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Author as Indexer: the Good, the Bad and the Possible

by Madge Wallace

It's standard procedure these days for a publisher to require an author to obtain the index for his nonfiction book. The author has two choices: created the index himself or hire a professional indexer.

Why would an author opt to do the job himself? Money, probably. But why would an author take the time and trouble to write a great book and then leave the all-important index to an amateur just to avoid one last expense? As my mother used to say, "penny wise and pound foolish."

More likely, I suspect, is the perception that because an author knows his subject best, he is most qualified to created the index. Like many intriguing things in life, there's more to be considered. Sometimes detailed knowledge of the subject matter is a detriment to the creation of a useful and efficient index. As with editing, he's often too close to his words to see the bigger picture.

A publisher recently asked me to evaluate an index for a book on a rare childhood disease. The index was prepared by the author, a physician, who expressed his doubts as to how well he had constructed the index. The publisher also had doubts, but couldn't put a finger on the problems. Neither of them had ever studied the art of indexing.

The book was a hefty tome, almost 450 pages, written for parents of children with the disease, as well as physicians who are encountering the disease for the first time in their practice. The book was not meant to be read from cover to cover, but rather to be used as a reference. As such, a good index was critical.

I took the volume home and got to work. With no more than a glance, I spotted numerous items that were dead giveaways of an amateur indexer. The commonly accepted practices of indexing exist for a reason: they make an index easy for a reader to use. Entries need to make sense and not waste a reader's time. In short, an index's sole purpose is making information easily accessible. This requires an indexer to set aside the author's point of view and get into the mind of the reader.

First I looked at the index from the parents' point of view. When a child is diagnosed with a mysterious, disabling disease, the parents want instant information on the immediate aspects of their child's disease. As the disease progresses, other topics become important, and again parents wants immediate access to those points. The index needed to be precise, well organized, and written in anticipation of the parents' needs.

Oddly, terms such as, "symptoms," "diagnosis," "treatment," "therapy," "prognosis," and "home care" were either not included or set as subentries under technical terms where I would never have stumbled upon them. Information on these topics was in the book, but I had to do a lot of searching to find it. This is a classic example of the author being too close to his subject. He may have been the world's expert on the disease, and he discussed the topics of interest to parents thoroughly, but he didn't realize that parents would use the index differently from his fellow physicians. A professional indexer, trained to create an index of maximum use to every potential reader, brings a fresh set of eyes to the project.

The sections written for physicians contained fountains of medical terminology and technical explanations which a busy doctor would need to access quickly. The index needed to anticipate his needs, too. There were almost three columns of drugs listed under "medications," but few of them were double posted under their own names as main headings. Where perhaps a parent might have looked under "medications," how much more useful for a physician, already familiar with the names of the medications, to be able to find what he was looking for directly.

I found many odd inconsistencies in the index; many topics that were overanalyzed, confusing and wasteful; nonsensical cross references, and double posted entries with inconsistent pages references. These are just a few of the things a professional indexer would have corrected immediately, or not have done in the first place.

In addition to having technical skills, an indexer works at a substantive level: deciding what to terms include in the index, phrasing them succinctly, connecting related topics, and deciding on the appropriate depth of the index. Are the terms selected in accordance with author emphasis? Are they selected and defined in accordance with content? These decisions are made with varying degrees of educated subjectivity, and they must be well thought out.

Are authors ever acceptable as indexers of their own work? Of course, if they take the trouble to learn the art. Several authors have even won coveted awards in respected literary competitions for their own indexes. More often, however, an author's index is substandard and therefore less helpful to the reader. Aside from lacking technical knowledge, he may be heartily sick of the book after the umpteenth revision and find himself unwilling or unable to face the intensity of this final task, thereby producing a hasty and incomplete result .

Worse yet, he may begin willingly but find the ultimately task so overwhelming that he is unable to complete it, and the book is published with no index at all. Sometimes an index by an author is so poorly done that the publisher refuses to use it, and again the book goes to press without an index.

With a poor index, or none at all, a nonfiction book is often overlooked, discarded or not taken seriously by readers, librarians, professors, and book reviewers, resulting in loss of sales. After all the effort that goes into the writing, how unfortunate that would be. Perhaps even worse, it goes to press with an index that embarrasses both author and publisher.

All of this being said, an author who wishes to index his own book, and has the energy to do so, should be encouraged. He may find he has a natural aptitude for the work. I would only hope that he educate himself as an indexer before beginning. There are several courses available by distance learning, and some excellent books on the topic.

In the case of the book on the childhood disease, the author and the publisher were right to acknowledge those inner voices telling them the index didn't measure up. Hopefully, they will hire a professional for the second printing.