You’ve spent weeks, months, maybe even years working on your book. No one knows the subject quite like you, the author, who has been knee deep in the material for all of that time. Your publisher has just told you the page proofs are ready for review, and by the way it still needs an index, but that should be easy because it’s just a list of information and page numbers, and no one knows the material like you, right?
And then the daunting reality sinks in. Sure, you could just provide a list of key terms and page numbers, but that isn’t an index; it’s a keyword search. Your reader doesn’t want to know every time the word “blue” is mentioned in your book on relationships. They want to know every time “blue” is used as a euphemism for depression, or where to find that fabulous and hilarious story about the blue goat named Fred, which they might just try to find under the word “comedy,” or even “humor,” even though you know it is actually a story about “family feuds.” And they really don’t want to waste their time on the thirty-three times the word “blue” is used to describe the “blue car” or “blue sky” while searching for a single funny story, or information about depression. In other words, indexes are written for readers, and readers are people. They don’t know your subject inside and out, and don’t know what words you may choose to talk about a particular subject. As technical experts, we all use jargon that we assume is common place until someone who doesn’t know your topic is staring at you blankly while you talk about the need for a valid task org to identify the OPR for JRSOI of inbound forces in the event of a CSZ rupture.*
A professional indexer is there to solve that problem. In a perfect world, your professional indexer will be familiar with your topic enough to recognize and understand the jargon, but distant enough to translate it into lay speak and know what other terms or words someone might use to find the information even if that word is never mentioned in the text. Bonus points if the professional is also interested in your topic, which only makes the index that much easier and faster to complete. The point of an index is to make it as quick and as easy as possible for a reader to find the information in your text. A professional indexer will have as many “entry points” as space allows and as reasonable as necessary with cross-postings, double-postings, and alternate word choices, to reduce the amount of time a reader spends flipping through the index and increase the amount of time they spend in the text itself.
Professional indexers will also, of course, handle all of the tricky formatting stuff that probably is not familiar to authors. Things like sorting order (did you know there are multiple ways to sort alphabetically?), subentries vs. main headings, capitalization rules, indented vs. run-in styles, cross-references, and spacing, and more – in short, that laundry list of instructions your publisher provides. They will do this while also working within any space constraints and ensuring publication deadlines are met. A professional knows that meeting the publisher’s requirements is every bit as important as providing an accurate index that represents the author’s hard work in the best possible light.
But does it really matter? Does a good index really make-or-break the book? You be the judge. Have you ever flipped through the index of a book to see how extensively it covers a certain topic of interest to you? Did that sway you one way or the other to purchase the book? Have you ever checked the index and made that decision without ever even bothering to read the text? (I have!) As an author, you spent weeks, months, or years researching and writing your book and making it perfect for public consumption. Whether you write the index yourself or hire a professional to write it for you, the quality of the index directly impacts sales, sometimes even more than the text itself. It should never be an afterthought. A rushed, incomplete, ineffective, or (worst of all) no index is like punching a hole in the fuel tank of a high-end sportscar. It may look pretty, but it isn’t going far!
*nobody does jargon quite like the U.S. military. For the uninitiated, this statement basically translates as “we need to know who’s in charge after a big earthquake.”