14 March 2006


Fixing the books that leak

The more that I think about the presentation I am giving in April to the ASI New England Chapter, the more I find myself contemplating the environment in which indexers work. Why do so many indexers have trouble bidding for work?

Because clients don't grasp what this industry is about.

I'll make the analogy between a book without an index and a leaky faucet. The client recognizes that his sink faucet is malfunctioning. He is unable or unwilling to fix the faucet himself. He investigates the services of a professional faucet fixer.

Taking the three most common bidding environments for indexers, we get these three models for an owner of a leaky faucet.

Model 1: The Drowning Homeowners at Midnight. Having waited too long, or perhaps because another faucet-fixer failed to complete the job, these clients need help NOW. They're willing to pay any amount of money, but their standards are very low. "Please," they say, "just stop the leak." If they happen to know how to reach a specific faucet-fixer at midnight, that faucet-fixer is going to make a lot of money. But if there's no one they can call at midnight, they're going to call everyone, leave a lot of messages, and wade knee-deep in hundreds of early-morning responses. It's a bidding war, and the least expensive person wins.

For indexers to make this model work, they need to have their names right there on the clients' desks, and they need to be prepared to sacrifice quality for the sake of an important deadline. However, this model is terrible for the industry, because it leads to bidding wars where indexers underbid each other for the privilege of doing a lousy job.

Model 2: The Paranoid Homeowners. Here are clients who have worked with so many bad contractors over the years that they simply don't trust anyone. They're looking for someone who will fix the faucet according to ridiculously robust specifications, and who will allow them to stand over their shoulders, watch the fixer's every move, and offer suggestions and instructions all along the way. It's obvious this homeowner would do the work himself if he could -- which means all of those specifications, suggestions, and instructions are coming from a place of very hostile ignorance. With this model, indexers will find themselves burned almost every time.

This model doesn't help the individual indexers or the indexing industry, yet the model exists only because indexers as a whole failed to uphold any kind of standards, or to educate their clients about indexing. It's not uncommon for a more experienced indexer to clean up the mess left behind by someone without appropriate experience or sufficient resources to get the job done right the first time. When faced with this model, the indexer must be prepared to uphold his own principles, explain his choices, demonstrate precedent, and remain friendly throughout. I suppose it's like trying to talk about love to someone who just got divorced.

Model 3: The Proud Fixer-Uppers. Then there are the folks who would be happy to fix the faucet themselves but don't have the patience, the know-how, or the resources. They want help, but on some level they resent needing it. These are the people who, when presented with a faucet-fixing cost of $80, ask, "Will you do it for $40?" If you say no, they'll say, "What if you just put the pieces in a line and I'll wrench them together myself?" Say hello to the silly goons who would rather let their faucets leak than admit they need help worth paying for.

This model exists because the industry is underrespected. If someone had an overflowing toilet, do you really think they'd try to haggle with the plumber? But with indexing, this happens all the time. "Just index the headings" and "Do the best you can in only three days" are all too common in an industry where people aren't aware of the advantages of a good index. The individual indexers perpetuate this problem by accepting these underpriced, undervalued jobs and creating mediocre products.

Yes, there is a fourth model, and that's the ideal situation: someone who understands that indexing is a specialized trade that requires a professional with the appropriate education, background, and resources to get the job done. If this model were the most common, though, would indexers still be afraid of bidding? Nope.

What would it take to convert the clients of the three models above into the clients of a more reasonable, respectful model? I've heard a lot of suggestions -- education, indexing standards, indexer credentialing -- but the problem runs a lot deeper than most people think. There are two fundamental issues here: knowing what a good index is, and knowing that an indexing profession exists.

With a faucet, all we need is water on the floor to know it's broken, but you can't "replace a washer" to make a bad index into a good index. And while most home dwellers have heard of plumbers, few of the world's literate population have heard of indexers! Trying to educate the world about indexing is like trying to explain the ideal gas law to toddlers: they may breathe the air, but that doesn't mean they know how it works. (And don't ask their parents, because they don't know either!)

The law that mandated the wearing of seat belts in motor vehicles raised awareness of their value. Would they work for indexers?

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