There are only two reasons an author should ever index their own book.

Money, and curiosity

That is, either

1. They absolutely don’t want to can’t pay $1000 for someone to do it for them, OR
2. They’re curious about the process and want to learn about it.

That’s it. Otherwise, I think they should hire a professional. Sure, I’m being a little flippant. But after really thinking about every possible angle… I can only think of these two good reasons why an author should ever index their own book. If you’re a self-published author who’s really strapped for cash, then you can try to do it yourself. Or, if you’re just curious about the process and want to learn it, then you can also give it a try. So, there are good reasons why you should index your own book. But there are a lot more bad ones, like these.

“I know my topic and my book better than anyone. So I can write a better index than anyone.” “I can use that $65 index generator software thing and just have it do it for me.” “It shouldn’t be that hard to index my own book. I’ll just put something together and save the $1000.”

These are bad reasons. And I’ll show you why in a moment. But first, let me make a quick note about why your nonfiction book should have an index. You can read more about that argument here, but the basic idea is that,

1. Books without indexes are not taken seriously
2. Your reader expects and needs one
3. It increases sales, from prospective buyers and librarians

“Researchers and librarians will be much more apt to purchase books with a good index. When I review a nonfiction book, I frequently delete a star from the overall rating when the author neglected to include an index.”

Patricia Fry, “Build Promotion Into Your Book BEFORE it’s a Book”

But let’s say you’re on board with having an index, but you just want to do it yourself. Here’s what I say. The reason why most authors should not write their own index is twofold.

  • One, writing an index is really hard and time-consuming.
  • And two, it undermines the point of an index.

It takes to long prepare book index

Book indexing is a specialized skill. It takes a long time to learn and requires you to master expensive software programs. Most indexers have Masters degrees or PhD’s or some other kind of certification. A lot of them also were former librarians, or have experience with information architecture — meaning that they’re professionals skilled in the art of organizing information. But even more than their fancy degrees and certifications, good book indexers have the right mindset.

“Indexing work is not recommended to those who lack an orderly mind and a capacity for taking pains. A good index is a minor work of art but it is also the product of clear thought and meticulous care.”

Peter Farrell, author of “How to Make Money from Home”

Think about what an indexer does. They have to read an entire book cover-to-cover (usually more than once) and build a model in their head for what text is about. They have to note the peaks and the valleys and the winding ravines and small rocks and grassy expanses — and then build a map of the important stuff.

It’s a very analytical process. But at the same time, it involves a lot of human judgment, especially since the index is really a tool of communication (more on that in a moment).

“Book indexing is something you will either enjoy or detest; there is little middle ground. You will have a knack for it or you won’t… Like other types of writing, it is a mixture of art and craft, judgment and selection.”

Nancy Mulvany, “Indexing Books

This judgment can only be honed with experience. And there’s no formula that can substitute for this trained intuition. Also, there are strict style guidelines an index has to follow — things about margins and formatting. Indexers can tell an amateur index with a glance, without even looking at the content… Think about how apparent your amateurish index might appear to prospective buyers like librarians. So look, if the point of an index is to raise a book’s value and make it look more professional, why would you have a sloppy index? That does the opposite of what you want it to do. It lowers the value of your book, regardless of what’s written in the middle.

“I have seen indexes that list individuals or events only some of the times they appear, inexplicably omitting some page numbers. I have seen indexes that omit certain individuals or events completely, almost certainly because of carelessness. I have seen indexes so bizarrely constructed that they defy all logic that a reader might apply when consulting them.”

Steve Weinberg, “Egregiously Irresponsible Indexing”

An author can make a good index, of course. There’s no secret rule that says they can’t. But they have to really learn the rules and guidelines and theory first. And they have to treat indexing like a separate skill, not as a given.

So, if an author absolutely insists on making their own index, they should take the craft seriously and do their best to learn the rules.

It’s arduous to index book

Another reason I think that an author shouldn’t write their own index is that it’s arduous…

You do have to read your manuscript again. And to build a new conceptual framework for it. And especially, to think about your different readers. What they care about and what they’re likely to look up. You do have to input all entries by hand. You do have to decide if you should add subheading or not.

“Sitting down and indexing a book is—in our experience—the most painful, 
horrible, mind-numbing activity you could ever wish on your worst enemy.”

Olav Martin Kvern & David Blatner,
“Working with Long Documents in Adobe InDesign CS3: Indexes (or Indices)”

And all this has to be done at the very end of the publishing process. The manuscript is already done, and the pages are finalized. That’s when you start. This means that you’ve already spent stressful years and months working on your manuscript. And now you have a deadline.

After all, do you really want to spend another two weeks with your manuscript? Can you really muster the enthusiasm and effort needed to write a good index? You might be able to. Especially if you have the time and, as I said above, the curiosity. But otherwise, I’d advise you to steer clear.

This is not to mention that indexers use professional-grade software to make their indexes. Generally, this software is expensive (between $495 and $799 on average) and difficult to master. The process is not easy and is likely to leave authors frustrated, especially if they’re under a strict deadline. As a hard rule, I’d only consider indexing your own book (though I don’t recommend it) if you have a lot of time.

Don’t do it

I don’t think an author should index their own book in most cases. If they’re self-published, indie authors who absolutely can’t afford to pay someone — that might be an exception. Or if they just want to learn the process and have the time to do so — that might be another. Otherwise, they should hire a professional.

Indexing is a specialized skill that takes a long time to master, and uses expensive software. It’s also hard. And because the whole point of an index is to raise the value of your book, an obviously amateur index defeats its own purpose. This is not to mention that an indexer will struggle to get enough distance from their own book to write an index that’s helpful to the reader.

All these reasons, to my mind, make the answer to the title easy — no.

In conclusion, unless they can’t afford it or want to learn the process (money, and curiosity) they should hire a professional.

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