Interview on nonfiction book indexing with Virginia C. McGuire

Have you ever considered writing a nonfiction book? Whether your goal is simply to be a published author in a certain niche or you want to publish a book to promote your overall freelance writing business, your book might need an index. How do you create a nonfiction book index? Can you (and should you) do it yourself, or should you hire someone? What kinds of tools would you even use to do this?

I had the pleasure of interviewing Virginia C. McClure, a Philadelphia-based writer and book indexer about her process, whether or not indie authors should go the DIY route, and more. Check out the interview below, and feel free to share your own experiences with book indexing (or freelance indexers) in the comments below.

1. For those indie authors who consider taking on their own book indexing, can you give us a quick rundown of what's involved in the process?

When you index a book, you’re creating thousands of access points that allow a reader to quickly get to the sections they need. It’s like you’re poking holes in a dark box to let the light in. Many people look at the index before they buy a book to see if it covers the topics they’re interested in, so you want to get this right.

An indexer combs through the book and identifies the subjects covered on each page or on a range of pages. For each subject, the indexer selects the best possible index terms. A good index term is what most readers would intuitively look for in the index. If there is more than one perfect term, the indexer creates cross-references to help point the reader to all the sections that cover a certain topic. It helps if the indexer has a working knowledge of the book’s subject, but experienced indexers can quickly pick up the necessary terminology in a new subject area.

Some of the work of combing through the book looking for specific subjects can be done by searching the document for key words or proper nouns. But an index that was entirely computer generated would be incomplete. A human indexer can read between the lines, identify overarching themes, and draw similarities between multiple sections that discuss the same topic in completely different words. A computer can only search for a string of characters.

For example, in a book about 20th-century artists, a section about Violet Oakley might have index entries for women artists, muralists, and stained glass artists, among others. A computer might be able to create an entry under Oakley’s name, and perhaps identify her as a woman, but would have to be very sophisticated to come up with the other entries.

2. How long would you say it takes you on average to create an index for a nonfiction book? Or does it vary greatly from one project to another (and if so, what kinds of things affect that time commitment)? And what's the biggest challenge you've had to face in indexing a book so far?

The time required does vary quite a bit. It depends on the indexer, how they work and what kinds of tools they’re using. Some indexers still prefer to do the bulk of the work on paper, and then type up the index entries afterwards. Some indexers read the entire book before they start indexing, while some dive right in and index as they read it for the first time. Some people work in a slow, deliberate way, but their indexes require almost no editing. Some people do a quick first pass, and then spend more than half their time editing the index.

It also depends on the project. A book written for a scholarly audience is typically denser, and has more index terms per page. A book written for a popular, lay audience is fluffier and much quicker to index.

When I’m bidding on a job, I ask to see a sample chapter of the book. I index several pages and time myself to estimate how long I think it will take me per page. I add in a generous amount of time for editing, and count the average number of index terms per page. This gives me enough information to tell the author or publisher how much it will cost them to have me index the book. The quotes are usually based on a per-page rate, and I only charge for indexable pages. Some front and back matter is indexable, while some is not. For example, I do index footnotes if they have information that adds to what’s in the main body of the text. I don’t index a normal bibliography, but I might index an annotated bibliography.

And how long does it take to index a book? I have one client who publishes 100-page books about gardening. They’re image-heavy, written for the general public, and I’m very familiar with the subject. I can index one of their books in a few days. For a full-length book written for specialists, I like to have an entire month, although I rarely get that much time because of the way publishing calendars work. I’ve known indexers who can do a book a week, but those people typically don’t have kids, don’t have other jobs and don’t need much sleep.

The time crunch is the hardest thing for me. I do a lot of freelance writing and work part time as a librarian. That combination of skills--writing and librarianship--is what makes me such a good indexer. I’m good with words, and I’ve taken graduate-level classes on how humans look for information. But being a writer AND a librarian also means my schedule is very full, and an indexing project arriving two weeks late can be a big challenge for me. Because the index has to be done at the very end, after the book has been written, rewritten, edited, edited some more, copyedited, designed and typeset, the indexing schedule is vulnerable to being squeezed. If the designer’s hard drive crashes, the author goes AWOL or the copyeditor has a baby, the time reserved for the index gets shortened. I’ve indexed books while on vacation more than once because they arrived later than scheduled. But it can be thrilling to pull a successful index out of a tight window of time. I’m a sprinter. I work well under pressure. The tight deadlines are part of the fun of indexing.

3. What tools do you use (or recommend) for indexing a book independently?

Specialized indexing software is a beautiful thing. It allows you to format all those pesky entries and subentries and sub-subentries, and you can change alphabetization scheme (yes, there is more than one way to alphabetize) with the click of a button. I use Cindex because it’s compatible with my Mac, and I’ve had good experiences with their customer support. There are more software options if you have a PC.

You don’t NEED expensive software. One friend of mine has made her own indexing program using a combination of free software packages she found online. I would want, at the very least, a good spreadsheet tool and a word processor.

It’s also essential to have software that allows you to search PDFs, because the manuscript is likely to be in that format. For really tricky books, I do still print out sections of the manuscript and mark them up with pencil and paper. And I definitely believe in printing out the index during the editing process, because I see things on paper that I miss on a screen.

If you are thinking of indexing your own book, read the chapter on indexing from the Chicago Manual of Style. I have turned to that chapter countless times. Among other valuable tidbits, it shows a picture of a manuscript page marked up by an indexer. Anyone who knows copyediting marks will find that it looks familiar, but it can save a lot of time if you don’t have to invent your own mark-up system.

Indexing is tedious, detailed work. You need to be able to live inside the book for long stretches. For that reason, unless you live alone, I’d suggest either an office with a closed door or maybe just a good pair of headphones.

4. Make a general pitch for us. Why should nonfiction indie authors consider hiring someone to index their books rather than taking on that work themselves? What does a freelance indexer offer that would benefit them beyond simply saving some time?

Like parents, authors cannot always see their babies clearly. I’ve heard of authors who thought their book was about X, but after seeing the index they realized it was really about Y. The index is a microcosm of the book. A professional can take your book and distill it to its essentials. Most indexers welcome an author’s suggestions, and you should have a chance to edit the index after it’s done, so you are not surrendering control by hiring someone else to do the index. Just like editors make authors look good, indexers make books look good.

The other factor is that professional software costs hundreds of dollars, and really makes the process easier. It’s not worth it to buy the software for just one book. You might as well spend a few hundred dollars more and hire a pro.

5. At what point should an author think about hiring an indexer? Do they have to wait until they have a fully edited manuscript, until their typesetter is finished with the book, or is there some other milestone that signifies a good time to have an index done?

If you are planning to hire an indexer, you should line one up as soon as you have a publication date. But for the indexer to actually do the work, the typesetting has to be done. This is because the book must be in a state where the page numbers will not change. Often the indexer and the proofreader are working concurrently. The proofreader is unlikely to make changes that will have a big impact on the pagination.

The exception is that many publishers use software that allows you to tag the manuscript itself with index terms. This can be handy if the book is going to be published in more than one format and the page numbers are going to be different. It also allows you to index earlier in the process, because the tags will stay with the relevant sections of text regardless of any possible changes to the page numbers. However, for freelance indexers, the norm is still to send them a PDF of the manuscript after the page numbers are set in stone.

Intrigued? Feel free to send me an email, vcmcguire @ gmail, so we can talk about your project.

About Virginia C. McGuire

Virginia C. McGuire is a freelance writer and book indexer based in Philadelphia. She has indexed books about everything from gardening and urban renewal to political movements and philosophy of law. You can keep up with her on Twitter or check out her recent publications on Contently.

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