How to Contract with a Book Indexer

or "Hi, Can You Do an Index for Me in Three Days?"

All rights reserved. For permission to reprint contact Dan Connolly
Copyright © 2000-2010 by Dan Connolly

Okay, you're a publisher or editor and you have a book that needs to be indexed. What do you do about it? How do you find an indexer? How do you ask the right questions to determine if this indexer can do your book? How much do you pay the indexer? How long should it take and how do you get the indexer the book and the index back from the indexer? How do you know if the index is a good one?

This article should be able to help you. After reading this, you'll have the inside track on finding the right person for the job, getting a quality product, and paying a fair price for it. You might learn a bit about indexing as a profession along the way, and some of the differences between a freelance indexer and other freelancers that you might deal with (e.g., graphic artists, copyeditors). As a freelance indexer, I'll be able to give you some insight into the process of indexing (and freelancing, a not inconsiderable aspect of the job).

In the simplest terms, an index is simply a key to locating information contained in a book.

A Brief Introduction to Indexing and Indexes

It's not unusual for publishers and editors who have not come from a scholarly background, or who have worked mainly with fiction, to have an incomplete understanding of what an index is, its purpose, and how it works. In the simplest terms, an index is just a key to locating information contained in a book (for purposes of this article, I will use book indexes as the main example, although many other types of indexes exist, including periodical and online, website versions). Ideally, an index will provide references to the location of important information, and deliberately exclude references to irrelevant information. This distinction is an important one, and gets to the crux of the professional indexer's role. Users of indexes look for important and helpful information when they search for terms or ideas. Nothing is more aggravating than to be sent on a wild goose chase through a book looking for a nonexistent reference. To look in the index and be confronted with a reference that leads to a useless passing mention is even more annoying and will quickly lead to the user abandoning the book for another, should it happen with any frequency. This can affect sales of the book as well if prospective buyers thumb through the index prior to purchase.

So that is what an index is, in its simplest form. This definition will help us, then, to distinguish between an index and a concordance. A concordance is a listing of the occurrence of every word in the book (usually this list is parsed so that one is left with more useful parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs and adjectives). The essential thing lacking in a concordance, of course, is the focus on, and analysis of, important information. A concordance actually refers its users to a vast array of random irrelevant information. Its use as a reference tool, consequently, is minimal and usually secondary to the target audience of the book. For instance, a concordance can be a great asset to an indexer, to assist in finding and analysing the minutest references to a term, for its possible inclusion in the index.

An indexer often uses the search feature of a PDF to find particular words in the text, prior to deciding if they are to be included in some form. The intervening stage, then, between a concordance and an index, is analysis. The context of the reference must be examined for its relevance to the user. This aspect of index writing is paramount, and cannot be duplicated by computers. Only a person can read a passage and determine if there is useful information contained in it and if that information can be extracted and referenced.

The judicial use of cross-references and double-posting, coupled with elegant and utilitarian entry phrasing can make a well-written index a thing of beauty in its own way

I used the term index writing previously. I think this deserves some emphasis. For a moment, let us look over the shoulder of an indexer working diligently on a text. He is reading a passage and comes across what he thinks might be useful and relevant information. At this point, he might turn to his dedicated indexing software program, and make a new "entry" in his ever-growing index. How does he do this? He can't simply re-type the sentence (or paragraph) and put the page number in. No, he must analyse the information that he is referencing, and determine the exact and precise wording to most rapidly point the user to it. He must consider the author's specific language, the possible synonymous terms (double-posting) for that language, and the perspective of the user. He must look at what topic is being discussed, but perhaps not specifically named, in the text. He must think of what other index entries this one relates to and create connections to them (cross-references). He must be concise and accurate, or the reader will be lost. This suddenly seems more daunting than it did a little while ago. It is why indexing is also a form of writing. It is a creative process. No two humans will produce the same index. Each will bring his or her own perspective, knowledge, and experience to the task. One indexer, who has done extensive research in this area, asserts that indexes are eligible for copyright registration. They are considered original works of authorship, in compliance with Section 102 of the United States Copyright Act.

Before you begin looking for an indexer, and now that you know more about the process and the product, are you certain that your book needs an index? It would be deceitful for me to pretend that every book needs an index. If the information in the book is ephemeral and likely never to need to be retrieved by a reader, then you might not need an index. If the book will not be judged quickly by enlightened browsers who will search for an index, then you might not need an index. Otherwise, I'd suggest an index is pretty useful.

Locating an Indexer

You know a little about indexes now, and the process of index writing. You still have that pressing need to get an index done for your book. How do you find an indexer? Without question, some authors can index their books competently. But many can't or won't want to and will shop it out to a relative, a grad student, or just do a casual job of it. Writing an index is different from writing a book, and the proximity with which the author views the work inhibits creativity with the index. Authors aren't able to step away from their roles easily and see where a novice reader might need help (finding synonymous terms or other "lay" entries to difficult concepts). Authors aren't trained in writing indexes. As we saw earlier, it involves more than simply noting important words. The beauty and art of an index lies in building a cohesive, well-interconnected map to the text. The judicial use of cross-references and double-posting, coupled with elegant and utilitarian entry phrasing can make a well-written index a thing of beauty in its own way (allowing for a liberal interpretation of Beauty).

Here's a bit of nuts-and-bolts advice: If you're looking for an indexer in a special field, visit the American Society of Indexers (ASI) website. You can search by type of material indexed, geographical location, or field of expertise. It's quite comprehensive (and free). While you're there, look around the excellent web site and find out a bit more about the organization. ASI also has numerous local chapters--check for one in your area and see if a member can make a presentation to your company, to answer questions about indexing. Finally, note that ASI also has a number of special interest groups (SIGs) and some might fall into your field.

You may also ask your colleagues who indexes their books. Nothing beats a word-of-mouth recommendation from someone you trust.

You can do a web search. Many indexers have web sites. This is especially useful for publishers because a comprehensive indexer web site can offer a ton of information about that person. You might be able to see titles of books he has done. You might see a list of past clients or other relevant experience. You'll certainly be able to judge how he or she presents him or herself professionally.

You can find a book with a really great index. Maybe one that's in your field and really has all the bases covered. Look in the book for the name of the indexer and contact him. If he's not listed (as is usually the case--why is that?), contact the press and ask who wrote the index. Most presses are glad to help.

When looking for an indexer, you'll want to think about what you're really looking for. Does your book cover a very esoteric subject? Do you feel that your indexer must know the field? Should he possess an advanced degree in that field? These are important questions. A professional indexer is usually well-read and well-rounded. Liberal arts colleges churn out many people qualified to index (there are other job prerequisites that would drive most of those candidates away, screaming). A seasoned professional can approach most texts and do an excellent job. If you feel you need a real expert in the field, one can be found. You can use the Indexer Locator to find specialists or ask those indexers whose sites turn up on a web search. Read their resumes. Ask for their experience in the field. I, for one, stay away from extremely scientific (physics, chemistry, etc.) and legal materials.

Regardless of your time crunch on this project, remember that you should offer a project to, and negotiate with, only one indexer at a time. It is not professional to send out a broadcast to a dozen indexers and play them off each other (knowingly or unknowingly).

Negotiating the Fee

You've found an indexer. He has the requisite skills and experience. That's great. How much should you pay him? Well, that depends on how much he wants and how much you can pay. Simply put, it's a negotiation. Before we discuss fees for indexing, let's look at the life of a freelancer briefly so that you can see what (hypothetically) goes into fee-setting for an independent contractor.

Well, that's a lot. Not every indexer will have these costs, but most will. How does this translate into a fee? Not simply or easily.

Let's look at how much time is available in any given year to produce income. There are 365 days. Subtract 104 weekend days, 12 holidays, 10 vacation days and 10 sick days. That leaves 229 working days if all goes well. At 7 hours per day (don't forget that lunch hour and the fact that most freelance work like indexing is very concentration-intensive), that's 1,603 hours. In order to maintain a freelancing business, fully 20% of the indexer's time will be consumed by marketing, accounting, and other administrative duties. That leaves 1,283 hours. Okay, take 10% off for down time. He now has 1,155 hours available.

As the publisher, it is your responsibility to provide a prompt payment to your independent contractors. Adhere to the payment terms that the freelancer sets or that you have mutually agreed to.

Now, let's say that he wants to make $40,000 per year. That doesn't seem too greedy, does it? He'd have to bill those 1,155 hours at $35/hr. in order to succeed at making $40,000. Okay. How about if he wants to make $60,000 per year ($52/hr.)? Remember that these are gross numbers. If he makes $40,000 per year, he can give at least 40% of it to the government (remember that he must pay both the employee and employer shares of FICA). Okay, that leaves him with $24,000. Those rates don't seem so exorbitant after all.

Unlike copyeditors and proofreaders, indexers usually work for project rates. That is, they charge by the project, not by the hour. This usually takes the form of page rates (although there are other methods available, such as per entry, per line, or per book). All this means is that there is an extra level to the calculations, and there's no certainty about any of it. A 300-pg. book at $4/pg. will yield $1200. If that job took 34 hours, then he made $35/hr. If he wants to make $52/hr., then he needs to complete that index in 23 hours (13 pgs/hr.) Can he do it? Well, that depends on the book, doesn't it? And every book is different. Sometimes, it's a crap-shoot. He'll end up on one side or the other of that magic number with each job.

These calculations don't exist in a vacuum. The market exerts its influence. Do you require special knowledge or experience? Does your book require a rapid turnaround? Can you find someone else whose rates are lower? The idea is to balance these things so that you are getting value for your money and the indexer is getting a decent fee.

Publishers who offer extraordinarily low rates to indexers need to understand these dynamics. Although getting value for your dollar is a driving force in business, is paying a page rate that yields $10-$12/hr. any way for a talented professional to be compensated for providing a necessary and often-rare skill? I think not. Here are my guidelines (written in the most general way) to page rates for different types of books. These are only guidelines (I do books for less than $3/pg. if the content merits it, and some books can cost a lot more than the prices listed here).

Type of Book Entries Per Page Pages Per Hour Page Rates
Academic/Scholarly 7-10 7 $4.00 - $6.00
Textbooks 7-10 9 $3.50 - $5.50
Trade Books(Light) 3-5 10 $3.00 - $4.00
Trade Books(Dense) 6-19 7 $3.50 - $6.00
Technical/Business 7-12 7 $3.50 - $6.00

Ask the indexer for the statistics on the index if you want to see how your book fit into this model. If you end up paying $4 per page for a trade book that produces only 3 entries per page, that's something you need to know. You can see from this model that the density of indexable information contained on the pages of the book, as well as the content itself, have a big impact on the time it takes that indexer to work. That should be your frame of reference when discussing page rates with the indexer. It rarely is.

If the indexer you are negotiating with isn't prepared to ask questions about the book (type size, trim size, illustrations, number and type of indexes needed, space constraints for index, and nature of text), then you should be prepared to find one who is a bit more interested in getting the right price for both of you. It stands to reason that the more difficult, and more of, the text, the more you should expect to pay. Expect to pay 50% more than the named rates if your book is composed of two columns of text on each page, or if the format is particularly large.

When counting pages that need to be indexed, leave out pages that the indexer will not need to look at, but include all pages that have text or illustrations (no matter if it's only one line of text under a picture). These "easy" pages balance out with the dense text pages in the end.

Once you have reached agreement on the price verbally, you can follow this up with a contract. It's good business practice. At worst, set the terms down in a letter of agreement. Finally, if you are the publisher, it is your responsibility to provide a prompt payment to your independent contractors. Adhere to the payment terms that you agreed upon. Remember, copyright is vested in the creator of the work, and transfer of the ownership of the index isn't complete until payment is made. You'll gain a valuable business partner if you pay a competitive rate and do so promptly. Preferential scheduling for prompt payers is common among freelancers.

One more thing: Expect to pay extra if you need any special indexes in addition to a general subject index. While not intellectually difficult, these are time-consuming indexes to write. Bibliographies and references are consistently full of unresolved differences in spellings, which must be checked by hand (or eye). There are often thousands of authors cited in a textbook or scholarly book and these require much tedious effort on the part of the indexer to find and include. Indexes that can increase the page rate: scripture, ancient sources, title, geographic, and first line.

Of paramount importance to the indexer is that projects don't slip. This is little more than wishful thinking on his part, of course, since indexing comes along so late in the book-making process. But if you can speak with some confidence and certainty that the project won't slip, that indexer will be happy to work with you on a consistent basis.

Scheduling the Project

While the independence and flexibility of the freelancer's life certainly has its benefits, it has its drawbacks too. One of these is scheduling. There's either too many or too few projects in the hopper at any given time and only rarely are things just right. You can see how this happens. Freelancers are trying to fill all the holes in the schedule and that means overlap. Then, a project comes along that pays better than the one you've already taken for that slot, so you accept it and work overtime. Then, a favorite client calls with a special "last-minute" request to save them. And on and on.

There isn't really a lot that can be done about this. It's part and parcel of freelancing. But it gives rise to the subject of lead time for indexing projects. Invariably, when I'm contacted more than a month in advance of an indexing project, it slips to a later date. If even by a few days, this can cause quite a few problems (See schedule, overcrowded, in the Book of Life). Neither is it a great idea to wait until the day you have proofs in hand, ready to ship. You can usually find an indexer, but you might not get your first choice. A good lead time seems to be about three to four weeks. It's close enough that everyone concerned knows there won't be any slippage. And it allows the indexer to do some creative scheduling to meet all his commitments.

Of paramount concern to the indexer is that projects don't slip. This is little more than wishful thinking on his part, of course, since indexing comes along so late in the book-making process. But if you can speak with some confidence and certainty that the project won't slip, bumping into another project, that indexer will always look forward to your call..

Okay, how much time do you need to allow the indexer with the pages? Because of the way freelancers work, he will probably not be working on your project the entire time he has it. He may have one or two other concurrent projects that he is moving between (see previous discussion regarding scheduling projects). The type of book has a lot to do with time needed (and rates). Here are some guidelines:

Type of Book Pages Business Days
Academic/Scholarly < 300 10-15
Academic/Scholarly 300+ 15-20
Testbooks 300+ 15-20
Trade Books(Light) < 300 5-7
Trade Books(Light) 300+ 7-10
Trade Books(Dense) < 300 7-10
Trade Books(Dense) 300+ 10-15
Technical/Business < 300 10-15
Technical/Business 300+ 15-20

Expect to pay a premium to the indexer for requests that deviate substantially from this outline. Indexers' rush rates vary between 25 and 50 percent more than standard rates.

Give the Indexer a Fighting Chance

Okay, you've picked an indexer, negotiated the rate, and scheduled the job. It's time to discuss exactly what the indexer needs from you to produce the best index possible.

Indexers need information from publishers in order to write indexes. The publisher has many decisions to make in terms of the layout and design of the index, and he needs to communicate these parameters to the indexer clearly. Here are a few issues to think about: alphabetization, format, subentry arrangement, cross-reference format, levels of subentries, punctuation, capitalization, concatenation, and scope. If these concepts are foreign to you, I'd advise reading the indexing chapter of the Chicago Manual of Style (15th. ed). If you want to know even more about these things, try Indexing Books by Nancy Mulvany. If some of these are familiar to you, then by all means, read on.

The indexer needs to know generally about the book and its intended audience. He needs to know if the book is going to be marketed to a different audience than its readership (i.e., college textbooks). He needs to know who the reader is going to be, why that reader is going to be using the book, and what experience and knowledge the reader is bringing to the book. The indexer will use this information to get inside the reader's head, so that he can write accurate, descriptive and on-target entries.

You should have a style guide for your indexes. You don't need to create one from scratch. There are a number available, including Chicago. If you've seen indexes in books that you like, then you can copy that style. There are standards and recommendations for those who really want to get into it, but for purposes of this article, let's assume that you are simply trying to publish a comprehensive, easy-to-use index. It's beyond the scope of this article to recommend certain style decisions, but you should be prepared to inform the indexer of what your style guide is when you send the proofs to him. These decisions can be left to the indexer if you are unsure; he will have good recommendations to make in that regard.

Editors and publishers can develop a written "indexing guidelines" document in which you clarify the issues I've raised above. If you want to choose an existing style guide for your indexes, then make sure the indexer has that information (most indexers have a copy of Chicago, so that's usually safe). Inform the indexer whether to index illustrations and captions, and whether these references should be identified typographically. Determine whether the format will be run-in or indented. Send these guidelines with the proofs. In lieu of written guidelines, you could send a sample index, and ask the indexer to follow that style. The indexer can extract a lot of information from sample indexes.

You should provide the indexer with some idea of the depth of indexing required, or an index length to shoot for. Many publishers get these specs from their typesetter, who might say that the index will have available "four, two-column pages, with 48 characters per line and 40 lines per column," which would result in 320 lines at 48 characters/line. These guidelines can help an indexer to edit the index to your specifications. If you don't give any index length limit, but later realize that you must cut material from the index, give the indexer a call. He'll usually be happy to discuss this with you (giving you insight into the structure of the index and indicating promising edit points). He might like to rework the index to fit into your new limit. Compensation for this work is entirely up to the individual indexer, but it's a courtesy to ask his opinion on cuts.

Send the copyeditor's style sheet if it is available. This can be very useful in formatting the entries and promoting consistency. Basically, you can't send too much information.

When you send the proofs, make sure they are final pages. Re-doing work that has already been done on the index, because of re-pagination, will cost the indexer precious time and cost you precious money. Expect to pay the indexer his normal page rate (again!) for any pages that need to be reexamined and/or changed (or an appropriate hourly rate).

Indexers need information from publishers in order to write indexes. The publisher has many decisions to make in terms of the layout and design of the index, and he needs to communicate these parameters clearly to the indexer.

Transfering Information

Books are usually delivered to the indexer via email as Adobe PDFs (Portable Document File) and the search and find features in the program can be useful to an indexer in tracking down kernels of information that he might initially have thought inconsequential. The indexer might also use these electronic files to extract bibliographic information in the compiling of an authors cited index. This can be a time-saver, in addition to eliminating data-entry errors.

The indexer usually returns the index via email attachment as an RTF (Rich Text Format) document. This method is extremely reliable and efficient. The RTF method maintains the integrity of the index's style, keeping typographic specs and indents in the appropriate places.

This isn't the sole method of transfering information, but it is probably the most efficient. Of course, you can work out the details with your indexer of choice.

Evaluating the Index

Once you've recieved the index manuscript from the indexer, you'll want to check it for accuracy and completeness. The well-qualified and hard-working indexer whom you've hired has already done all of this, and more, but it's your book and you might feel more comfortable knowing what to look for. Here's what you should do.

  1. Check the length of the index.* Does it seem comprehensive, given the particular text? One way to examine this is to ask the indexer for the statistics (# of entries or locators per page is a good measure). Compare the statistics with the table above. If you don't have access to the statistics, count the number of lines (estimate this using the usual methods). Lines/Indexable Pages should range from 2 (light) to 10 (heavy).
  2. Check that the most important topics are covered adequately in the index.*
  3. Check on the accuracy of the locators by doing a sampling. This means look in the index for a page number under a topic. Go to that page and make sure that topic is covered there. To some extent, you can do this in reverse as well. Look at particular passages in the text, noticing important information. Go to the index and see if you can find that information referenced. Is it where you first looked? Is it in another location? Is it not there at all? I don't advocate using only the reverse check to assess index thoroughness.* Different people can approach the text in different ways and this is what you have paid the indexer to do. Each indexer writes the entries differently. Each reader approaches the text with their own background, knowledge, and experience. The reverse check is more reliable when it comes to proper nouns (names and places for example).
  4. Examine the entries and assess whether they are clearly written and easy to understand (given the intended readership of the book).
  5. Do a line edit, checking for spelling and grammatical errors.
  6. Check for orphan subheadings (a single subheading under a main heading). Eliminate these by moving the subheading up to modify the main heading like so: "indexes, accuracy of." If the main heading already has page references listed, then the subheading should simply be eliminated and the page reference for it added to the main heading.
  7. Check for a long string of undifferentiated page references.* Seven page references is about the limit before it's necessary to break these down into subheadings. This isn't law, but a guideline.

*Caveat: Space limitations imposed on the indexer can cause these problems. Take that into account when assessing the index.


Creating a useful and accurate index is a rather more involved process than it at first appears. Collaboration and communication are vital during the entire process. Don't leave the indexer out of the loop. Following at least some of these suggestions will lead to steady and dependable professional relationships with qualified, excellent, dependable and grateful indexers. Who knows, you might be grateful too.