When you write and publish a non-fiction book, you should include time in your schedule to create an index. Unfortunately, many people cop out on this important element because creating a quality index is both time consuming and challenging. But if your book is designed to help a person solve any type of problem, it must have an index. The venerable Chicago Manual of Style says it best:
“Every serious book of non-fiction should have an index if it is to achieve its maximum usefulness.”
Book authors often seem to think that readers will read their book in one sitting cover to cover. That may be true for fiction, but that’s not how people learn from nonfiction books. Because a book may cover broad topics, many times people skim a book first to see what’s in it, and then use it for reference later. When that reader returns in search of answers, he uses the index to find what he’s looking for quickly and easily.
We’ve all read books with useless indexes. That’s because crafting a good index takes a somewhat unusual combination of analytical and creative skills. Even if the software you use supports indexing, you still may want to get expert help on your project. Obviously, you know more about your subject than an indexer would, but you may not have the mindset or patience to do the job.
Personally, I do have that bizarre analytical bent that makes it possible for me to do my own indexing work. But I also can code HTML, troubleshoot computers, and other left-brained things. Many authors prefer to focus on purely creative tasks. The reason indexing is so challenging is because you have to not only go through the text and look at what’s there, but also think of several other ways someone might look up their question in your book.
A good index must also be incredibly consistent. Decisions have to be made about what’s important and what’s not. You can’t just let your publishing software go through and add an entry every time it sees a particular word. That’s a recipe for a totally useless index. Your poor reader ends up having to look through 29 entries to find the one place in the book with the answer to his question.
For example, in a poorly done index, you’ll see a term with a laundry list of numbers like so:
cat, 14, 34-35, 42, 56, 73-74, 86, 97, 99, 129, 141
This entry should be broken out into subentries, so the reader has a clue where to look for the answer she needs, like so:
And so on. Without these clues, your frustrated reader moves on to another book or writes bad reviews. In any case, he or she certainly won’t be singing your book’s praises. The bottom line is that the longer and more complex your book, the more important the index. If you can’t do the job yourself, you can find plenty of professional indexers to help you with the task.