We have already discussed should authors ever index their own book, but there’s one more point worth considering.
And I actually think it’s the strongest point for why an author shouldn’t index their own book, even if they do master the skill and software needed, and have the time to do it.
It’s the point that the author is never the best person to write their book index.
That’s right. An index is always better if someone else writes it.
An index is a bridge between the author and the reader. It helps readers find and understand the author’s information in a way that makes sense to them.
A good indexer serves as a broker, a liaison a go-between… for the reader and the author.
So the question is whether an author can get enough critical distance from their own thinking to be able to think like a non-expert, like their potential reader, and make the right connections. Far too often, they’re in danger of either over or under indexing certain parts of the book.
More than that, the indexer has to consider the different audiences a book has…
A publisher recently asked me to evaluate an index for a book on 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.].
So, I don’t think an author should index their own book in most cases. If they’re self-published, indie authors who absolutely can’t afford to pay someone — that might be an exception. Or if they just want to learn the process and have the time to do so — that might be another. Otherwise, they should hire a professional.
Indexing is a specialized skill that takes a long time to master, and uses expensive software. It’s also hard. And because the whole point of an index is to raise the value of your book, an obviously amateur index defeats its own purpose. This is not to mention that an indexer will struggle to get enough distance from their own book to write an index that’s helpful to the reader.
All these reasons, to my mind, make the answer to the title easy — no.
Unless they can’t afford it or want to learn the process (money, and curiosity) they should hire a professional.