09 June 2007


Exemplary indexes

Historically, the H. W. Wilson Award has been given to indexers of scholarly books, often because of the very complications and challenges you're talking about. What makes Do Mi Stauber, who won this year's award, so great at her work is that she has a knack at doing this without slowing down very much. I like to think I have the same knack when it comes to technical and reference books.

Scholarly indexing is WAY hard. I recently accepted a book I didn't realize was scholarly, tried to index it myself, and realized almost immediately that I was in way over my head. (Note that I'm talking about that irrational fear an indexer experiences at the start of every project, but rather something quite objective: an inability to understand the sentences and paragraphs well enough to parse them into indexable ideas.) I subcontracted the index to another indexer, someone who specializes (or at least doesn't mind) scholarly works, and the result was great.

By the way, you need to see the award-winning book's index to really understand what I'm talking about.

Scholarly works are exceptionally difficult, even if you know the basic subject matter, because of how they are written. Many scholarly publishers underpay their indexers, too, because scholarly books rarely have large audiences: they're library-books-to-be, really, put there for students and faculty. Given that a book won't sell well, publishers are often reluctant to put more money into the production process. However, for the kind of book that Do Mi indexed -- and even the one I gave to someone else -- the indexer had better be making closer to $6/page (U.S.). In comparison, I think $4/p is reasonable for the average technical book, like a book on mathematics or computer programming. See, a technical book requires expertise in or a strongly sympathetic understanding about the subject, whereas scholarly books require a tremendous amount of time spent synthesizing what's in there. Think poetry and "Shakespeare," not of prose and "John Grisham." :-)

But the H. W. Wilson Award can be given to indexers of other kinds of books, including technical. What makes the award possible is an exemplary show of knowledge and cunning, something that many technical books don't allow for. You also need the kind of working environment in which a publisher won't chop your index down to size, use a lousy design, or force you to complete the job too quickly to produce an exemplary product -- the kinds of things that are more likely to happen in technical fields than scholarly, in fact. But even a coffee table book can win the award, if the index shows that extra something special. :-)

Given the kinds of things I index -- and the circumstances in which I index them -- I often think the only way I would win the Wilson Award is if I wrote the book myself, specifically for the purpose of making an awesome index. For example, maybe I would write a book that would require me to use symbols as entries. :-) Then again, I'm still trying to write a mystery index, too. I wonder if that would win a Wilson...

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