When Should Scholars Index Own Books?

by Nancy Humphreys on July 21, 2015

Many authors of scholarly books think to themselves: “Why should I hire an indexer? I can index my book better than they can. I know my subject better than anyone else.”

Then you suddenly wonder “How does an indexer know what to put in the index?”

How do we know what to put in the index? Oh my.

Whole books have been written about subject indexing. If you really want to know we do it, start with Do Mi Stauber’s Facing the Text: Content and Structure in Book Indexing (Cedar Row Press, 2004).

Then be sure to read Wellisch, Knight, Mulvany, and many other indexing textbooks at this page. And be sure to get a copy of Towery and Zafran’s Indexing Specialties: Scholarly Books. It’s listed on this page  (Sorry, but you will have to purchase these books—most are not available at public libraries.)

Still want more? Check out Information Today, a major publisher of library science books and journals. Its catalog of books arranged by topics lists several more books about “indexing” at the bottom of the page.

Indexers have a scholarly journal too, The Indexer, devoted to most arcane but necessary aspects of our circa 3,000 year old professionThe Indexer has been published since 1958. Issues of The Indexer (free, and for more recent issues paid) are available online. Additional information about our scholarly journal can be found here.

And every country with a professional indexers group has its own national publication as well.

How do we know what subjects to index? That’s just one of many things indexers discuss. International standards for indexing have existed since 1975 (ISO 999 Documentation: index of a publication). The British  Standard 3700 added to ISO 999. These standards were replaced later by BS ISO 999: 1996.  American standards were issued by ANSI and NISO.

In addition to how to pick out subjects, indexers love to talk about both terminological and visual design conventions that make indexes easier and quicker for the reader to use.

We debate many things at the meetings and conferences, and in our publications, and we come to agreement on some of them. Those become the current conventions, i.e., “best practices” used for indexing and for giving out awards for indexing.

Some of us have even studied indexing for years and/or practiced indexing for decades.

Some of us have library degrees and tens of thousands of hours of experience at reference desks helping students and professors find information they seek. You can trust us with your book’s index—really you can!

Ok, I’ll get serious now. Here are my recommendations for when scholarly authors should do it themselves and when they shouldn’t:

When to do it yourself

  • You’ve gotten laid off, you’re broke, and you have oodles of time
  • You’re know for a fact that only five people will ever read your book
  • You feel you must have complete control over everything in your life
  • It’s a proper names index, and you just love typing and proofreading
  • In order to feel your book is really your baby you must do it all yourself

When to hire an indexer

  • You want to come across as an expert, but you’ve never indexed a thing
  • You’ve never indexed with WORD, but you’re quite sure it’ll be easy
  • You realize you finally have a life. You ask, “Do I actually need to do this?”
  • You already have a seriously bad case of carpal tunnel & nightly jaw pain
  • You really don’t care if your book is published this year or next year

You’re scholarly – you get my point – I hope!

Next time: What Scholarly Indexing Is All About

Marketing Your Book to Libraries Marketing Your Books to Libraries: An Insider's Guide for Authors by former librarian Nancy K. Humphreys includes: 
  • How to tell what kind of library to target
  • Types of librarians and books they order
  • Strategies to get past the "gatekeepers" who influence librarians
  • Right ways to approach librarians most likely to order your book

Learn more »


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