Read as Wendy Allex talks about her career as an Indexer.  Find her at www.indexpert.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.

What do you do for a living?

I’m a freelance indexer.

How would you describe what you do?

I write indexes for nonfiction books. The index is in the back of the book, where readers look up information. For example, if you get stung by a bee, you might look at the index for a first aid book under “bee stings”. This would tell you what page the info is on.

What does your work entail?

For most books, I carefully read the book and identify important people, places and concepts. I enter these into my indexing software program. (I use CINDEX, but other indexers use SKY or Macrex.) CINDEX puts all of the entries in alphabetical order, and formats the index to the client’s specifications. But I still have to read the book and decide what’s going into the index.  For some books (such as travel books), the client may only want certain things in the index. For example, the client may ask me to enter names of hotels, restaurants and attractions, but nothing else. In that case, instead of reading carefully, I may be able to skim, looking just for the items the client has requested. In fact, the book may have the names of hotels, restaurants, and attractions in bold type, which makes it easier to pick out the info I need.

What’s a typical work week like?

I generally have two or three projects I’m working on at the same time. One may be in the beginning stage, one may be in the middle, and the other may be at the end. I make a schedule, working back from when each project is due. I figure out how many chapters I need to work on each day for each project. At the end of each project, I allow a day or two to edit the index. (This means looking at all of the entries, and figuring out how to make them consistent and easy for the reader to use.)

I try to work a five-day work week, Monday through Friday. However, if I have something to do during the week, I may take a day off, and work on the weekend instead. And sometimes I have more than one project due at the same time, so I may have to work in the evening or on the weekend to meet the deadlines.

How did you get started?

I was a librarian for many years. I decided to do something else, but I wanted to continue working with books and reading. I read a book called What Else You Can Do with a Library Degree, compiled by Betty-Carol Sellen. The book contains chapters on many different jobs, including one on indexing. It sounded appealing to me, so I got more info online. I took two classes in indexing from the Graduate School (http://graduateschool.edu/).

I joined the American Society for Indexing (www.asindexing.org). I attended their annual conference, took workshops, and met other indexers. I joined online discussion groups related to indexing. (Good ones include INDEX-L and Indexers’ Discussion List.)

I made a list of publishers I wanted to work for. My husband Kevin called them to see if they use freelance indexers. If they did, he sent them info about my services. From there, we started booking jobs. Most of my work now is from word-of-mouth referrals. An editor who likes my work will give my contact info to other editors or authors who need to hire an indexer.

What do you like about what you do?

I love learning about different subjects. For example, one of the books I indexed was called All Things Medieval. Before I indexed this book, I knew nothing about this subject, and found it quite interesting.
I’ve indexed books on beer, day trading, and knitting. If I work on a book that’s NOT so interesting to me, it’s over before I know it and I can move on to the next thing. There is endless variety in my work.

I like meeting deadlines and completing projects. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction.

I remember the first time I saw one of the books I indexed in a bookstore. I was so excited that I started jumping up and down!

I also enjoy the freedom of working from home. Once I became established, I quit my job as a librarian, and we moved across the country to be closer to family. We can live anywhere in the world we want, as long as we have good Internet access. I can also work in my jammies, with one of my cats on my lap, and no one knows the difference.

What do you dislike?

Since I work from home, I don’t get to meet people face-to-face for my job. I miss having coworkers.

There are some indexers who work in an office with other people. That would have some advantages (although no PJs at work).

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I generally charge by the page. For example, if the per-page rate is $4.00, and there are 200 pages in the book, I earn $800 for that project.  For some projects (especially craft and cook books), I charge a project fee. I recently indexed a book on gluten-free cooking. Before I started, the author and I agreed on a project fee of $600.

How much money do Indexers make?

A 2009 survey showed that the average gross income for full-time indexers was $51,000. Keep in mind that if you are self-employed, you need to pay taxes (including Social Security and Medicare taxes) out of your gross pay. You are also responsible for your own health insurance, and do not get vacation or sick pay.  I met an indexer who grossed more than $100,000 one year. This is exceptionally high, and she indicated that it came at the cost of working long hours.  After becoming established, my gross income has ranged from $50,000 to $70,000, depending on how much I choose to work in a particular year.

How much money did/do you make starting out?

When I started out, I moonlighted as an indexer while working as a librarian. I did my first indexing job for free, in exchange for a recommendation if the author liked my work. (She did!)
After that first job, I charged between $2.00 and $4.00 per page for each project. My current range is between $2.25 and $5.00 per page. The advantage of a per-page rate is that as you gain experience, you become faster and earn more per hour.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

Although many indexers are former librarians, this is NOT a job requirement. Clients only care whether you have the skills to index well.  Some indexers take online classes in indexing. These are offered by the American Society for Indexing, the Graduate School, and the University of California Berkeley, among others. (See http://www.asindexing.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3317 for a list.)  Other indexers learn from other indexers. They may have a mentoring arrangement in place. The new indexer works for/with the experienced indexer, gradually taking on more responsibility.  Some indexers are self-taught. They read books about indexing (such as Indexing Books by Nancy Mulvany, and The Indexing Companion by Glenda Browne and Jon Jermey) and practice on their own.  Desirable skills include: Attention to detail, ability to see the big picture and the details (the forest AND the trees), basic computer skills (ability to send and receive files; email capability; and skill in using an indexing program such as CINDEX, SKY or Macrex), and the ability to market yourself.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Indexing is one of the last steps in the publishing process. A book may be behind schedule, and the editor or author may give the indexer very little time to complete the work.  There are ways around this. As a freelance indexer, I can decide NOT to take a job if the deadline is too short. Sometimes I negotiate for additional time or additional money (called a rush fee).

What is most rewarding?

I enjoy being part of the publishing process. I love making the contents of a book more accessible to readers. It’s fun to learn about different subjects, and to see my name in print. (This doesn’t always happen, but it’s exciting when it does!)

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Make sure you love books and reading. Attention to detail is critical. If you are considering freelancing, be sure you have the discipline to work and meet deadlines on your own.

How much time off do you get/take?

I can work as much or as little as I wish. The downside is that I don’t get any PAID time off. I have to manage my finances so that I have enough money to get through vacations without bringing in any money during that time.  I try to limit my work to 40-hour weeks.  Sometimes I work fewer hours, and during crunch times I work more hours.  I generally take two to six weeks off each year. I like to take time off between Christmas and New Year’s, and the week around Fourth of July. I also travel to visit family during the year.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

There are three:
1. Many people think that computers create indexes, and that no human intervention is needed. A computer is very good at creating a concordance, or list of all words in the book. However, this is not helpful to the reader. In a concordance, there may be 50 page numbers after the word “love”. No reader wants to check 50 different pages to find the info they need! A concordance doesn’t distinguish between the same word used for different things. For example, the word “Washington” may refer to the city, the state, the president, or the government. A human indexer can separate these out. And a concordance doesn’t recognize when different words are used for the same concept. For example, the American government may be called “Washington”, “federal government”, “feds”, or “administration”. The concordance would have separate entries for all of these phrases, but a human indexer will gather them together.

2. Some people think that the author writes the index. (Some authors do, but most hire an indexer to do the job.)

3. Many people say, “I didn’t know that indexing is a job!”

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I want to have a good balance between work and play. I enjoy working hard, but I also like time off.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

If you love books and reading, indexing could be a good fit for you!