Providing an index gives your non-fiction book a professional edge, and compiling one is as easy as ABC once you’ve mastered the basic rules.
A non-fiction book without an index always strikes me as slightly odd. There’s no law against it, but providing your readers with a map to help them discover or revisit important parts of your text isn’t something you should dismiss as too difficult or too expensive.
Why Indexing is important for Self-Publishers?
In today’s busy and fast moving world, many potential book customers will scan an Amazon book description, skim through the first few pages and then either buy the book or look up something else. However, if you present a potential buyer with a book format that seems complex and difficult to negotiate, you will lose that potential sale. But how do you create a self-published book with a complex layout while still observing today’s pocket book market realities?
So prepare your book for self publishing by blowing off the dust from the old and previously unused indexing templates, it’s time to revisit indexing, and in the following article we’ll show you how to make an effective index for your book.
How to compile an Index for Self-Publishers
Use keywords to create an index that will be useful to your book’s readers
The main reason to create an index is to help readers find the information they need. In order to do this, you need to reflect on the way your readers are likely to approach your book. Would they prefer to locate the subject they need via the index, or would they prefer to use the contents page? The answer will depend on how familiar they are with your subject. If you’re writing in an established subject area, readers are likely to know their way around. They will probably start with the chapter that contains the subject they are interested in, and they will turn to the relevant page.
If you’re dealing with a new subject area, however, it is important that they are able to use the index to get to the spot in the book they want. If you’re introducing the topic to potential readers, they probably haven’t encountered it before, so they need to have a map to guide them. It might not be a map in the conventional sense, but reading material is often organised in terms of topics, and you need to help people find their way from one topic to another by encouraging them to browse through your index.
What is an index?
An index is a list of significant topics in a book, with page numbers or other location information. It enables the reader to find information on a specific topic by browsing through the entries.
A good index for self-publishers is an investment
It is a common mistake to think that an index is just a collection of the words used in an essay or a book. Writing an index is just as much an art as anything else, and it requires you to consider words and terms used by others as well as those you use. A book index should be in quotation marks or italics when they are first used for reasons that will become apparent later on.
You can’t create an effective index without considering both book entries and chapter entries. Ideally, you should refer to each possible word or phrase that might be used as an index entry as its own entry.
If you provide 20 index entries and each of the index entries has six pages allocated to it, your index will be around 120 pages long. In practice, many of your index entries will refer to several chapter entries. If you have 100 chapter entries and 20 index entries and each of the index entries consists of 6 chapter entries, your index will actually consist of around 80 page.
Indexing for a typical non-fiction book is a matter of record
You will find indexing is simple. In a book that consists of several short chapters, you should have one index entry for each chapter. Each entry begins with the chapter name, and it should contain the first page number for that chapter.
If a word or phrase is repeated in several different chapters, it can be included as an index entry on its own, even though it appears in different chapters.
Sometimes, a chapter title is the same as a whole book title, such as in the case of a “hitchhikers guide to the galaxy”. In this case, you make the chapter entry into an index entry as before.
In a multi-author book, where a range of chapter titles have common themes, you might choose to include the chapter aspect in the same index entry. For example, in “The Oxford History of English Literature”, where each chapter has been allocated to an individual and has a different title, you might use the chapter part of the entry “Poetry, the Eleventh to the Fifteenth Century” as an index entry on its own.
Indexing for a non-fiction book means creating a reference document
When you create an index for a multi-author book, you will have to consider the possibility that the main title might not be used. This is particularly important if the book title is a well known catchphrase. You may not be able to provide direct access to the word “hitchhiking” in the index, because it doesn’t appear in the text. However, other variations on the “hitchhikers guide to …” expression might appear in the text. If one variation is used, but is not one of the primary topics in the book, you should probably include it in the index under all of the variations.
Words with special meanings
If you are writing about a subject in which a term has a special meaning, such as a technical term, you will need to ensure that readers know the meaning you have attached to it. If you are not certain about the precise meaning of the term in respect of your subject area, you should make it clear that there is a difference between the familiar use of the term and the one you have chosen to use.
Don’t forget that some words have more than one meaning. If you are not certain that your readers will understand your definition of a word, you should include a brief statement explaining the meaning that you have adopted.
This applies even if the word has a particularly well-known meaning. It is not necessary to use the word “angel” as an index entry unless your use of the term is consistent with the popular use of the word. If you are writing about the Christian concept of angels, for example, and you think that your readers will not find your definition in an ordinary dictionary, you should explain how you use the term in your book.
Don’t forget slang and technical terms
When you are creating an index, you are trying to ensure that people will find the information they need. In most cases, you will assume that your readers have a general education, but they are likely to have some specialist knowledge. Indexing effectively for a wide readership means that you should also include words and phrases that might be more commonly heard in conversation. In an index, these are referred to as “slang words” or “informal words”.
Don’t expect your readers to have the same knowledge
Familiar words or phrases can be used to help readers to find a particular index entry, even if the meaning is not obvious. If you are dealing with a book written in several languages, you might need to be more precise, or you might need to include glosses or explanations of any terms that you find difficult. This is especially true if you have covered a wide span of time, or if you have dealt with a wide geographical area.
Making your index easier to use
An index entry should be clear, and every index entry should have its own page. If there is a single reference to the same page, you should indicate that it is the same page by giving the page a number and and asterisk.
If you have discussed the same topic, but in a different form, you can create a cross-reference. An index entry with a note of the form “see Chapter … for a more detailed account” will help your readers find what they are looking for.
The starting page of each entry is important
If you are writing a non-fiction book, you have several options when you prepare your index. You can create an index on the basis of your chapters, or you could use headings, or you could use page numbers, or any combination of the three.
If you are using page numbers, you must decide whether to start at the front or at the back, and whether to include section pages. The most important thing is that each entry begins with the page number, so that the entry is easy to find.
Perhaps the most common form of index, because it is easy to create, is an alphabetical index. You will need to decide whether to use a descriptive or an alphabetic index. The descriptive index is the easier form to create and the alphabetic index can be found by cross referencing, but the alphabetic index is slower to use.
A descriptive index will allow you to use subheadings. Each page heading contains several words. The descriptive index will give a cross reference to every page. Inconsistency can also lead to confusion, so you should avoid words like “and” and “or”, and instead use phrases like “the first”, “the second”, “this kind” and so on.
An alphabetic index might not require subheadings, but it will confuse the reader if there are occasions on which the word you use for a heading does not appear in your index. If your chapter heading is “The Age of Queen Victoria”, the word “Victoria” is not likely to be in your index, because it is part of the title of the chapter.
If you have included page numbers and you are using them as the basis for your index, always use the page numbers as the heading, not the actual chapters. If your chapter heading is “The Age of Queen Victoria”, it is better to use “Chapter 1” than “Queen Victoria, The Age”. If the word in your chapter heading appears to be part of the word in your index heading, you should include the word in your index. This applies to dates, names, and anything else.
The key factors in creating an index for a non-fiction book are clarity and accuracy
If you can create an index that is accurate and easy to use, it will help to ensure that your readers will find the information they need. If you are reporting factual information, don’t forget to be accurate. You will make your readers’ job easier, and they will be able to find the information they need more quickly.