What is 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

Biggest focus

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 (indexers.ca).
  • 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 indexers.ca calendar.
    • Or you can contact info@indexers.ca if you have a specific question.

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.

Editors and publishers want to know: What makes a good index?

In an interview with publisher Sandra Uschtrin, indexer Jochen Fassbender described some key qualities of a good index.

What does a good index look like?

The key qualities include:

  • Good term selection: The heart of quality indexing. Entries must be clear, meaningful, accurate to the text, and complete with locators. This is why indexing of a print book should take place only after the text pagination is final.
  • Comprehensive and consistent coverage of all important details and passages.
  • Entries for both implicit and explicit subjects (i.e., not simply a list of names and keywords).
  • All references to a topic consolidated under one “preferred” term, even if the text uses multiple terms to refer to that topic
  • Synonyms added to increase access points, either pointing to the preferred term via “see” cross-references or repeating the preferred term’s locators (double-posting).
  • Related index entries point to each other with “see also” cross-references.
  • Absence of passing mentions: This means the indexer did not index a word that is only in the text for illustrative purposes or otherwise does not provide significant information.
  • Accurate and explicit locators: Commas and dashes are used to distinguish between intermittent discussions of a topic on consecutive pages (e.g., 514, 515, 516) and continuous discussion of a topic on consecutive pages (e.g., 635-637). Furthermore, the start and end of page ranges are listed explicitly (e.g., 635-637 instead of 635 ff).
  • Ideally, main entries with more than 5 or 6 locators broken down into subheadings.
  • Appropriate length: Typically 4-5% of the length of the indexable material, and even 10% or more for reference works. Below 3.5% may be problematic.

Indexes with these traits add value to the text by ensuring users can efficiently find all substantive concepts, details, and facts.

What should editors and publishers look for in an indexer?

Fassbender also talked about some of the things that an indexer needs to produce quality work:

  • Training and practice: Essential for producing good analytical indexes
  • Ability to anticipate users’ needs and questions
  • Some knowledge in the book’s subject area
  • Indexing software: Indispensable for increasing the speed of indexing by handling and automating technical components

Read the complete interview—including Fassbender’s take on the “deadly sins” he wants indexers to avoid—for free in The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing (Vol. 29, No. 1) liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/10.3828/indexer.2011.4

How does one become an indexer?

To become an indexer, start with these three actions:

Take formal training

Formal coursework is highly recommended. The Education and Training page lists several distance-learning programs as well as in-person courses offered in Canada.

In choosing a course, indexer Martha Osgood says, “What you want to look for in a course should be: a LOT of practice indexes with heavy feedback and as much discussion with others as possible.”

We also suggest asking other indexers for their recommendations.

Join a society of indexers

While membership in a society is not a professional requirement, joining one will give your career a huge boost, even before you start your training. For it is here that you will

  • Meet other indexers who can help you get started
  • Access more resources to build your skills and your business
  • List your services on the find-an-indexer page of your society’s website when you are ready to take on clients.

Use professional indexing software

In most of the training programs, you will be creating your indexes using the demo versions of the specialized software programs. However, you can download these demo versions at any time.

Functionally, they all do the same thing: take your entries, sort them alphabetically or by page number, manipulate them with a click or a keystroke, filter them for ease of editing, and produce an index to the publisher’s specifications in the format demanded by the book designer.

Each interface, however, is different. Try creating small indexes in each program to find the interface that best suits you.


Is freelance indexing for me?

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

The first thing to recognize is that YOU are in charge.

Freelance income is dependent upon the number of books contracted, hours worked per week, speed and experience levels. It takes marketing (it’s a numbers game), experience (speed, accuracy), repeat business (quality work), and time (2-5 years) to build up to the good income levels .

This is honest, skilled work, not a scheme to get rich quick.

The second thing is that there is a lot more to indexing than meets the eye. Following all the rules is easy (with a lot of practice and feedback); it is the art of indexing that is hard. Don’t forget this as you read on.

And the third thing is to re-read the second thing and think about it. I had to learn, through 6-8 in depth indexes and peer reviews, how to pay attention at that level, and I STILL find in reviews the IndexPeers do for me that I can improve. The level of detail was a real surprise to me.

Now consider your own personality and your ideal work-day:

  • Does working in isolation mean solitude, or loneliness?
  • Do you like to work without much guidance?
  • Would it frustrate you that the reader (and your editor!) is eternally invisible?
  • How would you feel about the repetition (double postings and cross references)?
  • Can you tolerate the minutiae of editing your index?
  • Can you cope with the concentration and human memory requirements?
  • Will the agony of deciding on the exactly right word or phrase with the proper keyword—over and over again—wear you down, or satisfy your obsessions?
  • Can you happily balance the user-friendly aspects of the index against the deadline and space limitation an editor may place on you?
  • Do you prefer working 8 to 5, or would life be easier with mid-day naps and taking your elderly aunt to a two-hour lunch?
  • Do you love the idea of baking a cake and doing laundry while you work?
  • Do office politics drive you nuts or is it fun?
  • Can your budget tolerate an irregular income?
  • Can you take vacations when the opportunity arises, or do you prefer to plan ahead?
  • When you can’t sleep at night, do you like to be productive or do you prefer to watch TV?

Will this work drive you batty-bonkers sooner rather than later—or do you dream of putting everything in its proper slot in a big roll-top desk?

As Do Mi Stauber has said on Index-L, “Are you confused-frustrated or confused-excited? The difference matters.”

Related questions

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, Backwordsindexing.com. 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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