The Benefits of a Professional Index

1106 Design

November 26, 2010

Have you ever used the index in a book and found it to be almost useless? Was the subject or term you were interested in missing? Or, was the topic listed, but not on the page when you turned there? Doesn’t this make you crazy?

Indexing is a lot more difficult than it seems. Like any other specialty, training and experience are needed to produce the best results. We talk to a lot of self-publishers who believe that they can save money by compiling their own index; usually  this is a big mistake.

Below are two indexes for a book we recently designed: one was created by an amateur, the other by a professional. Click on each link below to download the PDF of each version and compare for yourself.

Amateur-Index.pdf

Pro-Index.pdf

The difference is clear to see. The Amateur Index is just four pages long. It contains a lot of names, but very little else that’s useful.

By comparison, the Professional Index is 12 pages long, contains names as well as many topics, and also includes cross-references that will make the index truly useful to the reader.

So, what goes into a professional index? Indexer and 1106 Design team member, Doran Hunter, explains it best:

First, I go through the Table of Contents and chapters in order to get an overview of the whole book and what some of the key concepts and terms will be. Then, reading the text very closely, I mark it as I go along for entries, subentries, notes about equivalent terms, etc. As I do this, I try to think as a reader and user of the Index and structure it in such a way that it is truly useful and provides easy and convenient access to the subject matter of the book.

We have all been frustrated with inadequate and poorly-constructed indexes at one time or another. We go to look up a term and it is not there. Or we do find the term we’re looking for in the Index but the entry says the term appears on twenty or thirty pages, and we have to painstakingly check each page until we find the section of the book where the topic is discussed in the way we are looking for. By putting a lot of thought into the Index as I go along, I try to avoid these and other pitfalls that render many indexes almost unusable.

Also, I have to decide if an occurrence of a term merits entry into the Index. Sometimes, it’s just a passing mention, and including it would be annoying to a user of the Index trying to find something substantive about the concept, so I have to think hard about whether it should be included. For example, suppose this is the last sentence in a section about American foreign policy: “As Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘Speak softly but carry a big stick.’” Roosevelt, Theodore, wouldn’t be included here because a reader interested in him would be disappointed to turn to the place in the text and find just this passing mention.

In short, the process involves careful reading of the text, a lot of judgment, and great care to create an Index that will allow readers to engage more fully with the content of the book.

So why should an author care if someone reviews the index and is disappointed ? Because that someone just might be a librarian who is about to purchase multiple copies of your book. Unlike bookstores, who care most about the cover, librarians care most about a book’s content. An amateur index can break the sale in an instant.

A professional index isn’t an expense. It’s essential to your book, and your readers will thank you for it.

What do you want to know? What topics should we explore together? How can we help you along your publishing journey? Everyone here at 1106 Design wants to help. Post your comment here or email us using the Contact Us page.

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