29 May 2007


Throughput in indexing

I gave a presentation last year (at the Toronto conference of the American Society of Indexers) about money. I synthesized some statistics to come up with something I hadn't seen expressed before.

According to the 2004 survey of ASI members (all numbers in U.S. dollars):

Note that MEDIAN rates do not necessarily match an indexer's lifestyle, workload, or typical projects. For example, some indexers work exclusively on the kinds of projects that earn more (or less) than the median. In other words, these are NOT target numbers; rather, they are reflective of the variety of everything that indexers do.

Synthesizing these numbers:

From the survey:


If you want to make more money, focus on throughput: projects that are easier for you, more effective indexing tools, improved marketing, stronger client relationships, etc. In fact, the reason that advanced indexers tend to make more money is that they have been given the opportunity to build these skills: speed, marketing, relationships. For example, indexing a single book for a single author might be short-term lucrative, but building relationships with the author's institution is more lucrative in the long term. Also, experience clearly counts toward speed, too, while short-cutting quality can seriously damage relationships.

If you think of your career in terms of throughput, you might think about your day-to-day tasks differently. For example, there have been debates among indexers regarding the sharing of book mistakes caught (like misspellings); when thinking about throughput, sending such mistakes (a) slows you down, but (b) improves repeat business. On the other hand, when you've got a client who provides you with only one book a year, it's all loss, and no trade-off, in terms of income.

Finally, when I gave this presentation I made it clear that income isn't the only reason we're doing what we do. After all, there are more lucrative professions out there in the world. If you're earning a ton of money but destroying your health, sacrificing your happiness, hurting your family, or failing yourself in some other important way, then please reconsider your priorities.

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hey seth,
Quite interesting post. In fact I had checked your online course. I am presently residing in India. So, I am a bit confused regarding the mode of payment. Can you help me out?
There are three ways that indexers can get paid for writing indexes for printed books: by the book page, by the index entry, and by the hour.

Per Page. If a book is 400 indexable [e.g., non-blank] pages in its final format, the indexer can charge a set amount for each of those 400 pages.

Per Entry. If the final index has 10,000 page numbers or cross references in it, the indexer can charge a set amount for each of those 10,000 references.

Per Hour. Similar to any job, the indexer charges a set amount for every hour spent working on the project.

The approach of using a per-page rate is the most common in traditional U.S. publishing, because pages are generally consistent, and the number of pages is known in advance. The per-entry approach works for name indexes (where every name is indexed no matter what) but is a bad idea for aubject indexing; this is because indexers would be financial motivated to create very long indexes to make more money, and also because index length is harder to predict.

The per-hour rate works well in general, but new indexers tend to be slower, which means they get paid more, something that's backwards. My recommendation is that hourly rates are used only when a maximum cost (a price cap) is calculated; on the other hand, having a project cost is more compatible with a per-page rate.

For non-traditional publishing, like online help indexes, Web indexes, other kinds of keywording, and so on, an hourly rate might be the most appropriate. For database indexing, a per-record rate might work if the records are generally consistent.
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