YARN REGISTRY – I am a professional indexer. I write the indexes in the backs of books.
- Published: July 29, 2016
I, like most people, was taken aback when I heard that Grant writes the indexes for books for a living. I often wondered how an index came together, and as someone who hopes to publish a book someday, I was worried that I might have to be the one to do it. But it is freelancers like Grant [the husband of YS News reporter Audrey Hackett] who do the dirty work of going through books and picking out the terms that make up the index. His vocation puts him into contact with all kinds of interesting texts, but the nature of his work makes for a particular way of reading them.
I’m always blown away when I realize that someone is behind every little thing that makes up life as we know it – someone somewhere makes obscure rubber stoppers, someone invents food flavorings, and Grant organizes material so that other researchers can easily access it. It’s really astounding how many people it actually takes to make the world go round. Grant has been a professional indexer for twenty years, and talks below about how it’s done, how he got into it, and how it has changed his own reading habits.
If you go to a history book and you just want to read about the Gettysburg Address, go to the index and look up “Gettysburg Address.” That’s what an index is. I make that. I read the book and pull out the things that go into the index, and I write the index.
I read a book about indexing years and years ago, and the author said an index is a map to the information. It’s a matter of thinking about what the subject is. I read the introduction before I get started, if the book has one, where the author will give you the scope of the book, why they wrote about the subject and some of the big ideas, highlighting the key concepts that come up. I try to get these concepts into my head. A brief look at the table of contents helps. And then I put it aside and begin indexing the first chapter.
One thing you have to be able to do when things get complicated is to shove away a lot of the ancillary arguments and conversations the author gets into. You’ve got to really be able to focus on the key concepts. In some ways, you’re purposefully ignoring a lot of what the author is saying, cause you can’t index every little nuance. That’s not your job – you’re not recreating the book, not getting into the nitty-gritty.
It’s almost like you’re reading for an exam. You’re getting the concepts and you’re processing a whole lot of information without having to understand all the ins and outs. A good indexer can index books they don’t understand thoroughly. I’ve done books like that before, like chemistry books, which can get pretty tricky. Some philosophy is really hard to wrap your mind around. You don’t have to quite understand it all. You have to know they’re talking about “being” and “truth,” or note when they reference [it conjunction with] Kierkegaard or something like that, but the relationship between being and truth is not something you have to explain to someone.
Folks are always really curious about it, I gotta say. When I tell people about it, the universal reaction almost always is, “Wow, I never thought about that before, that someone’s got to do that.” The other thing people ask is, “Can’t computers do that? Is there a software program you use?” And they’re thinking that I use a program where I type in a few words or concepts and then the program scans the text. It doesn’t work like that. I have to put all of that information in by hand. But there is an indexing computer program that I’ve been using for years. I originally got it when it was DOS back in the 90s. It’s a very specialized word processing software that’s specifically designed to create an index. But there’s no text scanning – I type everything in. I make the decision what references go in. Every line, every page reference has to go in by hand.
I type in a main term, “Lincoln, Abraham” and then “Birth of” and the page reference. Then I type in another one. The program puts all that together automatically into alphabetical order. It interleaves everything, but I can manipulate that index with a few keystrokes. I can go back and edit, change things around if I decide I don’t like a certain term, etc. It’s an ongoing process of building and refining as you go through the book. But I don’t go back through the book unless it’s incredibly complicated. I read as I index, and I index as I read.
When you’re done with the index, you have an extremely rough draft. Your own spelling mistakes all over the place, concepts might be differently worded or listed under different headings. So I begin the editing process, which takes a day or two, or three, depending on the size of the index, modifying and tightening up, or adding sub-entries if things aren’t in enough detail. That’s how the process goes.
Does the editor or author indicate what they are looking for in an index, or how it should look?
Almost never. Maybe once a year. Maybe once a year someone will give me a list of terms or say they want these concepts in the index.
So it’s essentially left up to your expertise how to phrase or format the index?
Is there any kind of standard or thorough it has to be? Or does reading through the book inform what the ultimate index is supposed to look like?
A little bit of both. There’s a section of the Chicago manual that’s devoted to indexes. If you have an entry, “Lincoln, Abraham,” you don’t want to see that term and then 34 page references. In some indexes you’ll see that – no sub-entries. That’s a really bad index. You see that often, even in big-name books. Maybe the editor did it, an author did it. Or the author had a grad student or is paying someone in the family to do it, or something like that. No professional indexer would do that.
An entry without any subentries should have a maximum of six page references, or twelve numbers indicating six spans of pages. Anything more than that and you’ll have to start building subentries. And to build subentries, you want to build subentries that make sense and include all the things pertinent to that person, name, or concept. That’s what makes a good index.
Publishers have a rule of thumb that five percent of the book is the index. If it’s a 100 page book, there are five pages of index. If it’s a whole lot more than that, you’re doing too much, or if it’s a page and a half, you’re missing something. Five percent should be enough to get all of the information into the index.
You can pretty much tell if it was a professional indexer, an editor, or an author. It’s certain that each indexer will create their own index. They’ll be just as good, but it will be different [from those made by other indexers.]. You see things in different ways, phrase things slightly differently. There should be a great deal of overlap, but no two indexers will create the same index. And that’s not a bad thing.
How would the index of a history text differ from that of a science or philosophy text, if at all?
In terms of the index, probably not much. I go about them the same way. If there’s going to be a lot of information around any concept, whether its “mitosis” or the “Battle of Antietam,” you have to make those entries and subentries meaningful and useful. You apply that same strategy and thinking to any subject you’re reading. You read science differently than you read history, but you’re still trying to produce an index that’s competent for both.
Publishers will contact me, often they have the book in hand or will have it in a week or two. What I get are the final proofs. It’s the very last stage. Once the author approves it, it can go to press.
Once I get the book, I’ll usually have a month to index it. That’s for a book that’s 300 pages or less; your average history book or biography. That’s what most of my projects are. If the book is larger than that, the publishers will give me a little more heads up or give me a little more time to index it. Depending on the complexity and size, it will take me around a week to index a book. I can pretty much average a book a week. I do about forty or fifty books a year – that’s a little more than a week for each project.
It was an absolute non-sequitur getting into indexing. It was total serendipity. I have a degree in botany. I was working in a managing plant research labs at University of Massachusetts Amherst for about five years. There was no place to go, and if I wanted to do anything interesting I was going to have to get a PhD.
I had a friend who I’d gone to school with who was in the same position as me. He loved botany, he was waiting tables, and he lived in Amherst. He mentioned that he knew someone who was a freelance indexer and editor, and he was thinking about learning about indexing as a way to make some extra money. A lightbulb went off – that sounded really interesting. I talked with his friend and taught myself how to do indexes using index cards. They were small projects but I took that work to her for comment and review. She gave me some feedback and said, “Look, I’m going to go out on a limb and ask a guy I know at an academic press if you can index a science text for him.” This was in 1996, and then I just pushed it.
I just networked on my own. I got a digest that lists every publisher in the US and Canada, and I’ve gone through that two or three times in my career, writing every single publisher that produces let’s say 100 nonfiction books per year. I wrote hundreds of letters and emails, and in 1997 I went out on my own. It took me a year to build up enough experience to realize I could do this. With a lot of work and little luck, I realized, I can do this. And it worked out.
I’ve never met another person who does this. Occasionally I’ll meet someone that says they know an indexer. There is a American Society of Indexers that has chapters in lots of states. But I’ve never been a part of it. When I was just starting off, I went to a chapter meeting of ASI in Massachusetts. There were like fifty or sixty people there, but I didn’t feel connected to any of them. We didn’t have much in common. But I think one thing that attracts a lot of people to the job is the independence, and so you don’t get a whole lot of folks that are interested in meeting other indexers. The one meeting I went to, most of the indexers were women, most were middle-aged or older, and most were doing it as a part-time thing. I didn’t have the sense that there were many folks that were doing it full time. They were retired, or their spouse was making enough money, or they had an interest in literature. There are a lot of indexers, but full-time indexers, there probably aren’t that many at all.
The publishing world relies heavily on freelancers. There used to be in-house indexers, in-house designers, in-house copyeditors, but there aren’t anymore. That stuff is all outsourced. It’s cheaper not to have someone in house. There are freelancers everywhere doing this in publishing, and it’s the personal relationships that keep it together. The editor knows that if he’s used this proofreader and this indexer and this copyeditor for years, he can keep going back to the pool of people he’s developed relationships with. I’ve built up a clientele that I’ve worked with for years. Some editors I’ve worked with for close to twenty years at this point.
I’ve met a few editors from a large biology text publisher, but those are the only editors I’ve ever met. Everyone else, I have no idea who they are. There are people I’ve worked with for years and years at the University of Kentucky but I’ve never met any of the editors. But they send me pictures of their kids because I’ve known them for years. There’s a woman at a press in New York City who I’ve worked with since the late 90s – I know about her daughter going to college, but I’ve never met her. It’s gets to be a really personal relationship after all those years.
The downside to that [personal relationship] is when they retire or move on. This has happened numerous times. I’ve had a good relationship with an editor, she leaves, and I’ve lost that press. The person that comes in has their own stable [of indexers]. It’s so personal that if someone leaves, gets sick, retires, there’s no guarantee I’ll keep working for that publisher. On the other hand, I’ve worked for years with the University of Nevada Press, with three different editors, and they keep passing me on.
I get up and usually try to start working immediately. By 7 or 7:30 in the morning I’m at the computer reading. I take multiple breaks during the day and stop by early afternoon. That’s my usual day. I own my own time, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
Of course, I have no benefits, no insurance, no vacation. And I rarely know more than a month out if I have work or not. I’ve got a couple of large projects right now, science books, that will go on for two months. That’s some stability, but when I don’t have those, which is fairly frequently, then I often don’t know what I’ll be doing in a month or six weeks. Editors aren’t thinking that far ahead. There’s always that uncertainty. When work comes, you take it. The consequence of that is, you’re overworked, you don’t get enough time off, and there’s a real danger of fatigue, burning yourself out. You’re loathe to say no because you don’t know what else will come up. The other thing is that the relationship you have is with a few presses. I can’t work for twelve presses. You can’t do too much because you’re only one person. But there’s always the concern is that if you say no, or say no a couple of times, they’ll start going with someone else. You want to keep your name up there and active, and the way to do that is to say yes and not no.
I’ll tell you one thing it does – indexing makes you realize how much really bad writing is out there, and what a really good writer is like. I read tens of thousands of pages a year – you get sensitized to what good, clear writing is. It’s such a pleasure [to read writing like that].
A dull book is hard to index. Or a really abstruse book, where the thinking’s really confused or the author is particularly invested in academic language. When the author doesn’t have that kind of clarity, the indexing job is hard.
I get really bored with a lot of books because they just aren’t that well-written. I read a lot of books and I get impatient with murky writing. There are some books out there that are just absolutely horrible. Just because it’s published doesn’t mean the writer’s very good, or that it’s well-edited. Some of it is really sharp and some of its really sloppy. Sometimes the more prestigious the university press, the more pretentious the prose is going to be. If something’s being published by Harvard University Press, then it had better be very dense and filled with lots of jargon and academese and “subtle” points. Just cut through it! The real meat of the book would be the Cliffs Notes version of it.
A well-written book is really easy to index. A well-written history or biography is a joy to index. Because the concepts make sense, they’re logical, the story is clear. What the author is doing, he or she makes really clear, and that makes the indexing really easy. You know PG Wodehouse? I read PG Wodehouse almost exclusively. I read some poetry, I love Raymond Chandler, Wodehouse – anything but something serious. I do that all day long; I’ve no interest in reading something serious. I can’t take a history book. I occasionally read a biography, but it has to be something really special.
Plowing through pedestrian prose – I don’t need to do that. That’s why I love Wodehouse – he’s a genius with writing, a genius as a writer. It’s comedy and it’s silly, but boy, you pay attention to what he’s doing with sentences and words, and it’s imaginative beyond belief. He’s creative at the highest level. Chandler – his prose is his own. That’s why I read now, for the skill of the writer.