How to Make Money From Home by Indexing Books
Book Indexing Can Be a Home Business Opportunity
Book indexers earn their living by providing a useful service to authors, publishers and readers, yet many people have never of this profession. Indexing books and other materials is, however, a useful skill that lets individuals from all sorts of backgrounds use their knowledge and skills to earn money in the comfort of their own homes.
Have you ever bought a book to use for reference purposes and been frustrated to discover that you cannot find the information you need easily because there is no index in the back? In the case of academic books, indexes are considered to be so important that many university librarians will be less likely to purchase a book for their library if it does not contain an index. Quality publishers are aware that a good index is a good selling point for a book.
Many people are surprised to learn that back-of-book indexes are produced by human beings. Book indexers usually work from home on a freelance basis. Some do it as a full-time career, others use it to supplement income from other activities or pensions, or as a means to earn some money while staying at home with small children.
Book indexing is not a get-rich-quick scheme, nor is it a way to passive income. However, it produces a reasonable return for the time required. Typically, publishers pay $2-5 per page indexed. A 350-page book will therefore earn the indexer $700-1750. Working full-time, a competent indexer, with some experience, should be able to index such a book within a week.
Can’t Machines Do the Job?
Some have argued that book indexing is a dead profession, because it is possible to produce an index automatically. That is not true.
A computer can produce a concordance. This is a list of every word that appears in a book, with a page reference for each appearance. A concordance can be manipulated to some extent, for example to remove unwanted “stop words” such as a, the, some, perhaps.
However, human book indexers provide further important input, by making connections and by classifying entries into related hierarchies. One of the most important tasks of the indexer is to decide what is relevant.
The Value of a Human Indexer
Here is an example. Imagine a book containing the diaries and letters of the composer Jean Sibelius.
On April 16, 1915, Sibelius made the following diary entry: “Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, the beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming silver ribbon.” On December 8 of the same year, his 5th symphony had its première.
Later, in a letter to a friend, he stated that he considered one of the dominant themes in that symphony to be a “swan hymn”. This suggests that his sighting of the swans could well have been the inspiration for that theme.
Now, just suppose, that in another diary entry Sibelius wrote (he didn’t!), “Walked by the lake today and fed some of my sandwiches to the ducks. It was cold, so I soon went back home and worked a little on some songs.”
A machine-produced concordance would have entries for both “swans” and “ducks”. A researcher, wanting to find the influence of animals on the composer’s music would turn eagerly to the “ducks” page and be very disappointed. A human indexer would realise that the mention of ducks is a passing reference that has no particular relevance, but that the mention of swans is a key concept to understanding more about the 5th symphony. Therefore, a human indexer would make an index entry for “swans”, referencing both the diary entry and the letter, but not for “ducks”.
An indexer also tailors references to the target readership of the book. Sometimes, authors forget that some of their specialist terminology is not easy to understand or is less commonly used. A medical book intended for the general public might have references to “varicella”. The indexer will realise that most non-medical readers are more likely to search in the index for “chicken pox” so will help such readers with a cross-reference: “chicken pox see varicella.”
Interview With a Book Indexer
What Is Needed to Become a Book Indexer?
In most cases, indexing is a second or later career. This is because an indexer needs to have knowledge in order to index intelligently. A good level of general knowledge and a good vocabulary are essential.
Specialist knowledge or experience, with knowledge of the associated terminology, gives an indexer an advantage in getting commissions to index specialist books. A philosophy graduate is unlikely do well in indexing an academic book on mathematical topology or quantum physics, a mathematician might not do so well with one on existential philosophy!
However, specialist knowledge does not have to mean academic knowledge. Gardening, yachting, period costumes, .... any skill, hobby or interest will entail specialist knowledge and terminology that is put to good use when indexing books about these topics.
An indexer can have an untidy desk, but a tidy and organised mind is very necessary. Having a good short-term memory is also useful, so as to avoid having to trawl backwards and forwards through existing entries.
It might sound strange, but a love of reading is not so important. Most of the time, indexers scan pages, only stopping to read when they are not quite sure what is being discussed!
Like many freelancers working from home, an indexer has to be self-motivated and able to take full responsibility for work. For some, isolation can be a problem, although mailing lists and meetings organised by indexing societies can help.
Most indexing is really simple common sense. Nevertheless, there are certain conventions that should be followed most of the time. These are contained in national and international standards on index production. It is also important to know when not to follow the rules.
There are a number of books about how to index. These two are very useful for reference.
Doing a course in indexing is helpful, because of the feedback obtained from tutors. Having some form of certificate may also help an indexer to gain credibility with clients. The cost of training courses is reasonable compared to training in some other professions.
A number of courses and workshops are available, for example from:
Long ago, most indexers relied solely on a stack of blank cards and a shoe box! Each entry would be written out on a small card and placed in the box. The cards would be shuffled round and eventually sorted into the final order. Then, the whole index would be laboriously typed out.
Word processing software can be used simply to produce and manipulate entries, but producing an index in this way leaves a lot of room for error.
In “embedded” indexing, index entries are inserted in the body of the document and the final index is generated at the end, in the same way as tables of contents and bibliographies and end notes. Embedded indexing is enabled in MS Word. A number of publishers are moving to XML-based embedded indexing. The response of indexers has been less than enthusiastic, because the process is somewhat time-consuming.
Most indexers currently use dedicated indexing software. This not only makes it easier to deal with entries, but usually contains some quality control functions as well. Cindex, Skyand Macrex are currently the most popular programs. Each has a user interface that differs vastly from the others. Each of the above three programs is available as a demo or student edition. This provides enough capability to evaluate the software and even use it for small projects, such as an indexing course assignment. Each program has its enthusiastic supporters. It is best to experiment for yourself to see which is the most intuitive or useful to you.
How Easy Is it to Find Work as an Indexer?
As in many types of freelance work, getting the first few commissions might be difficult. If you do happen to have contacts in the publishing industry, use these as much as possible.
National indexing societies maintain listings of indexers, with information about their qualifications, experience and subjects of interest. Some directories are more newbie-friendly than others. However, membership of a society enables contacts to be made, and contacts can be key in obtaining those first commissions. Indexers who are unable to take on a particular commission are usually more than ready to recommend another colleague. Experienced indexers who have acted as mentors to beginners, will at times recommend their students if they show sufficient promise.
Before making on-spec applications to publishers, it is useful to have a few indexes completed. Consider offering your services at a low rate, or perhaps even for free in order to get those all important first indexes under your belt. Ways to gain this experience include:
- Approaching local companies, who may have annual reports, catalogues, etc for which an index would be useful.
- Contacting charities, local societies and voluntary organisations. Again, they may have annual reports or other publications to index. Local societies based around hobbies and interests may even have authors of new books on these subjects among their members.
- If your knowledge is more on the academic side, you could try advertising in a local college or university. Authors of academic books are sometimes asked by publishers to produce an index, whether done by themselves or someone else. Many authors hate indexing, others are aware that it is usually better to have someone else who is not involved in the book produce the index
Can Book Indexers Index Other Things?
Most certainly! Catalogues and annual reports have already been mentioned. In addition, periodical publications such as academic journals are often indexed. Some web sites also use a book-indexing type of approach as one of the ways to help visitors find a way around the site. See below for an example.