Professional indexer and successful self-published novelist Joanne Phillips provides an easy-to-follow guide to compiling an index for a self-published non-fiction book.
A non-fiction book without an index always strikes me as slightly odd. There’s no law against it, but providing your readers with a map to help them discover or revisit important parts of your text isn’t something you should dismiss as too difficult or too expensive.
There’s no doubt the best person to compile an index is a professional indexer, but there’s also nothing to stop authors having a stab at it. One of the problems with authors compiling their own indexes, however, is that they are often too close to the topic to be able to put themselves in a reader’s shoes. So this is the first hurdle to overcome – try to look at your book through fresh eyes.
Understand Your Readers
Who are your readers? You will have given this a lot of thought when planning your marketing strategy – now use this information to get a vivid picture of the index user. What will they be looking for? How will they use the index? Are they likely to be complete novices searching for basic information or might your user be an expert? Or will both types of reader be using the index?
With this in mind, carefully go through your text picking out the indexable elements. These may be names of places, people or organizations, abstract ideas and concepts, anything the reader is likely to look up. As you make your list, note down where in the finished book this information appears, i.e. the page number. Take extra care to get this right – mistakes made with locations are extremely frustrating!
Choose Headings and Subheadings
The next stage is to organize this information into headings and subheadings.
Here is an example of a heading with subheadings and locators:
benefits of 66-8
history of 72
Note that the subheadings are indented and that entries follow alphabetical and numerical order. Try to make main headings out of most of your entries, even if some of these also appear as subheadings under other main headings. Then look through your list for any possible cross-references.
Cross-references come in two types. The first is a ‘see also cross-reference’. This is used if you have a related term which is also useful and you would like to direct the reader there. For example:
conflict 71-2 see also crisis
The other type is a ‘see cross-reference’, where you direct the reader to a preferredterm:
main character see lead
Take time to check and double-check every entry, and, if possible, get someone else to check it for usability, spelling, order and accuracy. Like the rest of your text, once it has gone to print it will be impossible to change.
These are only the absolute basics! There is of course a lot more to it – which is why most publishing houses and many authors choose to hire in the services of a professional. Watch out for these common mistakes made by beginners:
• choosing headings no one would think of looking up
• indexing passing mentions to subjects
• sending readers on a wild goose chase from one heading to another
• concentrating on proper names and failing to include concepts
A good tip is to study the indexes of books on a similar subject to yours. You will quickly see what makes a good index – and what makes for a useless one.
What about ebooks?
Some ebooks have usable indexes, but not many; often the print index is merely replicated at the end which is completely useless. It’s not difficult to index an ebook, the main principles of choosing terms is the same, but instead of page numbers the exact location within the reflowable text is used, via a hyperlink embedded in the formatted document. Check with your indexer before going ahead that they are able to code your ebook this way – some indexers (like me, for instance) will offer an indexing service that includes a formatted Kindle-ready (or epub-ready) file including the index.
A professional freelance indexer and author, Joanne Phillips is happy to offer advice and guidance to her fellow ALLi members for free. For a competitive indexing quote, contact her via her author website, www.joannephillips.co.uk. For more information on indexing and other indexers contact the Society of Indexers.