The Middle-Agers’ Guide to Navigating the Change to Freelancing Indexing (and other freelance careers)

If you are considering a midlife career change to freelance indexing or other self employment, you will find yourself in good company. Many freelance indexers come to the profession later in life, often as a second, third, or fourth career.

Transitioning indexers relish the new benefits, such as greater autonomy and authenticity. At the same time, they face new challenges, such as loneliness and dealing with a change in identity.

To better support career transitioners, we partnered with a team of senior honours psychology students in a Community Engaged Research project at The King’s University (TKU) in Edmonton, Alberta.

To our delight, the team came through with a wealth of information that will orient and guide aspiring midlife indexers as they pursue their new, fulfilling career. Visit Indexing as a New Career in Midlife today!

The path to becoming a freelance indexer

Most book indexes are written by freelancers. That’s fantastic news if the freelancing lifestyle is something you’ve been looking for. But it does throw a complication into your journey to professional success. It means you now have two priorities—to become good and fast at indexing and to become good at marketing and managing your business.

To earn a living as an indexer, you need to build your indexing skills and build your business almost simultaneously. Where you will struggle is in dividing your focus between these two areas on a week-to-week or day-to-day basis. The uncertainty of “what should I be working on now” may even make you feel paralyzed.

However, if you could see the whole path to becoming a freelance indexer, you’ll see that there are different priorities at different stages along the way. Knowing where you are on the path and where you are headed will relieve your stress and help you keep moving forward.

This article presents a proven path to a freelance indexing career. The path has four stages—Exploring, Learning, Establishing Your Business, and Gaining Momentum and Profit. In this article you’ll discover at each stage what actions to focus on and what distractions to put aside. You’ll also learn how to know when you are ready for the next stage.

1. Exploring

The focus at this stage is to determine if indexing excites you. You already know you love books, and the thought of “getting paid to read books” sounds awesome. But you are about to invest a lot of time and money. This is the time to discover if indexing really is for you.

Actions you should take now

  • Read the articles in the category “For aspiring indexers” on the Indexing Society of Canada / Société canadienne d’indexation (ISC/SCI) website (
  • Ask questions of freelance indexers.
    • Attend an ISC/SCI regional chat. These chats occur about six times a year and are open to anyone. The events are posted on the calendar.
    • Or you can contact if you have a specific question.
  • Do Mi Stauber, author of Facing the Index, says, ” I encourage people to read a bit about indexing and then actually try indexing a textbook in a field they are familiar with. I tell them they will be confused, but they will either be confused and exhilarated or confused and deeply frustrated. If it’s the first, that’s a sign to continue exploring.” She adds, “In my experience, it’s very possible to fall in love with the idea of indexing, only to find that you hate the actual decision-making process.”

Distractions to put aside

Despite everything you’ve just read in the introduction above, do not worry yet about how you’re going to find clients or run your indexing business.

You are ready to move on when

You can clearly see yourself indexing and enjoying it.

2. Learning

Biggest focus

The focus of this stage is training, practice, and networking with other indexers.

Actions you should take now

  • You must take training to write indexes. Here is a selection of courses available.
  • When you finish the course, practice your skills as much as you can. You could even write an index for free.
  • Join the ISC/SCI. Membership will give you access to participate in the national chats so that you can make friends with indexing colleagues. You will also be able to join the private ISC-L discussion group and have access to other members-only resources.
  • Consider joining other discussion groups listed on that page, such as the Index Peer Reviewers.
  • Think about the types of subject matter that would be the easiest and most fun for you. Having a few specializations or a niche will make it easier to focus your marketing when you get to the next stage. Note: you can change your specializations at any time.

Distractions to put aside

In the discussion lists, you will see conversations on advanced topics, such as embedded indexing and the quirks of various publishers. Ignore these discussions while you are still learning the indexing basics.

You are ready to move on when

  • You have developed a routine for practising your indexing skills.
  • You have chosen your specializations.

3. Establishing your business

Biggest focus

Now is the time to start attracting paying clients. This will come from reaching out to publishers and from building relationships with your fellow indexing colleagues. They can help guide you, and if they get to know you and your interests, they may refer their clients to you when they have too much work in their schedule.

Actions you should take now

  • Upgrade your ISC/SCI membership to a listed profile.
  • Write your LinkedIn profile and start following and engaging with publishers you would like to work for.
  • Attend ISC/SCI events and offer to volunteer on a project or a committee so that your fellow indexers can get to know you.
  • Build a portfolio of samples from your practice work. Make sure your samples include indexes in your specializations.
  • Seek out feedback on your work.
  • Start building a personal library of indexing resources.
  • Start reaching out to publishers in your specializations.

Distractions to put aside

  • Being afraid of sounding like a newbie.
  • Worrying about the logistics of running a business.
  • Waiting to have the perfect website and the perfect profile. Keep in mind that “delivered” beats “perfect.”

You are ready to move on when

  • You feel confident in the quality and consistency of your work.
  • You have completed a few published indexes.

4. Building momentum and profit

Biggest focus

You have proven to yourself that you can get clients and deliver finished indexes on time. You’ll find that the learning and business-building doesn’t stop. Now is the time to:

  • Standardize your business with routines and templates.
  • Level up your skills to improve your efficiency and the quality of your indexes.
  • Build your expertise and authority in your specialties so that you can attract better clients and projects.

Actions you should take now

  • Improve your indexing techniques and technical skills.
  • Publish authoritative content on your website and/or on LinkedIn or other social media.
  • Offer to give a presentation at an indexing conference or workshop.
  • Be a partner to your steady clients by recommending other qualified indexers when you have too much work.

Distractions to put away forever

  • Saying “yes” to projects that don’t meet your standards
  • Resisting raising your rates for fear of losing work.

Everyone’s journey to a profitable freelance indexing career is going to be a little different—the actions you take may not be identical to the ones suggested here. You’ll do what works for you.

However, don’t skip networking with your colleagues, even if you don’t like the idea of networking. Having colleagues will help make your journey less frustrating and more enjoyable. Take the path one stage at a time instead of trying to pursue everything at once. As long as you know where you are in your journey, you’ll know at the moment what needs attention and what can be ignored. Soon you’ll be on your way to running a thriving indexing business.

What are some ways that indexers market their services?

As freelance indexers, you can’t sit back and expect jobs to come to you. It’s on you to market yourself. But where do you start? How do you do it? And what’s involved?

That`s what several new indexers wanted to know when we met at our monthly chat session in December 2020. So we quickly got together in a Zoom session to get answers to our questions and share ideas. We felt that the upcoming holiday break would be the perfect time to work on marketing activities that could make all the difference to our success in the new year.

Whether you’re a new indexer just starting out, or you’ve been in the business for years and want more clients, there`’s something valuable in here for you.

Here’s the replay

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Related questions

How do I find potential clients?

What are the qualities and characteristics of a successful indexer?

In the early 2000s, indexer Martha Osgood posted a series of popular articles in the “Novice Notes” section of her website, Here is an extract from one of her articles.

It is said that successful indexers:

  • Have good pattern recognition skills
  • Read carefully and quickly
  • Are good “listeners” who can hear what the author intends to say
  • Have good concentration skills
  • Are self-motivated
  • Have common sense and perseverance
  • Are imaginative enough to identify what other readers will want to find
  • Are general information addicts
  • Enjoy working crossword puzzles (optional)
  • Enjoy thinking of one-word synonyms (not optional)
  • Dislike marketing their skills, but do it anyway
  • Can type quickly and accurately
  • Have good spelling and grammar
  • Are self-motivated and work well alone
  • Are computer-literate, email-literate
  • Are detail-oriented, and can make accurate use of indexing conventions
  • Are confident enough to make decisions and defend them
  • Are respectful of deadlines
  • Are good at networking
  • Have good language synthesis and/or writing skills
  • Are self-motivated and disciplined
  • Read mystery books (optional)
  • Do detailed needlework (optional)
  • Alphabetize things (CDs, books, spices)
  • Are self-motivated and like their own company
  • Have a tendency toward neatness
  • Like to organize things by category (contents of drawers, refrigerators, cupboards, closets, bookcases, spices, life)

In addition, subject expertise is helpful. Indexing coursework with a LOT of feedback is helpful, and Peer Reviews are VERY helpful.

A 2000 survey of ASI members shows that 12% hold doctorates, 50% have earned Masters Degrees, 14% have some postgraduate study, and 20% have a Bachelor’s degree. Only 29% hold library degrees. 90% are freelance, back of the book indexers, and 60% of those work part-time. But if you don’t have a degree, don’t let that limit you. A degree means you have had the time/$ to make yourself noticed to a certain part of the world; the lack thereof does NOT mean you can’t do the work.


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