accurately by the indexer, using the appropriate indexing software, and may not significantly add to the cost of the index:

  • changing the style and position of "see" and "see also" cross-references;
  • changing word-by-word alphabetization to letter-by-letter or vice versa;
  • changing subheadings from alphabetical order into page number order or vice versa;
  • changing the style of page ranges from 123-4 or 123-24 to 123-124 or vice versa;
  • capitalization of the first letter of main headings;
  • styling changes for the index text;
  • changing the index from a run-in to an indented format or vice versa;
  • changing the punctuation between the end of the text of the entry and the first page number;
  • changing the hyphen between elided page numbers to an en dash, or another character;
  • submitting the index in a different file format.

The indexer may also be able to change the page numbers in an index using software commands if, for instance, a section of the book is removed. If text page breaks have changed, the index re-numbering procedure will be more costly and lengthy, but again can be done more quickly and effectively by the indexer than by someone else. Do not hesitate to involve the indexer in any discussion of options for last-minute problems.



Indexing software is a tremendous aid to the professional indexer, but it by no means creates indexes "automatically," any more than a spelling or grammar checker can edit a text on its own. Beware of vendors who claim that the services of a professional indexer can be replaced by running a software program on the text of a book. The intellectual and analytical work of indexing is the task of the human brain, and no software program can duplicate it.

Indexing programs available to professional indexers can help the indexer to produce, sort, and manipulate entries; establish subheading sequences; restyle and amend entries; and keep track of what has been indexed where. On the other hand, the indexing add-ons included with word processors and DTP programs are usually far less efficient as aids to creating a high-quality index.

If individual papers in a book of conference proceedings or chapters in a book are set and numbered separately, it is possible for each of these sections to be indexed before the final order of pages is known. This can save time at the final stage of book production. If the index will be put on the Web, hot-link locators may be substituted for hard-copy page numbers and the index delivered as an HTML file. However, should the indexer be working from hard copy for print production, the hot-link locators will need to be supplied in a separate print-out.



Indexers like to have the chance to proofread their own indexes but don't often get the opportunity. If there is time in the schedule, check with the indexer to see if he or she wants to check the proofs; then send the index page proofs to the indexer as well as to a proofreader. Check that:

  • the whole index has indeed been typeset;
  • indents and runover lines have been placed correctly;
  • any detail that might have been missing or in doubt earlier, such as a page number, personal name initials, or other item in question has been properly filled in;
  • the first page number of the index matches that given in the table of contents;
  • correct "continuation" lines are included (Mulvany, 1994).

Some indexers appreciate being recognized for writing the index. Print the indexer's name with the index or in the front matter if the indexer wants it. When possible, a complimentary copy of the book should be offered to the indexer.

Make sure that the accounting department settles the indexer's invoice by the date specified on the invoice.