Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Does Your Book Need an Index?

While it may seem that the author of a book would be best at preparing the index, since he or she knows the work most intimately, too often they lack the objectivity of the reader. The role of the indexer is to match the author’s content with the reader’s specific information needs. The indexer visualizes potential readers and anticipates their needs when searching the book.

An index is successful only if it is usable. Usable indexes improve the written work and builds reader confidence in the author. The purpose of the index is to save the reader time and energy in their search for relevant information. Rapid information retrieval is critical to the success of a book, manual, database or website.

That is not to say the author can never be the indexer. If the author can view their book from the perspective of the reader and understands how to use cross-references to guide the reader through their work, then they may be able to index their own book.

An index is not a concordance. A well thought out index will use cross-references and alternate terms to lead readers and users to information. That is why human intervention is still needed for index preparation. A person can distinguish between a singer (bass) and a fish (bass); an embedded word finder does not have that nuance.

Specific formatting principles must be followed. The publisher will provide the requirements in their style sheet. This will include if the index should be indented or run-in style, how it should be alphabetized (word by word or letter by letter, the locator range, punctuation and capitalization of headings).

Cross-references must be anticipated. For example, will the reader expect the term Native American instead of Indian?

Utilization of formatting software is a definite benefit to ensure meeting all the style requirements. However, it can be a costly investment if the author is planning on preparing only one index.

Remember, the index cannot be prepared until the book is in final layout from the publisher or printer. It requires final pagination to be prepared correctly. An index without correct page locators is worthless. Most publishers will require the index be prepared on a short lead-time, often no more than a week.

Most authors have invested a lot of time in researching and rewriting to prepare a book they are proud of and willing to share with readers. The index should be a reflection of that dedication and care.
Mindy Reed, Guest Blogger
For over sixteen years, Mindy Reed has been assisting writers prepare their manuscripts for publication as owner of The Authors' Assistant. Mindy holds a MLIS degree from the University of Texas, an MA from SMU and a BA in English from Kansas State University. She is a librarian for Austin Public Library and an instructor for Austin Community College. You can contact Mindy at The Authors' Assistant, www.authorsassistant.com or at mindyred@aol.com.

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  1. My husband writes non-fiction books (on tax law) and for both his books he needed a detailed and thorough index. Luckily his proof reader and his publisher were both actively involved, and Husband was only responsible for the final check.

    A similar question I wonder about is should fiction authors have a bibliography when their story relies heavily on non-fiction books for reference?
    Judy (South Africa)

  2. Judy, like your husband, I was lucky in that my publisher took care of indexing my books. I was glad I didn not have to do that.

    To answer your question regarding fiction, I have rarely seen any kind of bibliography. Many authors will mention sources in their acknowledgments.

  3. I can't even imagine doing this myself. And, Judy, when I went to a Women Writing the West conference some years ago, there was considerable discussion about bibliographies in fiction based on historic fact. I say the answer to your question is "yes" as well.

    Thanks for a most informative post!

  4. Thanks for sharing! It's always amazing to hear how much we can do with our books, and how much we need to think of.

  5. I would not want to do the indexing. I'm very glad the publisher had someone do it for my books!

  6. Some page layout programs like InDesign now offer indexing as part of their standard layout program. That changes up the indexing process somewhat. The indexer no longer needs to develop a complete page reference for the terms to be indexed; he or she need only provide a list of terms, in the EXACT format in which they occur in the book. This means that if sometimes the term used in "Indian" and sometimes "Native American," and sometimes "Cherokee," or "Sioux," or "Apache," or whatever, ALL terms need to be provided to the designer, or whoever's running the indexing program, ideally early in the process.

    Your point about the author not being the ideal person to generate such a list is well-taken; the issue of tunnel vision is certainly in play here. However, authors play a key role in verifying that specialized information and names are finalized in their correct form.

    Once the terms are identified and located the first time in the manuscript, they are flagged. It's even possible to provide cross-referencing tags. Then, when the layout is set, the index creation function can be run, and all terms consolidated or renamed. It's as pain in the neck, but it can be immensely valuable. I just finished indexing a book about the career of band director Horace Heidt, whose career spanned from the early 1900's through the seventies--the index of names, locations, and key performances and songs is probably the most important part of the book.

    One final note: we decided not to include "Horace Heidt" as a subject heading; every page in the book would have appeared on that particular entry! Index terms need to be narrow enough to actually provide valuable routing information!

  7. No way can a computer program make a real index. It's not just about finding words and phrases or even cross-referencing. It depends on how complex the book is. Maybe it just needs a concordance, as mine did.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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