Ten (Easy) Steps to Creating a Book Index

(spoiler alert – this blog contains no science – if you have no interest in book indexes – ignore ūüôā )

So how many of you have written a book or edited one? (If you have not go on give it a try).¬†If¬†the book¬†needs an index then the fun really begins. I have edited or co-edited 4 books and I have taken particular pleasure and care in preparing¬†each index.¬†Is there a better way to describe it…indexing perhaps? Yes I am a self confessed index nut.

The indexes¬†were all¬†prepared at the book proof stage, the point at which the author¬†is sent pdfs for each chapter and a single hardcopy from the publisher. I pretty soon realized this is one of those things in life where there appears to be no software product or tool that can magically whip one up from the final pdf’s. More importantly there is perhaps no guidance on how to do it – at least that I could readily find.¬†¬†The publisher basically says either you do it or we get someone to do it for you and then you pay them. Pretty vague I have to say. Its like some medieval art. So what does one do? Having seen many of the half hearted efforts in some science books I opted to do it myself. The old saying if a things worth doing its worth doing well comes to mind.

Apologies if this sounds mindnumbingly obvious but here are my 10 steps to generating a book index:

1. Read the whole book (again ..during preparation of an edited book I figure I have probably read the complete book, cover to cover 2-3 times). This is also a very good opportunity to spot potential typos for the last time.

2. Highlight (in pen or highlighter that does not fade) words that may be of interest to you or more importantly the 2-3 other people that will hopefully read your index.

3. Transcribe highlighted words in (Excel) spreadsheet alongside their page number from the pdf (not Word documents!!).

4. Sort spreadsheet alphabetically and combine page numbers for each word in a cell opposite.

5. Check that you have not duplicated words e.g. missed combining them.

6. Copy and paste¬†‘word and page numbers’ columns into a word document called INDEX

7. If you are feeling particularly adventurous at this stage (and I am generally not) then you could nest / group words that are related. In the latest book index this was very kindly done by Ms. Stephanie Sakson (who I cannot thank enough for her patience).

8. Check again for typos in the index.

9. Get someone else to check for errors because by this point you will be sick of seeing words and numbers (I am usually exhausted or bored with the whole thing at this point).

10. Submit to publisher.

Depending on the length of the book..this whole process can take a full week for a ~570 page book. I am a slow reader. So Indexing is not for the faint hearted. As I have the attention span of a gnat it is the one time when I have to focus on a single thing for a long time. It is not something I can finish in a couple of hours or a day. It requires some serious time expenditure.. I am sure different people could index the same book differently. Is there software that could cut the time required? How much would it be worth to be able to point to a set of pdfs and click a button and generate a correct index? What are the challenges? For one, an interesting topic for one may not appeal to others so how do you sample all the key words. Like this post, indexing a book may not be everyones cup of tea. It is not easy. Where are the software companies when you need them?

An edited book is a massive collaboration which I hope to describe in another post. In stark contrast the index preparation is a solitary experience. I would be interested to hear if it could be done collaboratively.

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  1. ChemConnector says:

    Sean…I can honestly say I am glad you created the index! I’m not sure I’d want to do that but in theory I will have 4 to do by the end of the year for other books I am involved in writing/editing. Myself, I am an anal proofreader and enjoy the process of reading through chapters looking for inconsistencies and errors. Maybe it’s that same mindset/skill that I have been applying to the curation of chemistry databases for a number of years now?

  1. How the book “Collaborative Computational Technologies for Biomedical Research” came to fruition » Collaborative Chemistry says:

    […] « Ten (Easy) Steps to Creating a Book Index […]

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