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Indexing: Turning a Book into a Timeless Resource

A potential reader searching for a book on particular topics and wanting to know how deeply a book covers them will often look at the index. An index gives the reader a sense of the breadth of topics—all the way down to the specifics—that they’ll benefit from, as well as serves as a useful reference for interacting with the book for years to come. It may be an important part of a reader’s decision to add the book to their shopping cart and pick it up again after their initial read, increasing its value over its lifetime.

Books that benefit from an index

Indexes are typically found in nonfiction books, especially those that include reference or technical material. If a title includes topics specific to a certain subject area or industry that the reader may want to return to for quick reference, or if the title includes important keywords that could be used for research, the author should consider including an index. Not all nonfiction titles need an index, however. Narrative nonfiction titles, such as memoirs, do not require one as they do not serve as resource material.

The indexing process

The indexing process is one of the final steps in production before the book is sent to the printer. Indexing can only occur once the full PDF is finalized as final page numbers are needed in order to produce a properly paginated index. Changes after the indexing process is complete could result in layout reflow, causing key terms to shift to different pages and rendering the index inaccurate.

Indexing is typically completed by professionals who have been trained in the skill and, while straightforward from the outside, requires expertise on behalf of the indexer. The indexer reads through the entire book and identifies key words and phrases they anticipate will be important to readers. Indexing is subjective, but all indexers approach the book with the target reader in mind. Some indexers utilize a hybrid of indexing technology in addition to a manual read-through.

When the index is complete, the author receives the final draft of key terms and their associated page numbers for inclusion at the back of their book.

Author involvement

Author involvement for indexing is usually minimal, though depends on the author’s preference. While an author may supply a preliminary list of key terms to the indexer prior to indexing commencing, most authors prefer to let the process unfold without their input and trust the indexer—a trained professional with an unbiased eye—to identify what will be most helpful to readers.

After the completed index has been delivered, the author reviews it and can choose to add or drop terms from it. Adding entries requires going back to the indexer and can add time and cost to the production process. Dropping terms is easier, and can be done without the indexer’s involvement.

Indexing is a consideration authors should begin thinking about during the acquisitions process, as it is a fairly costly endeavor. An index costs a few thousand dollars, depending on the needs of the individual book.

The cost is often worth it, though: an index often increases a book’s use and value, helping it become a staple on a reader’s shelf or a go-to text on the subject matter.

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