Should publishers invest in software for in-house indexers? A case study

I learned to index on the job—and by reading books like Nancy Mulvany’s Indexing Books—when I worked as an in-house editor. I created several indexes using only Microsoft Word, which is perfectly adequate for projects like cookbooks but can be painful to use for more complex projects that require thoughtful and accurate cross-references between topics and a consistent way to combine and split headings during editing.

The year I started indexing, I spent my professional-development allotment on an indexing course, where the instructor showed us how she worked with her indexing software, and I lobbied my supervisor to get a license for our office. Fortunately, I didn’t have to argue hard—she recognized that the software would pay for itself over a handful of projects. I know of other publishing houses that have chosen to stick with a Word workflow and haven’t bought the software. On one hand, I understand—the price tag of ~US$550 may not seem worth it if they’re only preparing a few indexes in house each year. On the other hand, they’re paying for editing time that wouldn’t otherwise be necessary.

Software won’t help you pick out topics to index—that part still requires a human brain (for now)—but it will reduce the cognitive load of indexing by automating alphabetization, certain aspects of formatting and punctuation, and the order of the locators. Most indexing programs also have time-saving features like autocomplete and error checking for blind cross-references and orphaned subheadings. The final index obviously still needs to be edited, but if it’s prepared using software, the editor can focus on content and organization rather than on nitpicky (but essential) details like alphabetization.

Recently I had to edit an index that a publisher created in house—without indexing software. I thought I’d use it as a case study to quantify how much time using software would save. I won’t comment on other issues of quality like term selection or accuracy and comprehensiveness of the locators but will focus on problems that software would have obviated.

The index was just under 5,000 words and was for a 300-page historical atlas.

I spent 6 hours and 57 minutes editing and proofreading. This was probably a little longer than I would devote to most projects, but this book had a peculiar design workflow.

Of that time, I spent 50 minutes checking alphabetization and found several inconsistencies in how characters like ampersands were treated. I mention these inconsistencies not as a criticism of the indexer but as a justification for why this check was necessary.

The subheadings of a particular heading were not properly alphabetized at all, and when I looked into it, I discovered that the line breaks between subheadings were manual ones, so Microsoft Word’s sort feature didn’t consider them separate paragraphs. This problem wouldn’t arise with indexing software.

I devoted 26 minutes to checking the locator order. In general, this aspect of the index was well done: I found only one error. But again, I wouldn’t have had to do as close a read for an index compiled with software.

I spent 10 minutes checking formatting of cross-references and confirming that the pointers matched the targets (and I found a couple of errors there). I also noticed that the commas in the document weren’t consistently formatted after italicized or bolded text, another problem that wouldn’t usually arise with an index creating using software.

I spent 30 minutes double-checking alphabetization and locator order during the proofreading stage and found a few changes I’d missed making.

So, 117 of 417 minutes (a conservative estimate—because the workflow was unusual, I haven’t included the time it took me to implement the changes in the files) were spent on checking issues or fixing problems that software would have taken care of. If my editing fee had been hourly, the publisher would essentially be paying a 28% premium for my work. At that rate, the software would pay for itself in 6–8 indexes. I haven’t even considered the time that indexing software would have saved the indexer—at least as much as it would have saved me—in which case the software would have been paid off after 3 or 4 indexes. (And I’m still using the same version of the software I bought 6 years ago.)

This is just one data point, but I hope it shows the value of indexing software, even for small presses, if they do any indexing in house. In the indexing course I teach, students have a week to explore demo versions of three industry-standard programs and use them to build a simple index, so the learning curve is not that steep. In addition to saving editing time and cost, it also eliminates the frustration while editing of knowing that the process could have been a lot simpler.

Cookbook editing (Editors BC meeting)

October’s Editors BC meeting featured a panel on cookbook editing including

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Ethical indexing practices

This summary of a talk by Julie McClung and Rosalind Guldner, given at the Indexing Society of Canada‘s annual conference, appeared in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of Bulletin, ISC’s newsletter.


What kinds of ethical issues do we face as indexers? Julie McClung, senior Hansard indexer at the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, and Rosalind Guldner, supervisor of indexing and reference for Hansard at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, delved into ethical indexing practices and gave us a taste of the challenges that arise when indexing political debates, which, as McClung said, “provides a lot of food for ethical thought.”

Ethics in indexing

Information ethics as a field looks at the life of information, from storage and retrieval to dissemination. Practices should be fair, equitable, and value neutral, but gatekeepers, including indexers, have the ability to bias or even outright censor information. “If we make indexes without thinking,” said McClung, “our indexing choices can magnify, distort, or omit information.” Indexers have a responsibility not only to the profession but also to the public interest.

Ethics aren’t codified for indexers, but some guidelines for indexing practice do exist, including the Society for Indexing’s code of conduct and ISC’s awards criteria. As Hansard indexers, McClung and Guldner also follow codes of ethics for government employees: they must be nonpartisan and avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

Indexing the Hansard

Political debates are transcribed verbatim into the Hansard, which is edited for ease of reading and then published late that same night. Transcripts typically run between 20 and 100 pages and are essentially multi-authored serial publications, with each member of the legislature (85 in BC and 107 in Ontario) serving as an author. Every author has a unique idiolect, which makes synonym control challenging, especially because the governing party and the opposition will often use different polarized, emotion-laden words to describe the same topic—for example, backroom deal versus contract negotiation. The indexers must find a third language—one that’s general and nonpartisan—to bridge that polarized content, keeping the public interest and universal access to coverage topmost in their minds. While choosing unbiased headings, they also have to be careful not to inadvertently sanitize the index with euphemisms.

Because the Hansard is a transcript of speech, which is inherently less organized than a well-thought-out piece of written work, McClung and Guldner also face problems such as digressions, ambiguities, mangled metaphors, and deliberate attempts to confuse. “If the text is ambiguous, we preserve the ambiguity in the index entry,” said Guldner. “At least then we’re not misleading people about the content.” The indexers also have to evaluate whether the content in a digression is substantive enough to index and evaluate whether omitting a mention may be interpreted as censorship.

To do their jobs effectively, McClung and Guldner have to keep on top of the topics in the debates. Thorough knowledge of the subject matter helps ensure that the index is comprehensive. During some debates, said Guldner, the project or policy name is never mentioned, so it’s up to the indexer to provide that context, not only for the citizens of today but also the historians of tomorrow. Said McClung, “Our job is to index what was said, not make value judgments about it.”

Find more information about ethical indexing practice, McClung and Guldner recommend Ana and Donald Cleveland’s Introduction to Indexing and Abstracting and Heather Ebbs’s ASI webinar on ethics in indexing.

Self-publishing and the oft-neglected index

For some of my editorial colleagues, working with self-publishers is their bread and butter. Many of these editors become de facto project managers, capably shepherding each book through its editorial and production phases—and sometimes even helping with sales and marketing campaigns. Yet, they often forget about the index, even though it can help an author’s work gain credibility and longevity.

I’ve worked on a handful of self-published projects managed by others. In one, the designer asked the author if he wanted an index, but by that point, he didn’t have room in his schedule to add one. In another project, a corporate history, the client couldn’t afford to add pages at the proofreading stage but may have been able to make it work had an index been brought up earlier. In a third project, the designer suggested adding an index when she was hired, and the client agreed. The client says now that her book wouldn’t have been complete without it.

A back-of-the-book index is usually one of the last things that get done in a book project, so I can understand how it can become an afterthought, but I’d love to see editors and project managers consider indexes earlier on, as they develop a project with a client. Most nonfiction works would benefit from an index: corporate and family histories, memoirs, and biographies should have a proper noun index at least, and indexes are a must for cookbooks and how-to books.

Hiring an indexer (and adding pages to accommodate an index in a print book) will add to the budget, but here’s how you can sell it to your clients:

  1. An index will increase a book’s credibility. As much as we like to say that self-published books aren’t any less legitimate than conventionally published works, self-published titles that can better emulate conventionally published books are more likely to be taken seriously in the market.
  2. An index can transform a book from a one-time read to an important part of the historical record. A nonfiction book with an index is much more likely to be found and used by future researchers, including historians and genealogists. Most authors, even if their main motivation is writing a memoir for family, for example, would be delighted to think of their work as having a wide reach and long-lasting impact. (Incidentally, Canadian self-publishers compiling personal, family, or community histories may be interested in the Canada 150 project.)
  3. An index lets readers see what the book is about. It shows not only what topics are covered but also in what depth. Cross-references help readers understand the relationships between the book’s concepts.
  4. People named in the book will want to look themselves up in the index. Yup—vanity is a factor, and finding their names might be enough to convince them to buy and read the book.
  5. Indexers invariably find the odd typo or inconsistency as they work. Because of the way we read and select terms to index, we notice problems that proofreaders sometimes miss.

Ultimately, indexes help sell books. As indexer Jan Wright pointed out at an Indexing Society of Canada conference a few years ago, Amazon wouldn’t include indexes in their “Look Inside” feature if they didn’t help sales, right?

Sylvia Coates—The business of indexing: Indexing efficiency, speed, and earnings (ISC conference 2015)

Sylvia Coates developed and teaches the UC Berkeley Extension indexing course and has been indexing since 1989. Although there’s more than one way to index, Coates’s approach has allowed her to earn a high income for the past several years. The key to her success, which entails indexing a mind-blowing 80 to 130 books a year, is to streamline her process and to develop the index structure concurrently with term selection.

First, work on what you enjoy. Having prior knowledge in a subject area makes it easier to anticipate what readers may want to look for. Start asking thematic questions about the topic—who, what, where, when, why, and under what circumstances?—before you read, and index the answers to these questions as you go. Front-loading the index this way saves you a lot of time. Coates keeps all of this information in her head, so she prefers to work on one book at a time.

Prior knowledge of the subject will also increase the odds that you’ll actually understand the text, and comprehension is essential to selecting indexing terms. Try to summarize chunks of the text, which will not only help you choose headings but will also ensure that you understand. “Summarizing is a part of reading comprehension,” said Coates.

Save time by envisioning the index as a whole instead of individual parts, and learn to think thematically. Children conceptualize thematically, whereas most adults classify, explained Coates, and this difference may be why children learn language so much more easily than adults. When indexers select terms, they have to think thematically.

As you read, listen actively to the author. What’s the author trying to tell you? “They may say, ‘This is what it’s about,’ and you read it and you think, ‘No, it isn’t!’” The index represents a framework of what the author was trying to convey to the audience. Every author has a message and a tone, and indexers have to pick up on that tone and replicate it in the index.

What a lot of indexers do is select terms, then edit the index by rearranging the structure, rewriting entries, and adding terms. This approach is highly time consuming, and the “editing as you go” approach—where the indexer rewrites entries and rearranges structure as they read—isn’t any more efficient. However, if you structure and index concurrently by anticipating the index structure, you can cut your editing time dramatically. All Coates does after she’s done her indexing is to tie up loose ends, delete single subheads, spell check, create the final file, and send it to the client.

“Only handle it once (OHIO),” Coates advised, and try not to “precrastinate,” which is to do something just to get it done, knowing that it’s not ideal and you’ll need to revise it later. Precrastination puts you in time debt. OHIO is not usually realistic, but aim for it. Try not to do a lot of rewriting once you’ve finished selecting your headings.

Finally, learn how to optimize your software use so that you know all the shortcuts that can help you work most efficiently.

Lucie Haskins—Jumping on the embedded indexing bandwagon—or should I? (ISC conference 2015)

Embedded indexing is still evolving as the relatively new ebook industry finds its legs. Ebook indexing is so new that it’s a bit of a Wild West, with different software, standards, and processes competing for space. Clients may hear the buzzwords and turn to you for answers. Should you make the jump to embedded indexing? Lucie Haskins looked at some of the issues you should consider when deciding.

Unlike back-of-the-book (BoB) indexing, in which you receive designed files, either in hard copy or PDF, from the client and write an index in RTF or DOCX format, which the client then typesets, embedded indexing is done in the native file, whether it’s in Framemaker, Word, InDesign, XML, or HTML. You tag the text with index terms and send the file back to the client. In Haskins’s words, “You receive their baby, you manipulate their baby, and you send it back to them. It’s a huge responsibility.”

Some limitations of native indexing modules

Creating terms

  • No index preview
  • No autocomplete of index entries
  • Tiny marker boxes
  • Poor control of special strings, such as page range, italic or bold formatting, and cross-references

Editing terms

  • No change propagation of index entries
  • No index preview
  • No viewing indexing entries in the document
  • No temporary grouping of index entries

As a result, Haskins said that you can expect to spend 50 to 100 percent more time on embedded indexing compared with BoB indexing.

Some benefits of native indexing modules

Creating terms

  • Autogenerated entries

Work process

  • Indexer can start before final pages
  • Indexing concurrent with proofreading
  • Potential reuse in future editions, other formats

Issues specific to embedded indexing

  • access control and time constraints
  • software versions
  • version control on files and downloading/uploading

You and your client will have to discuss what software (and what version of that software) to use. For example, if you and your client are using different versions of InDesign, one of you will have to convert the file to IDML. If you don’t have the client’s fonts, your system will substitute a font that will affect flow and pagination, which means that the final index would have to be regenerated by the client. At that point, the client would have to be responsible for formatting text to italic, because InDesign doesn’t allow italicized text in index entries. Each entry has to be formatted manually. and the formatting disappears whenever the index is regenerated.

Should you bother with embedded indexing? Haskins says you shouldn’t feel you have to, unless existing or prospective clients have approached you directly about it and you have an interest in it. Haskins doesn’t recommend jumping on the bandwagon otherwise, because the field may evolve into something else entirely in a few years. For example, there are hints that BoB indexing using anchors at the paragraph level may be where the field ends up. It would use techniques familiar and intuitive to indexers and would obviate the need for specialized software. Buying all of the software and upgrading your equipment would be a significant investment of money; educating yourself and your client on the software and the process would be an investment of time.

If you do want to learn embedded indexing, however, Haskins suggests

JoAnne Burek—Business continuity and disaster preparedness for freelancers (ISC conference 2015)

JoAnne Burek drew on her thirty-six years in IT to show freelancers how we can prepare our businesses for sudden and unplanned incidents, which can cause irreparable damage to our brand or revenue loss. Business continuity and resiliency planning (BCRP) involves

  • Business impact analysis
  • Plans, measures, and arrangements
  • Readiness procedures
  • Quality assurance

Business impact analysis

Evaluate each of your business’s resources and categorize them into critical and not critical. Critical resources are those that could cause loss of revenue or damage to credibility. Consider also financial legal requirements. Some sample questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I have enough savings in case of an extended outage?
  • What’s the replacement cost of my equipment?
  • What will I need to fulfill my tax obligations—and when?

Plans, measures, and arrangements

Further classify your digital records into permanent files (e.g., business number, contracts) versus dynamic files (e.g., correspondence, meeting minutes, schedules), which may affect how you organize and protect them. Create an emergency list of people you need to contact if you or your business are in trouble.

Implement mitigations to outage risks by backing up the files on your computer to an external hard drive or the cloud (Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, Google Docs), but be aware that some clients may not allow you to store their data on U.S. servers because they are vulnerable to search and seizure via the PATRIOT Act. To save you time, use a scheduling service that backs up automatically.

Burek came across CrashPlan, a service that automatically backs up your files to an external hard drive or on another computer, such as one in the home of a trusted friend. This system lets you have an offsite backup without saving to the cloud.

CrashPlan also has built-in encryption. If you’re using Dropbox or Google Docs, you may want to consider other encryption systems like VeraCrypt or 7-Zip (technically data compression tool that also has optional encryption).

To prevent the security threat from using a universal password for all of your accounts, use a password manager such as LastPass or KeePass.

Finally, use anti-malware software, such as Avast for Windows or Sophos for Mac.

Burek suggests implementing these practices immediately to mitigate risk:

  • Perform regular backups
  • Save your work frequently
  • Keep your cellphone charged
  • Stay ahead of your work projects
  • Have a backup credit card
  • Have an emergency fund
  • Keep a list of cafés or other Wifi hotspots
  • Plan migrations carefully
  • Wait before upgrading
  • Create a recovery disk for your computer
  • Consider installing an uninterruptible power supply.

Readiness procedures

Build a plan that you will follow if you have to recover from an unplanned incident. Burek told us about her approach: she considered the two resources that were key to her business—her house and her computer. For each major disaster scenario (“I don’t have my computer,” “I don’t have my house,” and “I don’t have my computer or my house”), Burek considered how she would respond. Your plan should go into more detail so that you can read it like a checklist during a time of crisis.

Burek also noted that governments provide a lot of resources for disaster preparation—see, for example, Emergency Management BC, Alberta Emergency Management Agency, and Ontario Emergency Management.

Quality assurance

How will you know your plans will work? You have to test them regularly—Burek suggests annually, at a minimum. Confirm, for example, that you can retrieve a file from backup and that you can restore files on a hard drive. You could also rehearse what you would do in a possible scenario without actually contacting the support people you may need. Further, make sure your plans are up to date when there are major changes to your environment (e.g., new computer, new software) or to a threat.

Heather Ebbs & Thérèse Shere—Making time: Working wisely so you can play more (ISC conference 2015)

What can indexers do to work more efficiently? Heather Ebbs and Thérèse Shere offered some productivity tips at the Indexing Society of Canada conference.

The physical setting

For Ebbs, “to live in chaos was to live in a prison. Order freed the mind for other things.” Try to give yourself room to work comfortably, and consider ergonomics: make sure your monitor is big enough, your references are conveniently at hand, and your space is set up to minimize distractions. “It’s hard to get into a working groove if your physical setting isn’t right.”

Your work routine

Keep an activity log—one that goes beyond tracking work time. What are you really doing with your time? Figure out what time of day is your most productive, and build your routine around it. Identify “productivity pits” that eat away at your time, and adjust your routine or physical environment to eliminate them.

Ebbs subscribes to the “only handle it once” view: if you’re going to read email, read it once, answer it, and archive it, rather than reading it and leaving it for later, when you’ll have to read it again. When you submit your index, submit your invoice at the same time. Enter your receipts as soon as you get them, and file them.

Shere’s activity tracking is quite detailed: she keeps a spreadsheet that includes

  • project title
  • invoice date
  • client
  • editor
  • number of pages
  • rate
  • time spent (she uses a punch-in, punch-out clock)

You may also consider adding in a column for how long it takes a client to pay you and one for how much you enjoyed the project.

“Even if you’re a procrastinator, you’re probably not a procrastinator at all things,” Shere said. Figure out what topics you like working on; you’ll be more productive if you truly enjoy your work.


Do the math: annual earnings = earnings/hour × hours/year

How much do you want to work? Make your projects worth your while, or don’t do them. If you feel you’re being underpaid, you’ll feel resentful, your attention will wane, and you’ll end up spending more time on the project, not less. Learn to say no. If you take a project at a cheap rate, you’re really subsidizing that project.

Professional development

Learning how to make yourself better and more productive, which will free up time for you later. Learn how to use software to its highest capability. “I’m not usually a fan of absolutes,” said Ebbs, “but I can guarantee that 100% of you aren’t using your software to its maximum capability.” Use macros and other timesavers.

Attention management

Be attentive to how you feel about your work and your work day, said Shere, and recognize where problems, frustrations, and weaknesses might be coming from. Shere uses the Pomodoro technique, devoting twenty-five-minute blocks to focusing on a single task, then taking short (five-minute) or long (ten minute) breaks. “Breaks are not optional,” she said. “Build them in and track them.” Make your goals and changes small and specific, and you’ll be more able to make progress.

“Don’t turn what should be joys into chores because you’re not managing your time well,” said Ebbs. Can you ask for help or delegate your obligations? Would it be more efficient to hire someone to meet them? Learn when to say no to these obligations and interruptions, even if it means screening your calls or closing your door. Figure out which activities are non-negotiable, and schedule them in. “A short pencil is better than a long memory,” said Ebbs. Writing things down will free your mind to focus on other priorities.

“We choose how to spend our time,” said Ebbs. “It’s not true that other people have more time. Everyone has 24 hours. No one else is stealing your time. If your time is being stolen, it’s an inside job.”