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Good Indexes Sell Books

by Madge Wallace

Put yourself in the mind of a librarian or professor searching through the year's new crop of nonfiction books, deciding what to purchase for the library or the college. The pile of suspects is overwhelming, there's no time to read each book, and decisions must be made.

The cover of each book is noticed, the table of contents gets a once-over, the professionalism of the printing and binding of the volume all weigh in.

But the index – ah, the index – that's where the subject matter of the book is revealed in detail. Think of it like a full-body x-ray or a CAT scan: an abbreviated, in-depth view of every important topic and subtopic, along with locators guiding you to the actual pages for quick, deeper inspections of critical areas.

Secure in the knowledge that your book contains exactly what he or she is looking for, the librarian or professor checks that book on the order form, and you've made a sale, maybe lots of sales. The other books on the list, with incomplete or (dare we say it) missing indexes, never make it past the first perusal.

Indexes do sell books! But beware: all indexes are not the same. A good index contains all the important topics, subtopics and cross references in a meaningful order.

According to Nancy Mulvany in Indexing Books, "a good index retains the author's terminology, while anticipating the language of readers that may differ from that of the author, and anticipates the expectations of different readers. In other words, an index does not exist independently of its audience."

A good index is also an indication that a book is meant to be taken seriously by reviewers. In an NPR radio interview San Diego Tribune book reviewer and books editor Arthur Salm once said, "A nonfiction book without an index has no heft. I pay it no attention."

I first learned about indexing as a profession ata writing conference in Denver. At the time I had just finished my first novel and was exploring publishing options. I met a freelance indexer who told me about her profession with great enthusiasm. I filed the information away as a possible future career. When I was laid off my job in 2006, I was primed and ready to go.

Indexing appeared to be the perfect blending of my literary interests and my personality. I'd spent the past 20 years in real estate, while writing freelance for newspapers and magazines, as well as my own fiction and nonfiction endeavors.

On the other side of my brain, I was a mathematics major in college. Algebra and geometry were like doing puzzles, my favorite homework. Indexing gives me the same feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.

"Book indexing is something you will either enjoy or detest; there is little middle ground," Mulvany also (says). "You will have a knack for it or you won't. I do not believe indexing can be taught... a very important aspect of this work comes down to the individual indexer's judgment and communicative abilities... Like other types of writing, it is a mixture of art and craft, judgment and selection."

As I dove into the Basic Indexing course offered by the U.S.D.A. Graduate School, I was quite intimidated by those remarks. The course has a very high dropout rate, and I quickly discovered why. The craft of indexing is highly structured, with much to learn, yet requires a great deal of creativity when taking a 400 page book and distilling it into a 15 to 20 page index.

In How to Make Money from Home, Peter Farrell says, "Indexing work is not recommended to those who lack an orderly mind and a capacity for taking pains. A good index is a minor work of art but it is also the product of clear thought and meticulous care."

Happily I discovered I did have the necessary brain wiring and desire, and passed with high marks. I love the process of organizing other writers' brilliance.

Most indexers these days work freelance as independent contractors, hired either by publishers or authors. A publisher recently told me, "Oh, we just twist our editors arms and make them do the index as part of their job." When I explained how much there is to be considered when indexing, and how important a good index is to a book's salability, she became my first client. And her editors call me a hero for ridding them of this (in their words) "nasty chore."

A good index means more sales. After doing everything else right, don't leave your index to chance.