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State of the Textbook Indexing World

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Textbook and Academic Authors

Textbook and Academic Authors


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You might take that alphabetized list of words and page numbers for granted, but there's turmoil inside the textbook indexing world. First there's the ongoing challenge of people not understanding what indexing is about, a world where production editors are always just out of college, authors are forced to pay, and jobs are going to countries where English isn't a first language. The rise of e-books has reintroduced a significant problem that first appeared in the early 1990s: wholly inferior tools. E-book indexes do not work, literally. How does this affect writing? Join us for a lively discussion with Seth Maislin, Managing Partner at Potomac Indexing, LLC (http://www.potomacindexing.com), about how we find things...or not.


0:00 Announcer


0:05 Kim Pawlak

Welcome to the Text and Academic Authors Association podcast series. My name is Kim Pawlak and today I am interviewing Seth Maislin, managing partner at Potomac Indexing, LLC about the turmoil boiling inside the textbook indexing world. Seth Maislin is managing partner of Potomac Indexing, LLC, an international indexing firm responsible for writing indexes in all subjects and media. He is also a consulting taxonomist and information architect, with an office near Boston, Massachusetts. Seth served as president of the American Society for Indexing in 2006 and 2007, and on the National Board for 10 years. He authored an online course in indexing education and continues to publish about indexing in various journals and websites. He has provided indexing and information services for high profile clients like Caterpillar, Microsoft, Motorola, and the United Nations Library. In addition to innumerable publishers, university presses, colleges, and authors. Hello Seth, thank you for joining us today.

1:10 Seth Maislin

Hello Kim, thanks for inviting me to participate.

1:14 Kim Pawlak

Seth, why don't you start by talking about how the index or the writing of an index fits into the publishing process as a whole. For example, I'm assuming you can't start indexing until the book is finished, correct?

1:26 Seth Maislin

Yes, that is correct. The production process basically starts, obviously, with the writing of the book, the creation of the manuscript. The manuscript goes through some initial reviews. A technical review, whatever other developmental reviews are necessary. And then, at some point the actual book building begins. This includes things like the copy, edit, the creation of the art and the illustrations, the collections of permissions, the design of the book, and so on and so forth, as well as all the marketing and the book jacket design. And it isn't until the very end of the process that the indexing takes place and that's for a pretty obvious reason. You can't index, at least not with traditional book media. You can't index the book until the content is finished, or at least, mostly finished and you have page numbers. If the indexer is going to create an index entry that says something is on page 65, well it can't end up on page 64 or 66 or something else later on. So the book has to look pretty much finished before the indexer really gets his or her hands on it. There are some exceptions to this and there are some tools that are allowing indexing to take place earlier, but there's some content trade-off. And so for the most part, it's just easy enough to say yes, indexing is essentially the last thing that has to take place in the book building process.

2:43 Kim Pawlak

Well, I've heard many authors say that they were responsible for paying for the index themselves. For example, the price might be taken from their royalties or they might pay the indexers invoice directly. Is this standard practice?

2:55 Seth Maislin

Well, it sort of depends on which industry you're looking at. If you're looking at academia, for example, where you're talking about people writing textbooks, then yes often the indexing comes out of the author's pocket. Traditionally, and this goes back a ways, the index was considered original content just as the art and the paragraph of texts themselves were. And so because it was original contract-- original content, it's assumed that the author or the lead editor or whomever is ultimately responsible for creating it. Over time as you've brought in other specialists to do things like the book design and the layout and so forth-- they've been bringing in other people-- and the publishers have realized that leaving the author in charge of some of those things is not always the best idea. They'll let the author focus on the content and then the book builders will focus on everything else.

3:47 Seth Maislin

But the index has never really moved over and despite the fact that there are many, many professionals who do this, who have training and knowledge and are quite capable of writing an index. In many cases the author is still responsible for it. It comes out of the author's royalties. This is true more so in academia, where the number of books being published and the size of the budgets are both small. In other environments, if you're going to buy a book about a Microsoft application-- in a lot of those situations it does not come out of the author's royalties. That the publishers realize the value of the index, and the value of having it written by a professional. But like I said, in some environments yes, and it's just based on sort of a legacy decision that goes way back.

4:31 Kim Pawlak

Thank you. So to avoid paying for the index couldn't the authors just write the index themselves?

4:37 Seth Maislin

Certainly they can. As a professional indexer I can't recommend it. In the same way that I don't think everybody should build their own porches and fix their own cars, and saw down their own trees. You know, there are professionals who have the training to do this. Yes, it's cheaper to do it yourself, but you get what you pay for. I have been in situations, I've seen authors who have written some really good indexes. There is no blanket statement that says authors can't write indexes. But generally speaking I don't think that they should, unless they've done it before and they really have a knack for it. They may not have the appropriate training.

5:13 Seth Maislin

Indexing is not writing. If you consider yourself a great writer that doesn't automatically make you a great indexer. You think about things in a very different way. And because the index is written at the end of the process most authors are pretty burned out. They're happy to have the book go away. They've already written it and written it again, and rewritten it and reviewed the edits and dealt with permissions issues. And the last thing they really want to do is go through it again on a word by word level where they have to get their head out of the book and start thinking like their readers, and just think about the book in a completely different way then they have for the last months or years as they worked on the book. So while it can be done I do not recommend that authors do it themselves, and just let somebody else do it.

5:56 Seth Maislin

Authors can be involved however, although some authors prefer to stay out of it. There are those authors who love to be in it. And if you have some suggestions or concerns regarding the index I recommend talking to your publisher and letting them know. Indexers are very good at working without any input, but some authors do like to be involved at that point.

6:19 Kim Pawlak

OK, so how are e-books throwing a monkey wrench into the book indexing world?

6:24 Seth Maislin

Yeah, this is where things start to get interesting. So with traditional indexing, like I said, the index is written at the end. And so if the entire book is produced as an actual book, but then let's say it's never printed on paper. Let's say it's converted into some kind of e-book. Really the problems that you're going to be facing right off the bat are all on the tools side, not the content side. The problem are the tools.

6:47 Seth Maislin

For no reason that I understand, indexes have just constantly been ignored by the standards bodies that create these tools, by the companies that build these tools. So e-books, everyone's all excited. Woo-hoo, e-books. The Kindle is selling 800 times the number of books. I mean, you hear these astronomical numbers, but nobody seems to realize that indexes don't work with e-books. They don't. And there's a very simple reason why. It's because e-books don't have pages. Indexes to books have pages, and we talked about-- just a minute ago-- why you have to write the index at the end. Because you need to know what's on page 65 and it needs to stay on page 65. But when you open it up in an e-book reader like the Kindle, there is no page 65.

7:33 Seth Maislin

Every page is as big as you want it to be. It has as many words on it as you want to have. You can change the size of the screen because you buy a different piece of equipment. You can change the size of your text because you want to read larger lettering. And all of those things change the page numbers around. So when you have an index entry that says it's on page 65 what does that mean? It doesn't mean anything. And more than that, because it doesn't mean anything it becomes very hard to use the index, and for the index itself to work. So when you point to page 65 in a physical book you know to start on that actual sheet of paper, but what you point to in an e-reader could be very different.

8:13 Seth Maislin

In addition, the tools don't really allow the hyperlinking to be effective. So even if you try to point to something on page 65, what are you really pointing to? It's very difficult. Are you pointing to a specific word? Are you pointing to a specific screen, and how big is that screen? So there's a lot of problems on that level. There are ideas on how this could be fixed, but really the fundamental problem is the very paradigm of the system. And that's that e-readers don't work with pages, they work with word counts. Anyone who's even read a work of fiction that doesn't have an index in it doesn't really know how many more words there are until the end of the book. And we also don't think in words. Somebody says, how far along are you in a book? You can say, oh about 100 pages or oh, about halfway, but you know that because you're physically touching the book. With an e-book nobody's going to say, well you know I'm somewhere between 4,000, 5,000 words in. So again, you still have this problem with the index.

9:12 Seth Maislin

And really the problem comes down to the tools. So you've got this problem with the index itself even working in an e-book environment, but then the conversion process of getting a book into e-book-- those tools are terrible. There's an entire industry cropping up of people who specialize in fixing e-books that were created by tools that are supposed to have created them right in the first place. So illustrations move all over the place, the index has errors, there's just all sorts of things beyond the index. You know, there's another issue on a larger level which is that there's no standard for indexes in an online environment. If you're not using pages what are you using? There's no standard. There's no standard for XML. And the standards that do exist in some of the XML coding languages just don't make sense. And I'm not trying to get technical, so much as I'm just saying that the people who are supposed to be technical about this stuff aren't paying attention to indexing. If there were ever an environment where indexing mattered it's in an online world. With a book you need an index because you don't have a search. So in theory you could just use search in an online environment, but you have this issue. Everybody wants to key word, everybody wants meta tags, everybody wants to find things. We live in the Google universe. And in order for that to work everything needs to be findable. So where are the standards? Why are there no standards for this?

10:35 Seth Maislin

In terms of traditional book publishing, if you want to look at it and say, OK but what does this matter to me? I mean, that's my publishers problem. They have to make the book. They have to make this happen. And yes, it's true. It is their responsibility. But if you think about it from the author's point of view, if the index is not exactly working, if the index doesn't let people get into your content in a way that makes sense, what does that do to you in terms of your content? It means people are going to be relying on the structure of your book much more heavily than they should. It means you're going to want to build all your cross references in there. So if there's something in chapter two and you want to refer to something in chapter eight, you can't trust that someone will look it up in the index and find all of that. You're somehow going to have to connect everything to everything inside the book. Your book, which is supposed to look like a book, somehow has to function like a web.

11:27 Seth Maislin

In addition to that, if people are going to start relying on search because the indexes don't exist or are terrible, now you have to start thinking, not just what's the best word to use to express your ideas-- which to me is what authors are supposed to do-- but you're starting to think, well what word is somebody going to look up? What are they going to search for? Should I use the words that people look for or should I use the words that best communicate my idea? Or should I use lots and lots of words because I don't know what people are going to search for? And so what happens is the quality of your writing starts to be offset by the fact that you're not paying attention to the idea in the communication. You are compensating for everybody's inability to find things and you're trying to fix that.

12:09 Seth Maislin

I often think of that as if it were in your kitchen-- you go into somebody's kitchen and you can never find a spoon. And I always think that's very odd that you can never find a spoon in somebody's kitchen, or the trash can. Given that in my kitchen I know exactly where it is. It's always in the place where it should be. But if you wanted to fix that, so someone's coming to your house and they can't find your spoon-- well, you could start putting spoons all over the counter top and in every drawer and put lots of trash cans all over the place and then you know everybody can find everything. But it becomes an unfunctional kitchen. And this is the trade-off that authors are starting to face when e-books don't have the quality that's necessary to make the book actually work.

12:49 Seth Maislin

So the e-book revolution that's fantastic from a sales perspective, but from a production perspective it's affecting the way authors are going to have to write, it's affecting the way publishers are producing the books. It certainly upsets the indexers who can create a really good index that just gets mangled in publication. And it affects the end user, who needs a good index, especially to a textbook and simply isn't getting one. There are many publishers out there who would love to turn textbooks into e-books and they're simply failing because some of the critical elements are not translating into the e-book medium.

13:32 Kim Pawlak

Thank you, Seth. That certainly gives authors a lot to think about. Let's take some questions from callers now.

13:40 Seth Maislin

OK, great.

13:40 Kim Pawlak

If you want to ask a question just press one on your phone key pad and it will put you in question queue.

13:50 Richard Hull

This is Richard Hull.

13:52 Kim Pawlak

All right, hello Richard. Go ahead and ask Seth your question.

13:56 Richard Hull

Seth, I think a number of us would be interested in the question of what is the average cost of your or a typical professional indexers service? And you can express it in terms of per page cost or per 100 page cost or something like that. And the second point I'd like to make is that TAA does offer grants to authors who need indexing services among other kinds of costs, and we have an online grant application form that individuals can use in order to apply for grants. I'll go off and listen to your response.

14:45 Seth Maislin

OK, good questions Richard. Thank you. And thanks for that comment about the grants. That's actually pretty great. The fact that publishers don't take it upon themselves to pay for quality indexing services continues to surprise me, so I'm glad to see that there are groups like TAA that are compensating for that. The cost of an index-- from my perspective as an indexer it's really not that much, but I know that there's not a whole lot of money to be made in writing books. So it may sound like more than I think it is. Generally speaking, I mean every book is different, and every indexer is different and so the costs vary. If I had to throw a number out and said, how much would you expect to pay? And I just averaged everything I've ever done, I would say you're probably looking at anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 probably on the lower end of that range for your typical academic book.

15:40 Seth Maislin

Indexers generally charge anywhere from kind of a rock bottom $2.50 per page to a more reasonable $4.00 or $4.50 a page. And in scholarly work, which can be very dense and difficult for someone who isn't really well versed in the subject matter, I know some scholarly indexers who justifiably charge as much as $6.00 a page. It can go higher. If you've got a book that has some unusual requirements, such as some of the e-book translations stuff, or if a book is under a big rush, which certainly happens in certain industries. So if you're talking about a book that's 350 pages and you're looking at an average price of about $4.00 per page you're looking at a cost in the neighborhood of $1,200, $1,300, $1,400 in there. There is some room for negotiation.

16:33 Seth Maislin

As an indexer, I have to say, I don't like being negotiated with. We like to say if a plumber is coming over to fix your drain and tells you it's going to cost $150 you don't really talk them down to $80. You just accept that you're working with someone who knows what he's doing. But the fact is as the book industry is what it is, there's not a lot of money. So there is some opportunity for negotiation. There are also opportunities to find indexers who have more or less experience, depending on what you're after. There are certainly a number of people who are getting into the profession almost all the time who would love an opportunity to write an index that might even be their very first index following some kind of indexing education, and that would an opportunity to get a deal. Keeping in mind of course, that if you work with someone who doesn't have the experience you again, you get what you pay for. I generally think that you can get a decent index for your average book in that neighbor of a $1,000 to $1,500. Now keep in mind if it's a 900 page, very dense chemistry textbook it is going to be more expensive. But usually in those cases you are more likely to get some help from a publisher who recognizes that the index for such a textbook is of real values to the readers.

17:52 Kim Pawlak

Well thank you, Seth. Does anyone else have any question to ask? You can press one on your telephone key pad to raise your hand and I'll be putting in the question queue.

18:07 Richard Hull

Seth, this is Richard again. I guess, another question. Does your organization have a website that would enable someone who's interested in indexing to access an indexer who has expertise in a particular field? You've mentioned chemistry, my interest is in bioethics, someone else might have interest in history or in secretarial services or whatever. Is there a website that identifies indexers and their areas of presumed expertise that a person seeking indexing might want to access?

18:59 Seth Maislin

Yes, there is. You know if you're looking for an indexer right now, if you're in that situation, obviously I can promote myself and you're welcome to visit my website, and send me an e-mail, and we can talk. Usually most indexers are found through word of mouth, so through networking. So you may be working with a publisher who has worked with indexers before, especially in your preferred subject field. And so they may have somebody to recommend. Publishers don't always know what makes a good indexer. They're usually concerned with indexers who meet deadlines more so than content. It can be very difficult to evaluate indexes if you don't have the proper training. But still, if they've worked with somebody for many years that's usually a good sign. If you're starting completely from scratch or you don't trust your publisher's recommendation or your publisher doesn't have a recommendation or you've been burned by your last indexer and you're going to try a different approach or any of those situations, I would say that the best place to go looking if you don't just want to go directly to me, would be to visit the website for the American Society for Indexing.

20:06 Seth Maislin

You know, it's not hard to find. If you search for indexing you'll find it. The American Society for Indexing or ASI has a website at asindexing-- so American Society-- asindexing.org. And there are a number of resources there, including for people who might want to become an indexer. But there is something that ASI offers which is known as the indexer locator, and it is an opportunity to search for indexers based on whatever criteria makes sense for you. I'd recommend you find somebody with subject matter knowledge, but if you would like to find somebody who's in your geographical region, if you'd like to find somebody with experience, or maybe a variety of subject matter experience or special tools, skills, then the indexer locator is certainly a way to do that.

20:52 Seth Maislin

The American Society of Indexers also has a job bank, which is sort of a backwards job bank. Really it's a contract bank. If somebody's looking for an indexer they can have it posted to a list of indexers who opt in to receiving those e-mails, and then you get flooded with a bunch of responses-- just as you would if you were advertising a job. You'd get hit with resumes, and then you have to sort of sift through all the responses to chose somebody. I think the locator approach, by typing something into a search engine is certainly better.

21:23 Seth Maislin

When you find a good indexer my recommendation is to hang onto that person for as long as you can. Developing a relationship with an indexer is extremely valuable, and even if you're ever in a situation where that indexer is not available, or you're looking for a friend who is indexing something on a subject that your indexer doesn't know, that indexer knows other indexers. We all kind of know each other, it's not a very large industry. So I don't index chemistry for good reason. I would be terrible at it, but if you were interested in chemistry or a book on bioethics or a book on mechanics or anything-- if I can't find somebody immediately it would not take me long to find somebody who could. And some of that is that I've been in the industry long enough that I may be a little more connected than others. But one of the great things about indexers is their background and their knowledge. 75% of professional indexers have some kind of post graduate degree education. Indexers are a highly educated lot. And what you're looking for is somebody who has the background, experience, education in the subject matter that you're trying to index. And because so many indexers have degrees it's not that hard to find somebody.

22:43 Seth Maislin

Yes, when you start getting to cutting edge science, cutting edge scholarly research it can be harder and harder to find somebody who has an exact match, but it's not the exact match that you need. You just need somebody who's comfortable enough with the audience and the basic subject matter, and someone who you can approach if you wanted to have a communication. And I think those would be the important things. The ASI website is a font of knowledge and I recommend going there, not just to find an indexer, but to learn about indexing, to see bibliographies of books about indexing, and just to see what makes an indexer tick. So it's the only organization dedicated to indexing in the United States. There are others in other countries, but ASI website is probably one of the best constructed.

23:33 Kim Pawlak

All right Richard, did you have any other questions for Seth?

23:37 Richard Hull

Oh, I could use up the whole hour and a half.

23:43 Kim Pawlak

All right, well we'll see if there are any other questions. All right, does anyone else have any other questions? Again, just press one on your key pad to let us know that you have a question.

24:04 Seth Maislin

You made the comment before about can an author write an index him or herself, and like I said, the answer is yes, but you have to be careful. I think authors have knowledge. When you were talking about specialties, Richard was sort of asking how you find an indexer who has a skill. I think to be able to write a good index you need two components. You need to know indexing and you need to know enough about the subject matter to do it. Authors have that subject matter knowledge, and you would think that gives them a leg up. But you really do need to have that combination. So while I might know indexing, you don't want me indexing your chemistry book because I don't know enough about chemistry. But likewise, you don't just grab a chemist who knows nothing about indexing and expect them to do a good job. It's interesting because you actually see that a lot in academic circles because one of the greatest ways to save money is you find a Ph.D. student, and you give them your book and you say, write me the index. And unfortunately, most of those indexes are pretty bad. You may have the subject matter knowledge, but you don't have the indexing knowledge.

25:08 Seth Maislin

Thankfully, the ASI website is a place where you can at least learn a little bit of that if you're going to take it seriously. But I do think that subject matter knowledge, as helpful as it is, can occasionally be a hindrance if you're the author because authors see their books only from one perspective. You're very careful in communicating your ideas and choosing your language and building your structure, but you have to remember that your book needs to be approachable to a lot more people than just you, and just your intended audience. So sometimes, even if you give it to somebody else with subject matter knowledge, like a Ph.D. student you're better off because you gain that extra perspective of the outsider coming in to help you with your book. So there are many different approaches to getting your index written, even if you decide not to go the professional route.

25:58 Kim Pawlak

OK, well we're almost out of time. I'm going to give one more opportunity for asking questions. And so if anyone has a question this would be the time to ask it.

26:19 Seth Maislin

If you think of a question when this is over feel free to send me an e-mail as well. I'm happy to continue this conversation offline.

26:28 Kim Pawlak

I will [UNINTELLIGIBLE] your information.

26:31 Richard Hull

I put in two issues: philosophy and medicine And health sciences because that's my area of interest. I came up with 80 indexers. How do I narrow the field?

26:45 Seth Maislin

Good question. You can narrow the field in arbitrary ways, if you like. So for example, you might want to choose somebody who's local to you. You try to look for experience, so ideally you would find somebody with more years of experience than someone who's new. Unless you're looking to save money in which case you might get away with a cheaper price if you bring in somebody new. I also find it really interesting to look at the other subject matter expertises that somebody has. So if you put in philosophy and somebody comes back and they have philosophy listed among a number of other subjects that have nothing to do with philosophy, then that gives you a sense where this person's experience is. They're saying that they feel comfortable with philosophy, but it may not be their primary skill. On the other hand, if you'll notice philosophy along with a number of other social sciences then you know that that's their realm.

27:38 Seth Maislin

Some people in those listings kind of list that they can do everything, and you need to be careful with that. So you're looking for people who seem to have a targeted set of experience, targeted experiences and targeted skills to what it is that you're looking for. You can also look through that listing for people who are comfortable in the medium. So I think there might be listings for example, where what tool do they use? Do they know how to index textbooks or periodicals? Those kinds of things are also important to look at. But then, geography can be a good thing. You might want to find somebody who's in your time zone, although it's great with the internet and for most of the process that doesn't really matter. You can also find somebody-- there's a price difference as well. If you're going to find somebody on the East Coast, where I am, the East Coast is a busy place and prices are a little higher than if you go out to the Midwest. So that's another thing to look at, but I think in the end it's about sending e-mails.

28:38 Kim Pawlak

It looks like we're out of time today, so we're going to have to close out the call. Thank you Seth for talking with me today and Richard for calling in and asking questions. If you have any additional questions for Seth you can e-mail him at seth.maislin@potomacindexing.com. That's P O T O M A C indexing.com. You can learn more about Seth Maislin on the Potomac indexing website at www.potomacindexing.com or just Google: Seth Maislin.

29:15 Seth Maislin

Now you can be sure my name is findable on Google. I'm an indexer, I'm good at that kind of thing.

29:21 Kim Pawlak

So thank you for listening to today's episode and this is Kim Pawlak with the TAA podcast series.