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How to Contract with a Book Indexer, or "Hi, can you do an index for me in three days?" 

By Dan Connolly

A Brief Introduction to Indexing and Indexes

It is 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 the means it uses to achieve that purpose. In the simplest terms, an index is simply a key to locating information contained in a book (for our purposes, I will use book indexes as the main example, although many other types of indexes exist, including periodical and online, hypertext 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 the appearance of 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 an annoyance 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 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 analyzing the minutest references to a term, for its possible inclusion in the index.

An indexer often uses the search feature of a word processor 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.

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 analyze 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 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. She says they are considered original works of authorship, in compliance with Section 102 of the United States Copyright Act.

I entered into this discussion so that you will gain a little perspective on the index-creation process. I also mention the rights inherent in an index in order to stress the importance of the role of indexer in the book-creation process. You should be aware, as a publisher/editor, that you may not be legally able to publish the index unless you have recieved an assignment of rights or if you have explicitly contracted for the creation of the index as a "work-made-for-hire" [See Ivan Hoffman's discussion of works-made-for-hire at]. In brief, a "work-made-for-hire" involves two criteria: the index must be specially ordered or commissioned, and this arrangement must be documented in a specific, written contract. Unless both of these conditions are met, the work is not considered a work-made-for-hire and the indexer will retain all rights inherent.

As a publisher/editor, you might not be aware of this issue. Perhaps you've asked for indexes to be written for previous books without a work-made-for-hire contract. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this will not be an issue. But you need to be aware of the potential for problems. For example, what if you decide to produce an electronic version of the book using an index to which the indexer lays claim to copyright? What if you're having financial difficulties and pay your indexer late? The indexer might just hold up production and distribution, or cause some disruption, financial or otherwise. Just a point to ponder.

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. If the information is arranged alphabetically as in an encyclopedia or glossary, 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? For the moment, we'll leave off the solution of having the author provide the index (even better, his sister-in-law!). That just won't do. Without question, some authors can index their books competently. But I'm convinced that the majority can't. Or they 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) web site at On it, you will find the Indexer Locator, a comprehensive, searchable database of indexers with experience or expertise in particular fields. 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.

The Find-an-Indexer service of Indexers Unlimited ( lists experienced indexers in fifty-seven different subject specialties. This is a cooperative of freelance indexers with an exceptional reputation. (Disclosure: I'm a member) Ask your colleagues who indexes their books. Nothing beats a word-of-mouth recommendation from someone you trust.

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 presents himself professionally.

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 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 the index cost? 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.

  • insurance (health/dental/life/property/disability/unemployment/liability)

  • continuing education taxes (federal/state/FICA--both employer and employee portions) 

  • retirement plans 

  • rental costs 

  • equipment costs 

  • vacations 

  • sick time 

  • paid holidays 

  • lunch hour 

  • down time 

  • administrative time

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.

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 5-10 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)  6-10  7 $3.50 - $6.00
Technical/Business 7-12 $3.50 - $6.00

After the index is done, 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, follow this up with a contract. You'll be better off (see discussion above on works-made-for-hire). It's good business practice. At worst, set the terms down in a letter of agreement. Finally, 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 and that you have mutually agreed to. Remember, even if the index is a work-made-for-hire, it's not yours until payment is received by the indexer. Copyright is vested in the creator of the work. 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 from $.50 to $1/pg. if you need any special indexes in addition to a general subject index (e.g., an authors-cited index, a name index, a scripture 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 (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. Other indexes that can increase the page rate: scripture, title, geographic, and first line.

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. Here's the problem. 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 two to three 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
Academic/Scholarly 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+ 15
Technical/Business <300 10
Technical/Business 300+ 15

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

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 Chapter 17 of Chicago Manual of Style (14th. 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.

To that end, 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.

The indexer might request a copy of the book on disk. "Find" features in word-processing software 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. 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).

Transfering Information

Arranging for the transfer of information can be complex, yet it's so much more convenient than it used to be. The most typical and efficient arrangement is for the publisher to send the proofs to the indexer (together with indexing guidelines, disks, the copyeditor's style sheet, and contract) via overnight or second-day delivery. It should arrive on the day before work is to commence at the latest. This is not difficult nor different than in the past. The new twist is that the indexer now returns the index via e-mail 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 transferring 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 received 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.

  • 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).

  • Check that the most important topics are covered adequately in the index.*

  • Check on the accuracy of the locators by doing a sampling (5% of the locators). 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).

  • Examine the entries and assess whether they are clearly written and easy to understand (given the intended readership of the book).

  • Do a line edit, checking for spelling and grammatical errors.

  • 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.

  • 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 more involved process than it first appears, so collaboration and communication are vital throughout the process. Don't leave the indexer out of the loop. Following these suggestions will lead to rewarding professional relationships with qualified, excellent, dependable and grateful indexers. Who knows, you might be grateful too.

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