What is a book index and why do you need one?

For all you authors out there writing books on business, travel, self-help, etc., have you considered adding an index to the end of your book? Maybe you've never given it much thought or even noticed an index before, which is fine because in essence, a good index just does its job in a seamless and useful way.

An index is an alphabetical summary of your book's contents, as well as a location guide--something your readers will appreciate when they get to the end of the book and try to remember where they saw that reference to $10 huts on the beach in Bali. Sure, you have a table of contents to give your book its overall structure, but the index in a comprehensive way to show the relationship between the content.

If you choose to add an index to your book, I do not recommend that you go it alone. It's part art, part science, and best to hire a professional indexer. It's not that you can't do it as an author, it's just that it takes several weeks to compile an index and a lot of meticulous work, which is time better spent for you to do authorly things, like plan your book launch or start a social media campaign.

To give you a sense of the steps involved in indexing, here's a typical month(s)-in-the-life of an indexer.

The indexer will:

- receive the manuscript from the author/editor, familiarize him/herself with the content, and decide on a format for the index.

- read the manuscript and highlight concepts for possible inclusion in the index.

- select the terms for the index and begin compiling a list with qualifiers (descriptions) and locators (page or section numbers).

- review all entries, page by page, to make sure there are no mistakes.

- arrange terms alphabetically.

- edit for repetition, errors, and format. 

- submit the index to author/editor and make changes based on feedback.

(Note: Based on course material from the editing certificate program at Simon Fraser University)

So you see, indexing is not for the faint of heart. It takes an ability to quickly read and understand information, and to have a sixth sense on key terms readers will use to look up information. If you want to know more about indexing, check out the websites for the American Society of Indexers and the Indexing Society of Canada.  

Stacey D. Atkinson is a freelance editor and author of Stuck, a novel she published via her independent company Mirror Image Publishing.

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