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Random Thoughts on the Joys and Tribulations of Indexing for a Small Publisher, Part 1

Having indexed books for over a decade now, for publishers both large and small, I have come especially to value the latter, who tend to have a smaller staff, but who, besides tending to pay just as well as the former, yet provide, and, in some cases, even insist on, more insightful input, which is, ultimately, much more satisfying. In this posting I intend to start a comparison of my experiences of a small publisher (AW) with those of a relatively large publisher (PE), which, hopefully, will be continued in later postings.

From my first gaining acquaintance with AW, I was made aware that the publisher in question (MN) kept a very tight rein on the publication of his books. Almost on a yearly basis, he would produce one or two series of children’s books that he required to be indexed over the period of a few weeks. Trusting to my experience, he gave me comparatively free rein over the entries that I produced. Having faith in his team of editors, freelancers, and layout artists, he relied very much on their feedback as far as developing the text went. At first, when I submitted an index, I would receive some suggestions as to alterations of terms, which I must admit I found annoying, as I was used to submitting an index to PE, among other publishers, and not hearing about it again, until I saw the final version in the printed book. I actually insisted on NOT hearing the feedback, as I would rather that the team thrashed out whatever issues they had with the entries. My time tends to be extremely limited, and I just did not have time for the toing and froing that otherwise might have occurred.

That said, I tend to choose terms for inclusion in an index in terms of the amount of focus that the related material receives in a book, and in terms of the relevance to the core subject matter. Whereas other indexers might be highly selective as to the items that they exclude when they are told to cut the length of an index down, I tend to be relatively brutal, as I have learned from experience that many publishers tend to regard indexes as page fillers, rather than as a core feature of the work. When index length is regarded as being more important than the content of the index itself, I have little patience with those concerned. In such cases, I tend to exclude all entries that have only one or two page locators, in favor of those that have more.

The exception to the above is when the entries are related to others in the text by means of “see” or “see also” references, which implies that the (aspect of the) subject concerned has greater bearing in the text than the few page locators already mentioned. Another exception is made when the word(s) in question is glossed, and its meaning is pertinent to the gist of the entire text. An instance of the latter exception is where, in a book on the South African musician Black Coffee, the term “improvise” was glossed. As the meaning of the concept was central to Black Coffee’s performance, I retained it in my index to the work, despite it being referred to only on one page in the body of the text.

So, one lesson that could, perhaps, be learned in this regard is that publishers and their editorial teams should be aware that an index is of central relevance to the text, and should not simply be regarded as an additional luxury, or page filler. Please get back to me about any aspect of this posting that you would like to comment on. I only ask that you follow the “sandwich” method in this regard: one positive comment, followed by criticism, and ending with a supportive fillip.

Post first appeared on Niume 5 February 2017.

Lois C. Henderson is a freelance back-of-book indexer, a copy editor of academic articles, theses, and dissertations, and a book reviewer for She has a BA Honors in English (Unisa), an MA in General Linguistics (Stellenbosch University), a Higher Diploma in Library and Information Science (UCT), and a Higher Education Diploma (Postgraduate) (Unisa).

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