Thursday, February 7, 2008

Are You Interested in Indexing? by Cheryl Lenser

Many thanks today to Pearson indexer extraordinaire Cheryl Lenser for providing this detailed and interesting look at the job of an indexer. She's been at Pearson for as long as I can remember, and she's one of the best indexers I know!

I rather lucked into the publishing field, mostly because I couldn’t find a library job in central Indiana. Library jobs are really hard to come by! I have a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in library science, with the thinking that that would get me a good job in a place I enjoy. However, I ended up taking an administrative assistant position in a healthcare facility until I could find something more in line with my education. As it happened, my now ex-husband was hired as a proofreader at what was then Macmillan Computer Publishing. That sounded intriguing to me, plus I knew that MCP was hiring by leaps and bounds, so I sent my resume in, intending to apply for a proofreading position. Someone saw “Master’s of Library Science” on it, so they forwarded my information to the indexing department. I was sent an indexing test, took it, and was hired a month or so later. Aside from one class in library school, which thoroughly confused me, I had NO IDEA what indexing entailed. Good thing MCP offered six weeks of production department training (primarily page layout, but also a good amount of proofreading and indexing) at the time! I’ve now been with Pearson (MCP was bought by Pearson several years ago) for nearly 13 years as an indexer.

Book indexing comes in two different “flavors:” embedded and standalone. Embedded indexing means putting tags into documents before the final folio (page numbers) is set. Standalone indexing means getting final pages, either as hardcopy or PDF, and writing the index from those. I do primarily embedded indexing because it fits into our workflow better—the indexing can be done earlier in the production process and doesn’t have to wait until the last minute before the book is printed. [See the end of this post for a breakdown of the two different types of indexing.]

Indexers spend the vast majority of their time working in front of a computer screen. Basic computer skills are a must; the only software skills required are Microsoft Word and possibly specialized indexing software, at least for those doing standalone indexing. Embedded indexing requires proficiency in whatever software the publisher wants the indexing tags inserted into. At Pearson, that’s usually Microsoft Word, although it sometimes requires QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign.

In addition to computer skills, indexers need to have excellent reading comprehension skills and organizational skills. Indexing requires reading a text and determining the major themes and all the little bits of important information in that text. Then the indexer must figure out what index entries to write to best serve the reader who wants to find information in the text. The indexer’s job is to serve as an advocate for the reader, both the potential reader and the returning reader.

Finding an in-house indexing position is an ideal way to learn how to index, but that happens very rarely. Most publishing houses (except for some computer/technical publishers) use freelance indexers who write standalone indexes. Many freelance indexers are either self-taught or take an indexing class through the USDA Graduate School ( or the American Society of Indexers (ASI) ( The preeminent book on indexing is Indexing Books, Second Edition by Nancy Mulvaney (University of Chicago Press, 2005), although there are also many other good books for learning indexing. Check the ASI website above or to find recommended books on indexing.

If you’re interested in learning more about indexing as a profession or learning how to index, check out the ASI website, subscribe to an indexing mailing list (many are listed on the ASI site), read as many indexing books as you can (Mulvaney is a great start), and practice indexing your own books at home or books borrowed from the library. It usually takes a long time to get established as a freelance indexer, but once you have a few published indexes you’ve got a great start on a career.

Embedded Indexing
  • Can be done at any of several different stages in the production process
  • Tags in the files can be re-used if the document(s) is published in a different format (online, ebook, revised edition, etc.)
  • Requires use of whatever software the source files use, usually Microsoft Word although can also be done in Adobe InDesign, QuarkXPress, Adobe Framemaker, among others
  • Depending on the software, the indexer usually cannot see the index as it’s being built but must instead keep the index structure in his/her head or written on paper

Standalone Indexing
  • Must be done after the book is folioed (has page numbers)
  • No tags are embedded in the source files; index is completely separate from rest of book
  • Requires use of dedicated indexing software for all but the most basic of projects
  • The “index-in-progress” is fully visible in the indexing software


Debbie said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences and information you've learned. I am a practicing librarian but am thinking, and practicing already, about freelancing in the near future.

Indexers seem to be very open about the job and I've learned very useful information by reading websites and blogs.

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April said...

This is a great overview of indexing. It shows how indexers often get into the publishing field in unexpected ways. I have found myself to be rare--I went to school to pursue a career in the publishing field. After I became an established editor, I chose to take some indexing courses to expand my services. Another great course is the online course offered by the University of California - Berkeley. Some of the professors are well-known indexers.