Can you talk me “out” of indexing?

In the early 2000’s, indexer Martha Osgood posted a series of popular articles in the “Novice Notes” section of her website, Here is an extract from one article, updated and edited for an international audience. Martha’s comments, which reflect her personal experience and observations, offer food for thought and not hard and fast rules.

When I was considering indexing as a business, I asked indexers I interviewed to “talk me out of this idea.” They responded with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Before you invest time, money, and energy in software, courses, and networking, let me show you now some of the issues that might discourage you later. Think about them well, and consider carefully: are you excited by this list—or oppressed by it?

The work

You don’t want to invest the time or money if indexing is not “for you.” Some people run screaming from the room when I mention indexing, and you just might be one of those once you see what it takes and the kind of detail you will be working with.

  • Are you good at finding the center of a discussion easily, and do you have a decent talent for synonyms? Can you divide your work into the number of days you have to meet the deadline then actually meet that deadline? Some folks are self-directed in their recreations, but less so in their work lives. Are you hyper organized? I expected to need a decent memory, but I did not expect to use (and improve) my organization skills so intensely.
  • Try indexing a book. Here are some ideas on how to do this.
  • Self-motivation is a MUST. (Note: self-motivation is sometimes defined as a fear of humiliation combined with an utter determination to have the freedom of being self-employed).
  • Is this a good match with your family? Some indexers have very young children, and it works for them. For others with the same family structure, it does not work well.

The income

If you need income NOW, don’t count on indexing. It can take up to three years or more to build a consistent client base to support yourself (if you market well and wisely and if you get repeat business due to the quality of your indexes) in the manner to which you plan to become accustomed.

It may take some time (18 months?) to both begin to get real business and to get continuous business (depending a lot on your repeat clients—which in turn depends on how good your work is). Consider whether your finances, working style, and preferences allow for this. Many indexers moonlight at first until they can count on business and repeat business coming in.

If you need a bank loan to purchase the furniture, computer, software, phone or Internet systems, and courses, you will have to consider seriously the interest costs and the payback schedule in relation to your income needs and your income potential—you’ll get faster but not without a LOT of focused, effective practice. I seldom met my hourly goal even at the five-year point.

Nevertheless, there is business out there, and the field will not go away—in fact, indexing will probably grow in scope and importance as information-overload continues to explode and search engines only give thousands of unanalyzed, general hits instead of the specific few that can really help.

Your goals

If you cannot bring your skills up to a decent speed that will allow you to make enough to

  • pay taxes,
  • pay insurance for yourself (and family?),
  • allow for 35% or more of non-billable time: for invoicing, learning new software, following discussion groups, research online and at the library to verify standard indexing treatments for a confusing book, pre-reading and editing your index before submitting it…),
  • take vacations/sick time/down time/retirement (what are your goals?),
  • pay yourself (you MUST make more than a McJob would pay)

then you will need to have different goals than “making a living doing this work.” There are a number of people who ARE supporting themselves plus at least one other by indexing alone, but I can’t emphasize enough how efficient they are. Depending on the subjects they index, they can complete (read, mark, enter, edit, submit—and still market) 300 pages a week.

On the other hand, if this is intended to be part time work, a second income, a skill to offer non-profits, or intended for the pleasure of forced deep reading in a favorite field, go for it.

My favorite topics are generally in Philosophy or Theology, even though these topics take longer than many others because their threads of thought are tangled all through the book rather than in discrete pieces. My total process—reading, marking (note: not everyone pre-reads or marks—I feel that I have to in order to follow all the thangles through my texts), entering, editing—goes rather slowly, about 100 pages a week. The simpler the topics, the quicker the index goes. The better organized the text, the quicker the index goes. The better organized the INDEXER, the quicker the index goes. But… the simpler the topic the more boring it is and the sleepier I get…Sometimes the good money makes up for it, sometimes not.

Your time

Your time is priceless. Don’t waste it if this work is not going to be your passion.