Who’s the most undervalued member of a publishing team? Understandably, one might be inclined to list off those who hold positions most often outsourced to freelancers: copyeditor, interior designer, sensitivity readers, and so forth. In an industry that values creative input over analytical and technical complexity, I posit that the unsung heroes of the publishing world are the indexers, the great organizers of our age.

Indexes are an important facet of building a non-fiction book that sells. Many librarians won’t stock or consider a non-fiction work that doesn’t contain a properly compiled index, and though it isn’t usually the most exciting feature of a publication, some readers use the index as a way of gauging the breadth of material covered in informative works. As seasoned freelance indexer Maria Sosnowski puts it, “A missing index is a missed opportunity to tell someone your book is what they’re looking for.”

Indexing isn’t just a boon for the buyer. It’s a job well-suited to the analytical and data-driven minds of the industry, and it pays very well; many freelance indexers make ample yearly salaries well above the national average, with top indexers in the field even pulling three figures. Indexers usually charge per page, and those who can diligently and intelligently organize can complete thousand dollar jobs in just a few days. Indexers are also a rather organized bunch; the American Society of Indexers has numerous regional chapters, including one right here in the Pacific Northwest.

As we are a publishing house run by students, Ooligan Press considers every position a learning opportunity, and rarely contracts freelancers, but indexing is the usual exception. All but three of our titles were indexed by the wonderfully talented Sheila Ryan, a regular in the Portland indexing scene. Recently, however, Ooligan’s ranks were bolstered by Kento Ikeda, resident indexer, ebook designer, and rising star of our digital department. As he finished the index for our hiking book 50 Hikes in the Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests, I conducted a short survey with Kento to get his take on the duties that fell to him, and how he regarded his work in the scope of Ooligan Press.

1) Kento, what is your past experience with indexing? How’d you get into it?

I only became aware of book indexing in my first term in the graduate program. The Transmit Culture panel that term included Oregon State University Press’s Mary Elizabeth Braun, and she mentioned a book they published that was about moss, Gathering Moss: A Cultural History of Mosses. Mary Braun very kindly gave me the copy of Gathering Moss she brought with her. I looked at the index, and found this:

  • Seeds, 48-49, 148
  • Sidewalk moss, 15, 93
  • Size of mosses, 10, 14-20, 77, 84
  • Slugs, 87-89, 90, 148
  • Species, number of, 13, 15
  • Sperm, 23-24, 26, 33, 58, 160
  • Sphagnum bog, 111-20
  • Sphagnum moss, 111-21
  • Splachum, 121-24
  • Spores, 20, 27, 32-33, 43, 75, 80, 121, 130
  • Sporophytes, 11, 20, 26, 28, 31-32, 58, 123

For me, this was perfect. It was suggestive of the specificity of the topics in the books, but also suggested how interesting the specificity could be. Seeds, sperm, spores, and sporophytes? It suggested a rich, almost lurid complexity that I would have never expected. Topics like “sidewalk moss” and “size of mosses” had a comedic quality that appealed to me, enhanced by the possibility that such improbable and seemingly boring topics might actually be interesting.

It didn’t really occur to me before that somebody made the indexes in books. I could do that! So I started asking around, talking to indexers, picking up books on indexing, and doing indexing exercises.

2) Would you say indexing is an underappreciated part of the book publishing process?

I wouldn’t say it’s so much underappreciated as insufficiently understood. Publishing can be very segmented, but I think it’s always useful for people in different fields of publishing to know how the other fields of publishing work. An editor that doesn’t understand the work that goes into interior design won’t understand that a manuscript change isn’t just a several minute change for the interior designer, but might require going through the whole book again to look for, and fix, any typographical problems that were caused by adding just a couple words. Knowing how other fields works makes it easier to deliver files that are useful for the recipient and makes it easier to make and adjust production schedules.

Because indexing is a very technical and niche area of publishing, it’s one of the least understood by the rest of publishing. The consequences of this can be pretty bad. Publishers often don’t know what to ask of indexers, which means that indexers aren’t sure of what they’re supposed to deliver, making the work more difficult and the index of lower quality. Often not enough space is reserved for an index, which means an index has to be more shallow. And publishers that don’t know what to look for in an index won’t be able to tell if their index is good or bad, or won’t be able to tell if the indexer they’ve hired has done good or bad work in the past.

3) Lastly, let’s talk about 50 Hikes for a bit. Could you describe your experience doing the 50 Hikes index? Was it helpful that you were designing the ebook too?

Editing is an important part of indexing, and I had to do a lot of editing for 50 Hikes. I made a huge index to begin with, twice as long as I had space for, but I did this because it’s easier to take things out of an index than it is to add things in. Cutting an index in half is still a lot of work though! You really have to prioritize everything, so you know what you want to keep and what can go and try to figure out if there’s any other way to save space.

I’d say the main thing the index did to prepare me for designing the ebook was to remind me how much work has gone into this book. It’s something we as a press can be really proud of, and it’s a book people will really be happy to have. I wanted to make sure that I lived up to the high standard that everyone at the press already had, and making an index really made clear to me how high a standard that was.

To learn more about book indexing, I recommend checking out The American Society of Indexing.

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