Patterns of indexing careers

wheel of fortune

Indexers cwheel of fortuneome into their careers from many directions. For some, it’s a natural progression from a job in a publishing house. Others discover the calling accidentally. There are indexers who started out by volunteering to write an index for a friend or a local society.

Once the decision is made to become an indexer, the career launch is more or less predictable: training, followed by practice, then marketing and building up a list of active clients.

Throughout your career, it’s all on you. You will become so good at your work that your clients won’t want you to stop.

So how does an indexer move into retirement gently? Join us for the ISC/SCI conference in Winnipeg June 8-9 as Heather Ebbs shares her thoughts and wisdom on what it means to glide away from a successful career.

The scent of information

Have you heard of a rule in web design called the three-click rule? It states that users will leave your web page or app if they can’t find what they want in three clicks. However, the rule has been challenged by numerous studies. It turns out that users don’t actually stop searching after three clicks, as long as the navigation is easy and there is a constant “scent of information.”

Users of on-line Hansard databases have no choice but to keep clicking when they’re searching for something that was said in parliament. They can’t just throw up their arms in frustration and look somewhere else—because there is no other source of information.

Hansard team members Julie McClung and Michael Sinclair will show us how they keep users happy at the BC Government when they present “Digital Innovation and Parliamentary Indexing” at the ISC/SCI conference in Winnipeg June 8-9.

If you still haven’t registered, you can still get the Early Bird Pricing until end of day Friday.

Doing the right thing by the author and the reader

Over the last week, we’ve had a riveting discussion on the ISC-L forum.

It started because a Canadian indexer was indexing a book on racism in the US, and had asked an American indexer for advice on approaching the language. For the benefit of ISC-L forum readers, the American indexer posted the very useful guidance that she gave to the Canadian indexer.

That post started a flood of comments about our struggles in indexing books that deal with difficult issues.

We really want to do the right thing by the author and the reader.

As indexer Alicia Peres put it very eloquently:

As indexers, we are acutely aware that our work comes at the end of the publication process, and we must deal with the text as it has been written. Yet, in dealing with the terms readers are likely to look for, we are not without influence, both in educating readers through terminology and in how we select and word index listings.

Alicia wrote these words not for the forum, but in her invitation to Gregory Younging, a Member of Opsakwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, the Indigenous Studies Program Coordinator at University of British Columbia Okanagan, and author of “Elements of Indigenous Style.”

And that is how she convinced Dr. Younging to come to Winnipeg to speak at our conference.

Learn first-hand from an author who has thought deeply about language when you come to the ISC/SCI conference on June 8-9.

Three Indexing Courses

Three indexing courses are being taught by ISC/SCI members:

  • Indexing: Theory and Application (University of California at Berkeley Extension – taught by Heather Ebbs, an ISC/SCI past president, as well as U.S. indexers Sylvia Coates and Fred Leise and Australian indexer Max McMaster)
  • Indexing for Books, Journals, and Reports (Ryerson University – taught by Mary Newberry, past ISC/SCI co-president)
  • Indexing: An Essential Art and Science (Simon Fraser University – taught by Audrey McClellan and Iva Cheung)

These courses represent excellent opportunities to learn from experienced members of the Society. For more information on these and other indexing courses, seminars, and workshops, please go to the Education and Training section of the Resources page.

Magpie Pins for Sale

ISC/SCI Magpie PinAt the ISC/SCI annual general meeting and conference in June 2009, Katherine Barber, founding editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary department of Oxford University Press, gave a fascinating talk on the history of the word “magpie” and what it has to do with indexing.

The magpie-indexing connection

The English language is flavoured by the many cultures that have held sway in that country over the course of time: Celts, Saxons, Romans, Vikings, French, and that motley crew of people known as “English”.

The French tended to squish Latin words that came into the language by removing consonants. So the Latin “pica” (magpie) became “pia” in French and then “pie” in English. We added “mag” so that now we have “magpie” to refer to the bird that collects bits and pieces of this and that to take to its nest, much as indexers take pieces of the book and put them in their index nest. So indexers are like human magpies.

The pie we eat is related, because pies began as a collection of many foods baked together in a crust. Reference books of feast days, themselves not unlike indexes, were also called “pies”, possibly because the black ink on white pages was reminiscent of the bird’s colouring.

One last surprising connection between indexes and magpies. A type of geographical index is a gazetteer. The word is derived from “gazette”, a 17th-century tabloid-style newspaper sold in Venice for a gazeta (penny), a word derived from gazza. You guessed it: gazza is Italian for magpie.

How to buy the pins

You will be able to buy them at local meetings and the national AGM and conference, and you can also order them by mail. For the last, shipping costs will comprise the price of a small bubble-wrap envelope and whatever Canada Post charges to mail to your area of the world; for specifics, and to order, contact Alexandra Peace.

Charging for Indexing Services

“How much?”

It’s one of the first questions from clients and new indexers. But as with almost any fee for service, there is no hard and fast answer.

In a survey done by ISC/SCI in spring 2008, members were asked what they charge, and how, and the answers varied widely (see Bulletin, Vol. 30, No 3 [Summer 2008], p. 28-32), with hourly rates ranging from $20 to $65, typeset page rates ranging from $1.85 to $10 and manuscript page rates ranging from $3 to $8.

That broad range reflects the wonderful variety of work that indexers do in a full array of media (books, journals, websites, databases, etc.) and the breadth of clients (trade publishers, university presses, national organizations, governments, legal services, web-based services, etc.). It also reflects the immense variety of document, database and website designs and the varying levels of experience among indexers. Per-entry charges, which seem to be common elsewhere, do not seem to be common in Canada.

All that said, one is still left with the question: “How much?”

Advice for indexing clients

In Canada, editors, project managers and publishers seem very willing to share this type of information. The best thing to do is to contact colleagues and ask what they paid for similar projects: 300-page trade autobiographies, 400-page scholarly works, 100-page technical manuals, 10 000-entry databases, etc.

Advice for indexers

Again, the best thing to do is to contact colleagues. Also, think realistically about what you want to earn and what level of quality you can provide.

  • What do you want to earn annually?
  • What do you want to earn per hour?
  • How many hours a day can you effectively index?
  • What is your level of experience?
  • What depth of indexing does the client want?
  • How many pages per hour can you index at that depth?

For example, if you can index 15 pages per hour of this type of book and you want to earn $60/hour, then you need to charge $4/page at a minimum (remember that you spend other hours on your business that are not directly reimbursed). If you can index 10 pages per hour in this type of book, then you need to charge $6 per page. That said, if you know that you are a bit slower than others (perhaps because you’re new to the field, or you’re just getting used to the software, etc.), then you may need to recognize that you will earn less per hour until you are up to speed. For example, if both you and the client know that the normal rate for a 300-indexable-page trade non-fiction is about

$1 350, or $4.50 per page, then you charge the $4.50 per-page rate and recognize that you will be earning less per hour until you get up to speed.


For back-of-the-book indexes, a per-page rate is probably the most common. It enables both the indexer and the client to know at the outset how much will be paid. Generally, one doesn’t “sweat the small stuff”. In other words, if the indexer is expected to begin indexing with page 1 and finish indexing on page 312, then the indexer charges $x/pg for 312 pages—there is no fussing over half pages and blank pages and so on. You may also find some indexers who charge by the hour, particularly for scholarly or niche-market books.


For periodical indexes, some people charge by the hour and some by the journal. Similar questions to those above also apply here: How fast can you index (which may depend on how well you understand the subject)? What is the normal size of the journal? Are you expected to use a thesaurus/controlled vocabulary (as this will slow you down)? Are you going to be expected to turn the final journal around in a few days because of the publishing schedule?

Other factors

Your personal rate will depend not just on how fast you can think through the entries, but on how fast you can type accurately and on how well you can use the shortcuts offered by your indexing software. These two seemingly minor things are critically important to your earnings. If you have never learned to type properly, then do so now—it can make the difference between your earning $60,000 or $80,000 per year by working 35 hours/week or earning that only if you work 50–60 hours/week. And learn your software—the same concept applies.

Language considerations can make a big difference:

  • Is this a stand-alone English document? French document?
  • Are you indexing a document in one language and expected to correlate with an index for the same document in another language?
  • Are you adapting an index from one language to another?

Conclusions and resources

So the questions are many: What do you want to earn? What is your indexing speed for the particular document or item? How does the design affect your indexing speed: how much white space is there, what size is the type, are you expected to index endnotes, how many pictures or tables are included, are you indexing the pictures and tables? How well do you understand the subject? Are you using a controlled vocabulary? How fast can you type accurately? How knowledgeable are you about your software? What depth of indexing is required?

The American Society of Indexers (ASI) offers other considerations and other ways to think about how to translate your desired annual earnings into per-page indexing rates. See the 2016 report on Professional Activities and Salary Survey.

Ultimately, your best resources, whether you are a client or an indexer, are each other.